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Abuse, Trauma, or Both?

Gosh, I am in trouble. When the writing bug hits, I can’t let it go until it’s finished. Fair warning though, this is somewhat of an ugly topic.

I know every family has skeletons in their closet. We’re all a product of the environments we grew up in. My family is no exception from this and neither am I. There are also cultural and societal norms that may differ from country to country and from family to family because of class or religious differences.

I have been dealing with the understanding that there will always be that too-wide-gap of a difference in my family. I believe my parents were ill-equipped with dealing with many things in their own lives because they didn’t have the experience of handling things in a healthy way or their particular views on certain things was due to cultural inundation from being around people with the same cultural thinking.

A few days ago, a husband of one of my father’s closest female friends who I’ll call L passed away unexpectedly after choking on a piece of meat. I barely know L, except that the woman’s daughter-in-law W babysat me when I was very little. And I visited their home sometime last year with my parents and my brother, though it was expectedly awkward for me and I spent most of the time on the sofa scrolling on my phone out of boredom while everyone else chatted nonstop. I knew that my brother as a toddler was over their house a lot but my father only recently mentioned that he and my mother often left my brother with them from Mondays to Fridays and only brought him back home on weekends. I was shocked. He elaborated this was because both he and my mother were too busy with work to look after him.

To me, it is unimaginable that if I had a kid, I would leave them to be looked after by other people for almost a whole week and not see them until the weekends. I am not a parent and yet I judge with such a critical eye. Am I being unfair?

Having lived a life with many privileges that my parents did not have in their time, I know those cushions saved me from going through the same hardships they had in their own lives. And it’s also given me more opportunities to stop myself from going down the same paths as they did, including being influenced into some of the negative cultural ideations and ways of thinking that they have.

It appears to be a similar story in other families. My brother’s wife Gina who was born in China and raised in Beijing was mainly looked after by her grandparents as a child because her parents were often away for work. The word through the grapevine (from my father’s perspective, anyway, as he has told me) is that her grandparents spoiled her needlessly because she was their one and only grandchild and as a result, she lacks some manners because her parents were not there to personally take care of her and guide her as she grew up.

I personally find it bizarre that it is culturally acceptable in an Asian culture for babysitters or grandparents to do most of the child-rearing and the parents are barely there. Pre-COVID-19, my mother used to go out for lunch and then a day shopping trip with a group of friends in Manhattan every month. There was always one friend of hers who only ever stayed for lunch before rushing off with the excuse she had to return home to look after her grandson.

This seems to conjure up a picturesque image of a dutiful grandmother tending to the next generation in her family, but I am a half glass empty kind of gal and I don’t fully trust the rose-tinted view that most people present to the outside world. You never know what people are going through personally even if they look perfectly fine to other people.

At an older age, perhaps 6 or 7, I vaguely remember being minded by my paternal grandmother during the summers when she flew in from Taiwan. This ended in 1999 when she died in her sleep. I was regularly babysat by an older Chinese woman who I took a liking to. Content is one word I would describe myself as then. I happily spoke to her in Mandarin. I don’t know why she stopped babysitting me, but eventually, my parents found a new babysitter for me. I hardly remember a thing about this person, though I know she was most likely also an older Chinese woman, being that my parents were first-generation immigrants and depended on people who spoke the same language as them as their capacity for English was limited.

My father once told me of an incident where the babysitter had already come over as he was preparing to leave for work and I wouldn’t stop crying. He was concerned the babysitter might’ve been treating me badly and even suspected some abuse. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s better or worse that I don’t remember why I was so hysterical. I could have been having separation anxiety over one of my parents leaving me again. Or it could have been as he thought.

Either way, sometimes I go back to this story in my head and consider, albeit very minusculely, if I got f**ked up early in life and that was one of those psychological things where the body may forget but the mind is forever changed from the experience.

My brother’s wife’s parents visited the U.S. about two years ago in time to attend her college graduation ceremony. I didn’t have much of an impression of them, as I was only in their presence for a family dinner before they had to catch a flight back to China the next morning.

