Lessons From a Childhood of Abuse

I often explain to people that Karaoke to the Chinese is like drinking to the British. We don’t pour pints at our parties, we sing. It’s part of the culture. The Chinese-Canadian dream is a Toyota in every driveway and a Karaoke machine in every house.

My dad was no exception. Like all his hobbies, he took Karaoke seriously. He had singing lessons from a famous teacher. Sometimes, he would record himself and listen to the tapes to analyze his singing when driving me to school. We would never talk on those hour-long rides, I would only hear him singing, sometimes along with his recorded voice, sometimes practicing the parts that he didn’t have quite right.

When I was young, about seven, I would sing one of the English songs from his collection. I couldn’t tell you why. Karaoke didn’t particularly interest me. Maybe it was a way for me to be a part of his life. He had nothing to do with me otherwise.

My parents must have believed I was good. At a Christmas party they hosted soon after, they pressed me to sing that song, the only one I knew, for the guests. It was The Greatest Love of All, made famous by Whitney Houston. You know, the one that goes:

I believe that children are the future
Teach them well, and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride

The irony didn’t hit me until I was old enough to know what irony meant.

At seven, I was paralytically shy and inhibited. I didn’t want to sing in this room filled with tall, strange people.

It upset them, so they threatened to throw out my sticker collection.

Collecting stickers was the big thing at my elementary school. Adolescent favour wasn’t determined by something is trivial as who could run the fastest, but by whether or not you had the oh-so-rare Root Beer scratch-n-sniff, cleverly shaped like a frosty mug, or the fuzzy lion that felt like you were petting the king of the jungle when you ran your fingers over him. I kept my stickers in a big yellow-beige book with rainbow stripes, and it was my pride on the playground.

So I called their bluff. As young as I was, I understood that the money spent on those stickers was theirs. They wouldn’t just throw it all away.

Then I watched as they tossed my yellow-beige sticker book in the black garbage bag where everyone emptied their plates. It was in front of all the guests, but no one said a thing.

I pretended not to care. I climbed the stairs to my room with my chest out. Then I spent the weekend crying.

We never spoke about it again.

Years later, I remember my dad opening the trunk of the Honda, and underneath the carpeting was my book of stickers. That heavy, yellow-beige book, with rainbow stripes. They were too cheap to actually throw it out, but too stubborn to go back on their threat.

I wish I could say that it was an isolated incident, but it wasn’t.

My relationship with my parents, my mom especially, was typified by this sort of cruel puppeteering.

Pat once told me that he didn’t understand just how overbearing she was until he met her at my graduation, my university graduation, when she harassed me about wearing my new glasses, my blue hooded jacket, trying to dress me like a doll. I was never important or necessary to them. I was the family pet, the accessory dog.

Nowadays, when I meet someone new, the conversation invariably drifts to the subject of where I was born (believing it to be some Asiatic country) and where my parents are. My answers are always the same: Toronto, and I don’t know. I stopped talking to my mom, and my dad doesn’t care enough to call.

Most people have a knee-jerk reaction. They tell me that my mom is still my mom, believing that all parents innocently do the wrong things every now and then.

Then I tell them this story or any of the other million like it (if it’s an emotional day or week or month, I swallow the lump in my throat), and they immediately understand why I cut her out of my life like a cancerous lump. They become defenders of my decision when we meet someone else and the two inevitable questions are asked again.

Even though I’ve washed my hands of my parents, the mental abuse still haunts me.

I still have self-esteem issues with my diminutive size because they would always tell me, “Eat more. No one’s going to date you if you’re so skinny. Girls don’t like guys who are small. Girls like guys who are big.” Even though it’s been years since I’ve heard them, their words still ring in my ears.

I’ve tried to forget it all, but a bitter hatred still lies in my heart like a stone. I don’t cry at tragic romantic movies, I cry at the scene when a father tells his son that he loves him. I could go on and on about what they’ve done. I’m still carrying around this emotional baggage, doing things like the Gerry Project to fix the damage they’ve done to my self-confidence. The truth is that I wish none of this affected me the way it does.

My mom is an empty shell of a woman now. A divorcée in her fifties without husband or kin, and nothing to live for but her television and her tabloids. I can’t help but think that she got what she deserved. Every day I expect a call, telling me that she’s killed herself by overdosing on sleeping pills and red wine. As for my dad, who knows what or how he’s doing.

Memories of my abusive parents and childhood drive me to be a better person. Now I know what exactly not to do with my kids. My parents never encouraged me or took an interest in my life. They’ve done nothing to make me who I am.

I owe them nothing, but the knowledge of what never to be or become.


  1. If I could excise one thought out of collective mentality of Canadians it would be “where are you from really?”

    I had a root beer scratch and sniff. :) I remembered my album this week. At Home Depot there are “fragrance filters” for your ductwork with a scratch and sniff sticker on the packages.

    Those words that come at you as a child just resonate on and on, I know.

    Glad people stand behind you when they get the reason for divorcing your folks.

  2. Is your question simply about heritage? Or is it more of a spiritual one?

  3. I can’t tell you how close this is to some family skeletons I have as well.
    Often, however, the damage was done not because they wished to control and mold me (as yours did most often it seems), but because they were two clueless people who were too busy hating life with each other to notice there was a child involved, being lost in the scuffle.

