Those who knew me growing up may remember that I was cared for by my maid, Beth, for more than ten years. This essay was particularly difficult to write, because it forced me to dig into my memory, acknowledge certain truths, and reconcile the separation. I was very close to my maid and, more often than not, I try not to think about our past in order to move forward in the present. Interestingly, the process of writing this turned out to be rather therapeutic, and the final product is, in a way, a celebration of our relationship. Who knows, one day she might chance upon this and we can be reconnected again. Till then, here’s our story in Litro Magazine.
When Denise Stirk’s essay “The Most Powerful Thing You Can Say To Another Mom” went viral recently, as a new mom, my first instinct was to join almost a million other people to like and share it. After all, the article’s about how mothers can share each other’s pain and struggles simply because of the role we play. “You are a mom, you know.” It is heartwarming and moving, like a P&G commercial. What’s there not to like, right?
Well, I didn’t share the article. I didn’t appreciate how Stirk, in an effort to bond mothers, excluded everyone else in the equation. Sure, the article doesn’t say that directly, but by only emphasizing on the solidarity among mothers, it effectively sends out another underlying message: If you are not a mom, you don’t know.
That, to me, is the problem. Too often have I heard complaints about how this woman had changed after she had a kid, or how obsessed about parenting another friend had become (the same is often not said about fathers when they take on the paternal role with fervor—in fact, most of them would be praised for stepping up to their duty— which only goes to highlight the gender inequality). As offensive as these statements are, such sentiments are fueled when a mother writes an essay about the ability to understand the death of a child, the difficulty in finding a babysitter, the stress of traveling with an infant, just because she is a mom. I have friends and relatives who, despite being mothers, are insensitive, rude and unkind. One told me I was fat six months postpartum. She was a mother of three. She should know the difficulties of weight loss after pregnancy. Another told me I was lazy because I didn’t have time to make barley water for my baby. Women are not magically transformed into sensitive souls just because they bore a couple of kids. Likewise, friends who are childless both by choice and otherwise have demonstrated much love and kindness toward my baby and me when I was struggling through the initial stages of breastfeeding—something they obviously have no experience themselves.
So yes, revel in the joys of motherhood. No one is stopping you from doing that. But let us also not forget those who are not parents, because motherhood is hard. And without the support of not just mothers, but fathers who help with night feeds, grandparents who offer to babysit, friends who forgive your tardiness because your baby had a diaper explosion just before leaving the house, your neighbor who understands the late cries at three in the morning, and the gentleman who gives up his seat to your kid on the train, being a mom can be almost impossible. And most importantly, let us remember that being a mom does not automatically mean you can understand the struggles of another. Being kind, compassionate, sensitive, sympathetic and empathetic does that. And you don’t need to be a mother for that to happen. You just need to have a heart.
So things have been a little crazy lately (hence the long hiatus) but three main things happened that have kept me more than occupied! One, I’ve a baby! She’s a beautiful girl who is turning 7 months this month! Two, I’d graduated from the University of Southern California with a Master’s in Professional Writing (Fiction). Three, I’ve completed my novel!
So lots of things are happening at the moment, and at the same time, I’ve been publishing some of my shorter pieces of work. Here’s the link to one that was published a couple of months back:
How the Financial Crisis Broke My Family
When the financial crisis hit, many families were affected including mine. Here’s my story in Role Reboot. I’ll post the links of my other stories that had been published in other journals/reviews soon. In the meantime, you can check out my new other blog on motherhood and parenting at www.bigandtinylove.wordpress.com
Shortly before my semester ended, my lecturer M.G. Lord (author of The Accidental Feminist and Forever Barbie, and judge for the National Book Awards this year) gave the class this reading by Jonathan Lethem. In it, Lethem discusses the limitations of copyright and pieces together a witty essay in defense of plagiarism by borrowing sentences/paragraphs from other writers. In this case, the medium is the message, and he argues that art is created by building on other forms of art.
In that same spirit, our task was to produce an essay by cobbling 500 words from various sources. At first, I thought it would be a piece of cake. How difficult could it be to just copy stuff from others? Apparently, it takes quite a bit of effort, especially if you aim to be coherent! This assignment turned out to be really fun and, after an afternoon of perusing various books and essays, this was what I came up with:
For fifteen minutes I have been sitting chin in hand in front of the computer, staring out the window. Trying to be honest with myself, trying to figure out why writing seems to me so dangerous an act, filled with fear and trepidation. It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. Few of us can remain honest for long, since humans are incorrigibly, self-deceiving, rationalizing animals. So often the “plot” of a personal essay, its drama, its suspense, consists in watching how far the essayist can drop past his or her psychic defenses toward deeper levels of honesty. Likewise, this is my journey of discovery as I essay, as I, through the lens of my writing, try and open up a new flank, locate a tension between two valid, opposing goals, or an ambivalence in my own belief system. As F.Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
When I sit down in quiet meditation, the one emotion hardest to fight against is a longing in all things for the past. It is strange how much you can remember about places once you allow your mind to return into the grooves that lead back. I remember the childhood of my yesteryears, the people, scenes, voices and smells of the food in my house. There is much life in memory. I recently came upon an image, taken by Adam Gormley, an Australian photographer. He had been photographing spider webs when a rainstorm hit, and in the aftermath, he captured an image of an ant trapped within a three-millimeter drop of rain whose surface tension maintained the shape of a sphere. Floating in the middle of that transparent pearl, the reddish-brown body of the ant hunches, its many legs dangling toward the bottom of the raindrop’s curve. Gormley at first thought there was a piece of dirt in the droplet; only when he looked closer did he see the ant. “I shouted out in excitement when I realized what I’d captured by accident!” he said.