However, I heard from my father that they sell swimsuits for a living and they had to borrow a huge amount of money from one of their relatives just so their daughter could continue studying in college. I cannot estimate how much they borrowed but I imagine it was astronomical (considering that she graduated from Columbia University, a private Ivy League school). I also learned that her mother had expressed worries about having allowed her daughter to study overseas and being so far away from home. I know close to nothing about how to run a business selling swimsuits, but her parents were apparently so busy that taking off from work was close to impossible, however, they also really wanted to be there for their daughter’s graduation.

A few years back, a Chinese couple moved in next door with their kids. I didn’t know much about them. My parents, mostly my father, occasionally exchanged pleasantries with them. My mother sometimes chatted with the father’s mother who looked after her grandchildren while the parents were away at work. In the summers when the windows were left open at night, there was one of the children who would scream or wail for minutes on end. Often I could hear the grandmother making frayed attempts in Cantonese to get the child to stop by simply telling the child to “stop” (which rarely ever works) or seemingly ignoring the behavior altogether (resulting in the child being left to scream for minutes on end before stopping and then starting up again).

Once I clearly heard the grandmother’s voice yelling in frustration, “If you don’t stop, I am going to hit you!” The threat, which might’ve been an empty one that she perhaps wasn’t actually intending to go through with, still struck a nerve with me. How many times on my own childhood did my own mother say the same to me, and worse? “I will beat you to death.” (During an incident when I raised my voice at her after she was yelling at me.) “I am going to leave you.” (Occurred during the same incident.) “You better be afraid of me.” (Occurred after the one time she hit me repeatedly and a day later, I told her, in tears, that I was afraid of her.) “How can I have such a stupid child?” (When she insulted me after I had trouble grasping some math homework problems.)

There is a pattern happening here. Once again, having had the experience of being subjected to those kind of harsh verbal insults, I cannot imagine treating my own child like that. So why is there cultural acceptance that using insults and threats against your own child who you’re supposed to love and care for is normal?

I have several theories. I cannot claim that only Chinese parents who are foreign-born (meaning they weren’t born and raised in the U.S.) are like this, just as much as I cannot claim that American-born Chinese people are less likely to follow in their parents’ footsteps with similar methods of childrearing (or lack of).

First is the idea of cultural norms, which is pretty self-explanatory. When people are raised in an environment and given exposure to certain attitudes and behaviors, they learn to see these responses as normal or widely accepted in their culture. Or at least that’s the way I believe it happens. Second is the concept of social class and reputation. By class, I mean the social categories of people like lower, middle, and upper class. Reputation refers to my analysis of the importance people may put on how they are judged/seen by people, particularly based on their social class, occupation, and relations with other people. Third is emotional and mental immaturity, which I believe is a huge issue faced by people trapped in the cycle of abuse and trauma.

My father’s parents’ marriage was an arranged one and they had six children; three boys and three girls. One of them was my father, of course. I never met my paternal grandfather because he died when my father was only about 7 or 8 years old. This threw the whole family into further poverty, as before they got by because my father’s father was the sole breadwinner (he was a dentist).

I can list several problems in the existing generation my grandparents were in that bled into the next. My grandmother did not have much of an education; she only studied up to primary school. It is ridiculous by today’s standards that a girl wouldn’t be educated but back then it seems people didn’t have much hopes for females to do anything except to marry and pop out babies. Also, despite being poor, they had six children which tells me two things; no birth control and they had many mouths to feed.

My grandfather apparently “didn’t hit his wife that often like some husbands did to their wives”, as my father told me once. That one sentence speaks volumes about the kind of culture he was exposed to. As a child, my father sometimes disobeyed his mother and went to play in a pond. When he would return home, his mother would pull up the sleeve of his pants to check to see if his legs were wet, and if they were, she would hit him as punishment. When my brother was little, she suggested to my father that he needed to discipline his son by hitting him. He refused.

