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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