Five Promises to Xiao Guai Guai
by Yu-Han Chao
Mothers sometimes say to their daughters, “When you have a kid of your own, you will appreciate me,” or “When you become a mother, you’ll understand.”
I’m five months pregnant with my first child and find myself thinking about my Taiwanese mother a lot. Based on my own experience, I am making five promises to my unborn baby.
1. I will not lose my temper and yell at you like a crazy person.
This morning I woke up with a flashback. I was in Taipei, Taiwan, about 8 years old, hungry after coming home from school, and wanted to make myself some chicken nuggets in the toaster oven. I could hear my mother’s piano student playing scales and arpeggios; I opened the door and interrupted the lesson.
“How many minutes should I bake chicken nuggets?” I asked.
“Get out! Aiihhhhhh!” my mother screamed.
The student looked stunned and the student’s mother, embarrassed. I closed the door and ran to the master bedroom, stomach in knots. I’m not sure what happened afterwards—whether the student’s mother followed me out and offered to make me food, or if I cried myself to sleep alone. There were plenty of incidents like this in my memory, and no two experiences were exactly the same.
Obviously I never interrupted my mother’s piano class again with food-related questions, but I did step on other Mom Mines at least once each before I just about learned them all: eat whatever is on the dinner table without making a face or complaining, don’t take too long doing anything, practice the violin and piano (but without repeating the same passage too many times in a row or Mom will run in screaming and say you’re doing it on purpose to drive her nuts), don’t get bad grades, don’t talk back, don’t say any bad words (such as “hate”), etc.
But she still took me by surprise sometimes.
One afternoon, I walked into the master bedroom in my khaki junior high school uniform to be greeted by the wrath of Mom.
“Why are you still wearing that ugly thing? Just looking at it makes my flames of anger rise three meters!” [That’s a common Chinese idiom—my mother was not always so poetic.]
“My uniform?” I asked weakly.
“Yes! I hate khaki! It’s hideous! I don’t want to have a hideous daughter!”
“So if I’m ugly you won’t love me?”
“No, I won’t.” [door slams.]
I went to another room to change out of my uniform and look at myself in the mirror: Am I ugly? Do I want to be loved by her?
2. I will not throw adult tantrums.
My two little brothers and I grew up knowing that Mom threw tantrums. We hardly did anything like that ourselves—she used up the tantrum quota for the entire family. These were not your everyday toddler tantrums, but full-blown, adult, perfectly sober, completely crazy tantrums.
She usually started with a repeated a sentence, such as, “Are you trying to give me a heart attack?” “Are you hoping I will die so you will have no mother?” “Do you want me to commit suicide?” or sometimes it was simply a low wail that turned into a loud shriek, or the last few words of a sentence morphing into “aiiiAAAHHHHH!” and there she blows. She didn’t throw plates or objects—all she needed was her voice. She slammed her fists at the table or sank to the ground, flailing her arms, her gesticulations accompanied by cries that exploded into shrill screams, each rising in pitch and volume.
All the neighbors could hear.
Whether he was the cause of this display or not, my dad usually shook his head (not too obviously lest it set her off more) and walked away. The responses of us children ranged from terrified, smirking (if Mom’s anger was only provoked by one specific child), crying, looking for a place to hide, to derision (once we were old enough).
But usually she won. Once she threw a tantrum, we did what she wanted.
3. I will not betray your confidence.
Despite many bad experiences, occasionally my mother and I would have a good moment, and one regretful, twelve-year-old afternoon I decided to tell her my secret—that I had an inferiority complex about being short.
“Don’t tell anybody, I feel bad enough about it already,” I said after telling her, with great difficulty, what felt like my deepest, darkest secret.
“You’re not short,” she said dismissively.
That very afternoon, we had an early dinner with a round banquet table of many people we had just met.
“My daughter told me today she has an inferiority complex about being short,” my mother laughed, gesturing towards me in front of the strangers.