In some ways, my father broke from the cycle while in others he did not. One horrifying event I witnessed as a child was my brother haughtily refusing to let a visiting male cousin play one of his video games and my father, in a fit of anger, kicked my brother in the back so he fell forward slightly. Another time, I was not listening to my father after he repeatedly told me to listen, and I recall rebuffing him by laughing playfully. Then he used the one line that I thought only my mother could ever say, “I will beat you to death.” Thinking back on this incident years later long after the fact, the memory still hurts. I still remember the humor draining from my body and turning into shock that my father, who sometimes felt like a stranger to me because he worked so often and was barely around at times and yet always gave me little gifts and often made me laugh with his silly jokes, had said something so vicious to me. I forget which book it was from, but there is a Chinese idiom that compared a daughter to like a precious pearl in her father’s hand. I certainly didn’t feel like a pearl in that moment. When is something considered normal and when is it considered abusive? Why, when a parent reaches their “limit”, is it okay to go that far?

In my childhood, I had problems with being verbally responsive because of anxiety. My parents did not recognize it as anything more than a habit. I can’t recall the exact nature of the conversation but I was having difficulty telling my father something; either I was fearful of communicating it verbally or I didn’t know how to tell him verbally. He sat with me and asked me question after question to try to suss out what was on my mind. It was like playing a very long, stressful game of 20 questions where I was too scared to say anything except yes or no. Finally, in his exasperation, he spoke of his oldest sister, who, in childhood, also had a time when she wouldn’t say what she wanted. Their father got so impatient that he hit her in an attempt to “correct” her into speaking. It took several hits for her to admit she was upset because her pencil case was missing.

In my grandfather’s generation: poverty, pressure of work and raising half a dozen children, and lack of patience when dealing with conflict. In my father’s generation: poverty (still), pressure (mortgage, house bills, two jobs, two children), and somewhat a lack of patience when dealing with conflict (especially when he argued with my mother). I would say the two generations were pretty similar; only different in the regard that my father had less children and his temper only showed itself in full when he had reached his absolute limit in certain situations. I wouldn’t say that was necessarily better though.

There was also the added help of my mother also working and earning money, though this was problematic because her salary was quite low (she was a bank teller and the job once paid a meager $100 per week). And the fact my mother was quite ill-suited for a service type job. I put that in bold to stress it even further because she has chronically shown, in the years I’ve lived with her, bad coping mechanisms with dealing with her own stress. Her temper was even worse when I was a child (as you can imagine with the quotes several paragraphs above of the kind of verbal threats she used on me). While I would like to peg her as an awful person with an awful personality, I can’t do that knowing there are likely reasons for why she was/is still like this.

Going back to the emotional/mental immaturity thing I suggested, it’s my honest belief my mother never learned how to express herself in healthier ways without it having a negative impact on herself and subsequently on those exposed to her behavior. I mean, during the COVID-19 stay-at-home order in New York last year, she basically drove herself into a frenzy by reading every bit of news and rumors about the virus that her equally anxious friends sent her on WeChat. The result was she took out her frustration on other people at home and started complaining about every little thing, even things that normally she wouldn’t care about.

She was in a similar way during the years she was still working; during which she progressively got more and more pressure from a shitty boss. Loads of times she returned home and I could tell just from looking at her face that she was in a bad mood. It’s easy to think, Well, if she hated her job so much, why didn’t she just secure a better job elsewhere?

And that is the stark reality for many first generation immigrants. They come to the U.S. with barely any money of their own. So the job they can get is a lifeline to money, to food so they don’t starve, to a place to stay and bathe and sleep. There is also the language barrier to consider. My father, after coming to the U.S. from Taiwan, worked in restaurants as a cook because what else was he qualified to do without any credentials? Originally he just wanted to work for a Chinese owned restaurant but the regular job he ended up with was at a kosher Jewish restaurant. It was by chance because of that he got to learn more English for job purposes.

For my mother, it might be a more complicated story as, unlike my father, she was from a more middle class family. She had birthday cakes, pretty dresses and handbags, while for my father the only present he got for his birthdays was a boiled egg because he couldn’t afford to get anything else. My mother grew up in Cambodia with a lot of privilege. In her own words, she has said before that she was doted on by her mother because she was her only daughter out of three sons. Yet she has also mentioned in passing before that she was beat quite severely (as punishment) by her mother.

