Photo by Julien Laurent on Unsplash

Parents Are Always Right (Storytelling #2: Let’s Get Personal)

“Why do you hate your parents?” I have been asked, over and over again. She has enough information to answer that herself. But, can I blame her? In our native culture, parents own their children, and “parents are always right”. No child would have any reasons to hate his/her parents.

Nonsense! I have every reason to hate my parents.

One of my earliest memories was about eating at McDonald’s when I was 5. My sandwich slipped off my little fingers and landed on the floor. For this, my parents scolded me so loudly that a sympathizing manager came and offered me a free sandwich.

That incident kicked off my long, rough childhood years, when my parents abused me, constantly, physically, mentally. Sometimes, while being mad at me, they declared that they did not want me anymore. They shoved me out the door and slammed it shut. I banged on it and cried helplessly. Even though the door eventually reopened, my feeling of unwantedness remained.

Even when I stayed inside the house, my life was not easy. During countless family meals, my mother made nasty, incendiary complaints against me. My father, totally ignited, rushed to grab a couple of those flexible bamboo sticks, came back, and roared “why has that happened?” Without letting me speak, he unleashed those merciless lashes, leaving burning pain on my skin and in my heart. Sometimes, that ritual happened in the middle of the night, when they woke me up just to beat me up. Even decades later, I still suffered from a small appetite, frequent insomnia, and occasional nightmares about the bamboo sticks.

In contrast, my sister was loved. She never received any of those punishments. She even convinced our father to punch me right at the nose when we were at an amusement park. My painful nosebleed soaked one kleenex after another red. Too bad, it did not last forever.

My childhood experience taught me that my existence had no glorious reason: I was there so that my father had a punchbag, my mother could make those powerful complaints, and my sister could be a favorite child.

By my late adolescence, my parents must have gotten bored with the violence. But emotional abuse persisted. They loved criticizing me, even for following their teaching. For years, they praised soy milk as being healthy, but when I drank it regularly in college, they reacted as if I drank soda like water. My father taught me biking, and I biked often as a child, but when I biked with a friend along a safe bike path, they scolded me for engaging in such a “dangerous” activity. After they brought me to my first computer lesson, the computer became my best friend. But, my long hours at the computer made them feel rightful to “warn”, that I would soon destroy my eyesight or even die young. Several weeks before I got my degree in Computer Science from UCLA, my mother coldly dismissed this achievement, blaming my passion for driving me to this field, with no job prospect, which was simply untrue. Now and then, they picked something that they thought I should do at once, without wanting to know what tasks I was juggling. They bombarded me with phone calls and emails, day and night, guilting and shaming me into doing what they wanted. Clearly, physical or not, they just kept trying to hurt me.

In recent years, I have realized that the best that I can do is to stay away, move on, and try to have a life of my own. However, they have crushed my hopes and shackled me to their influence, by exploiting my loved one’s desire to uphold traditional values. Whenever they want to chat, she has long phone calls with them, dropping whatever we were doing, and ignoring me as long as the calls take. Whenever they come to the US, she makes me scrap our plans and (instead) visit them, like a “good” child, despite my protests. How can I not get mad as hell at them, for using the love of my life as their weapon against me? I can never blame her, though. After all, “parents are always right”. It is certainly popular and might sound enlightening. But it is untrue. It denies experiences to the contrary, like mine. It is bad to be hurt, but worse to be told that one’s experience doesn’t exist or doesn’t count, just because it doesn’t fit some “conventional wisdom”. As a society, we can do better, and we should.

So let me say this, loud and proud, without apology. My parents are so wrong. I hate them for what they have been doing to me. I hate them for bringing me to this world, just so that they can try their very best to convince me, that so many on Earth deserve to be loved, but not me. I wish I could tell you a happy ending, but this living hell has no end in sight. Meanwhile, I just have to try, to give this unwanted journey of mine a real purpose, to make the world a slightly better place, so that everything that has happened is not completely in vain.


Background

One positive side-effect of being in a Toastmasters club for while is that you can really know people. Many members have talked about very personal stories, some of which had not been shared elsewhere before. Some stories were happy, but other were gloomy. There were stories of people who where abducted as children, who witnessed their parents’ divorces, who made bad choices and spent time in jail, etc. These stories were fascinating, inspiring, touching, and sometimes heart-wrenching. I thank them for opening their hearts.

