1. 媽 mā — mother. If you pronounce mother in a slightly different tone in Chinese, the word becomes 罵 mà, which means to scold or to curse. To me, they represent the same thing.
“Why don’t you like your mother?” my daughter piped up as my son slurped ramen next to her.
At five, she had noticed my harsh tone towards my mother during her Christmas visit. “Put your phone away, Mom,” I hissed at her, growing more annoyed each time she ignored my requests. She should be paying attention to her grandchildren, not texting or typing emails. I was tired of scolding her, of needing to scold her. I knew I was making The Face, a pained grimace that was one-part defiant-teen eye-roll and two-parts caged animal.
“It’s complicated, sweetie,” my husband answered for me in a nervous attempt to keep the peace.
I rolled my eyes at him and clenched my teeth. He still didn’t get it.
“Some things are just the way they are,” I tried to explain calmly. “They can’t change.” I had spent years engaged in a battle with my mother. She is a ravenous hyena circling her target before her feeding frenzy. I am the cowering prey, defenseless against her manipulations and cons, about to become a bloody carcass.
2. 苦 kǔ — bitter. There is an expression 吃苦 chī kǔ that translates into “eat bitterness.” It is often used by parents to remind a child that life requires us to endure hardships.
I look at my reflection in the mirror and repeat a mantra: “I am not my mother. I am not my mother.”
Once when my daughter was still just a baby, my therapist cautioned me to be careful about my relationship with her.
“Why?” I balked. “I will never be like my mother.”
“The cycle can repeat itself,” she said.
Holy shit, I thought, like a fucking curse that never ends?
Hadn’t I already spent enough hours in her office dissecting my issues with my mother? My therapist’s broad smile and Brazilian lilt exuded a warmth my mother never exhibited. She was a mother substitute Freud…