It wasn’t too long ago that I was a college student, doing my college student thing with the whole homework and term papers and two jobs. After being in a classroom of some sort for the past seventeen years, it wasn’t hard to remember simple concepts like honoring my duty as a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, a niece, a cousin and, near the end of college, an aunt. Doing all of that seemed as much a part of me as being a student and an employee.
For some reason, however, being a parent has erased much of those roles from my brain and replaced it with the huge role of “mommy.” I honestly didn’t do it on purpose. None of my family seriously irked me to the point that I’d rather forget they exist. It just happened. Taking care of my daughter automatically came first. Caring for my family’s needs came in at a close second. Then came being a daughter and so on and so forth… It’s certainly a lot to juggle.
But in the past week, I got a serious awakening. While talking to my mom over Chinese New Year, she told me that my grandfather was seriously ill. Now, he’s been saying to us that he’s “about to die soon” since he came to the United States around the time my brother was a year old; my brother is now 32. Yet, even my mother is saying that my grandfather’s time might be short. So I knew it was no joke.
All of a sudden, I could feel a little Confucius with wings and a halo tapping insistently on my shoulder. I didn’t look, but I knew he was waving a sign that said, “Filial piety!”
A Long-Distance Relationship
Perhaps part of the reason why it became so easy for me to forget about “everything else” when the baby was born is because I moved about 2300 miles away from my home when I married. You know as they say, “Out of sight, out of mind.” California became a faraway land that didn’t change. I often think about California with equal parts fondness and disgust. The first words out of my mouth when people ask the inevitable question, “Why in the world would you leave California to come here?!”, are usually, “California’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. Honestly.”
So long as my family and friends whom I kept in touch with were telling me they were fine, I didn’t worry too much about it. Sure, I didn’t see any of them in person since my wedding but it was enough. Thanks to the Internet and long-distance phone service, I was able to be a daughter, a sister, a friend and so on all along with my newfound mommyhood.
But when a loved one is sick, the Internet and even a phone call won’t cut it. The country is suddenly just as large as the pioneers and settlers imagined it again. What’s a girl to do? Somehow, the unchanging picture of California lent itself into the people I know and love. It just didn’t occur to me that the people will continue to change and age. They’ve been such a constant part of my life that it just doesn’t compute.
I grew up in a family that was firmly grounded in the belief that one’s family was their sole source of strength, courage, confidence and life. Without one’s family, they were nothing. That went along with respecting one’s elders and making sure they obeyed the wishes of their parents and, at times, grandparents. That was the Confucian way of organizing society. He never really mentioned, however, what one was to do when they had two families.
It was usually summed up with the notion of “If you change your last name [via marriage] then, technically, you’re no longer a part of your original family.” Sounds rather cool and mean but it made perfect (ancient) Confucian sense. My own mother has been drilling the idea that I’ll eventually “leave and couldn’t be bothered to worry about an old woman” into my head since I started babbling about my machinations for the future as a little girl. But, somehow, that made little sense to me. Just utilizing the basics of Confucianism: If respecting my family was how people were going to seek worth in me, then why in the world would I forget about my family the moment I get married or become successful in a career?
The primeval idea of seeing women as bargaining chips for marriage alliances pretty much went out the door with immigrating to the United States and raising an American-born Chinese child in the 20th-21st centuries. Confucius has been long dead and he isn’t around to consult with to make amendments to his social practices. Bummer.
Pulled at from East to West
Unfortunately the downside to punting a primeval and cultural idea out the window is the inevitable tenacity to a newer idea: Don’t lose your cultural identity via assimilation. If stories from the 50s and 60s could be believed, immigrant parents balked at their children dressing in the “latest American fashions” and insisted on speaking Chinese, forbidding the use of English, while at home. For my generation, the identity often translated into, “Don’t marry anyone other than your own race.” The silent addendum is, “Especially a white person.” I hadn’t realized it till college but there was a whole stigma of the “Chinese girl-white guy” pairing.
It just so happened I married a white guy. Like I was really supposed to fathom out that the hulking green orc in plate armor was actually a white dude on the other side of the monitor?
For someone as self-conscious as I am, it’s incredibly difficult not to fear going out in public sometimes, especially with the stigma in mind. On the one hand, there are some old-fashion Chinese people out there who will look at me and think, “Traitor!”, or than I’m a sell-out of some sort. In the same vein are white/non-Chinese people who think I’m a conniving gold-digger. Thankfully, the majority of people I’ve come across– of all races, I might add– could care less. They see me as a friendly young woman with an adorable baby and a loving husband. At worst, I get a little bit of envy thrown my way.
