A few days ago my mother came in to say goodnight and saw me hunched over my work phone, typing something out to my boss. I looked up, aware my eyes projected fatigue if anything.
She kept her hand on the door handle, as though deciding whether or not she should come in – it was late. She was constantly reminding me to sleep earlier but at the same time saw so little of me during the day that the evenings, right before bed, were the only time we really got to talk
I look forward to talking to my mother at night. Now, she is busier than my father (though he will never agree to this); after teaching a few hours she comes home to make dinner (unless my father, having left work early as he often does now, comes home to make it first) and then prepares to leave again to play two hours or so of badminton at the local club.
When I was younger and she didn’t play badminton, I often watched her sneak in a short naps here and there. I would come home from school and shout something to my brother who would say, “Shh. Mom’s sleeping.” And she’d be in the living room, stretched out primly on the flowered couch, her knees propped up or feet crossed at the ankles, a slight frown on her face. A light sleeper who stirred at the slightest sound, she was never fully asleep. I pitied her for it because my father’s snores are murderous – meaning you will either die from exhaustion, or kill him in the middle of the night.
Whatever my mother thought of her sleeping situation, she and my father worked it out long ago. She took to retiring earlier than he – to get a head start, I suppose. Her tactic was to enter REM before my father came to bed, and would thus be immune to the noise. But I doubt this. It is one of those sacrifices women make when they marry. My father gives her love, warmth, a family, the financial stability to pursue her non-profit Chinese school dreams – all that and more – in exchange for the restful slumber she had before she met him.
And yet to my surprise I observed that my mother slept poorly when my father was not there. As they grew old together, she came to rely on the rhythm of his breath to put her heart at ease. At the end of the day everything was fine – he was there, alive and well, and together they were whole. Her children may grow and fly the coop (though this has yet to happen with the youngest bird), but at the eleventh hour through the first, her husband was there, sleeping peacefully albeit noisily by her side.
So perhaps it was not the sleep. Whatever it was, she seemed to be always tired, in the same way I feel now. For a long time we thought it was her liver. My mother is also very gullible – fatigue and gullibility do not mix. Fatigue makes one desperate, even more gullible than usual, and she bounced from one doctor to the next, collecting a docket filled with lies about her physical condition.
She was never known for being fair, yet one doctor said her skin appeared jaundiced, which indicated her liver was failing her. Another doctor pointed to the white hairs along her hairline, saying it was something to do with her blood. Lupus. Cancer. Hypothyroidism. We never really did figure it out, but thank goodness my mother, despite her gullibility, hates western medicine with a passion and refused to take any of the medication. “Why damage my liver further, if my liver is already weak?” she reasoned.
Chinese medicine, with its strange herbs and animals parts were another story – my mother believed in eastern medicine with the same principles with which she adhered to Buddhism. Not strictly, but willingly, out of familiarity. Eastern medicine could be explained in Chinese terms more readily than western medicine and procedures, and was, in general, a more holistic approach, which appealed to my mother’s nature-loving bent. She spent a small fortune on carefully measured packets of horsetail, cordyceps, starfish, feverfew and fenugreek which she dutifully boiled every night with dates and ginger root so that our house smelled not unlike the strange, dim doctor’s offices she visited on Taipei’s outskirts.
As a family we tried to persuade her to take on less. Cut her private tutoring classes. Forget doing the Chinese school – not only was it a non-profit, it bled money. Don’t serve on the advisory board of this Chinese committee and that. Stop editing Chinese textbooks for free. And for Chrissakes stop traveling to China and Taiwan for exhausting two-week long conferences while staying in shitty hotels with bad food.
But my mother is stubborn when she sets her mind to something and she had learned long ago that married or not, a woman must have her work. So she persisted in building her Chinese school, and despite our protests, took on more private tutoring students. For a while I feared she would die of exhaustion. And somewhere in the middle of all this, she began to play badminton, hours at a time, three or four times a week.
I thought, “Oh goodness. She will collapse one day.”
Instead, the opposite began to happen. She became more energetic, more lively, more ambitious. It wasn’t just the exercise but also the growing profile of her tiny Chinese school. The two together: a woman’s work and the care she devotes to her body – is a powerful combination for happiness. Yes, she still comes home exhausted some days, but for the most part I have never seen her look so vibrant. My father noticed too, and rather than continue to persuade her to quit, he now accepts his growing role as Mr. Mom – he cooks more, takes care of more things around the house – not that he didn’t before, but he is home more often than my mother is, and the role of half-house husband suits him well.
From my mother I learn that for a woman – or any person, really, to stick to their work, stick doggedly to it even though no one pushes them to do so, they must really love the work. She has the energy to do it because that is how the mind functions – it provides phantom energy, the most potent and secret kind, to help you accomplish what you most love and need in order to feel whole.
And now my mother, armed with phantom energy, comes into my room each night to ask me about my work.
“Does it make you happy?”
“Is your boss a nice man?”
“Do your coworkers like you?”
Yes, yes and yes, I say, but still, there is a feeling that everything about the job is fleeting, much like every other job I’ve held in the past.
I tried to go in with an open mind, thinking, “Who knows how long I’ll stay?” Maybe I will love it and end up staying three, four, five years. A decade?
I heard a hollow laugh when I posed the possibility to myself.
I’m too young to think that any position I hold now will be my “career,” but I can’t shake the feeling – both paralyzing and liberating – that I may never have a “career,” not in the conventional sense of the word. What is industry? What industry? How should I categorize myself and where, in the vast career planes and skyscraping corporate verticals, do I belong?
“It was a great comfort to turn from that chap to . . . the battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat. . . . I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come out a bit—to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work,—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness