How I Learned to Understand My Mom

After Jessica's mom shares stories of her youth in the Chinese countryside, the writer sees her as a full person, not just a strict parent.

by Jessica Jiang

As a child and young teen, I loved my mother but I resented her more. She yelled at me a lot, often about me getting what she considered bad grades.

If I brought home anything lower than a 95, she’d say hurtful things (that was how I learned curse words in Chinese). “You’re so dumb. You go to school to learn nothing. You should just give up.”

Sometimes she yelled about my performance working at my parents’ takeout restaurant. Even for minor mistakes, she’d pelt me with harsh words for days. Part of me knew that she didn’t mean the things she said. But they hurt nevertheless.

When I was in 5th grade, my mom got angry after I failed the entrance exam to Mark Twain Middle School. As my lip began to shake and tears filled my eyes, she pointed to the door and told me, “Don’t you dare give me that look. If you can’t shape up, then get out. GET OUT!” I sat, paralyzed, tears streaming down my face as I shook my head no.

After that day, though, I fantasized about running away. Whenever she yelled at me, the possibility of escaping calmed me. I kept a $50 bill in my pocket that I’d gotten as birthday money, so that if I did run away, I could get by for a few weeks without starving.

As much as her words hurt, I knew my mom loved me. “You could throw me away. You could not talk to me for years. But if you were in trouble and needed me, I would be there for you,” she once said.

She showed her love by cooking my sister and me our meals while we were still at school, so that when we returned hungry, steaming bowls of chicken and broccoli awaited us. She always seemed to know what we needed even before we did. For instance, if I complained that I had hardly any socks, she’d pull out a new pack.

She did not say, “I love you.” In fact, it embarrasses some Chinese families to say those words. Instead of “I love you,” my mom says, “Eat more,” or “Go to sleep, it’s too late.” To us, those words are equivalent to “I love you.”

Seeing Mom Differently

One afternoon in 6th grade, it was just my mom and me at the restaurant. It wasn’t busy and all the orders were out. I kept an eye on the chicken wings cooking in the fryer while she sat down to rest.

I asked her why she came to America. I was expecting a romanticized answer: maybe she wanted a change of scenery or a new life, a place to start over. Instead, she said, “Because I saw how hard my mother was working and I wanted a better life for her.”

My mother came from one of the poorer parts of Fujian, on China’s southeast coast. Her house didn’t have indoor plumbing or running water. She didn’t finish high school. Her brother didn’t go to school at all; he started working as soon as he was old enough. She sends money to my grandmother every month. Because of my mom, my grandparents no longer have to work, and they now live in a new house.

When my mom told me this, for the first time, I saw her as a human being, a daughter, a sister, and a wife. I knew that she was strict and loving, two traits a caring mother possesses. But I realized then that she was also selfless, altruistic, and brave, which are the traits of a good human being. From then on, she was no longer a person I could never understand, but someone I can actually see.

After we talked, I wanted to be like her, with enough courage to travel to a faraway land where I could barely speak the language and would have no friends, so I could do for her what she had done for her mother.

What My Mom Wants for Me

A month or so after that talk, my mom started to trust me to work in the restaurant alone. One weekend, she had to go to a meeting in Chinatown. She looked sophisticated, wearing a blue dress, high heels, and red lipstick. My younger sister said, “Mommy, you look so pretty. You should wear this every day.”

“People dress up because they want other people to admire them. Who would I want to admire me? The customers?” my mom said.

“We can, Mommy! We can admire you!” my sister said.

“When you grow up, never become like me. Never become a woman who works with her hands and not her mind. Never become a woman who cannot wear pretty clothes to work.”

I hadn’t understood her then. Tomboyish 10-year-old me hated dresses. I scoffed to myself. Who would want to wear dresses to work? But now I see what she meant: being able to wear dresses to work means you have a desk job, and when you return home at the end of the day your feet and back don’t ache from standing in a hot, greasy kitchen. It means you are worth more than someone who is only able to fry chicken wings.

