My mother once described me as a porcupine. “Whenever we argue, your spikes come out,” she said. “Zhārén.”
In Chinese, ‘zhārén’ means to prick someone, but my mother would use it to say that I cut her deeply. It’s a loose translation that vaguely summarizes what she means, but I guess her words were just lost in translation. She said if anyone misspeaks, I would prickle and poke them with my words until they bleed. She tells me that she worries I will never find someone to love me, that I have too much of a prickly exterior, too quick to shoot my quills.
Maybe I’ve read into it too much, but I’ve always been unbothered by this description. I tell myself that porcupines only release their quills to protect themselves, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’ve never been too good at vulnerability, nor have I had much success in love. I think I’m scared of becoming a stereotype — the archetypical passive Asian woman. So much so that I went way too far into the other extreme. I have lived in fear that I will become this stereotype, or that I will become my mother.
Growing up, I refused to believe that I was similar to her. She was serious, I was fun. She acted practically, I behaved on emotion. She believed that life should sometimes be bitter, I thought that it was an over dramatic representation and that life could be sweet if you wanted it to be. Bittersweet didn’t exist in my world; the word itself shows that it’s impossible.
I often find myself grasping at these wisps of concepts, trying to understand the deeper meaning to everything. I have gotten so good at making connections between things in my life, my upbringing and heritage, that I live in denial that they could be wrong. I hold onto these ideas so tightly that my fingernails dig into my palms, as if my identity depended on it. But maybe heritage is just an easy justification, and I’ve been spending all this time drawing connections between meaningless ideas. I guess that’s just a symptom of displaced identity. I’ve spent my entire life looking for ways I can explain my existence through others, finding any string of connection like a quick breath of air. I attribute so much of who I am, how I perceive love, through the lens of my parents and their understanding of love.
I never thought my parents marriage to be romantic (they had forgotten about their 20th anniversary last year), but I think no immigrant child has. I’ve always seen it as one of hard work in every facet of their lives. I guess I’ve subconsciously learned this from them. While outward expression may not have been prevalent, there must be something there to keep them going. They may not show me, but through both love and struggle, they have shaped my entire being. Only through care have I become who I am today.
I’m still trying to understand this. My love language is Words of Affirmation, while both my roommates’ are Physical Touch. I used to think this was tragic, a clear indication that I couldn’t understand physical emotions because my parents didn’t hug me enough as a child. I used to get so mad thinking that they neglected me, the belief that I didn’t get enough support when I was younger. I still get angry thinking about it, how their way of showing me love has translated into how I express myself now. I get mad about my inability to show love, my frustrations about my own incompetence in making connections with others. But I also feel guilty, because I have always knows my parents loved me through effort. Our lives are intertwined no matter how much I try to distance myself from them.
I am beginning to notice that I manage to include my mother’s stories into everything I create, that I often use her struggles to define my own sense of individuality. My uniqueness comes from this idea that my parent’s story are the sole reason I am the way I am. I have shaped my life around the typical immigration story, but that doesn’t make me individual. All children of immigrants understand their parent’s hard work, how outward love was not the most important thing they had to worry about. I’m scared, though, that if I live my life around their experiences, I’ll never be able to create my own. I constantly feel like I’m walking this fine line: on one side I put the responsibility of my love life onto how my parents raised me, and on the other I have this idea that I need to completely separate myself from my heritage in order to have love.
I had called my mother while writing this. It was strange, an uncharacteristically, overwhelming sense of guilt. I felt like I was blaming all my downfalls onto her. I felt like somehow, if I begin to write about her, as opposed to the stories she has told me, I would portray her in a negative light. Sometimes I can’t distinguish the difference between my own understanding of her, and who she actually is. I have been so used to juxtaposing my own life to hers, that I don’t know if I ever tried to understand her, I’ve just tried to create my experiences around hers. We talked briefly, but she replied by saying that she wasn’t worried about what I might write. She knew I wasn’t going to ‘shuō tā huài huà,’* because she knows I love her. Then she reminded me to do my homework.
The last bit didn’t annoy me as much as it usually would. I know she loves through trust and perseverance, and just wants me to do well. Sometimes I wonder if I should just be the child they wish I would be. It might even be helpful to my own relationships if I just became more docile, more subtle. Maybe they’ve been onto something this entire time, maybe I’ve just been telling myself that I need to oppose everything they say for the sake of my own individuality. How can I not feel like I owe them at least some deference, especially after everything they’ve done? It could be a pride thing, but I can never seem to tell them that they were right.
The difficult thing is, I do understand what my mother is trying to say. I’ve spent my entire life dancing around her, trying to be her foil. I resented my parents for so long, blaming all the misdoings in my own love life on them. But even though I’ve realized it, I still can’t seem to put it into action, to outwardly express love. My parents always told me they scolded me because they loved me, so for a long time I thought anger was vulnerability. But I don’t want it to be. I’ve conditioned myself to think the way my parents showed me love is not right. I have convinced myself the love I received (or supposed lack thereof) came from circumstance. I’ve spent so much time saying they raised me wrong, explaining my perception of love through my parent’s cultural difference. But at what point do I stop looking at them and examine myself instead? I’ve become so accustomed to deflecting all my problems to how I was raised, that I can no longer take responsibility for my own actions. I have to actively remind myself that my love life is not their burden, because I got everything I needed. But I guess this could be presumptuous because I’ve never known a world where I was raised with physical and verbal affection.
I guess I shouldn’t look at what I’m not, instead, what I am. My parents have instilled into me a strong sense of determination. I know that I have done well when they give my praise. They say what they mean and mean what they say. I have been raised ready to face challenges, even if I hope my life to be sweet. I know that my mother loves me and will no matter what, and that I will love her the same. But love is not imitation. I have to be mindful of what they taught me, and I have to learn how to be my own person. I have to navigate my own path, in between.
I keep using my mother as an excuse for my spikiness, but in reality, she’s just a scapegoat. This is a verbal affirmation I have to give myself often. It’s okay that my parents didn’t outwardly express their love everyday, because I’ve learned to be more aware of my own actions, and I’m still growing from it. And maybe I haven’t grown at all, but it comforts me to think everything has a deeper meaning. If there is no meaning, what’s the point? I guess I’m still trying to figure out how I want to practice love. One might say that the idea of love needing practice is pessimistic; love should be felt deeply and enjoyed greatly. While that’s true for some, I’m still on my way. I’m still learning.
*Directly translates into ‘talk bad about her’, but essentially means talk shit.
Note — I had a conversation with my mother after writing this, and she mentioned the word she used was ‘cìwāi’ which is actually a hedgehog… I had just always thought it was ‘porcupine’ growing up because the word ‘cì’ means to poke. Makes sense that both of us are just using euphemisms to describe how we feel.
Helen Du is a literature student at McGill University. In her spare time, she enjoys moderating the SAD Facebook page, and looking at all the lovely works submitted to the SAD Medium Publication.
Photo by Merton Allen