My mother has a little mark above her right eyebrow. It’s faint now, but if she moves back her fringe and you run your finger across the skin, you can feel a slight indentation.
“How did that happen?”
“A boy hit me with a rock.”
”… a boy hit you with a rock?”
“Well, he used a slingshot.”
“Why would a boy use a slingshot to hit you with a rock?”
“Because I was alone.”
My siblings and I have always had this bemused curiosity about my mother’s life “in the village”. When you’re a child, these stories told about a homeland that is not directly your own are simply stories. As a teenager, they come in the form of a sigh and, “When I was your age…” They were morality tales from an exotic and distant land.
So, there were, and are, frequent anecdotes about how she used to have to check under the bed for snakes before sleeping (I once complained about monsters), the long walk to secondary school where history class bored her senseless; and the summers of climbing trees and wandering abandoned historical buildings. The simple life in the New Territories circa. the 60s and 70s.
We don’t know what happened to that boy, by the way. I hope he understood what he did was horrible; although my mother says that, in general, the village wasn’t that nice about her “orphan”-like situation.
Shortly after her childhood in the village, she was sent to live in the UK. A one-way ticket to LHR. Her memories for that period are always prefaced with: “I cried a lot. I cried on the plane. I cried in the car. I cried when I arrived at my brother’s. I cried every single day.”
My mother has worked hard all her life. She gives her best at everything she does. She worked so she could travel with her friends in her twenties. She worked so she could live a life without having to rely on others in early adulthood and continues and espouses this practice today. When she married and had us, she worked — and continues to work — so we can all live life as comfortably as possible.
She is consistent in her ability to provide and do things. Whenever we ask what she’ll do in retirement, her face expresses horror in a way that demands a hug.
Education is prized in our household and not in an As-only way. We are encouraged and supported to do the best we can do. Most lovingly, she knows we all have our own limits: academically and emotionally.
She remembers getting a first in primary school and recalls it fondly. While she genuinely enjoyed school, life propelled her into another direction.
To my mother, being able to speak English fluently and graduate from a Western university is my best achievement yet, so far, and opener to opportunities she did not have.
I once dismissed the graduation ceremony as superfluous and, for a few weeks, refused to attend. Then I realised that not only do I need the symbolic closure, it’s mainly for my mother and father. My mother needs to attend this ceremony. It’s a closure to our last three years.
I will never know what it is like to be a first-generation immigrant: to be pulled away from my home and my culture and thrust into a brand new landscape. I’m beginning to understand, though, what it means to be a child of immigrants and how my actions reflect on my parents as they raised us between two cultures.
With the majority of my friends and cousins being students and graduates, I am not an anomaly. To my mother and her generation, however, graduating enables us to go that one step extra on the path of accountable adulthood (or so one hopes).
We will have opportunities that were not afforded to them. We will have passed that famed Chinese gateway of educational attainment. It is so easy for us to be disparaging of the university experience but to our parents, to Mama, it is something to push us further to do greatness. I hope I do her proud.