My mother is five-foot-two (and a half, she’d argue) but her shoulders are broader than her height might suggest. When she sits at a table for a conference, no one could guess how short she is because her shoulders are clearly supposed to carry more weight, though her ankles dangle underneath. The Chinese call the cheek bone the “power bone,” and the higher the cheekbones, the more power you’re meant to wield. Her cheekbones jut out like the Queen’s orbs, the one thing that doesn't move no matter if she’s laughing or crying. And if someone’s personality could be deciphered from their walk (my shuffling feet and concave shoulders exposing my many insecurities) my mother jabs her size-5 feet into the ground, flings her shoulders back, head high, like she’s out collecting a debt.
She was the child that got away. The only girl of four children in a patriarchic family, and she was determined never to live a life picking up slippers for the men, or anyone for that matter. Even at an early age, if she dropped a pen, she would never stoop to pick it up. Under no circumstance will she bow down. She was the child that flicked ink at her calligraphy teacher’s face, and peed immediately next to the toilet (standing up, no less) just to infuriate her mother. And she got away with it. As her father prepared her brothers to take over his Asian furniture manufacturing empire, she ran away, all the way to Canada, and didn't come back for a decade. There, she tumbled her way down black diamond ski slopes as an amateur skier. She traveled everywhere in six-inch heels to be at eye-level with “the white people” before finally settling in Hong Kong. She got away with it all.
Then she met my father. He was a salesman at a shoe store, she was an office manager. He took other people’s jabber, and was learned in the art of appeasement. She did all the jabbering, and to her, compromising would be admitting defeat. He spent his days tying people’s shoelaces; she never looked down to see if they were untied. They were perfect for each other. He told his friend once, “yeah, she’s nuts, but I’m nuts for her.” The Chinese say the thicker the lips, the more generous the person. He had lips so plump, many women would go under the knife to replicate them.
Even with her husband, she got away with never having to take care of herself. It was as if life itself knew she was meant for great things, and so it sent her my father, so she never has to make breakfast herself. And taking care of her is like taking care of a child. She loves peanuts and would skip dinner to eat a pound of them in front of the TV. Then she’d go around complaining about her “whale of an ass” the next morning as she shoved another handful of peanuts in her mouth. He decided this was unhealthy, so he tossed all nuts the next day. She threw tantrums for weeks, but then one day, curiously, she stopped. Turns out, she stashed peanuts in the back of the car so she’d have her fill during the ride home every day. He knew this all along from all the peanut shells on the floor of the car, but he would say nothing, and shake his head with a smile. That’s the thing, no one ever feels obliged to take care of her. Her tyrannical disposition is always redeemed by the charisma and ease at which she could draw laughter from even those she commanded. She is the larger than life character that people felt honored to serve, the pretty face that everyone deems deserving of attention. In recognizing her potential for success, it’s like all they want is to be the person to reheat her food or carry her stilettos. They just want to be near her, to admire her bravado, yet recognize and bolster her frailties.
Like most people who spit on authority, she had to create her own business lest she drove all her employers to therapy. So with her husband, she started a business with one office, three employees and many sleepless nights. Sometimes they’d come home at 7 am, just in time to see me off to school. As the days wore on, her disposition grew pricklier, and the slightest disturbance from her thoughts, smallest scratch on her shoes would send her voice ringing off the walls and vein-mapped eyes bulging in fury. I remember flipping through my diary of when I was eight, and discovering passages like, “Dear Diary, today was a good day because Mommy didn't yell at me.” These were the years that Daddy woke up to my nightmares, while Mommy never slept, and even when she did, her eyelids fluttered in worry and her brows furrowed, like she was suffering from perpetual nightmares. But I guess hard work does pay off because slowly, she found herself on billboards and TV shows and soon, they had ten offices, over a hundred employees and took the weekends off. Through it all, I could see her metaphorically sticking her middle finger up at everyone who ever doubted her.
But as she sprints by the many molds she’s determined to break, dark hair whipping through the winds of fate, she loses consciousness of her limits, her scruples and even those around her. Sometimes she gets away from even herself. Sometimes those cheekbones jut so high that they leave her cheeks hollow.
“Strength is something you choose,” she’d say. With a philosophy like that, her health didn't stand a chance. As she stumbled down the stairs one morning, lips pale, eyes sullen, she insisted on going to work. I gently reprimanded her, saying she was in no condition, but she waved me off saying there are five hundred people out there that paid to see her lecture. I followed her to work that day and sat quietly in her office as she cradled her forehead in her hand. The talk was in ten minutes. Her assistant came in with tea and she hugged her small frame around it gratefully. Suddenly, in a jerking motion, she dove under the table and kept her face in the trashcan until the spasms stopped. In a horrified whisper, her assistant asked if she would like to cancel the talk. But she lifted a hand in defiance, took a sip of tea, and walked into the lecture hall. From the other side of the wall, I heard her voice greet the students with one of her signature jokes. The room erupted in laughter.
It’s as if she knows no other way. She was never meant to crawl. Her father used to joke that she was born and just took off sprinting. She was never meant to breathe the same air as a clerk, because she’d rather stride up Mt. Everest and breathe on higher ground even if it’d make her swoon. One summer, as we biked through the tightly tiled streets of Amsterdam with the smell of smog and salt in the air, we stopped every ten minutes or so to take in the red and blue houses “sardined” along the canal. One time, we biked to the end of the trail. At a glance, there were no moving cars along the street so we rolled our bikes over the sidewalk and began pedaling down the road. But just as the rain always comes when one forgets their umbrella, sure enough, a bus came lurching around the corner and was swiftly gaining on our rear wheels. We deftly swerved into the closest niche in the sidewalk, before we heard a yelp and Daddy and I witnessed the semi-comical sight of Mommy biking vigorously ahead of the bus. We screamed for her to get off the street but all we heard was a huge laugh as she screamed back, “I don’t know why but I cant’!” It had nothing to do with her bike. It had nothing to do with fear. Like with most things she sets her mind to, there’s nothing her body can do to make her turn back, whatever the expense.
They say mothers are like superheroes, what with their ability to cook, care, and comfort the entire family without fail. I could count on one hand the number of times my mother has cooked for me, and she’s literally the worst person on earth to run to for comfort (seriously, when I got a paper cut as a child and came to her crying, she’d say, “I guess we’ll have to cut your hand off”), but I've seen her lift mental boulders Superman would only deign to try. I've seen her verbally slaughter a naysayer in a way Donald Trump would fear. And I've seen her embrace the role of both mom and dad since my father’s passing, in a way I would forever be grateful for. All that in six-inched stilettos, of course.