When I was hit by my mother, I honestly believe I was too young to process it fully. So the memory of what happened to me then didn’t sit well with me once I was older. I would almost compare the feeling to being retraumatized by what I felt in the moments when she was hitting me repeatedly. I was so angry I confronted her (in writing) about her actions. She didn’t speak to me for several days and when she did, she refused to admit any wrongdoing and insisted she too was hit by her own mother. As if that made her own actions more acceptable.

I still don’t accept her explanation to this day, and here is why. From what I know, my mother’s mother did not survive the Cambodian War. They were together at some point in a labor camp under the regime of the Khmer Rouge but I know nothing about how she died. I am assuming it was bad because my mother never speaks of it and I’ve never dared to ask. You know how people tend to romanticize or only remember the best parts of others after they’ve passed on unexpectedly? I think my mother has some of that.

Obviously I don’t know what kind of person my maternal grandmother was, aside from the little details (she was a schoolteacher from Thailand but after getting married, she didn’t work). Additionally, it’s not hard to imagine because my mother was given the repeated experience of corporal punishment by someone who supposedly loved her, that she assumed her mother had justification for doing that to her and later on she felt justified in doing the same to me. Personally, I distrusted her after the incident and even grew to resent her over time for her explosions of temper and frequent periods of giving people the silent treatment.

For a long time I was angry. At times when the memory resurfaces, I am taken back to the fear and terror I felt as I was struck again and again by someone who I never dreamt could ever physically inflict pain on me. Then in real life, I feel disgusted and furious that something that happened so long ago still finds a way to hurt me emotionally.

And that’s the rough part about this whole topic. I keep the peace between my mother nowadays by not bringing up the past. I forgive her for what she did in a fit of rage but I do not believe she was ever right in her actions. Just like how her own mother wasn’t right to discipline her with physical beatings, and I am sorry my mother grew up believing that kind of punishment was acceptable.

My father has a cousin in Taiwan who claimed, “Children won’t behave unless you beat them and make them afraid of you”. He has two daughters and he started hitting them when they were both 2 years old for minor infractions, like taking too long with showering. Again, I can probably guess that the cousin in question was likely treated similarly by his own parents while he was growing up and that’s why he behaved as such with his own children. Also, his family was very poor and like my father’s family, I suspect it was a high stress situation where there was simply no room for patience with unruly or disobedient children and people used their fists rather than words for compliance. No one showed him compassion when he was a child or that there were better ways of communication and resolving conflict.

I met the younger daughter (she was about 19) when she came over for a summer to vacation in New York. At the time I didn’t know the ugliness of how she grew up. But thinking about her situation later on, I thought how pitiful it was her father felt and still feels that using physical force with his kids was necessary. My father is in frequent contact with this man and the cousin has verbally confirmed many times over that he saw nothing wrong with how he punished his children. I don’t particularly like this relative or ever want to tolerate his presence, as he is the sort that has also stuck to other pretty outdated cultural ideas, like how he still blames his wife for only giving him daughters. Seriously?

There are better ways to teach your child that they did something wrong and you don’t need to instill fear in them to prove a point. That’s the lesson I will keep to, despite that there are still many people in the world who think otherwise.

The daughter seemed to be as normal as I could tell from the many times I was around her. You can never fully tell with people; some don’t wear their personal baggage on their sleeves. In another case, two of my aunt’s sons who, as the story goes, were both severely beaten by their father when they were kids. He was often drunk and used a belt on them. My aunt was apparently unable to do anything except take her husband out for mountain range walks in the hopes his temper would quell itself in time. I’ve heard the sons both frequently argued with their mother about things and later on in adulthood, they now barely see her or the father. One of them didn’t even invite their father to his wedding. I personally don’t know them and there might be problems in their family that go beyond how their father raised them.

