Notes for K.: Part I
K.’s psychotherapy involves a certain kind of agitation, a necessary provocation. For me, the problems have risen too many times to the surface, but what remains is what happens when the soup is boiled too many times. What bubbles up has been seen, re-seen, unseen, over-seen. K.’s acumen is precisely in her ability to agitate what has managed not to appear, what has truly refused to be brought to the surface. That which I don’t necessarily have the eyes to see.
She makes me write. She indulges my habits and uses them for her manipulation, which in some twisted way, is for my therapy. So I trace and bring together the elements of a personal history again and again to when I began seeing myself as lesser, when I began projecting myself as forever inferior. The baby of the family who can never seem to grow up. The follower who will never lead.
My grandmother handed me her usual hundred-dollar bill over dim sum the other day. The ritual is painfully predictable. As she quickly finishes her food with twenty minutes of sitting down, she rifles through her purse for the crispest bill she can find. She folds it again and slips it under the table into my hand. This initiates the obligatory back-and-forth with the money from her hand to mine, from my hand back to hers. The magic number is usually three of these exchanges, but when the gesture finishes, I am to take that money and pocket it into my wallet for safe-keeping.
I decided to break the rules this time by simply refusing to take the money. She feigns anger, and I decide to take it seriously. “I don’t need your money.” She takes this personally, as if I’ve somehow undermined her authority that apparently comes from handing out hundreds. She’s persistent about her generosity, especially in a public place like the dim sum house, where the waiters and the people at the nearby tables know her and our family name.
“I’m proud of you, BB.”
Yes, she calls me “BB.” The Cantonese aberration of the word “baby.” Twenty-two and not a single meeting goes by without her calling me “baby.”
“Well, that’s good enough, 婆婆.
She shakes her head as if I’m not getting it. The worst part is that I do. I understand her so clearly.
“No, don’t you know I love you?”
”Yes, but it doesn’t have to be in the form of money.”
The next line breaks me.
“But that’s the only way 婆婆 knows how.”
And that was it: the truth behind a ninety-year old woman who cannot hold a glass to her lips without shaking. This is the woman who parades my name around Chinatown because I’m the good grandson. I speak enough Chinese to play these verbal games with her. I’ve been that A-student. All because the ladies tell her what good blood we have. How blessed we are as a line.
But the reverse is perhaps why I became this self-berating perfectionist. I think to myself that, as the youngest male on both sides of the family, I will never be respected. If I were to fail out of school or break the mold, I’d be dead to her. I’m only as good as the news I bring her. And god knows it cannot be the news of my happiness. About the man I may love, about the literary studies I pursue. It is what superficially ends up on report cards, what adorns with laurels the family name.
So she loves me the only way she knows how. That is when anger becomes pity. How two generations may never bridge a gap, and how I will be at her funeral mourning the love we never could share because it is beyond her. Beyond what can be done after an arranged marriage, decades of abuse, and the obsession with family power. A dowager who will never love her name or herself.