A letter to my mum

She was, at once, both me and a total stranger

Art by Ellie Zheng


I was going through some old photos the other day when I found one that was not like the others. It was a school photo from when I was six and it didn’t fit quite as snugly into the cheap plastic pockets of the album, having been stuffed in rather unceremoniously as though the person had been in a great hurry. I sat for a while just staring at it, before sliding it out of its plastic pocket. Looking at the photo, the photo of someone who I had known before, had been before, ignited some strange feeling of disconnection. She was, at once, both me and a total stranger.

This girl in the photograph must have been about seven or eight. In her two neat plaits, I could see the careful handiwork of 妈妈‭ ‬(Māmā), an endearing mimicry of the intricate hairstyles worn by the women in the Chinese operas that Māmā loved to watch.

I used to resent you for that, the missed connections in the little things between mother and daughter. Every other girl in my class on photo day was talking about their mums, how they styled their hair and buttoned them into their freshly ironed uniforms. I stayed silent. I had been woken up that morning, like most mornings, by the sputtering of your dusty Toyota as you left for work.

I looked back at the photo and my eyes were drawn to the white lettuce trim turtleneck that the girl wore underneath the black school pinafore.

To me, that turtleneck stuck out like a sore thumb. It was a reminder of the fact that we couldn’t afford the expensive white polo shirts that lined the shelves of the school uniform shop. All the other girls had them.

That photo remained burned into my mind, hours after I had closed that photo album.

Primary school was a tough time for me, as you know it is for most kids. I didn’t have a lot of friends, and when the ones I did have asked to come over to play, I lied and wove narratives of deterrence as though on instinct. I didn’t want them to see the peeling paint, the grey carpet, the eclectic collection of furniture that could only be a result of many roadside findings of other people’s discarded things. I didn’t want them to find any chinks in that armour that I had so carefully erected around myself.

There were also rhymes that circulated around the playground at lunch, which at first seemed innocent and catchy, but in reality, hid the sinister bedrock on which a dangerous shame would grow.



Dirty knees,

Look at these.

This particular song was usually accompanied by obscene stretching of the corners of eyes. The day that I discovered that little taunting song, I came home and asked you to never drop me off at the front of the school again. I never went to another parent-teacher interview again. I didn’t want my Chineseness to show.

I could hear that rhyme in the back of my mind when, years later, I lost my temper at you and yelled:

“Why can’t you be normal?”

The second the words left my mouth, it felt like the last candle had been blown out. You heard the underlying accusation.

“Why aren’t you rich and white?”

That rhyme haunts me still.

Now, over a decade later, I have started to unpack these memories that have been stored away in a dark, forgotten corner of my mind. I was cruel to you that day that you argued with Dad on the liángtíng (凉‮+‬F or Chinese pavilion), after you gave him an ultimatum: his parents or you.

Dad moved out two years ago.

I don’t blame Dad for his choices. I don’t blame you for yours either.

I know now that you have never wanted anything less for me than to be happy. I never wanted you to live with the shame that I carried for being Chinese or for not having money. I had always kept my Chinese side at arm’s length, but in the end, we are a proud people. In our fervent pride, we feel shame equally acutely. It poisons those that it finds a home in, burning its way through their veins and into their hearts.

I never wanted you to hate yourself for the things that you couldn’t give me, you who had given me everything. In truth, you did more – and are more – than I will ever deserve. I’m so sorry that I was embarrassed by you.

I am no longer ashamed to be Chinese. I am not ashamed to come from a working-class family. I am not ashamed to be a child of divorce. I am not ashamed of you.

I think about that school photo a lot, of that little Chinese girl with an uncertain smile and a uniform that didn’t quite fit. I mourn her sometimes, but it is time to lay her to rest. She carries her secret shames with her.