The club became a place where I felt safe and supported to open my heart too.

The motivation behind this speech was that an event which purpose was to pretend that everything was all right was coming up, and I needed to tell someone a story. I thought telling it to a group plus the person would be easier than telling it to the person alone.

In the Chinese culture that I was raised in, there are certain traditional values that people seem to defend above everything else. One of those values is that parents are seen as demigods that own their children. Everything (especially everything good) that one has is seen as coming from the parents. Parents are also seen as being all-good, all-selfless, all-correct, etc. If you think you are in the children’s position of an exception, then good luck convincing anyone else! At best, people think that you are misguided and “one day you will understand how good your parents are”. Worse, some people who think they know better lecture you, despise you, force on you some plan that they think will reconcile you with your parents, etc., just because you do not worship your parents.

There was no way I could even make a dent on the status quo. But at least I could tell my story.

Preparation

By the time I gave the speech, I was in the club for over a year and had given more than a dozen speeches. I attended most of the meeting. I felt somewhat comfortable to tell my story. Even so, I worried a lot that it would make the audience overly sad or uncomfortable. Since I was the club’s VP Education, there was no “check with VP Education” option. I did check with some seasoned members about telling personal stories and that sort of thing seemed to be okay with the club.

The speech was probably the most-prepared speech that I had given. I spent close to two months writing, rewriting, rehearsing, and getting depressed from reliving past experiences. Knowing that the speech would be recorded, just like most of the prepared speeches in the club at the time, I want it to be perfect even though I had not figure our what to do with the recording. Yet, I still find myself getting lost in the speech a few time. Despite wanting to look calm and ending up at least composed, I found myself shaking just from getting too emotional.

Feedback

My audience probably expected a different kind of speech. I could tell that most of them were paying attention and many were in a sad mood. A couple of them seemed to holding back their tears.

Nevertheless, I did not win Best Speaker. Someone who gave a speech about showing off how wonderful and successful their career in architecture did. Not that I care too much. I was just bemused by what people considered a good speech.

One unexpected lesson from this speech was that extraordinary things can happen out of nowhere when you really want to achieve something bad. In my case, I believe the proper name of this phenomenon is “stuff happens”. The club meets at a place that also has a healthcare-providing facility. Before the meeting started, a senior person wandered around the meeting room. He was waiting for his paratransit shuttle. As everything else closed for the night we invited him to come sit at the meeting so he did not have to wander around. He must have waited for at least two hours for the shuttle. It happened that right before my speech, the shuttle finally arrived. My companion and another member help the senior person walk to the shuttle. As a result, my companion missed my whole speech, even though the point was to have her listen to it. She did listen to the recording afterwards, although, of course, it was not even the same thing. “Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid,” said to be said by clergyman Basil King and recited in the movie Almost Famous. I guess the quote was true, except the last word.

One thing that I really do not like about the Storytelling manual is that it seems to assume that every story has a certain format: there are some characters, some conflict starts, things get really tense (climax), and then the situation resolves. Unfortunately, in real life, that is often not the case. Situations might never get resolved. They might stay that way for a long time or forever. Then the evaluator is supposed to point out that the speech needed to be worked on in this area. Fortunately or not, my evaluator did not closely followed the evaluation guide of this project.

My evaluator did not offer a lot in terms of evaluating my speech. He suggested that the ending could have been made a happy one, focusing on positive things. I guess he and the point was nowhere close to each other, which, of course might be my fault. In any case, if had I changed the story to fit some happy-ending mold, then the end product probably would not have been a story that I wanted to tell.

I received a lot of feedback sheets from the audience, some with encouragement that I will always treasure. However, part of me was hoping for some mind-changing about views that we take for granted as traditions or values, and I doubt any had occurred. There was not much in terms of the speech’s long-term impact either.

Some of us like our speeches to be impactful, i.e. make a difference. At the end of the day, people listen to speeches, be entertained, feel or think a bit, and go home. And the status quo goes on. Of course, there have been speeches in the history of human beings that make a difference, but chances are that I would not be giving any of them. Such is life.