Progress and the Mother-Daughter Relationship
traversing hi/stories: Progress and the Mother-Daughter Relationship
On my mother’s fifty-sixth birthday, I called her from Indonesia to wish her a happy birthday. “Oh, You remembered!” Her flattered response made it seem like I never remember her birthday. In the same call, I told her that I had received and accepted a fellowship that would keep me in Indonesia for one more year. My news is met with silence. I couldn’t tell if she was taking time to gather her thoughts, or if the long-distance call had been dropped.
“That’s my birthday present?” She jumped back into the conversation with this passive-aggressive sense of humor that I’ve never known what to do with. “Call me back when you have better news.”
As I hung up the phone, the image of my family at dinner in New York came to mind. My older sister had sent me the picture over her cell phone earlier that day with a caption that read, “We miss you!” All of a sudden, an overwhelming sense of sadness came over me as I realized that I was likely missing my mother’s fifty-seventh birthday too.
Back at school later that week, I met with one of my co-teachers to discuss a unique semester-long study fellowship opportunity in the U.S. that I wanted her to consider. Ibu Ary (Ibu, literally ‘mother,’ is a respectful prefix used to address married women or female teachers in Indonesia) was superior in her English skills, and one of the most dedicated and passionate educational leaders in her community. The formal pedagogical and leadership training would have strengthened her work capacity given her passion and tenacity.
But my attempted encouragement was immediately met with a polite decline. Under the impression that she was being modest in the presence of other colleagues, I left a copy of the printed application on her desk and asked her to give it a second thought. But she kindly explains, “Ibu Jessica, thank you for thinking of me. But as the youngest daughter in my family, I must take care of my mother. I will not leave her in Kupang alone.” The firmness in her voice was anything but submissive, especially not to her mother’s wishes. If her mother had it her way, Ibu Ary would have been married with children by now like all seven of her older siblings. Instead, Ibu Ary’s penchant to resist societal pressures of marriage and the western discourse of progress was filled with courage and pride.
Common in most mother-daughter relationships, I spent many of my younger years embarrassed of my mother. But aside from the generational gap between us, there was also a cultural clash that stemmed from our immigrant experiences. When my family first immigrated to the United States in 1998, all I wanted was to be invisible under the Western eye. While it took some time to learn English at the age of nine, understanding how to survive the fourth grade was intrinsic. The first problem I learned about myself was my lunch. While all the American kids had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Lunchables, I was eating rice balls prepared by my mother. I often wondered how she expected me to participate in the world of competitive lunch exchanges with such unwanted commodities.
My lunches soon disappeared. I would secretly throw them out on my way to the bus stop. Once, careless on my part, my mother found rotten leftovers in my backpack. That evening, while we both understood the issue was more complicated than the ethics of wasting food, that’s what we fought about. Not a single part of my nine-year-old self wanted to defend the real motives behind my actions. In some ways, I understood the painlessness in saying, “It was not you but me,” rather than “It was the you in me.” And as cafeteria lunches became available for purchase the next year, I found myself picking up a five-dollar bill from the kitchen counter every morning before heading out to the bus stop.
This sense of embarrassment slowly manifested into more palpable attempts to break away from my mother. In middle and high school, I rebelled through my evolving aesthetics. Despite my mother’s objections, I insisted on colored contacts, body piercings, and short shorts, all of which had presumably represented Western beauty in my subconscious. I also stopped speaking Mandarin altogether–a self-silencing mechanism within my house where we exclusively used our native language. As a professor in college once noted to me, my rebellion was very much ingrained in an ironic psychological effect of the colonial project, where in which we see our own mothers as backwards, irrational and non-modern. Perhaps even more ironic is the role my mother played (and continues to play) in helping me carry out on my rebellions. She was there holding my shaky index finger as I learned to put in my contacts, there to hold my hand as I got my ears pierced, and there at the mall helping me try on new clothes, even though the sight of me in them made her cringe.
Nowadays, the project that my mother supports me to pursue is the one where I leaver her behind. As I have grown a vast interest in international politics and education, she has watched me cross borders to places that had never crossed her mind, the same way her mother did when she left Taiwan fifteen years ago. Now at the age of ninety-two, my grandmother sees her daughter once a year, and her granddaughter once every two to three years. Despite an emphasis in Taiwanese culture to care for one’s elderly parents, women in my family have followed a pattern of leaving their mothers behind in the name of progress. That is, as daughters, we grow up to pursue opportunities that presumably better our lives, even if they pull us away from the very person who got us there. Perhaps what is hardest to cope with are those phone calls of good news and bad news. It is the simultaneous joy and sadness that comes with telling my mother that I was awarded a fellowship grant, but at the expense of missing another one of her birthdays. Growing up, I watched my mother do the same. Once a week, she would get me on the phone with grandma and cry as she watched her mother and her daughter distantly interact over the phone. This sheds light on the paradox of progress. There lacks an infrastructure that supports the emotional burden that comes when a daughter leaves her mother. More often than not, it is left as an unspoken sadness.
As it turned out, Ibu Ary was recognized for her hard work. Two days before my departure from Kupang, Ibu Ary left first. She was selected to represent the entire providence of Nusa Tenggara Timur at a weeklong national education conference in Bali. At the airport, I was standing on the mother side of the departure barricades for the first time. Feelings of pride, loneliness, excitement and fear all settled into a sense of numbness as we said goodbye. And as Ibu Ary faded out of sight, her mother and I walked back to the car hand in hand. The sincerity in her grip reminded me that pursuits of better and more progressive lives take all forms. Women in my family seek and honor mobility, whereas for Ibu Ary, that honor comes from her dedication to her mother, her church and remaining within her community. I was happy to know that Ibu Ary would reunite with her mother in just one week, right around the time I would get back to New York to see mine.