My biological age is 29. I haven’t learned to do all the things I thought I would know to do by now. On an emotional level, I feel I stopped aging appropriately at least 10 years ago. I do think I already had a host of issues starting from childhood. Many things were never resolved and it just got worse from there.
One lingering trait was my impatience at myself. I must have been 7 or 8 years old, sitting at the kitchen table with my neck bent over a page of my notebook as I worked on my homework. My hand clenched tightly at my pencil, pressing down hard for every letter I etched out on the blank line. Suddenly the peace was broken by a wrongly written letter or word. My eraser does its job before I do a rewrite. Somehow, it still doesn’t look right to me. I didn’t like the slope of my g’s. Or my e’s looked too small. I erased again, a worry slowly churning in me. I rewrote again; desperate to make the letters look “right”.
Worse, my mother was usually sitting next to me keeping an eye on everything I wrote. Sometimes she would make a disapproving noise if I wrote in the wrong answer. Either that or I would hear her say “Wrong”. Embarrassed, my response was to quietly erase and rewrite another answer. “Wrong”, her voice rung out again. A lot of times after this, I would just erase and stare at my paper, wordlessly flicking my pencil back and forth. The silence on her part bothered me. I didn’t do well under her instruction like this. I hated being constantly watched and hated her method of teaching me. I believe it was a combination of perceiving her as very stoic and cold in how she interacted with me and also my budding self-esteem issues that led to moments of anger.
It’s so weird to evaluate my own behavior then and actually understand now why I was so angry. That 7-year old me was angry but didn’t have the words to explain it. I now know that I got very fixated on how my handwriting looked. I wanted things to look “perfect” which was impossible. Two vivid memories: One where I erased the paper so hard that I tore a hole in it, and another where my pencil point snapped and I slammed the pencil onto my paper repeatedly in a fury over how something else had gone wrong for me yet again.
I had nights of insomnia starting somewhere around 3rd or 4th grade in grammar school. It was due to anxiety. The reason was fairly simple at first: I had anxiety about falling asleep at exactly or near to the same time every night. If I didn’t, I would lie in bed frustrated that my body would not comply. One night I snuck out of bed and crept down to sit on a stair step. My parents, who were watching television, heard the creak and found me there. I couldn’t formulate words to describe to them what I had been thinking and what was keeping me awake. I think I only mumbled something like, “Couldn’t sleep.”
After my insomnia continued on and off, some nights I was allowed to come downstairs to the living room and lie on the sofa while my mother had her latest teledrama on. I had a purple cotton blanket splayed over me but was unable to relax. The silence didn’t help. I felt tired physically and mentally with no idea of what to say to express the mess in my mind. It wouldn’t come out. So I acted out by taking it out on my blanket; attempting to tear and rip at it. My mother was appalled and when she demanded to know what was going on, I had no words.
I grew up seeing instances where my mother gave my father the silent treatment. It was so dysfunctional, although I could not comprehend the complexity of it then. The first recollection I have of one of the incidents, it was during a family vacation trip. I could tell by my mother’s body language that she wasn’t speaking to him. The worst part was I thought he deserved it. I had more chances to be with my mother in my early childhood, so unfortunately I had a bias of preferring to be around my mother in some situations over my father.
This too I understand now why my impression was like that. It’s because my mom work schedule was more stable; allowing her to be home during my off-school hours. My dad worked two jobs to make ends meet, and many nights by the time I was asleep in bed, he was just returning home. When he was around, he spoiled me with gifts, perhaps to make up for lost time? Not only that, but I strongly feel I was starved for attention as a young child and I went to my mother for it since she was nearest to me. I followed her like a baby chick toddling after the mother hen.
Later on my apparent closeness with my mother changed. She had a foul temper, particularly her penchant for screaming and using threats against me if I misbehaved. I don’t know if I want to describe her behavior as abusive, but it certainly had a negative impact on me in the long-run.
I was notoriously bad at mathematics in grammar school and she made me do practice equations for addition, subtraction, and division. I repeatedly got them wrong and out of irritation she declared, “This child is so stupid”, right as my dad was there too in the kitchen wiping down the table. I already knew then how to hide my feelings. My tears prickled behind my eyelids but they never came out as I kept my gaze on my assignments, erasing the incorrect answers, while she complained about my dumbness to my father. I can’t recall if he defended me. Much of the child rearing seemed to fall onto my mother due to my father’s absence.
