My mother’s garden

"My mother and I both have our own ideal gardens."

Art by Bonnie Huang

When I was in Year Ten, I arrived at one of the rehearsals for my school’s production of the Wizard of Oz, clutching a plastic bag full of bitter melons. My proud mother had grown these wrinkly green gourds from seeds and had tasked me with passing them on to my one friend who was willing to take them. 

Mum discovered her enthusiasm for gardening around ten years ago. It started with one small backyard planter box, and gradually spiralled into what can only be described as horticultural anarchy. These days, my parents live on a five-acre property dotted with vegetable patches, citrus trees, and rows of repurposed bathtubs filled with soil. My parents’ home is a rainforest in some places, a purposefully overgrown mess of ferns, and it is a garden bed in others, with neat rows of gailan or kale poking out of fresh potting mix. It is quirky, it is cluttered, and it is home.

In many ways, the care and attention my mother has invested in her garden is the same with which she raised me and my siblings. Coming from a working-class Chinese family on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, my mother approached parenting in the same way she approaches most other things in her life – to give until she has nothing left. Raising me on stories of my long lineage of notoriously strong-willed, hard-working Hakka women, my mother embodies a mentality of sacrifice and selflessness without end. This is a mentality common to immigrant parents and families, and one with which I will always have a complex relationship due to the intergenerational and cultural dissonances which have shaped her approach to motherhood, and my approach to personhood.

Throughout my life, I have seen mum reap the fruits of her labour. I have seen the joy that her professional and academic successes have brought, and I see the pride she has in my brothers (both over-achieving engineers). Conversely, I have seen her drive herself to exhaustion and physical illness, and I have seen the harsh and unforgiving anger with which she chastises herself for not meeting expectations. My mother has given me big gumboots to fill. I hope that one day we might both learn to embrace my little feet. 

Occasionally I receive an email from my mum, followed by a phone call (from the next room) about said email. I suppose nothing is stronger than love, not even the weight of academic dishonesty on my conscience. I open the email.

“Lani, please check this for me. Thanks.” 

As I open the PDF and slowly rework her disjointed prose into something more coherent, I decide to leave the errant prayer my deeply religious mother had included in her report. Sometimes in life you have to pick your battles, and I figured I would leave that particular one for her marker. 

Around four years ago, my mother had a midlife revelation that it was her duty to study traditional Chinese medicine. She delved in head first, acquiring massage tables, massage chairs, and expensive remedies for which endangered animals were undoubtedly exploited. 

For a brief period in high school, I became a guinea pig for a particular acupuncture treatment. Every evening I would lie on my mum’s table for half an hour, with twelve needles poking out of my arms and legs which she had meticulously lined up with the intention of helping me grow beyond my humble 4’10”. If you have encountered me since then, you’ll know that this was not a successful endeavour. I did not become tall, but a pincushion. I guess we will both have to accept that for what it is.

As my mum’s only daughter, the advice she usually offers me is aimed towards goals of finding a husband (preferably cashed-up, Christian, and Chinese), and raising two or three children (one will be too lonely, four will be too many to handle). My mother wishes for me to seek the same fulfilment she found in raising a family.

In the time since my residency on my mother’s acupuncture table, I have grown distant from the aspirations and dreams she has for me, and I continue to grow into myself in ways immeasurable by pencil markings on a bedroom wall. I am grateful for the childhood I am borne back ceaselessly into, and I will cultivate a future in the body I am slowly learning to accept. 

My mother and I both have our own ideal gardens. While they may share some species of plants, and while they may both be overwhelmingly green at first, their fruits and flowers are destined to be very different come Spring. This is not a choice, nor could it ever really be. My garden has to work for me.

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