We shared dumplings with our next door neighbor, Robert. Robert was an 80-something retired mailman. His wife was deceased, and his grown-up children lived far away with their own families. “The only time they visit is during the holiday season,” Robert told us with a smile. Not long after we moved in, Robert knocked on our door and handed us a nice plate of cookies, his hands trembling. He welcomed us to the complex and his voice was simultaneously warm and excited, aged and coarse. Afterwards, whenever he saw us, he would go inside to get a handful of chocolate for Anelise.
One time Robert invited all of us to visit his apartment. We were impressed by its coziness. Beautiful, old orange velvet couches and a big recliner were placed in the center of the living room. Surrounding the walls were shelves full of books. There were antique lamps, plants prospering in artisan pots, a coffee table dedicated to framed family photos, beautiful china in a wooden cabinet. It was like we were visiting a museum! If our apartments were in competition, ours would feel very intimidated. Robert’s apartment was charming, historical. Ours, in comparison, was plain, current, and insignificant.
Robert called us “sweetheart” or “honey.” This sounded weird to me at first, but I found out later that these terms of endearment were commonly used; parents used them with their children, and school teachers with their students. Even strangers used them when addressing one another, as if they were indeed dear relations. While hard to adjust to at first, I gradually became more comfortable with the manner of speaking. When a cashier asked, “How are you, sweetheart?” I didn’t feel embarrassed as I had the first time I’d heard the word used to describe me at the airport. I’d felt at the time that I did not deserve to be treated so cordially. In our culture, children were raised to be conservative in feeling, so greeting people with such intimate words felt unnatural. I asked myself, “Are Chinese people more honest with their feelings, and therefore reluctant to say something if it’s not felt?” That might be true. “Conversely, when Chinese people feel compassion, do they express their feelings out loud?” I wondered.
I recalled my own childhood. I experienced many different situations and emotions; however, I rarely heard words like, “happy,” “sad,” “love,” or “disappointment.” I knew I loved my parents and siblings deeply, but I never expressed my love with words. Words for emotion seemed taboo. I remember that we lived in such a restrained manner that it was considered rude to say “I like” in regard to someone or something. Confucius–who had been a major influence on Chinese culture for more than 2000 years–said, “Words can only be used when you mean it!” and “Beautiful words and gestures rarely reflect true humanity.”
There was another, clear reason adults refrained from expressing love to their children–to maintain their authority. Adults believed that showing affection to children compromised their superiority. Parents of my generation were not just reserved, they also talked down their children in front of other people. For example, a conversation between parents comparing their children’s grades might’ve gone like this: “For real, your son/daughter is so smart, and mine is so dumb!” one might say. Following this remark, the parent would turn around and yell at his/her kid, “Look, he/she is so good! You should be ashamed of yourself!”
The motivation behind this kind of parenting was clear. It was meant to boost a child’s competitiveness and sense of ambition. Sadly, parents seldom understood that this strategy could produce counter-effects: low self-esteem, resentment, and permanent emotional scars. Henry was a victim of this type of parenting. He often told anecdotes of his negative childhood experiences. I was lucky my parents never used this tactic on me, but I had seen it firsthand. Many–if not all–children of Chinese families had to understand that there was “love” behind their parents’ abuse. They had to be strong enough to bear harsh, even unfair criticism, while still being able to fight for success.
At this time, I was busy feeding, changing, and bathing Angela. Taking care of her was not difficult because of my experience nursing Anelise and because I’d learned a lot from books. I didn’t need to shop for babies supplies, because I’d brought Anelise’s baby clothes, blankets, and other accessories to America from Taiwan. I woke up every morning thankful that Angela was an easy-going baby. I liked to carry her around in a baby bjorn as I did chores. Anelise played with Angela when I was too tired to hold her.
Henry and I were thrilled when she smiled and looked around more, but as parents of any newborn, we worried that she would wake up at midnight to explore the world or order to fill her empty stomach. My neighbor, who was a nurse in Iran, ran into me at Hughes Market one day. She guaranteed that our sleep would never be interrupted if we fed the baby rice cereal at night. We courageously implemented her method when Angela turned just one month old. We went against doctor’s orders, which insist that babies only consume formula until they are four months old.
The experiment worked! Angela ate the rice cereal and slept soundly through the night. Henry and I got a full night of rest and launched into each new day full of energy! Angela was very calm and happy; she rarely cried, and when she did, it was never long or loud. She didn’t even want a pacifier! When she cried, I offered this traditional object to her, but she’d spit it out immediately as if it contained poison! “Wow, what a nice baby!” we cheered. The painful memory of trying to get Anelise to quit sucking her pacifier at one and a half was still fresh in our minds. For more than two weeks, she’d cry in the middle of the night. We had to hold her and walk around with her as she cried violently, longing for it. Glad that we would not have to repeat this experience again, Henry and I were very happy. We set the baby crib next to our bed. Before bed, we’d read with Anelise, kiss her, and turn off the light. Then, the room was silent and peaceful until dawn.
我做了餃子，也會送給隔門兩家的鄰居，Robert。他已經八十多歲了，從郵局退休多年，一直住在這裡。太太幾年前去世，他的成年子女都已成家，只有在年底過年才回來探視他。我們剛搬進去當了他的鄰居，一天聽到有人來敲門，是他，手微微戰抖著，捧著一盤餅乾，用他歡快，但是沙啞的聲音歡迎我們。往後，每當在門外相遇，他就趕快進屋去那出一把巧克力糖給 Anelise （怡安）。
有一天他邀我們進他的公寓看看，眼前的一切讓我們覺得我們很驚奇。他的公寓感覺很溫暖，一套橘紅色的沙發和一個搖椅放在客廳正中間，很舒適，讓人很想坐下來。牆壁上一排書架，排滿了書。其他更多東西看得我們眼花瞭亂了 － 古董枱燈，雅緻的盆栽，咖啡几上滿滿擺著家人的照片和畫作，精緻的瓷器放在一座木櫃子裡….，我們好像進了一個博物館。我暗地裡想，如果我們的公寓可以比賽，一定有一邊要覺得很不好意思。人家的是那麼的迷人而令人發思古悠情，我們的雖然是新而現代，但是很無趣。
我回想自己的童年，我們的周遭是有許多事情在發生著，情緒也隨著起伏變動著，但我們卻很少會聽見「快樂」，「傷心」，「愛」或「失望」這些詞語來表達個人的感情。我知道我愛我的父母和兄弟姐妹，可是我們從來不會對彼此說出「愛」這個字眼。表白情緒似乎是個禁忌，我們好像很拘謹。「喜歡」什麼東西或什麼人，不常說出口。「不喜歡」這個詞更是不能用，因為太沒禮貌。中國人尊為「至聖先師」的孔子說：「 言忠信 」，又說：「巧言令色，鮮矣仁。」這些教誨兩千多年來，對我們的文化造成很大的影響。當然，另外一個父母不對孩子表達出愛心的原因很明顯，那就是維持父母的權威。很多父母都認為，讓孩子知道你愛他，會削弱父母的尊嚴。