The older I got, the more fearful my parents became. They went from allowing me to attend my friend’s birthday parties in elementary and middle school, to personally calling up my teacher whenever we had a group assignment that required me to spend time outside of school with my classmates, to requesting that an exception be made for me so I would never have to go over anyone’s house after school to work on a class project.
“How am I going to get pregnant and hooked on drugs when everyone in my school thinks I’m a total loser?” I yelled one night after trying to convince them to let me go over my friend Chris’s house to finish a French project that was due the next day.
“You’ll thank us one day,” my mom said. “You’ll thank us for everything we’ve done for you and you’re realize how right we were all along.”
“Or I won’t.” I said. “Or I won’t and by the time you believe me, it’ll be too late.”
“Then it’ll be too late,” my mom said, because she always had to have the final word. Because I couldn’t grow up yet and show her who I wanted to be, and anyway, by the time I was grown, it would be far too late to be the person I wanted to be all along, because I would have already spent that time begrudgingly becoming the person she and my dad wanted me to be. Because when I was 16, and my parents were my parents, I couldn’t prove to them yet that I was going to turn out OK, that I could kiss boys and stay out late and fail a test on occasion and still turn out just fine. Because when I was a teenager, everyone all the time was always saying, “Just wait 10 years and then you’ll see,” and all I could think was but but but I’m this age now and I’ll never be this age again and I can’t wait 10 years because I need to be here now and I’m sorry, Mom and Dad, if the kind of life I want to at least attempt to have scares you, but you have to let me find my own reasons to live.
At some point, I just started begging them. “Please, please, please, please, please let me go to this show on Saturday. It’s in the next town over. Please, please, please.”
They wouldn’t budge. When Chris came over to take me to his house to finish a global-history assignment, my mom agreed on the condition that my dad would drive me and we would have to complete the assignment in Chris’s living room while my father STOOD OUTSIDE AND WATCHED US THROUGH THE WINDOW. After about 10 minutes, I decided that I would rather fail than suffer the humiliation of my father’s gaze.
At some point, my mom brought up that according to Confucius, children are forever indebted to their parents because parents give their children the ultimate gift, which is the gift of life and existence. According to Mom, this meant that even if a parent decides to tie his child to a tree and set that child on fire while pelting said child to death with stones, that child must continue to thank her parents for granting her life up until the moment of her death.
“So you have it lucky,” my mom said, as if she actually expected me to feel lucky that she and my dad had not yet tried to burn me alive while simultaneously stoning me.
“You want me to be grateful for something I never asked for,” I said to my parents so many times in high school that there came a point when I couldn’t finish the sentence without bursting into tears.
“Exactly,” they replied.
“We’re so sorry you don’t want these clothes you’re wearing and the food you’re eating and the house you live in,” my dad would say.
“Give them back if you don’t want them,” my mom would say, reminding me that my desires were both monstrous and petty.
And that was how I knew I was powerless. That whatever freedom I thought I deserved to be a stupid, selfish, callow, immature, impulsive teenager would always be negated by how much my entire life was clothed, fed, and sheltered by my parents. However much I didn’t want them to sacrifice for me, it was already too late because I had already benefitted from their sacrifice before I even had a chance to say STOP. PLEASE JUST STOP.
Another time my mom said that she would personally see to it that I starve unless I recanted on my earlier declaration that I was going to major in English literature when I got to college.
“Some kids don’t even want to go to college,” I said.
“That’s them. You’re not them.”
“Then do it,” I said, feeling sick about the food I had been shoveling into my mouth and the unchewed food I needed to get rid of in a completely elegant, poised, don’t-give-a-fuck way that was not possible because my lower lip was already trembling and there’s no elegant way to cry while eating.
“I already said I will.” Later that night, my parents left plate of homemade dumplings outside my door.
Later, my mom told me my dad used to be able to recite entire chapters of Moby Dick from memory, that when he was sent to work on a farm in the south of China, he passed sleepless summer nights memorizing the Oxford English Dictionary, that he taught himself calculus and geometry when schools in China were temporarily shut down and his friends were out chasing teachers and “intellectuals” down the streets of Shanghai with broken glass bottles, and that despite his having devoted more than 10 years of his life to studying English literature, despite my dad’s coming to America to get his Ph.D. in linguistics at NYU, the boss at his first job in New York still assumed he was illiterate and certifiably stupid because of his accent. That nearly all of his cohorts who came to the U.S. to pursue Ph.D.s in literature or linguistics ended up dropping out and studying computer science instead, because it was the only way they could afford to provide for their families in the ways that they wanted. The reality my parents lived through doesn’t necessarily make up for how helpless I felt when they denied me my own reality, but it’s a context, at the very least.