Why we remember something is not always immediately obvious: within certain memories lies something hidden, the equivalent of a floating ant. In his book How to Use Your Eyes, James Elkins writes, “Our eyes are far too good for us. They show us so much that we can’t take it all in, so we shut out most of the world, and try to look at things as briskly and efficiently as possible.” Too often we skim over our memories as well. They become stories we’ve told ourselves for so long that we think we don’t need to revisit them in greater detail. Yet, as Elkins writes further, “It’s about stopping and taking the time, simply, to look, and keep looking, until the details of the world slowly reveal themselves.” And that is my challenge when I write – as I delve into history, into the many folds of perception, and attempt to uncover its mysteries.
“For fifteen minutes I have been sitting … filled with fear and trepidation.” Split at the Root (An essay on Jewish Identity) by Adrienne Rich
“It is easy to see… harder to see the ends.” Goodbye to All That by Joan Didion
“Few of us can remain honest for long… toward deeper levels of honesty.” and “try and open up a new flank… and still retain the ability to function.” Introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate
“When I sit down in quiet meditation… a longing in all things for the past.” Essays in Idleness by Kenko
“It is strange how much you can remember… return into the grooves that lead back.” Once More to the Lake by E. B. White
“I recently came upon an image, taken by Adam Gormley… until the details of the world slowly reveal themselves.” The Ant in the Water Droplet: Locating the Mystery within Memory by Philip Graham
Back in the 1960s, my grandmother would push her small wooden cart down the streets of Singapore, calling out to passers-by to try her laska – fat yellow noodles coated in rich spicy coconut milk. My father said that his mother’s laska was one of the best he had ever tasted. Yet, despite how delicious it was, each bowl only earned my grandmother a few cents and she had struggled to make ends meet.
Given how poor my grandparents were and the conditions my parents grew up in, it is not surprising that my parents were not great fans of the arts. Painting, writing and singing were thought to be a pursuit of the rich and my parents discouraged me from taking them seriously. It didn’t help that at that time, the government had largely emphasized on commerce and sciences as key drivers of the economy. Doctors, lawyers, bankers and engineers were the occupations that would secure your future. Writers, designers and musicians were not.
In secondary school, my parents wanted me to study science. I wanted to study literature. We compromised and I did both subjects. When I graduated, they saw that I had zero affinity with Chemistry and Physics and urged me to do business. I wanted to write stories. Again, we compromised and I graduated with a degree in journalism — a career that came with at least a paycheck.
This disinclination toward the arts, however, was not to say that the older generation were devoid of creativity. My mother often reminisced how supple and juicy her late mother’s handmade fish balls were. My grandmother would meticulously debone the fish, smack the meat incessantly with her hands and then painstakingly roll each thumb-sized flesh into a ball and cook them in soup. Sometimes, she would form them into rectangular shapes and fry them as fish cakes. I only eat fish balls because they are easy to get in any supermarket. To make them from scratch is simply too much work. I couldn’t understand why she would spend effort doing that. Isn’t it much simpler to just steam the fish whole? When questioned, my mother paused for a while before simply replying, “She did it so that we won’t be bored eating the same thing every day.”
When I heard that, I had newfound respect for my grandmother. This was a woman who had to go to the market before the crack of dawn, help her husband sell fish, return home, clean the house and look after over ten children. Yet she found the time and interest to roll fish meat into bouncy balls! She was definitely an artist in her own right. I wondered where her passions could have taken her if only she had the resources to pursue them.
In that sense, I consider myself lucky to be born after my parents, at a time when my country is finally taking a broader step in cultivating the arts. More schools and companies have been set up to shape artists, playwrights and athletes in the last ten years compared to my parents’ generation. I find that comforting because this means that the younger generation will have more opportunities and outlets to express themselves. But more importantly, this also means that there is now more ways to catalog our past. As a writer, I am fascinated with the details of my family and often find myself referring to the ways my grandparents and parents had led their lives in my stories; details on how they had made the most of what little they had. It is such anecdotes that define my culture and I find it difficult to separate them from my writing, and count it a privilege to be able to recuperate some of this history back into my work.