I shrank down in my seat, even shorter, about three centimeters tall and feeling so inferior, hideous, little and malformed I could die.
The strangers smiled awkwardly or sympathetically.
“I told her she’s not short,” my mother concluded triumphantly.
“She is young, she will grow,” a middle aged man said gently.
I wished that were true, and wished I had never told her. I felt like she had tricked the truth out of me so she could embarrass me in public. I did not (for the most part) crawl out of the pit of that inferiority complex until college, but even today, I wear high heels almost all the time and would gladly pay tens of thousands of dollars, whatever I can afford, to be just an inch or two taller.
I never quite got over the fact that at our adult height, my mom was always a centimeter or two taller than me.
4. I will not force you to go into a field of study against your will.
From the very beginning, music was associated with misery for me. The grand piano witnessed my knuckles being hit by my mother’s pencil as I sobbed and she yelled. Sometimes I’d cry so hard she told me to go to the bathroom and wash my face before coming back.
“You’re not allowed to cry.”
I tried to suck everything back, snot and tears and all, and occasionally succeeded, but usually just hiccupped and choked until more tears came and I was told to wash my face again.
Even if she was not the one who taught me the violin, my violins, from the baby 1/16 to full size 4/4, all bore on their wooden surfaces curvy stains of white salt from tears that had collected and dried, over and over again from the afternoons and evenings of lachrymose practice.
“Every time my mom sees my face she tells me to practice,” I complained to my classmates in music school.
One Christmas I spent playing tinkly Christmas music on a piano at a department store, crying the whole time. People stopped and stared, probably not because of my beautiful performance.
I did manage to escape going to music school in junior high by doing badly enough in the joint music school entrance exam that I had to go to a regular public school (the one with the ugly khaki uniform). But my mom did not give up easily. She introduced a new instrument to the house, an electone. The gadget stood five feet tall, plugged into the wall, had thirty little knobs and buttons that controlled the different sounds it could simulate. It boasted three sets of keyboards: one for each hand and full keyboard pedals for the feet. My mom played it too, setting it to simulate a pipe organ and delighting in her infernal-sounding Toccata and Fugue in d minor by Bach, which I always thought sounded like pure evil.
I was sent to a real electone teacher (amazing that someone’s livelihood was based on one electronic instrument with shortlived popularity), and often left to spend the night at her bachelorette pad during the weekend. One summer I spent almost entirely at the teacher’s one bedroom apartment which held, as far as I could tell, not much more than a bed, a television, sofa, the electone, instant noodles and cockroaches. She was taking me to a summer electone festival, and for weeks before the event, she made me practice until 3 or 4 a.m. in the morning. No, I am not mistaken. I was playing the blasted electone, sobbing quietly while other kids were sleeping. At the festival my eyes were so swollen my teacher remarked, “You should stop crying at night. People will think I abuse you or something.”
That summer was the summer I walked to the seventh floor roof of our apartment building and nearly jumped off. One foot was over the ledge, but the one thing that stopped me was knowing how heartbroken my dad would be if I did it.
Meanwhile, my little brothers were growing up and experiencing Mom in their own ways, and somehow they seemed to adjust better than I.
By senior high, I did badly enough on the joint entrance exam that I ended up in music school again, but in my third year I revolted and insisted on transferring to a regular senior high. From there I again refused to apply to any colleges as a music major and was accepted early by National Taiwan University, ironically the alma mater of both my parents and the best university for humanities students in Taiwan. This seemed as close to a happy ending of my early years as anyone, even my mother, could have imagined for me.
5. I will protect you.
In college, I rarely touched the violin and piano, and my mother finally left me alone. My loves were literature, art, and occasionally dance, martial arts or gymnastics. I wanted to live in the dorms at school, but that meant six girls in bunks to a tiny room, with roachy public bathrooms and showers shared by all the girls on one floor, so I stayed at home.