Sometimes when you’re a teenager living under your parents’ roof, and when your parents’ love holds you hostage to a ransom that can only be paid via the passage of time from adolescence into eventual adulthood, the only power you have is to insist on maintaining a secret inner life where your wildness and art can flower. I used to keep a journal detailing all of the things I did against my parents’ wishes—sneaking out of the house after midnight to meet up with boys, taping poems and short stories over the pages of my SAT books and reading those instead of paying attention during my weekend prep classes, hiding in my basement in the morning instead of going to school and waiting for my parents to go to work before running outside and being grateful that at least for a few hours, I was the reckless queen of my own fate. For years, my plan was show my parents this book that I kept hidden under my bed. I would wait until they were old. I would wait until I was old, too old for the ol’ “wait 10 years and then you’ll see” line to hold any weight, and then I would show them this book and ply them with example after example of all the ways I rebelled, how I secretly did just about everything they explicitly forbade me to do, and how their method of parenting was completely misguided, completely devoid of value, and did nothing except harm me and stop me from becoming the person I wanted to be.
That was my revenge fantasy. It isn’t anymore. We’re all older now. More than 10 years have passed. The idea of revenge seems exceptionally cruel and unnecessary.
Last year, when I called my mom from France, she told me that I should try to convince my little brother to go to his senior prom. I had to remind my mom that when I was in high school, she wouldn’t let me go to prom with this older upperclassman who went so far as to print out his academic transcript and fax it to my dad’s office to prove that he was an upstanding, studious young man with completely honorable intentions. I reminded my mom that eventually she agreed to let me go to prom but said that I had to come back at nine PM, when prom started at eight. I reminded my mom when the rankings for seniors came in, the guy who wanted to take me to prom called up my mom to tell her he was ranked third in his class and my mom said, “Call back when you’re first.”
“I did do all that, didn’t I?” she said, laughing on the phone with me because all that stuff is far enough in the past and we’ve all changed so much since those years when threats of starvation and stoning and self-immolation were being thrown around the dinner table with disturbing regularity. “We didn’t know back then. You were the first teenager amongst our family friends. We didn’t know what prom was. We didn’t understand anything. We thought we would be bad parents if we let you go to prom. We didn’t know other Chinese parents with children with your age. You were the first, and we tried the best we could.”
There was a time when I would have said to my mom, “It wasn’t fair what you and dad put me through. I had a miserable time in high school, you know.” There was a time when I would have hung up the phone and cried into a pillow because my parents might never know that there were moments in my adolescence when their attempts to keep me away from the world made me so despondent that I thought it would be better to not exist at all.
These days, I’ve come to realize that I’m the one with the power now. I no longer reel from pain when I think about my formerly shut-in life, and that refrain I heard constantly when I was growing up. “You’ll thank us one day” has morphed into something of a plea: “Will you thank us one day?”
The day after my parents moved me into my new apartment, I called up my landlord and had him replace my window. That night, I crawled out onto my fire escape and kissed a boy who had Swedish Fish in his pockets.
“Should we go back inside in case this fire escape crashes to the ground and takes us with it?” I asked him, pretending like it was no big thang, even though I had totally scanned the walls of my building for a ledge or something to grab on to, just in case.
I pictured my dad telling me to be careful, that it isn’t a good idea for two people to stand on something as unstable as an old fire escape, but that I’m grown now and I’m responsible for my own decisions, whether he likes it or not.
I decided to tell my mom on the phone last year that she and my dad did the best they could.
“You’ll see when you have kids,” she said.
“Or maybe you will,” I said.
“We’ll see,” my mom said.
“You’ll see,” I said, because I may never know what it’s like to be a parent to a child, and I may never figure out how to love someone without placing any expectations on them, but I do know what it’s like to be my parent’s child, and I’ll probably spend the rest of my life convincing them that my life, lived my way, is the only one I’ll ever be thankful for. ♦