The “Top Chef” finale turned out exactly the way I thought: Brooke Williamson got her Last Chance Kitchen redemption, ala Kristen Kish — full circle in full effect. But in the midst of the cooks and the pronouncement, I found myself near tears over Shirley Chung’s rice pudding.
It wasn’t so much the rice pudding, although the dish looked lovely and inviting. It was Chung finally getting validation from her mom after years of disapproval for choosing a career in cooking rather than medical school.
“Through my cooking I feel my mom finally understood me,” Chung said after her mom said, “Beautiful Shirley. I’m proud of you.”
These are words every child, especially every Asian child, longs to hear. Words I never heard, words I know I never will.
My mom doesn’t understand me.
All my life she only saw me through a filter of profound disappointment and inconvenience. Her young, beautiful party girl friends urged her to abort me before I ruined her life. When I arrived, all her hopes were dashed, because I was not born as beautiful and vivacious as her.
She saw me as an anti-social tomboy slob, lacking in the feminine wiles necessary to capture a wealthy man. I refused to learn to play piano. I refused to wear make-up or take to her perms and her stilettos. Nothing I ever did was good enough.
It was the same with my dad, but in different ways.
I used to think it was because she came from a different era, dirt-poor and definitely not worldly wise. Neither of my parents went to college. I don’t think my mom ever graduated her version of high school.
So maybe she didn’t understand what it meant for me to write, maybe her generation only knew of the primary vocations that generated a sizable income, doctor, lawyer, trophy wife.
That changed last year, the year we visited Hawaii again, where she, and now my brother and his wife, live.
She and my brother have always bragged about Cris’s abilities as a writer, sometimes pointing me in the direction of her essays, always with reverence. Last year, my oblivious mom took the fawning to the next level; she couldn’t stop raving about her daughter-in-law and what a great writer she was.
It hurt me, deeply.
My mom never raved about me that way. I used to wonder if she even knew what I did for a living.
I know damned well my brother never cared what I did. I only received kudos from him when I married a jazz musician and computer programmer then bore our only son, James. Same with my mom.
It’s easy to lose yourself in family affairs. After my son came into this world, whatever was left of me faded into the background. I was Ed’s wife and James’ mom, cooking, baking, cleaning, doing their laundry, scheduling their appointments, doing for them while they lived vibrant lives finding themselves, pursuing their bliss, becoming all they could be.
The me before school and marriage and family disappeared more and more each day until I didn’t recognize the rotting face in the mirror anymore.
Even when I wrote — for practice, mostly to keep my brain functioning — I wrote about other people and their interesting lives. I chose a career in journalism back in high school, as a sophomore, because the counselor told me I had to in order to know what to study in college. It never occurred to me to do whatever I wanted, even if that meant going against the grain of what’s considered normal back in the 1970s-’80s.
If it had, I might’ve taken off those college years to travel the world, volunteer, find myself. Maybe I would’ve become an actress, lawyer, or doctor, after all. Maybe I would’ve gone into the nunnery. Who knows.
I never did any of those things. Instead, I listened to what the world told me to do, first my parents, then, the administrators, teachers, and counselors at school.
I didn’t think I ever had any plans outside of their edicts. But I was wrong. Somewhere in the back of my mind, while I was busy dutifully following what other stronger people bullied me to do, I held onto one goal: No matter what, I would never become like my parents.
I would never be so self-involved that I couldn’t see my son or understand him. I would always be his advocate, always encourage him to pursue his heart’s desire. I wouldn’t spoil him, but I wouldn’t ever ever EVER make him feel like he wasn’t good enough.
I also privately hoped and prayed my son, the only one I’ve got, would grow up to see who I really was, and would like and respect that person — not just because he had to since I was his mom, but because he thought I was awesome all on my own, with all my own special powers.
I cried watching the “Top Chef” finale because I knew I would never have that moment with my mom. She has chosen strangers over her own daughter so many times, and now, she is her daughter-in-law’s biggest fan. She even encouraged me to read Cris’ writings, something I’ve never heard her say about mine… This Korean woman who doesn’t read, who doesn’t really like to read, when there’s a cocktail party going on surrounded by her admirers…
When my son, now 15, walked in to see if I’d like to go to the movies to see the new “Lego Batman,” I asked him — voice shaking, tears spilling over — if he knew how proud I was of him, explaining what I went through as a kid.
“I am your biggest fan, James, you know that right?”
His face instantly opened up, breaking for my broken heart. With a voice as kind as the morning after a storm, he said, “Yes, I know! You’re always there for me, mom. I trust you more than anyone. I believe in you, mom. You’re such a good writer.”
He isn’t just saying that. I’ve caught him bragging to his friends about me, about more than just my writing, about my wicked sense of humor, my amazing baking and photography, about the way I always go the extra mile for people.
Strangers I’ve reviewed over at Medium, AXS, Examiner, they’ve written to extol my virtues. It’s ironic that they can see what my own mom or brother, most of my closest friends never could. They say such wonderful, unbelievable things… Like this:
I can honestly say this is the most accurate and poignant review I’ve ever gotten. Your perspective, and how you articulate it, feels like art responding to art. I hope that makes sense.
I am very grateful to you,
I love that you “get” what I do; you most certainly “get’ me, all the way around. I consider myself fortunate that you review my work. By what I read on your blog, you review heavy weights (Level 42 being a favorite of mine, I had every album) amongst others, but you review me.
I so hope I can play near where you live so we can meet face-to-face and I can give you a well deserved hug and proper “thank you”.
So my own mom, brother, and friends who are supposed to know and love me the most don’t understand me outside the role I play. So what.
The rest of you do. I touch your lives somehow.
Somehow, that has to be enough for me.