for the first time in my life, i'm experiencing 'reverse' procrastination – i'm so anxious to get writing and complete the daily challenge that i haven't been able to focus on anything else!
family has been on my mind a lot lately. my relationship with the word has evolved over the years: from heavy teenage-angst, to teeth-pulling avoidance, to today's mature, empathetic acceptance (or at least, i'm getting there).
i didn't have the most conventional upbringing: my parents got a divorce when i was 10, but even before, they didn't have the best relationship. dad was calculative and misanthropic, mom was impatient and frivolous. both of their families didn't get along, so my most salient memories are of playing alone in a big, empty house.
after the divorce, my mom got custody of the kids, so my perception of family shifted to focus solely on hers. for two years, my sister and i stayed in a converted bedroom in the attic of our grandmother's home, sharing a bed and doing our homework on two cramped desks. we shared the house with several other relatives: a bachelor uncle, an aunt whose husband had passed before i was born, and her two sons. my mom joined the family business – a bustling Chinese restaurant – to make ends meet, and was gone most days.
from the warm, safe, quiet of our Bangsar suburban bungalow, to the cramped, chaotic experience of sharing a home with relatives i hadn't spent time with growing up – it was a lot for two young children to take.
i believe that cemented my sister and i's personalities and dynamics from a young age: she was the golden child; easy, charming, quiet, quick to please and lend a helping hand. i was the black sheep; brooding, loud, bossy, all the things a little girl shouldn't be.
i'm not sure if it was ever explicit, but i was made to feel responsible for my little sister's wellbeing. with our world falling apart, and mom gone so much, my first thought wasn't for my own self, but rather, i projected my own needs and feelings onto my sister. i went out of my way to keep things as "normal" as possible: making her laugh, cooking up the same harebrained schemes and role-play games we used to play.
at the same time, my own emotions were barely contained; i was going through puberty, losing pieces of my own self that i'd taken for granted. all these hormones formed a lethal cocktail with my mind. i became outwardly abrasive; crossing other family members' boundaries and invading their privacy – what did that even mean to a child, anyway? – by spending way too much in their rooms.
i will never forget one incident that brought me a lot of shame: i was maybe 12 years old, had a hard day at school, and found myself in my aunt's room. it was undoubtedly my favorite place in the house – i'd regularly use her bathroom to shower, luxuriating in her fancy soaps, escaping the world for a while. this time, there was a box of Famous Amos cookies on her vanity. i don't know why i did it: i ate them. i couldn't stop. i kept telling myself, "just one more, she won't notice", but i kept taking and taking and taking until there were barely a few left. that's when the adrenaline wore off and the shame kicked in: a red wave of heat, flooding me from head to toe.
i don't remember much else from this incident. i remember being told off – by my mom, or my aunt, i can't remember – and was forbidden from going into her room for a while. the next time i stepped meekly back in to shower, the box of cookies was gone. i remember being turned off by the chocolatey scent of Famous Amos for years. and all the way until my mid twenties, i was convinced this aunt hated my guts.
i was convinced that most of my family hated my guts, actually. i genuinely thought i was better off not existing. even when my mom saved enough to move us into our own apartment, the self loathing didn't go away. in fact, it intensified – on the first day of high school, i was bullied (!) and lost all my friends. i turned to the Internet, to pen pals, MSN and Friendster – to numb the pain of rejection. my online life was rich: i blogged, i chatted, i made lots of friends (and boyfriends, lol) that way.
at school, i kept my head down, did well, and eventually made new friends. but my heart, it was broken – and try as i may, i couldn't put it back together again. i felt broken. i listened to sad, angry music. my mom did everything she could to ‘help me get my act together’: she gave me the silent treatment, confiscated my phone, took away the Internet connection for weeks at a time. but i always found my way back to my safe haven. i just never found my way back to her.
it's been 15 years since those dark teenage years, but i still remember the grief, the rage, the anguish of being so deeply misunderstood. if i could find my way back to that 13-year-old girl, i'd tell her:
you are okay. nothing is wrong with you. your reaction is completely normal and understandable in the face of what you'd gone through. you were taught not to rely on family; that you'd be punished when you make a mistake. that mercy and grace is reserved for good girls, sweet girls, girls like your sister – not angry, bitter, broken girls like you. no one taught you to understand your body, your mental health, your self. but i understand you now, Gwen Yi.
you have been through so much, and there were times you didn't know how to handle it, but always, you got through it. your spirit is unbroken. and your family – they are messed up, but they love you, in their own strange way. you don't have to love them back. just let go of the belief that you are hated, and that you are better off dead.
when you were 28 years old, you attended a milestone reunion with your father's side of the family. after two decades of estrangement, your paternal grandmother and her brothers decided to meet – yes, at your mother's family restaurant.
it was an emotional affair: you allowed yourself to be present, to be overwhelmed, to cry at the scene unfolding before you. your grandmother is 88 years old, and you love her. you never knew you could feel a love this strong. no politics, no complication – just pure, clean, unadulterated love. you watched as she laid eyes on the brother, 82 years old this year, that she hadn't seen in 15 years. siblings, cousins, eight families brought together after spending the last two decades apart.
it wasn't perfect. it wasn't a Hallmark commercial. we ate, we took pictures, we made tentative introductions. but for the first time in your life, you felt like you were a part of something bigger. of blood and DNA and ancestry. we are strangers, now, but we share the same roots – and they go deep. that's got to count for something.
you spent your whole life wondering if you were different, if you were wronged, if YOU were wrong. you weren't. you aren't. sometimes, good people make bad decisions, and they hurt the people around them. that is true for your mom, your aunt, your family – and it is true for you, too. there is no shame in making mistakes.
what matters most is how you make up for them... and what you do next.
Made me tear up. Love you Gwen! Nothing is wrong with you!!!!!!