    But my career aims and talents were continually ignored at every turn. I believe they did that purposely and knowledgeably and I can’t forgive them for it. I would have had a much different life with proper support and encouragement.

    All we can do is continue and hope those around us now are more supportive.

  4. Parents who purposely ignored your talents are probably worse than mine. I’d say that half the time, my parents did what they thought was best for me, but it was at the cost of my own feelings. A selfish selflessness I suppose you could say. In the end, it was much worse than not doing anything at all.

    It’s interesting to know that you haven’t been able to forgive them for it, as you’ve got a couple extra years on me. Sometimes I wonder if time will let me forgive mine, but with every passing day a feeling of calm and freedom grows within me. I still think of hanging up on my mom and remember how good it felt.

  5. As I read this, I could hear variations of the themes in my own life and found tears in my eyes by the time I reached the end. The part that always gets to me in movies is when the father tells the child that he believes in him and supports him no matter what. When I was younger, that was the thing I most desperately wanted. When I teach, sometimes my students pour their hearts out to me and I cannot help but break down with them whenever they express that they feel unloved by their parents. In the past, I’ve described my movement through life as an inverted compass… knowing not where I want to go, but where I don’t want to go.

  6. Unfortunately when it’s asked it usually means bloodline out of country.I tend to get prickly around it. It’s right up there with a pat on the arm “I’m praying for you”. But I digress.

    Where are you from spiritually would make for a delightful long teatime entry point for a rambly conversation.

  7. @J — I think what we gain is an empathy for those who feel unloved, and an appreciation for those who are. Both are important and make us better people. I know I’ll never treat my kids the way my parents treated me, and I’m sure you feel the same way.

    @Pearl — I ask because my friend interpreted your question differently from the way I did. I think country heritage are both related though; culture often comes from location.

  8. Reading this reminded me so much of my childhood. It’s startling, how similar our childhoods were.

    I too, had to cut my mother out of my life. I was 30 years old when I finally hung up on her and vowed to never call her again. It’s been 3 years, and I haven’t. (Thanks to some heavy therapy).

    The most disturbing thing about my mother, was the resentment she harbored for my college education. When I confronted her and asked why she was so bitter that I was in school, trying to better my life- her response was, “What’s good for me, is good for you.”
    Having kids myself, I can’t fathom that kind of twisted thinking. Wouldn’t you want your own children to go worlds above and beyond you in life? To be successful, and happy?

    Thank you for sharing such private thoughts and experiences with us, Jeff.

  9. The older I get, the more I realize that I’m not the only one with such a childhood. I’m meeting more and more people now who’ve cut off a parent, and it’s vindicating to hear how much better their lives are. No more stress, no more worry.

    I don’t know the whole situation, but it sounds to me like your mother was very jealous that you had an opportunity she may have not had.

    Thanks for sharing yourself as well.

  10. hi

    thanks for sharing your story. I know it must be quite painful to reveal your abusive past. you may still suffer from it. i’ve also been a victim of physical and emotional abuse by both parents who were Chinese for a long time. My father was working away from home a lot and my mother was isolated in our white community in her efforts to bring me up away from Chinese people so that my English and our lives would ‘improve’. Who knows if that’s the real reason why my mother didn’t want to associate with other Chinese but I think the reasons are not so genuine. Both parents were very jealous of my ambitions as they were very working class. My mother caused so much non-stop drama in my life that even my half-sister from my father’s first marriage attempted suicide due to the neglect of my parents love.

    My mother used to criticise everything that I did on a daily basis. sometimes depending on her mood she would just throw things at my head and punch me in my face. It’s hard to believe a ‘woman’ would behave in such an aggressive way. Especially since i was a girl. Luckily my half sister would intervene and one time called the social services on her. We didn’t press charges in the end as it broke my heart if my mother was to end up in jail. All I wanted was for my mother to love me and to change. Once I told my dad about the abuse but he just changed the subject. I feared my mother until I was able to leave for college. Even then her wrath didn’t end as she would call me non-stop to tell me about her abusive childhood by her own mother who would hit her head with a pair of heels. So now I had to soothe her feelings in order for my tuition to get paid. I finally dropped out of college after 2 yrs and moved to another country. Then my dad left my mother as he had enough (he always put me and my mother down at home and said how stupid we were as he had no respect for women being a chauvinistic pig). He married his younger girlfriend and doesn’t contact any of his children. all my life I never saw my dad smile. my mother was miserable in the end and tried to lighten up and be nicer to me as now she had no one. well it was too late. she ended up dying in her sleep one night at an early age. so now I don’t have any parents.

    at times, people have said the same when i was younger, such as your mom is still your mom etc… if they only knew. I think people who have not sufffered as much can’t understand so now I just don’t tell anyone what has happened as people don’t like hearing these traumas anyway. it has left me scarred but I try to be strong in life and not left my parents damage my life any further. it’s hard as you need family to support you cos no one else will. i just hope when i have children that they will never have the life i had.

    take care and best of luck

  11. I think the thing you said that strikes me most is “it’s hard as you need family to support you cos no one else will.” The most difficult thing I face nowadays, even years after not talking to my mom, is the fact that I have no one to depend on. My friends are always there for me, but it’s not the same as family. I’m not sure why that is, but the idea of family is that you can call on them at any time and receive unconditional support. Unfortunately for us, dealing with our families isn’t worth it.

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