The most difficult conversation

My mum is so whacked and I can’t take all of the credit for giving her her issues from raising me.

I live on the West Coast and mum lives in the East Coast and Lil Sis lives in the eastern part of the country. We’ve all been living apart for three, nearly four, years because where we grew up does not sustain life (as we would like it).

So, we were sitting on the couch with mum sitting between us and Lil Sis texted messaged me, “Can you tell Mummy I have a boyfriend? :)” It’s news to me but I roll with it. I put up a bit of a fight in text message because I’ve had to broach the sticky subject myself each and every time but she wheedled in text messages and I chose my words carefully and in consultation with her. Abruptly, I said, “Mummy… Little Sister has a nam pung yao jai.”

I chose such a term meaning “little boyfriend” because “boyfriend” sounded way too mature for me to say. I chose to say it in Chinese because after all these years with mum, I can’t say “boyfriend” in English except like the way she does, spitting the word out, emphasis on the first syllable. Mum has categorically called them all my “friend” and also spits out the one-syllable word, whether she’s referring to a male or female. It’s a loaded word for mum because “friend” are people who infringe on my undivided attention on and love for her.

Mum’s first question was, predictably, “What kind of person is he?” That doesn’t mean, “What is he like?” It means, “What race is he?”

“He’s half European… and half Korean.”

There is palpable disappointment on mum’s part who makes no mystery about it. “I always wanted, hoped, dreamed you would be with someone Chinese.”

Why?! Why! I jump to Lil Sis’ defence although she is perfectly capable of it herself. I’ve thought long about it, had this argument prepared in my mind. “Just because you spoke to us in Chinese?! Although we lived in a small town and went to private school. You were too snooty to befriend other Chinese ladies who would have children to make interacting with Chinese seem normal. WHY on earth would you think we’d just get along so well with Chinese males? We’re naturally going to be more comfortable with white guys like we went to school with.” Although, with an older sister who dated some non-Chinese in her youth, Lil Sis has surely heard about mum’s expectations that we date and settle down with Chinese men. Ad nauseum.

I had fun rapidfire asking questions about what matters. Where is he from? What did he study and where? What does he do for fun? And I chuckled in delicious delight as mum asked uncomfortable questions and drew unfortunate conclusions about the guy. I’ve been through it, I’m so happy to be married at present to be beyond this kind of scrutiny.

Lil Sis was happy to show us a picture of her guy, a wide angle headshot from which you can see his whole upper body. His hair is so dark and his glasses so nerdy you would have thought he was all Asian from that photo!

But mum strangely fixated on his European half, calling him European, exclusive of his Korean heritage. From my experience (gleaned from one mixed boyfriend), the primary caregiver, presumably the mother, can impart more of her culture than the father can. To discount the mother’s contribution, to consider him European on account of his name and the father’s side reeks of the traditional patriarchal views she has long harangued she is beyond. And, according to mum, even if his mother impressed upon him Korean culture, it is still not Chinese.

The questions mum asked are loaded and I would raise my eyebrow at Lil Sis as a warning. “How often do you spend time together?” You don’t even know what mum’s threshold is: too little and mum prefers to think it is not a serious relationship, too much and she frets about, well, that. Lil Sis chose to tell the truth and mum chooses to believe it’s not that serous. Uhm, Lil Sis wouldn’t be telling us if it wasn’t kind of serious.

Mum’s other loaded question is asking Lil Sis what she likes about her boyfriend and what she doesn’t like. We know full well know mum is hell-bent on disliking him, proving Lil Sis has made a mistake so any criticisms raised are not taken as benign chatter but a weapon mum can brandish again and again. I joked it was like the interview question where you’re asked to name your weakness. How do spin a strength into a weakness? Off the cuff, I suggested Lil Sis say, “I don’t really like how he wins more cases than I do.” How could that be bad? Here is a potential train of thought: “He wins more than you do? How smart he is! But you’re in the same field. Why isn’t he helping you with your cases? How selfish! What kind of bad person is he?” And that whole train of thought would get verbalized.

In my experience, I’ve been threatened with being disowned if I marry someone not Chinese. Mum, who prides her English ability as sufficient to obtain a degree at a Canadian university, doesn’t want to speak to a son-in-law in English. A landed immigrant to Canada of 30 years and supposedly modern thinker but the narrow traditional view rears its ugly head.

Lil Sis has always handled mum differently and better than I have and she can perhaps train mum to sound kinder on the subject of boyfriends. By default, mum wants to say “friend” because “boyfriend” to her connotates something serous. Mum prefers not to refer to him by name which is one syllable like mine and hard to pronounce. The way mum refers to him as “keuy”, the gender ambiguous third person singular pronoun in Cantonese, sounds spiteful and harsh.

Until checked, mum wants to believe it is not serious. She even asked Lil Sis if there wasn’t anyone else at this time… someone mum would like better! And if Chinese men in her field and specialization are in short supply, mum suggested Lil Sis looks outside her own field. Mum asked how Lil Sis would go about meeting a doctor or engineer! All of which is highly disrespectful of Lil Sis’ relationship status!

And, mum wants the guy to learn Chinese! It’s sooooooo useful these days, mum never fails to mention each time we are together and pointed in the direction of the tv stuck on the Chinese channel, or a number of other triggers that prompt her to say, again, “Mummy really wants you to learn Mandarin, it’s so useful these days.” Like that’s going to happen for any of us. Gosh, I’m so glad my husband already speaks both Chinese dialects and I am the “more Chinese daughter” to not have to deal with this (once I met my husband).

We meet the much discussed person in person tomorrow at a family lunch. It was deemed an appropriate scenario since mum will meet him with me and a male cousin around to carry on conversation and she can sit back and do, well, that thing she does regarding our boyfriends.

I like him already and wish him and Lil Sis the best of luck at gaining that elusive acceptance.

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