Today I had a meeting with someone where they made me cry. We met about a project and they provided feedback in a cutting, abrasive way. Over the Zoom call, I forced myself to stop the tears from falling. This person told me that they believed in my project and that they intended their feedback to only increase its quality.
This interaction reminded me of growing up with my mother. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, my mother abused me in both academic and nonacademic contexts. In terms of academics, she would yell at me if I got anything less than an A on anything. When my teachers emailed her grade reports, she would look at every assignment, and if I missed any points – a 4.5/5, a 9.7/10, a 95/100 – she would make me explain to her why I missed those points and admit to her that I could have tried harder. She asked me who I considered the smartest peers in my classes and then grilled me throughout the academic year about how I performed compared to them. She would always say that she did this for my own good. Once, she said that even if I chose to never speak to her again once I left for college, I would always have her to thank for my success in life.
As I grow older, I see my mother’s behavior with more complexity. While nothing condones her abusive behavior, academic or otherwise – she once told me she would rather have a dead son than a gay son
I mean honestly being attracted to men is awful because men are so incompetent and boring but even if an emotionally available top never emerges, I don’t want to be dead over it lol – I understand more of the racialized context for her actions. At one point someone in my family told me about how my mother and her whole family, after immigrating to the United States, would crawl around and clean dirty movie theater floors to pay rent and have food on the table; I know my mother wanted more for me. I am reading The Asian American Paradox by Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou now, and I recognize from their writing how my mom pushed me towards perfection so that even if racists discriminated against me for being Asian, they could not erase my prestigious accomplishments. I remember overhearing comments about my father’s coworkers disrespecting him because of his “flawed” English, despite my father’s brilliance and how he carried his company to greater heights than they had ever seen. I get at least in part, my mother’s relentless expectations for me stemmed from a desire to shield me from the racism my father faced.
When I cried today though, I flashed back to just how painful my childhood and adolescence felt. After the meeting, I went on a walk while listening to “Feel Special” by Twice, because the song reminds me of how my best friends and myself make me feel. On this walk, I had vivid memories of how I felt suicidal as a kid, then I cut myself for a little while, and then I starved myself to the point where I could see the visible outline of my ribs every time I lifted my shirt in front of the mirror. Recalling these feelings and behaviors made me pause and think to myself: holy shit, my childhood was really, really traumatic. And though it’s hard for me to even write it, no one deserves to go through that level of suffering, myself included.
Over the past few weeks, I have reflected a lot on my trauma and how in some ways, this experience, or least my reaction to it, did make me stronger. I do love the intense work ethic I learned from my family, the rigor in which I engage in not just my work, but my hobbies, relationships, and self-reflection too. I am grateful for how through experiencing the intense trauma of my childhood and the less intense yet still unfortunate trauma of academia, I have cultivated a deeper perspective on what makes life meaningful and a passion for approaching my relationships with sensitivity and caring. In some ways, I recognize that the person I met with today and my mother both believed in me – they pushed me because they believed in my ability and that I could accomplish a lot.
At the same time, these people hurt me when they did not have to. They could have held me to high standards while still practicing kindness and compassion. They could have communicated their expectations in a gentle yet firm way instead of presenting their feedback with cruelty, in a nonnegotiable tone, or through yelling and screaming at me. I don’t think expecting excellence and being an empathetic person are mutually exclusive.
If I’m being honest, I’m still hurt by the meeting I had today. I imagine the scars of interacting with this person will take a long time to heal, if ever. Still, I’m going to do what I can to help dismantle the systems of oppression, namely patriarchy and white supremacy, that in part motivated my mother’s behavior and continues to let this other person’s behavior persist. While writing this post, I got an email from one of my undergraduate research assistants that they won a competitive internal research grant in which I guided her application process. I’m committed to treating this student and all the other students I work with with intentionality and self-awareness, providing both high expectations and high levels of compassion, and owning up to my mistakes if I ever do hurt someone and taking action to make amends and improve myself, regardless of whether anyone else is watching. These actions are what my grandmother and my feminist mentors would have wanted. Perhaps more importantly, they’re what I want.
How have you coped with similar types of relationships in your life, or difficult relationships of other varieties? How have you tried to process and make meaning of adversity broadly? General reactions or feelings about this post? I had another post related to children loosely sketched and then this meeting happened today and I was like, well, we’re gonna go with this now lol yikes. Until next post!