The anxiety of difference, by Dr Jennifer Minter
Growing up, and negotiating her identity is a painful and traumatic process for Vanessa Woods because of her relationship with her mother and her sense of foreign-ness. Her mother has high expectations and expects Vanessa to become a doctor, following in the footsteps of her cousin David who gained the perfect score of 99.9. “It is the ultimate aspiration for any Chinese mother to have a child who is a lawyer or a doctor”.
Vanessa relates the ritual of going to yum cha on Saturdays during which she suffers the anxiety of being compared with her cousins. She acutely feels the burden of her mother’s expectations, as she is compared with her more successful relatives.
She mocks the parents who buy the cheaper “pork buns”, which suggests that even though they wish to indulge in the luxury of eating at restaurants they do not have the luxury of choosing the more expensive items on the menu.
Vanessa foregrounds her mother’s pain as she tries to compete with other Chinese parents who are happy to “brag” about their children’s achievements as they pursue honourable and respectable careers such as doctors and lawyers. “It is the ultimate aspiration for any Chinese mother to have a child who is a lawyer or a doctor”.
In contrast, Vanessa knows that her mother is ashamed of her children and has “nothing to say”. Inverting the word order for effect, the author repeats the problem: “No awards we have won. No praise from our teachers. No marks high enough for medical or law school”. So annoyed is the mother, that she sarcastically criticises Vanessa for having a “slippery tongue”. Vanessa is aware of her “two-faced compliments” that are the “staple of my existence” and she gains a false sense of confidence knowing that her “pretty” appearance is her only salvation.
The mother berates her children for their dishonourable career choices such as a “writer” or an artist”.
Given such high demands, Vanessa feels a sense of desperation not only at their poverty but also at her mother’s brand of “emotional terrorism” that tries to trap her into following a path that will furnish them with wealth and status.
Vanessa’s pain and suffering are evident when she resorts to anti-social behaviour such as stealing children’s lunches so as to gain her mother’s attention. This increases her humiliation as she redoubles the family’s sense of shame and makes her feel even more worthless.
Also, Vanessa believes that Asian parents often want to control their children’s behaviour to excess and expect respect and deference. According to her mother, who experiences the shame of a divorce, Vanessa is being corrupted by the new country’s emphasis on freedom and independence. She is the “child who talks back and gives viperous looks”.
In her turn, Vanessa’s mother becomes trapped in an unhappy marriage because she is unable to admit defeat and disappointment. The father’s Australian family is discriminatory, and refers to the mother as a “chongalewy-chow shiela” and she becomes the “dutiful wife” who “slits her wrists in shame” after the divorce. She is constantly imprisoned by cultural customs and after her marriage she transfers her anger and shame onto her children.
Eventually, Vanessa acknowledges her mother’s sacrifice. The mother’s plate of one chicken wing instead of two encapsulates her sacrifice. Finally, the narrator sees “love” in her sacrifice. The daughter realizes that she has been self-centred and selfish and did not see how much the mother sacrificed to give her daughter a better life.
Although her mother predicts that, as a writer, Vanessa will end up “penniless in an attic”, she tenaciously pursues her interests and gains success as an award-winning journalist and author.
Key symbols and narrative devices
The Snow White Erasers
Vanessa seizes upon the inconsequential Snow White Erasers to try to capture her complicated emotional relationship with her mother – born of resentment, anger, and love. The erasers symbolise Vanessa’s complicated and conflicted emotional feelings that show resentment of the what she believes is unjustified “emotional terrorism”.
When Mrs Woods asks Vanessa after she has been caught stealing lunch money from her classmates’ bags, (“What do other children have that you don’t?”) Vanessa focuses on the erasers. She reflects: “If I were smarter, I would hear her heart breaking”. Although Vanessa implies that she is unaware of the depth of her mother’s pain, there is a sense that vindictively, she is intent on breaking the mother’s heart.
From her perspective, Ms Woods feels as though she has been an inadequate parent and has not been there to guide Vanessa and her sister, Bronnie, along the right path. She feels as though she has failed as a parent. Vanessa comments on her mother’s burden of shame “And she’s not ashamed of me, she’s ashamed. For failing to teach me the difference between right and wrong. For failing to make me feel like I’m warm and safe and don’t need to steal from other kids to make up for everything that I don’t have.”
From her own standpoint, Vanessa uses the rubbers to highlight her sense of anger at the mother’s (cultural) difference. She is angry that the mother cannot give her what the other children have. She also feels guilty because she cannot provide her mother with a sense of satisfaction and pride – that the sacrifice has been worthwhile, Previously she states, I’ve given up hoping she will tell me she is proud”.
However, Vanessa also uses the rubbers as an excuse, because it is not the rubbers she wants but the mother’s attention and love, which is something that the mother doesn’t have time or money to give. (“The next day, the Snow White erasers are on the dining-room table. I don’t even want them.”)
Food for thought
Vanessa uses food to show cultural differences between the Chinese and the Australians. “We don’t eat chicken’s feet. We don’t suck the jelly out of fish eyeballs and we refuse to eat the creamy filing inside prawn heads.” She uses the repetitive negative phrases to foreground cultural indifference and an increasing sense of shame that the Vietnamese have towards their cultural traditions. At the root of this shame, is a sense of Western luxury – a sense of being able to be profligate, which she suggests, is not the “asian” way.
And finally, the author portrays a mother’s devotion to her children through the symbolism of the chicken wings. Mrs Woods uses the cheapest part of the chicken which is chicken wings and cooks them in the wok. She transforms the cheap and boring chicken wings into a delicious meal as a sign of the love that she cannot show. “Steam rises from the wok and oil spatters over her hands. There is a delicious smell of soy sauce, garlic and chicken.” The author highlights the unequal way the chicken is portioned, in favour of the two daughters. On Vanessa’s plate there are two chicken wings, on Bronnie’s plate there are two chicken wings but on the mother’s plate there is only one. This symbolically represents the mother’s everyday sacrifice that she silently makes to give her children a better life. And Vanessa finally realises, “And in her sacrifice, I see love.”
Paragraph Practice: “Perfect Chinese Children”
Some paragraphs for consideration:
Growing up, and negotiating her identity is a painful and traumatic process for Vanessa because of her relationship with her mother. Her mother has high expectations and expects Vanessa to become a doctor. However, the mother also expects that Vanessa will save her from the shame of her divorce by providing status and respect. Given such high demands, Vanessa feels a sense of desperation not only at their poverty but also at her mother’s brand of “emotional terrorism” that seeks to hold her responsible for bringing the family much-needed wealth and status. ….
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