Another memory involving my mother is a difficult one for me to write about. Like the anxiety-driven insomnia, anxiety in other facets of my life popped up. The whole reason why my mother checked my homework every night is because I had trouble in school. I was terrified of being sent to afterschool for tutoring or homework help. When I had assignments I didn’t know how to do, my mother asked me to get help from my brother.
Deep down I knew there was something wrong with me but didn’t want it to become a fully realized thought. I would get very anxious thinking about approaching my brother. I was too scared to admit I needed help, even if he asked me.
To my mother, it must have seemed like I was repeatedly not following her advice and simply didn’t like doing homework. During a night where she opened my booklet to see I had completed nothing, she tried to ask me (as she had on previous occasions) why I didn’t get help from my brother. Every time my default was to remain silent and fidget. I never learned to assert myself verbally. Even to say, “I don’t know how to explain it to you, Mom” was not in my vocabulary.
What followed was painful. The only people I have ever revealed this to were a few friends and my past therapists. This was the first and last time she ever hit me, but a line was crossed that neither of us could go back over. I felt severely misunderstood by her after this because she never knew I had a legit reason for not obeying her. I began seeing her in a different light. Her temper flares and use of intimidation with her voice were things I took notice of more often. She didn’t just treat me like that, she also did that to my brother and father on occasion. Sometimes she felt like a bully attempting to control everyone.
On some level I have had to forgive her by virtue of circumstance. You know the saying “time heals all wounds” is a bunch of bullsh*t. I still have a lot of conflict and mixed feelings about everything. The older I got, the more comprehension I got that things aren’t black and white. There was a time when I worshipped the ground my mother walked on, thinking she was flawless and could do no wrong. The reality is parents are just people who make mistakes. Even now they continue to mess up and I honestly can’t really do anything about it because they’re their own people. And I have my own life to focus on improving.
I don’t know why I am bringing so much up from my past. I sound like I hate my own parents for my childhood traumas. I don’t. However, to an extent, it is hard not to still feel influenced by what happened and feel the ache of those experiences. It’s like both wishing these things never happened and that I could stop remembering what happened.
For example, nowadays when my mother sharply raises her voice, I inwardly feel a cringe of apprehension, even if her anger is not directed at me. It’s like an echoing remembrance of the past. The spare times my parents have discussed corporal punishment as a normal thing they had in their own childhoods makes me uncomfortable too, as it reminds me of when my mother hit me and all the times as a kid when she (and a few times, my dad) threatened to “beat me to death” for not listening. As if saying something to your own kid was “normal”.
I don’t want to make it out that Asian parents typically discipline their children like this. There certainly is a stereotype of the “Tiger Asian parent”. In my case, my mother never pushed me to be on top academically but I was definitely made by her to feel stupid for not being able to pick up quickly on math or if I consistently had wrong answers.
Yet, at the same time I don’t wish to make light of corporal punishment and the possible negative psychological effects it can have on someone. I can’t speak for every kid out there who has been physically disciplined or received threats of beatings that weren’t actually carried out. My parents did not grow up in a western culture, so in that sense I perceive they can rationalize being hit by their parent(s) as just how things were and to them they don’t have any lasting emotional upset from it. I don’t think being western automatically makes someone avoidant to the idea of physically disciplining their kids, but it does make a difference because of exposure to ideas that may differ from the parents’ cultures.
I could be making a huge deal out of nothing. I know that my story may be light compared to other people who got it much worse from their own parents and have no ill feelings about those times in their lives. I just can’t fully reconcile the two things. How can a parent who loves their child also believe they have the right to physically hit him/her as discipline, even if it was just once? I get that my take on my own experiences is extremely one-sided too, as I do not know if my mother ever regretted what she did in the heat of the moment or wished she did things differently. I do not intend to ever ask her.
When I mentioned in a previous paragraph that I forgave her, I meant it. It doesn’t mean I accept what she did was well-deserved on my part, just that I don’t hold a grudge against her for it. That is a tricky thing to commit to too. The memory of it still pains me (it did when I recounted the event on this blog).