For years, my mother has expressed the wish to come live with me. That’s unrealistic, I have told her. She does not speak the language and has no friends in America. I’m a junior academic, my work is unstable, the hours are long. None of this matters, my mother has said: As long as she’s with me, she’ll be content. She will cook and clean for me. She has her savings and her pension. She will not be a burden. She only wants to help. This is her attempt at unconditional love: Anything that I am and you have use for is yours.
But a mother is not a maid, I have tried to explain. Emotional dependence is unhealthy. Please, develop a hobby. Please, live for yourself. I know my mother hears my suggestions as the ultimate rejection — that she should find her own life because it is no longer a part of mine.
For the better part of a year, my mother has been paying uncharacteristically close attention to world affairs, not so much out of newly found interest, but as another attempt to connect with me and correct my wrong-think. I have been writing regularly on Chinese politics and society for English-language publications, often criticizing the government’s abuses. Knowing how it pressures its critics and their relatives, I have never mentioned my articles to my mother: She cannot read them anyway; the language barrier, as well as our physical distance, should be her protection.
Yet somehow she has found out. My seditious writing has created a giant negative space between us. We do not speak about it explicitly. But my mother brings up the topics I write about and presses on with her views, always aligned with the government’s. I push back. Each time I poke holes in her arguments and challenge her value system, a part of me craves that if I rub her senses close enough, there will be a new kindling.
I miss our old fights, not for the wounds they inflicted, but for the woman I remember and am afraid of losing, the indomitable force who never settled. I see my mother’s submissiveness today as foreboding decay, like a rock that loses its edges before crumbling to gravel.
“You are a good child with a strong sense of justice,” my mother writes when I tell her that I worry about the old, the poor and the disabled in Wuhan under lockdown. Then she attributes my grievances about state oppression to the oppressive ways she raised me, and writes that my political disobedience is little more than a child’s rebellion against a parent.
I am irritated by her suggestion. “It is not always about you!” I type. I look at the words, followed by the flashing cursor, on the screen and flinch at their cruelty. I hit “send” anyway.