A Whole New Sort of Mommy Guilt
When I read up on articles concerning a motherly state of mind, I came across a lot of “mommy guilt” ones. They usually involved things like coping with being a stay-at-home mom, a working mom with a busy career, formula feeding instead of breastfeeding and some other details that tend to weigh on the brains of the modern mother.
None of them looked into the whole “mommy who lives far away from her hometown and family” before, however. I can’t possibly be the only one who has started up a life many miles away from where I grew up. Yes, I’m quite sure my particular scenario is a bit unique. Yet, apparently, I seem to be the only one who has a problem with the situation. I am completely and utterly at a loss.
Some might say that the solution is easy, especially with airplanes. Let’s go on an imaginary journey, shall we? The thought of toting the baby and all of her necessities (just a diaper bag and stroller, if you’re lucky) through an airport to make a flight already fills me with dread. Then there’s the aspect of finding a way to keep her quiet and happy for the entirety of a trip where she can’t roam about or stand up to bounce on her legs when she wants to. Or, worse yet, trying to change a poopy diaper in an airplane bathroom. I never get airsick but I think I felt my breakfast just come up at that idea.
Of course, we could just not care and have the entire crew and cabin at our mercy. You gotta do what you gotta do, right? People should understand that. I paid for my ticket, too, and I certainly didn’t come all this way just to inconvenience my fellow passengers. But I’m not really inclined to be “that parent” with “that child,” even if my intentions were meant for good and I did everything in my power to not be in the way. For those of us who have flown around a bit, how many times have you winced at or looked around for the family whose child won’t stop screeching? Maybe I’m giving people less credit than they’re due, yet I can’t help but think of all the glares and dirty looks I’d get as I leave a plane because of something I did or couldn’t prevent. As if I needed more things to add to my mommy guilt.
The other side to that idea is for me to travel alone. Well, that simplifies everything, doesn’t it?
… And to leave my child 3/4 of the way across the country?! Are you nuts?! I get anxious and fidgety as it is if I go to get a haircut and I leave the baby at home with my husband. That’s a whole new version of mommy guilt right there that I’m not willing to contend with. I think I’ll suffer the beady eyes of a self-righteous airplane passenger instead, thank you.
The point is, there seems to be no happy medium. Just a lot of anxieties and worries. Granted, a lot of them may be completely unfounded but I’ll be damned if I spend that much money for a ticket only to be heckled (by myself or otherwise) and given Hell, thinking, “I knew it! I knew this would happen!”
Finding the Yin-Yang Balance of East-West Thought
If anything, Confucius was actually right. My firm grounding in my family (and culture!) did inspire respect from many people I’ve met; most importantly, from my husband. There was no argument when I told him I’d be teaching our daughter Cantonese Chinese alongside standard English and that he’d better learn if he wanted to keep up.
I’ve reassured my mother that I’m teaching Chinese to my daughter and not just English. I grew up speaking Chinglish and I turned out alright, so I’m not afraid. My lexicon for Chinese is just a tad less developed than my English one, naturally. With the amount of books (in English) I have for the baby, I’m already well on the path to steering her toward academic achievement. No, I haven’t started drilling her on multiplication tables yet, but I do find it hard to not throw in some basic math when teaching her how to count.
And, despite all that, I want her to flourish artistically. In fact, I’m more keen on seeing her make her first doodle or story than seeing her first straight-A report card. Whether she chooses writing, like I have, or turns out to be a heck of an artist or even a fine dancer who would make Julliard drool, that’s up to her. As much as I’d like for her to learn an instrument– mainly because I never had the chance to learn one– that’s going to be up to her, too. One concession I’ve made to the husband is not shying away from athletics. He’s a tried-and-true Midwestern boy, so I can hardly blame him. But even so, it’s either ice hockey or… maybe, dance? Dance can be a physical sport, right?
Even for me, who was born and raised in the United States with immigrant parents, it’s still difficult to let go of certain priorities and accept others. The most important thing is to be open to discussion at all times– with your spouse (or whoever else will have a hand in taking care of your baby) and, when the time comes, your baby. I’m not a fan of completely taking your child’s life into an iron grip and dictating everything she does. But neither am I a proponent of “going with the flow.” There has to be a balance somewhere.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. The baby just turned one, after all.
I called my grandfather the other night in broken Chinese, trying my best to do my duty as a granddaughter from afar. I’d like to think that he appreciated the thought and understood that I was 3/4 of the country away from San Francisco with a little one to look after. Yet it still nags at my brain, probably from the self-imposed, Confucian guilt I feel for not being able to do something immediately. I still hear his last words to me before hanging up, in Chinese: “If you have a moment, you should come back and visit your mother. And, maybe, while you’re at it, you can visit me, too.”
An old man’s plea to his favorite granddaughter. That’s something I will never ever forget.