There were two strangers in the living room one day when I came home from afternoon classes at the college, a short man and a tall woman. The woman was my mom’s friend; the man, a friend of my mom’s friend.
“This artist likes your paintings and would like to give you art lessons for free,” my mother said, pointing at the man.
“Oh,” I replied, suspicious of the artist, who wouldn’t stop staring at me.
In the next few weeks, the man brought by an easel, large sheets of paper, charcoal, and oil pastels. He taught me in the living room at night; my parents stayed in the master bedroom. The lessons went until 10 p.m., 11p.m., sometimes later. He wanted to take pictures of me. He started saying things like “I love you” and “I want you to be my wife.” I was nineteen years old, a virgin who had never even held hands with or been on a date with a boy, and he was thirty-eight. Did I mention he was a virgin, too? And crazy?
He force-kissed me, groped me, begged to see my breasts and touched me in dark alleys. By now my mom trusted him and allowed him to take me anywhere: art exhibits outside of Taipei, art classes with his teacher an hour away. Once we were at the MRT station and he went to use the bathroom; I slipped away from him and ran.
He used to grab my arm in public and hold me close as we walked. If I struggled, people would think I was crazy and causing a scene, he said.
“I’m going to tell the police on you,” I said.
“You want to go to the police? We’ll go to the police station right now,” he said. “I’ll tell them what a bad girl you’ve been, how you seduced me, took my innocence and ruined me as an artist.” He said this without irony; he believed what he said and I almost did too.
When I tried to get away from him, to end things, stop the lessons, he brought me to a cul-de-sac and stabbed himself with a giant syringe, the kind used to for blood drives. Blood sprayed everywhere when he removed the thick needle, but he did not die.
“I had my suicide note ready at home for my parents to find,” he said. “They would have tried to kill you, you got lucky.”
Sometimes when I fought to take my hand away from his grasp, he threatened, “I will tell your parents how you seduced me, what a dirty little whore you are.”
Finally, reaching a breaking point, I told my parents what a dirty little whore I had been. My mother agreed that I didn’t need the art lessons anymore. That’s when the letters written in his blood came—at one point a whole notebook filled with badly written Chinese characters in dried blood the uneven color of rust. My brothers were in elementary school and junior high, too young to be told what was happening, but they saw me crying all the time, probably thinking, great, she is turning into Mom too, except her tantrums are crying.
That was the winter of my second year in university where I was excelling. In fact, I refused to allow my molester to destroy my academic career. I applied to study abroad in Ireland. I loved James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, and I needed to escape Taiwan, where my molester was now threatening to kill me with bloody messages of “I will die and take you with me.”
Trinity College in Dublin accepted me for an excellent deal—for Taiwanese tuition (about $300 per semester) I could be a Dubliner for a year. Irene, a sociology exchange student from National Taiwan University also, was my roommate and best friend there. We were old enough to drink in Europe and sipped apple cider quietly in gay bars. One Friday we were surprised by a fabulous drag show.
Unfortunately, when I returned to Taiwan, I discovered that my mom had continued her friendship with my molester. One morning my mother sent me to a hair salon.
“Don’t leave until I come to get you. He is coming to take pictures of my students’ recital today,” she said.
Cf. point 3 about betrayal.
I don’t know that I will appreciate my mother any more after I have this baby, but I guess I am grateful to have learned from her What Not To Do as a mother. Hopefully I don’t have too much of her in me, although without knowing the gender of my baby, I have nicknamed it Xiao Guai Guai, little good/obedient child, figuring it was good and obedient enough for a fetus. I do hope for a pleasant child, and regardless, I promise not to yell like crazy, throw tantrums, betray Xiao Guai Guai, force him/her into a particular field of study, and I promise to always, always protect Xiao Guai Guai with my life, especially if she is a girl.
Yu-Han (Eugenia) Chao was born and grew up in Taipei, Taiwan. She is a working towards an A.S. in Registered Nursing at Merced College in California. Her website is http://www.yuhanchao.com.