I will say that the aunt is one of my father’s sisters and this was in Taiwan where back then the cultural expectation was that once you were married, there was no alternative; no divorce or separation. I also get the sense family problems like these were not discussed or acknowledged, out of fear of what other people might think. My father often comments on how ungrateful her sons are for blaming her for not being a good mother. “Whatever they wanted, she gave to them.” Okay, but that doesn’t make a wrong automatically disappear. I know that she herself had her own hardships being trapped in a marriage with a man like that and even now she is still married and housed under the roof as him. So the situation is not fair to everyone involved.

There is no clear answer about how the last generation and the current one can heal together from all the difficulties. Especially since people aren’t willing to cooperate or don’t know how to start an open discussion about these sort of things. I sure don’t. It’s too much pain to unpack.

Everything I wrote here, I have never been so transparent about a part of my life that feels like a rock stuck in a crevice in my heart that I can’t get out. I understand and I know people aren’t born bad and set out to do bad things but also hurts in the worst way knowing they cannot and will not change. Acknowledging other people’s behavior doesn’t mean excusing it. It may be too late for them but not for me.

Though I too have my problems that resulted from being a product of my environment. Seeing and being partially inundated in a family that simply doesn’t talk about certain things, it’s made me less trusting of them with personal information and I look at others from the same culture with a thinly-viewed suspicion that they cannot ever be fully trusted. I am also defiantly opposed to having kids of my own because I am, to a fault, quite selfish with my own time and have no knack for patience with looking after children. My awkwardness with not knowing how to verbally engage and talk to a child is a reflection of what I feel I didn’t get in my childhood and it’s hard enough knowing how to talk to actual grown adults who are the same age as me. That’s another reason; I can be emotionally distant in the sense I hardly ever want to talk about my feelings. This makes me a poor candidate to be anyone’s open and loving girlfriend.

Featured photo by Karl JK Hedin on Unsplash.

2 thoughts on “Abuse, Trauma, or Both?

  1. Ad you said, it’s not a pretty topic but I am so happy to see that someone does talk about!

    I grew up without any family in the same country as we lived in, so staying over at the grandparents was never an option.
    Then I look at J’s brother & his wife, who leave the 3 children at their grandparents for at least 3 days (and nights) at the grandparents.
    I guess it’s convenient, and surely the grandparents like it…. but I don’t know if that is the wisest thing to do.

    Parents beating their kids…. now there’s a topic.
    In my eyes it’s “normal”, while J is horrified to hear when parents slap the child very lightly on the bottom.
    As you can guess, we were raised different.
    The memory of the one time I ended up with bruises all over, still haunts me.
    The emotional and physical abuse (if we should call it that) did NOT make me stronger. It made bitter and sad.
    Tough love will, in my opinion and experience, NEVER work.

    But, as you can guess, mum grew with an alcoholic father, so she thought it was “normal” as well.
    Like you, I am angry and there are many things I’d like to tell my parents and make them realize that some of their actions did mess me up.
    But I doubt that it would be worth a try.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, it’s nice when grandparents want to be partially involved in their grandkids’ lives but it’s bad when grandparents usurp the parents’ roles and have more of a relationship with the kids than the parents do.

      I cringed upon reading that you were beat badly enough to have bruises left behind. I am so sorry that happened to you and in no world is something like that ever okay, no matter what other people tried to make you believe at the time that happened. Tough love can be dealt with in a better way than people putting their hands on their kids and leaving wounds not only on their bodies but in their minds. 😦

      I am a little worried about my brother. I didn’t mention it in my post but from very early on in life he started mimicking my mom’s temper. Now as an adult when he gets extremely upset, he will mouth off and argue ferociously even if he is the one in the wrong and/or he doesn’t want to let bygones be bygones. I doubt he will ever have children but I am scared of how he would treat his own (hypothetical) child with a temper like that.

      Then consensus in my parents’ generation seems like they don’t want to take responsibility for how their actions in delivering physical punishment to their kids can cause psychological distress to remain in the person long after it is over… And I think they don’t understand it for themselves either in realizing what their parents did to them was deeply wrong and that’s why corporal punishment cannot continue to the next generation. Something tells me it may be similar for your parents too. 😦


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