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By: Ape

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My mother is not a quiet woman. What she lacks in height (she’s 4 foot, 11 inches) she makes up in volume. She gives seminars in large banquet halls without the aid of a microphone. When she chats with her friends and family on the phone, her laughs ring through the house. She tells stories at family gatherings with glee and no shortage of gesticulations. Because of her happy temperament, my sisters and I chat comfortably and freely about our day-to-day lives.

However, in our family, we’re only allowed to express two emotions: anger and happiness. Sadness is strictly forbidden.

So what happens when tragedy strikes?

Last Thanksgiving, my mother traveled halfway around the world to see her sister who was in the last stages of her life. It was cancer, a disease that’s taken a considerable toll on her side of the family. It was the first Thanksgiving she wasn’t home.
In the midst of attempting to replicate my dad’s favorite special-occasion soup, my sister and I decided to call my mother and see how she was doing. She answered the phone with her typical cheerful lilt.

“Hi, babe!”

“Hi, Mommy! What are you doing?”

“Oh, we’re just here.”

“How’s auntie?”

“Well…she died yesterday. We’re just taking care of the arrangements.”

“Oh.” I paused for a second and quickly got back onto script. “So, I’m trying to make some of the food you usually make for Thanksgiving, but I think I’m getting it wrong.” I blurted this out with a half-sheepish, half “Be proud of me, Mommy!” laugh.

The call ended and I kept cooking. When my mother came back a week later, we never once mentioned her sister’s death. Instead, she gave us our presents and showed us pictures of her niece’s dog. Business as usual.

When I think about this exchange, I imagine that some people would be astonished, even horrified. But that’s just how our family works. Repressing sadness is our trade. At the same time, I marvel at the kind of internal mechanism my mother manufactured years ago that allows her to bury her sister one day, then return home and laugh out our jokes, clean the house, and be Mommy again the next.

When I hear about my friends, especially my Asian-American friends, tell stories about expressing sadness with their family or lending support during a difficult time, I instinctively think “You do that? Why? Don’t you have the same switch in your brain? Why are you and your family so weak?”

Of course, my intellectual self knows that sharing feelings is not a weakness but rather a strength. It’s the glue that holds people together when someone isn’t up to the task of sticking to the script of normal life.

Nevertheless, when I think about veering from the script – the contract my family and I have forged over decades to ignore sadness and weakness – I’m speechless.

 
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At The Laundromat is a supportive online community that exists to challenge the taboo of talking. We welcome you to air your dirty laundry – your past, your emotions, your fears, and your questions – in a safe space. ATL is also an online extension of Vanessa A. Yee’s documentary featuring young Asian Americans breaking the silence that takes hold of their lives and their families. So speak. Write. We’ll listen.
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