Alone in Prague — 2013


Cooking, a job, and the default role of a woman

My mother used to say: “Don’t learn how to cook. You’d be serving others your whole life.”

She was the best cook I knew.

I’m not pressured to cook like my mother was. She had to cook for my father and me, and for the big family, because she’s better than everybody else at doing it. And it was what her mother told her, that it was the responsibility of the wife to cook good meals everyday, every meal.

In recent years I realised that I actually enjoy cooking. But there’s somehow an inexplainable inner need for me to put a good meal on the table, which feels almost like a “job” and “natural responsibility“. As if I have to cook because I should cook. If I don’t cook once, I feel almost guilty; when my husband cooks a nice meal, I feel thankful and even a bit spoiled.

I’m doing these things, even after my mother told me not to, even when I actively tried to avoid doing them.

I tried to be conscious about the default role of me, the woman, in our family. I let my husband do some things that were “my mother’s jobs”, while feeling guilty in secret for not doing them myself, and judging him for not doing them well enough.

My mother didn’t teach me cooking. She said if I don’t know how to cook, I won’t serve others, but be served by others. But what she didn’t know is that since she passed away, all I wanted to do was to taste the food she cooked again — those tastes of various dishes, smells in the kitchen, and the consistency of those handmade noodles are some of the strongest association I have with her, and her love for me.

I know she felt it was unfair that she had to cook while others were waiting around, chatting and watching TV. I know that at the beginning, she had to do it because that’s her “job” as a woman; but later she couldn’t stop cooking for everyone because she’s the best at cooking. And nobody else was good enough to be up for the task.

When she couldn’t get out of it, cooking for everyone, every time, became a burden.

But I believe she also enjoyed cooking for us.

I believe besides “labouring”, she was also loving us through cooking amazing meals.

I didn’t inherit the “burdened” role of the woman in the family from my own mother. What I’ve learnt is also how she showed us love.

She was not a hugger, nor a very expressive one of her feelings.

But I know her loved me very much.

I guess I will just need to find my own way of expressing my love.

And expressing my love is a responsibility I’m gladly to take on.

Kraft paper book covers

I thought that was… paper. Thin, wrinkled paper. But it was the wall.

Like one of those chairs that look deceptively comfortable. But when you sit on them, you’d say, “Oh, it’s made of plastic.”

This paper looking wall reminded me of the Kraft paper my grandma used to buy for me. He used them to make covers for my text books and notebooks, so that my books would remain as tidy as possible.

After putting on the cover, my grandpa would use a blue pen, write my name and class number on the cover in perfect Chinese calligraphy.

Some children used to take pride in having tidy textbooks with no rolled-up corners. And I was one of them. It showed how much I took care of those books. With neatly written notes on every page in different colours, my books told people how much I was learning, how much thoughts I got from those pages.

I was a proud kid in school for most of the years.

But I was not proud because of having a well-used and tidy textbook collection. I was proud because my parents and grandparents were proud of my exemplary textbooks and my good scores.

And putting on the Kraft paper cover is the first step of getting there. It’s the ritual towards a deep dive into that book and some learning experience and results that would make my family proud.

This first step is serious, solemn, full of hope and loaded with expectation.

It’s one of my favourite school memories.

Memoir, old feelings, and new wishes

Maybe it was not the most important to have your memoir written as a statement for the court. 

Our brains alter our memories slightly or significantly to adjust to our current situation.

So how you are telling your stories from the past says less about how it was, but how you want it to be remembered now.

I want to write my memoir starting from my earliest memories. They are extremely fragmented that I’m having a hard time picking up anything else than very little pieces. I used to remember a lot of things from my early childhood. But now there are only “feelings” but no “scenes”.

Are those feelings also worth writing about?

How I felt excited when I was secretly awake during nap time at noon when I was in kindergarten.

How I felt scared when I really didn’t want to finish my bowl of noodles because I could taste ginger in the sauce. My mom was mad with me, and I cried.

How I felt confused when I couldn’t really cry at a funeral of a close relative because I didn’t know him well, even though I tried to cry like everybody else. And the only thing I remembered of him was how he looked at me – a long, long look. That made me sad many years later.

All these memories of “feelings” were from before I was five.

Now if I write them into my memoir, I will probably want to give meaning to them. 

Are they made-up memories? Maybe.

I’m sure the meanings will be made-up. And that’s ok.

Those meanings are my wishes.

Wishes for me, and that little girl who would become independent, loving, and spiritually close to her mother forever.

Six roses for her

My mom was never a fan of gifting flowers.

“Such a waste of money.” She said, “They are beautiful, but will die in a few days… I will never buy them. And don’t gift them to me.”

She preferred something practical over something that costs more because of its appearance and what it represents.

“Better you don’t gift me anything at all.” She used to say to me, “Save your money for better use. I get the gesture. That’s all that matters.”

When I was in elementary school, I bought her a very pretty, fake ring. It had a blue plastic gem on its silver-like ring. It didn’t look fake at all — to the 9-year-old me.

With the same amount of money, I could have bought her a single carnation. But since I inherited her pragmatism, after selecting among different colors of gems and different ring designs, I picked that simplistic looked, blue ring.

“This will not just last longer than a fresh carnation. It’s also beautiful. Mom is going to love it.” I thought.

