A Note on My Brother

My mother used to beat us. Not with anything laughable like a house slipper or the fleshy palm of her hand, but with a thick belt made of genuine cowhide. If we were very terrible (lying, talking back, getting C pluses on math tests), she would use the buckle side. Before you call the cops to make a retroactive arrest, just know my mother will shrug and say, “Did I? I don’t think so. I remember Betty and Howard being quite good kids. They didn’t need much discipline.”

My mother is now, having just turned sixty, the most placid creature one could ever meet. She moves glacially, speaks softly, feels tenderly about many things, including fundraising emails containing slideshows of starving children, paraplegic single mothers in rural China and wide-eyed baby monkeys in children’s clothes (Really. She once called me into the dining room to look at one such image). Now, imagining her wielding a belt to strike anyone is about as comical as picturing my father sitting through an entire ballet without snoring once. Also, the bruises and welts have long faded; I wouldn’t have anything to show the cops. I would seem like an evil spinner of twisted tales.

But ask my brother. Ask him. He’ll corroborate my stories. 
My brother is the reason I still have skin. He was the obedient one, the silent sufferer who would cry and bear it if my mother decided he’d overstepped. I don’t remember him being beaten very often, but when he was, it was terrible. There wasn’t much I could do about it but stay crouched outside the door, sobbing silently to myself and…hoping, obviously, that I wouldn’t be next.

My mother had a simple rule when it came to physical punishment: she would only hit us if a.) we talked back or, b.) we lied. I was terrible at lying but very good at talking back. My brother never talked back but was terrible at lying. And yet he found odd occasions to lie, especially when the lie would most certainly be discovered. His biggest lie as a child (as far as I can remember) was not so skillfully changing a D to a B on his report card. In his room with the door open. He did this around the same time my mother walked in to see if he was doing his homework.

That was a crazy night.

But on average, the likelihood of my getting beaten during any given week was much greater than that of my brother’s. I was snarky, opinionated, stupidly self-righteous – that is, attuned to rights every child should have, which I foolishly thought included that our parents should love us unconditionally, regardless of our grades or opinions.

“Why do I have to go to Chinese school? I’m American.” 
“You’re Chinese-American,” my mother would reply.
“I have an American passport. I’m American and it’s a free country and I don’t want to go to Chinese school. You can’t make me.”
“Wait here. I’m going to get the belt.”

“My American friends’ parents would never hit their kids over a C+.”
“Well, we’re Chinese and we don’t get C’s. Especially not in math,” my mother would say.
“You’re supposed to love me regardless of my grades. Love me for me.”
“This has nothing to do with love. You’re terrible at math and it’s embarrassing. For me. Wait here. I’m going to get the belt.”

It’s obvious who was better at math (hint: glasses). 

And this is where my brother the hero would come sweeping in, shielding me from both my mother’s eyes piercing with rage and the belt.

“Get out of the way,” she would say, “This has nothing to do with you.”

My brother would speak calmly. It is the only way he knows how to speak. “Mom, you shouldn’t hit her. You should explain to her what she’s done wrong.”

“I’ve already explained too many times and she doesn’t get it.”

“Hitting her won’t make her get it more.”

If my mother recognized my brother’s brave heroism, she didn’t show it. Instead, she’d snarl for him to get out of the way lest he wanted a beating as well.

And my brother, probably just eleven or twelve, would quake, but he would hold his ground.

“No,” he would say, “No, mom. This isn’t the right way.”

How many of your siblings would have done the same? How many of your siblings would have stood their ground and calmly convinced my mother to back off on your behalf? More than a half dozen times, in the history of my brushes with corporeal punishment, my brother came to my rescue and literally saved my ass from my mother’s belt (one, incidentally, I never saw her wear). He encouraged my mother to use reason, something my father, Mr. Reasonable (but also, Mr. Chinese Man who culturally doesn’t often have a hand in disciplining the children), wasn’t around to do. As we grew older I began to see just how different my brother and I were, and just how essential his beloved “reason” was to my personal development.

My brother could see, from his lofty perch five years ahead, exactly where I stood, but he had long mastered the art of, “It’s not worth getting into,” and “Just let it go. Just let it be.” He’s never bossed me around – I cannot recall a single moment in which he has said, “You should do this or be more like this or stop being like this,” unless of course, I solicited his opinion and then ignored it. While the number of times I’ve forced my opinions upon him, pointed my finger at him to instruct him to do something, is somewhere in the trillions.

At the core of my brother’s worldview is that people will do whatever the hell they want. For them, their way, regardless of how you see it, is the right way…even if it turns out to be a disaster. They chose their path. They dig their own grave or…build their own stairway to Heaven. Save your breath, your energy and the throbbing red you see when someone does something contrary to what you want. Save the blood for something else; you can only control yourself.

My mother tried to beat me into a better math student. Guess what? Sixteen years later, I still scored in the bottom 25% of the nation.

A hundred people tried to talk me out of dropping out of college, but my brother, acknowledging that I needed the time, merely shrugged when I told him. He flew to New York to take me home.

In Manhattan, I greeted him at what was probably my heaviest weight and instead of saying, “Oh Jesus you got fat,” which is essentially what I say each time I see him, he said, “I think you look fine.”

Our flight back was the same time as my last final. I proudly carry an ‘F’ in astronomy from NYU, knowing that while other people were scratching their heads over Orion and Uranus I was in that very sky, sitting at my brother’s side, feeling safe and loved.

When I turned twenty-five, my brother called me from Shanghai from a number that showed up “Unknown.” I didn’t pick up. He left a message in his trademark monotone. Later, when we finally did speak, I told him the “Unknown” had scared me. It was weird to see it on my phone and I was already on the cusp of so many unknowns. I didn’t need my brother’s birthday phone call to wear the same mask. My brother took note. When I turned twenty-six, he called from his US number, which shows up “Guh” and costs ten million times more. It was the tiniest gift, but he remembered, and I smiled for a long time after we hung up.

He laughs at my jokes. Generously gets my humor more than I get his, and saves me face, neither confirming nor denying and simply chuckles when I say, “You’re my number one fan, Guh! You like watching “the Betty Show!”

When people meet my brother then meet me or meet me then meet my brother, they have a hard time believing we’re related. I’m loud and have close to ten million different expressions (all ten million of which I think only my brother has seen) and mask my apparent lack of femininity by moving like a robotic Jackie Chan.

“Howard,” some people have said, even if I’m standing right in front of them, “What’s up with her.”

My brother shrugs because he knows some people are hard to explain.

“That’s my sister,” he says, “Yeah, she can be kinda manly, but she’s cool.”

I not so secretly consider myself more emotionally astute, wittier, and wiser about things like what constitutes a healthful diet (he once asked me, “Does a potato have carbs?”), but he’s perfected his temperament and patience to levels I could only wish for. I’ve tried to change him – “eat less! Be more open about your emotions!” But he won’t budge. And why should he. He’s my brother.

He’s never tried to change me. I am who I am today in part because of this. He’s zen without really knowing what Zen means; a big brother without being Big Brother.

He’s also just turned 32, married, and living in Shanghai, China, where Blogger is blocked and where I think his birthday is coming to an end. He probably won’t see this until the next time he signs into Facebook via some complicated illegal network; hell, I’m not sure he even reads my blog. But it’s his birthday, so I thought I’d paint you guys a picture.  

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