POSTCARD FROM SINGAPORE
Coming to college, I brought with me a long list of things to do, few of which had to do with academics. These were ambitions sparing in their creativity, the sort of thing that you giggle over into your fingers, wondering what your mama would say if she found out. There were societal strictures to be broken, and by god, I was going to hellblast my way though them. Just like any repressed and docile good Asian daughter would.
And I did, Like a cliche. But the heaviest chain strapping down my thought was shattered only after sophomore year, and not at college. It was coming home to the motherland, and presenting the new me to Mama.
Now she knows everything. I don't mean she knows I stay up past midnight or don't pay my library fines. I mean she knows I smoke, I drink, I alter my mind, I didn't wait until marriage--stuff that makes the parents reach for the smelling salts or the shotgun, depending on the household, the guilt of impersonating the angelic 18-year-old before my parents had been the only shadow over my heady new discoveries. But I was torn between the attraction of filial honesty and the terror of parental persecution.
It was finally my mama who initiated the momentous discussion. Although I must have given her enough signals to disturb an already uneasy maternal sense. One of the first things I did upon my return was to toss at her, unopened, the box of condoms she had sent me (doubtless as some coded test), but I also peroxided my hair and dropped barbed criticisms about what was once our common favorite political party.
She began with, "You're not the person I sent away to school." And then you can be sure she went though the mandatory standards of: "What differentiates you from an animal?"; "Don't you ever consider the consequences?"; "How can you be so stupid?" Disappointment and disapproval were thick. But those, I could handle.
What really shook me was her opening line. What was she thinking? Was it honestly her expectation that I preserve my junior college ignorance and naivete into my 30s and 40s? And then was I to morph, with marriage and motherhood, suddenly and traumatically into final adulthood? The realization was breathtakingly frightening.
However, this round slap dealt by my mama's words was echoed by the ringing blow of my own fault in this. For who was I expecting my mama to be into my 30s and 40s? All that dirty talk with naughty girlfriends about keeping Mama in the dark--it all made her out to be as cardboard as a fairy tale ogre.
Through all my iconoclastic moves, I always believed that my mama would always remain a stable, unwavering character against which I could reliably hurl myself to sound out who I was. I rattled like a dry seed in that large space between who I had come from and who I was going to be. I thought I was throwing off shackles, but, all the time, I was too fettered by a lack of imagination and compassion to grasp that original thought was not strictly my domain. I counted on my mama to be ever anxious and ever annoying back home, to be always bristling with superstition and suspicion. In so doing, I never perceived her as even eligble for the freedom I demanded for myself.
In many ways, I now hold my mama at emotional gun point. There is no way she can stop me from doing those things that make the neighbors talk; to avoid losing a daughter, she struggles to understand me. My mama is a brave and generous woman. To know it, you'd have to be trying difficult and unappreciative for 20 years--you'd have to be me.
I may be able to mimic her gestures and parrot her words to play the young revolutionary, as if she really were a stock stereotype. But her selflessness and love of family put her infinitely beyond my class.
Somebody glib said that the best way to be a good man is to just be the man your mother thinks you are. Or something like that, you get the gist. I can't even remember it now, even though there was a time when I found it impressively true, true, oh so true. Whoever it was, he must have been Victorian.
Our friend insulted both himself and his mother by assuming that a thinking man is not in constant conference with himself and his origins. His mama could ever only think one way, and he, correspondingly, could ever only be one thing. Your entire personality and philosophy would be sealed at the moment you decided on your mama's intentions.
What I had expected to become a fiery brawl or an extended cold war, turned out instead to be an intense philosophical debate. You know, the fabled variety you're supposed to enjoy with college mates in the dormitories over late night pizza.
I feel the freest I have in a long time. Funny thing, it came from loosing the bindings I had lashed around my mama.
Phua Mei Pin '00 is a literature concentrator. After being home in Singapore for a fortnight for the first time in a year, she has absconded to the south of France to smell flowers, eat cheese and meet men.