My relationship with my Taiwanese immigrant mother, Noko, has always been mediated by my father.
We were separated by cultural and language differences, and my dad kept us apart by making us depend on him as our translator, cementing his importance in our lives by putting himself at the center. When my son, Tomo, was born last year, I asked Noko to stay with me to assist me in my transition to becoming a mom.
My mother made a conscious choice during my early childhood to not be a part of my life. After a heated argument with my father in which they disagreed about how to parent a daughter, my mom quietly resigned herself to leaving me alone. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment that the shift occurred, but by the time I was 13, I felt an unbridgeable distance. My childhood home was filled with silence and unspoken emotions.
I’d always been eager to engage my mother’s attention. As a kid, I asked her an endless stream of questions, concocting elaborate projects to draw her out. While she had little advice to offer when it came to teenage body issues or broken hearts, if I asked her how to use a paintbrush, bind a book, or candy an orange peel, her creative resourcefulness kicked into high gear.
Growing up, I’d seen Noko not as a mother figure, but as an artist – a weaver of tapestries, builder of clay pots, a painter of landscapes and human figures. She differed from the mothers of my classmates. She was not a breadwinner, but a maker.
My mother arrived after Tomo’s birth, accompanied by my dad and a suitcase bearing handmade toys. Seeing her grandson for the first time, my mother embraced him and chimed, Amma!, promising to teach him Taiwanese. My father coughed and declined holding Tomo, complaining of a cold. Three days later, he returned to California, having held Tomo twice: When I pushed Tomo into his arms to dispose of a dirty diaper and when I took photos of them together.
With my father gone, I worried about how my mother and I would get along. Would she judge me for having a home birth or delaying vaccinations? How could I explain attachment parenting? While she had come to offer her support, would she intuitively know what I needed?
My mother always showed a preference for my older brother. My parents hold him up as “more Chinese” –his social circle included other Asians, and he once took a college Mandarin class. My mother’s bond with my brother deepened when he had a nervous breakdown at the age of 21.
Vowing to protect him from further suffering, my mother would help him move households or stay with him for months at a time. She slept on a tile floor while assisting my brother with painting walls and re-flooring his condo. Over the years, I watched her show up for my brother time and again, wondering if she could ever be there for me in the same way.
With my husband, Kort, returning to work, I felt paralyzed by my fear of failure and isolation. The uncertainty of engaging a newborn without words – combined with the anxiety of communicating with my mother – completely overwhelmed me. Becoming a parent for me was about simply being with my child – and yet I’d had so little experience being at ease around my own mother.
My mother stayed for three weeks. During that time, we sat together wordlessly in darkened rooms, she kept me company while I held my sleeping son. She cooked the familiar foods of my childhood: simple chicken stir-fries and glass noodles. She stood beside me and screamed with me when Tomo let loose on the diaper-changing table. She held Tomo countless hours so that I could rest. Delighting in singing to him, she surprised me with her rendition of “You Are My Sunshine," a song she recalled from my brother’s childhood record collection.
When she flew back to California, I wept. My mother had been fully present with me.
Noko returned to Seattle this past spring, 6 ½ months later, to support me through post-partum depression, complicated by sleep deprivation and extreme stress. My mind fixated on the Japanese expression ichi-go, ichi-e – one meeting, one opportunity – wondering if our visit could be as happy as her first stay. She arrived the same week that I was laid off from work.
Struggling to find the words to translate my situation to my mom, we arrived quickly at one understanding: that we would keep my job loss secret from my father.
We spoke a hybrid pidgin language of Taiwanese and English, breaking through years of silence. As my mother opened up about the challenges of my father’s own chronic unemployment and failed businesses, her experiences of being cut off from her own parents as an immigrant, and the tensions between my father and her, her stories gave me new insight into her life.
She recounted the hardship of caring for my older brother by herself, while my father worked long hours. Alone in student housing, my mother’s face burned with shame when the neighbors knocked on my parents’ door to complain about the crying baby. She and my brother returned to Taiwan when her visa expired until she gained re-entry to the U.S. But she never dreamed of leaving Taiwan in the first place.
For decades, I saw my mother as my father perceives her: a timid and dependent female limited by her unwillingness to achieve fluency in the English language. But by holding on to her language and identity, she grew into the deeply resourceful person I have come to know during her visits to Seattle.
The year I became a mother allowed us to find common ground beyond the relationships with the men in our lives that had defined us for so long. And it allowed me to forgive her, to see her as a creative force – a maker and problem-solver, who is deeply inventive.
She let me come close, showing me the deep internal resources that allow her to imagine and live, despite the gender roles and expectations that circumscribe her life, and mine.
Shin Yu Pai is an award-winning poet and contributing writer to Ballard News-Tribune, Northwest Asian Weekly, International Examiner, and Seattle Globalist. Shin Yu lives in Ballard with her husband, Kort, and son, Tomo. Learn more about her work at shinyupai.com.
The Seattle Story Project: First-person reflections published at KUOW.org. These are essays, stories told on stage, photos and zines. To submit a story – or note one you've seen that deserves more notice – contact Isolde Raftery at email@example.com or 206-616-2035.