She did say she liked it. And she was happy too. But still, after thanking me, she spent a long time telling me the importance of saving my pocket money for more useful stuff, or “for emergencies”.

“Mama, why don’t you wear the ring I gave you?” I asked my mom a few days later. She wore it right after I gave it to her, for a few hours. But then I never saw it on her finger again. 

I was worried that she didn’t like the ring. 

I was worried that she’s still mad at me for spending money unwisely.

“Well, I can’t wear it all the time, since the sweat and water will soon make the beautiful color fade…”

“But mama, you know what it represents?” I looked at her, thinking whether I should say something more here.

“Of course.” She smiled, “I always know.”

As a child, I was told to show my love for my mom. But I didn’t know how to.

Besides buying her something, I didn’t know what to do to show her that I appreciated and loved her.

Now she’s gone.

Now I know even less about how to show her that I still love her.

Less than the 9-year-old me.

So I bought her flowers. 

They are sitting in front of her picture on my desk right now.

I’m thinking of her every day, missing her every day.

I’m giving my best to live the rest of my life.

I don’t think she will mind me spending the 3 euros for six roses.

Even if she still doesn’t like me buying her flowers, I believe she will understand.

She will understand that gift-giving is a two-way street.

Being able to show her my love in any way, even if not the perfect way she’d like, is what I need.

Getting a response, even if a short complaint about wasting money, would still be perfect.

It was not exactly what I wanted to hear when I was 9. But at least reassuring.

Now it is impossible to get one.

All I can do now is to let the roses bloom for a while. For her. 

That’s what I need now.

The performance with a telephone

There’s a photo of me as a toddler at my grandparents’ place.

In the photo, the three-year-old me was holding the handset of a telephone to my ear. I looked curious and was saying something into the phone.

As for how I remembered it, it was an unused phone. There was no one on the other line.

I was just “performing” a phone call.

That’s what I did as a small kid. I did “performances”.

Singing and dancing were the regular performances for me. But what I also did was “acting”. And “telephoning” was one of my favorites — even my signature “show”.

I used to memorize every telephone number of all our family members. My parents’ home, their work phones, my grandparents’ place, my grandpa’s work phone, my aunts and uncles’ homes, and their work phones… That was before cellphones became available everywhere. Everybody used to have a little address book where they noted down their contacts’ numbers and addresses.

I was really proud to be able to remember all these telephone numbers. I loved how impressed everyone was when I recited these numbers to them. So “making the call” became one of my special performances.

I would “call” my family members on command. Then I would make up reasons why I needed to “call” them.

I was calling my grandpa asking him when he’s coming back from work for dinner.

I was calling my mother to ask her whether I could wear my white skirt with yellow flowers to kindergarten.

I was calling my aunt to tell her that I missed her and looked forward to seeing her next week…

I was making those “calls” because I saw the grownups doing it.

What I did was not just perform but practice. Because I didn’t miss any chance to make a real call by myself.

The phone in my hand, to me, was able to magically bring everyone I love instantly to me. The confirmation of the connection, the strengthening of the relationship gratified my little heart. That’s why I enjoyed the telephone.

Oh, the good old days…

I wonder what kind of similar experience with telecommunication my daughter is going to have along her way.

What you have is not that bad

To the 15-year-old me:

I know that every morning you can’t wait to get out of the house.

I know that every evening you walk as slowly as you can while listening to heavy metal on your way home.

You want to spend as little time as you can to be in that house. Because your parents fight day in, day out.

I know you say to yourself “I can’t wait to leave this place for good. I don’t want to be around either of them.” 

You want to escape.

But believe me, what you have is really not that bad.

School is easy. You feel friends are closer to you than family is. 

It’s like everything outside of that house is just 100 percent better.

It’s like that house is hell.

Just because your parents fight over everything.

They are either loud or ice-cold or sarcastic to each other.

And to you too.

I know you hate being stuck in between them. 

I know you don’t want to choose sides.

But you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next 15 years, my friend.

You don’t know that your parents are going to repair their relationship from then on. They will still have ups and downs, but they never will go on that long with their “war”.

So you don’t have to think about running away anymore.

You don’t know that you will move half of the globe away from them.

You will get what you have always wanted — to escape their control, almost completely.

But you don’t know that you will miss this time so much — when you are 15, being in high school.

When you can spend every moment doing the things you love. (Reading, writing, and well, learning too)

When you have the closest friends that you feel like you want to be with forever.

When you can find either an apple or an orange, or a small carton of yogurt every afternoon in your school bag — your mother doesn’t want you to get hungry before you come home.

When you can have dinner with both of your parents every night.

When you still have both of your parents alive.

It’s really not that bad.

What you have right now, I mean.

Life does slowly move in the direction that you’ve always wanted. 

Something goes better. Some other things will go terribly wrong.

No matter how much you want to escape from your parents now, how disappointed you are of them when they say those hurtful things to each other, I want you to know this:

In the future, they will find their way back together.

And they will stick together, persistently, until the day death parts them.

No matter how anyone defines love, this is love.

They love each other. And they will not stop loving you.

So take off that pair of earphones. I know the loud music has been hurting your ears lately. It’s giving you a headache now.

Just go home. 

And go to the kitchen, to give mom a hug.

You do it far less than you should.

So go, hug her. 

And hug her one more time if you can, for me. 

It’s the thing I want the most in the world but I will never have again.

From the 30-year-old you