“I will use this sharp pain to penetrate my daughter’s tough skin and cut her tiger spirit loose. She will fight me, because this is the nature of two tigers. But I will win and give her my spirit, because this is the way a mother loves her daughter.” – Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club
I’m having Korean BBQ, muffled chatter filtering around me, beef smoke permeating my clothes. My mother smiles at me across the clutter of banchan and stews. It’s her 52nd birthday. Spirits are high and so are our soju glasses; we clink in a high note to her health and happiness. We clink to us and to our past: a toiling tiger pushing her stubborn cub up a hill, sometimes dragging her by the collar – and to our present: the cub on another mountain, scaling the ascent without her.
I left the nest as soon as I got my bachelor’s degree. Not so much because I was a starry-eyed graduate eager to take on the world. Not at all. I sought respite from my mother, whose stalwart devotion was overwhelming at a time when I needed space the most. Our independent needs, which seemed insurmountable and vastly different at the time, choked each other. But when I look back now, we are one and the same.
When it comes to describing my family, especially my mother and I, intensity is an understatement. Everything about us manifests in polar extremes; we love passionately and obsessively, we hate with searing rage, and we give all or nothing. Naturally, our expectations for everything are skewed beyond normality: my new apartment too small, my hips too wide, my salary never enough. Under the scrutiny of my parents’ tiger eyes, mirrored by my own, all my accomplishments are reduced to infinitesimal dots in the expanding universe of their (our) expectations.
That’s parental love, especially among mothers and daughters – how a tiger cares for her cub, with careful and methodic ferocity, eyes acutely observing for miles. “You’re going to take the world by a storm,” the tiger would purr, “you’ll reach heights so high, everyone will be ants.” As did her own mother – she raised me up, sharpened my ego’s claws, and broke me down when necessary. Thus the internal disequilibrium, the ever-shifting dynamic between egotism and self-effacement, passed from mother to daughter.
From mother to daughter to the next, we shouldered the weight of our inheritance – the oscillating disequilibrium beating against our hearts, constantly thrashing wildly or settling in a lull. We were always at odds with others, ourselves, and each other. So we fought bitterly. We tore at each other verbally, knocking each other into the darkest depths. We knew exactly where to sink our claws that hurt the most. She is a tiger and so am I, reared by her methods passed down many generations of steadfast and carburized women.
And so it went, as in most mother-daughter relationships – we ricocheted off each other into opposing directions, the gap widening by the force of our tribulations. I left home. I settled in a dank basement of a family home, subsisting on a meager part-time pay. She called daily. Then the calls dwindled to once a week, then once a month, as I answered less. We grew apart and let time stitch the gash between us.
Years later, here we are sharing a Korean feast and clinking soju glasses gaily. Our separate journey away from each other allowed us to grow into the individuals we are now. We are better empowered to face the world, ourselves, and now, each other.
Mom how you must see me now – the girl in dress pants sitting across from you, hands folded on the table and talking about her apartment. The same girl who, didn’t even know how to do laundry, the temperamental cub who used to throw tantrums. Now she’s towering over you, asking about your well-being, reminding you to drink less, eat more. The little one you enveloped with iron claws, the one who left home as soon as she grew her own. Are you filled with pride, or is it wistful longing for when I stood tippy-toe to hug you? Do you regret the months of silence between us, which grew into years? Were you smothering your maternal pain when you let go, when you let me explore the world alone? Was it regret, acceptance, perhaps it was loneliness, or maybe it’s all – the aching of a proud parent learning to let go.
To let the tiger cub venture on her own.
Maybe you knew your cub would return someday – two grown tigers coming together in the middle.