If she couldn’t have a career like that, she wanted it for her daughters. That is why she works so hard to ensure that we have an education. That’s why she’s so hard on me about my grades. She doesn’t care what her daughters ultimately choose to become; she only wishes that we not be like her. And to me, that is the saddest wish of all.

After this talk, I started caring more about my grades. I had renewed respect for her willingness to work every day in a job she hates so that we can have a brighter future. I didn’t just want to do well for myself, but for her.

Pride Plus Pressure Too

A lot of 8th graders dream of attending Stuyvesant High School, but I wanted to go there in part because it was also my mother’s dream. When my teacher called to inform her that I was one of only two students in my middle school to be accepted, she ran up to my dad, grabbed his arm and yelled, “She did it! She got in!” I felt happy when all my relatives called that night to congratulate her. It felt good to see my mom happy and proud of me.

YC-Art Dept.

It’s exhilarating to be under the same roof with the city’s brightest students. But the academic rigor is tremendous, and the workload is next to impossible. One night, I had so much homework that I only got three hours of sleep. I was so tired that the next morning when I took a social studies test I only got a 76. I never have time for myself. I can’t read for fun or watch TV, or I will fall behind.

This year, I felt I needed to load up on extracurriculars because top colleges expect that. So I had SAT prep Saturday, and piano class and Chinese class on Sunday. There was more than an hour of homework from each of those extra classes in addition to my regular workload for Stuy.

One night when I was home alone practicing the piano, I broke down. I was full-out bawling, making weird noises, snot and saliva everywhere. But I made myself continue playing the piano as I cried my eyes out, because I thought that I couldn’t waste any time. That just made me cry harder, and I sat there for an hour trying to see the music sheet through my tears.

I thought my mother would never understand the pressure I felt. She’ll make it into a joke, I thought. I can get through it, it’ll pass. But it didn’t. The next Sunday, I cried in front of my mother while doing my Chinese homework. I had no idea how to do it, and my mother came in and started doing the assignment for me. It would’ve been funny to me if I hadn’t felt so guilty about her wasting $500 to send me to Chinese school, where I was learning nothing because I was too tired to think on Sunday mornings. I felt frustrated, sad, guilty, and stressed beyond my limit.

I usually tried not to cry in front of my mother, especially when she was mad, because she usually gets madder. But that day, surprisingly, she just closed my Chinese school homework and said, “You will not be going to Chinese school anymore.” She didn’t even ask me. She announced it with certainty, as if she had no regard for losing the tuition money.

“If everything is too much for you to handle, you can drop piano as well,” she added. “Extracurriculars won’t matter much if you don’t take care of yourself first.” I nodded with relief.

Understanding Each Other

That was about a month ago. I haven’t cried since. I look forward to my weekends, knowing that I’ll be able to take time for myself. I don’t want to give up piano lessons and make my mom waste even more money. I enjoy playing the piano. It helps me relax to concentrate on something other than school for an hour.

There are still a lot of times when I feel an enormous chasm between me and my mom. Often when we go shopping, there is silence. And when we do speak, she asks me: “How are your grades, what is your worst subject, and when are you planning to take the SAT?”

Now that I am at Stuy and doing well, my mother yells at me less. Part of the reason is that we hardly see each other now because I’m so busy. But I also know she’s proud of me and understands that I’m working as hard as I can.

When she does yell, I’m able to take her words less to heart than I did when I was younger. And although she can’t completely understand how it feels to be a student at Stuy, she does understand stress and tries to help. I love that she gives me advice; even though I disagree with half of what she says, it shows she cares. “Don’t go on Facebook and talk to your friends.” “You shouldn’t help your friends with homework until after you get yours done.” “Don’t join too many clubs, they’re a waste of time.”

I will never understand how she can have the patience and courage to go to work for 12 hours and then to return the next day, just to do the same tedious, unsatisfying tasks again. But what matters is that we both try to understand each other, and every conversation brings us closer.

After we talked, I wanted to be like her, with enough courage to travel to a faraway land where I could barely speak the language and would have no friends, so I could do for her what she had done for her mother.
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