Underneath my yellow skin

Family dysfunction in real time

My self-esteem, which is never really great, takes a beating when I’m around my family. My brother was over yesterday, and I could feel myself regressing more and more the longer he was there. I love my brother. We get along well these days. But. He’s still my older brother, and there’s a firm pecking order that we cannot escape.

Ian once commented that my mother listens to my brother when she doesn’t listen to me. It was validating because I had known it on some level, but was never able to articulate it. I’ve always felt it, but I never allowed it to come to the surface until Ian flat-out said it. Later on, though, I realized it was a bit more complicated than that. My mom is a questioner as I am. She also suffers high anxiety as I do. I’ve joked that her constant chatter is like the voice in my brain. It’s gotten worse in the past few years (for her), and I think it’s because my father retired so he’s around their house much more. He’s a petty tyrant with wildly variant moods (I come by it proudly), and she’s catered to him for fifty years.

Anyway, she always needs a second, third, and fourth opinion. I think it’s partly because my father is so set in his thinking, he can make you question yourself. He’s very good at gaslighting without even doing it directly. If you say something to him, there’s a high chance he won’t even respond. You know how the good social thing to do when someone is talking to you is to nod or look or them or say goddamn anything? Oftentimes, he won’t do any of that. He doesn’t even change expressions, so it’s hard to know if he heard you.

That’s one of the issues–he’s lost his hearing and refuses to wear his hearing aids at home. I’d bet he doesn’t always wear them outside, either, as he’s vain. If he can hear you, he may not understand what you’ve said. There’s two reasons for that. One, his English isn’t great. He hasn’t lived here for over a quarter of a century, and he doesn’t use English unless he’s here. Two, his comprehension is going. His mental faculties aren’t what they used to be, and combining that with his loss of English means that oftentimes, he just doesn’t understand. I think he feels bad when my brother, my mother, and I are babbling at each other because we talk at top speed, and he can’t keep up. Last night, my mother had to talk to him in Taiwanese and him respond in such before she translated it into English for us. Third, he hates admitting he doesn’t know something. So, he’ll agree to something or say he knows or that he remembers when it’s clear that he has no idea what is going on. You can’t point it out, either, because he’ll either double down or go back to being silent.

It’s difficult to know which it is at the time, and there’s one more monkey to throw at the wrench (yes, I am NOT giving up this phrase I made up)–he might or might not be experiencing dementia. I would say he is for a variety of reason, but it’s hard to tell because many of the markers of dementia are things he’s done throughout his life.

Back to my mother! She questions everything, including every decision she makes. I never realized how fully I embodied that until my BFF and I were talking about the ways we travel. She laughed and said, “I have never seen someone bring a roll of quarters and an umbrella when they traveled.” In those days, I packed for every possibility, but what she said ripped the blinders off my eyes. She meant it in a lighthearted fashion and wasn’t being judgmental in any way, but it made me see how ridiculous it was. Another thing that drove it home was when told me what her mother said when she (my BFF) separated from her hubby for a year. “You’ll be fine with him, and you’ll be fine without him.” It struck me because my mother would have come up with all the reasons I was screwed either way. There are obviously benefits to being prepared, but when it paints you into a no-win situation, it’s time to ease up.

Back to my original point. The reason it seems as if my mother listens to my brother and not me is that because most of the time, she’s asking me for my opinion first and his second. If it were the other way around, then it probably would seem as if she listened to me and not him. Maybe. There is some ‘Minna’s brother knows everything’ going on in my family, and I know it is partly because of gender bullshit.

My father has a streak of old-timey sexism so deep, it’s alarming. At the wedding, he was saying, “If you get married, I would wish that he wasn’t really intelligent or a genius or a superstar in any way (I’m paraphrasing). I would wish for him to be decent and hardworking.” I’m sure I had a look of horror on my face because I couldn’t believe what the hell I was hearing. He added, “You probably don’t agree,” which was surprisingly astute of him. I said, “No, that would be boring,” but what I really wanted to say was, “Are you fucking insane? Where the fuck do you get this fucking bullshit?” And also, “So what the fuck does that say about you?” as my mother is really intelligent, and he is…not quite as intelligent. I didn’t realize it until last year because I assumed he was really smart because my mother, my brother, and I are.

I also told my father that I wasn’t getting married so he didn’t have to worry about it, but there was so much more I wanted to say. Such as, “Why assume I’d marry a guy?” Then again, at the last wedding we attended together (cousin), he said he didn’t know if he could give me away. I fell back on the not getting married thing, but I wanted to say, “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t do that bit and even if I did, I wouldn’t choose you.”

It’s so strange because he’s living in this fantasy world that I can’t comprehend. He has no idea who I am nor does he really care about me, the person. He cares about me, ‘the daughter’ because I’m a reflection of him. It’s why he can’t comprehend that I like spending the majority of my time alone and that I don’t get cold. At least not until it’s zero or below.

My mother, on the other hand, is a more complicated relationship. When I was a preteen/teen, she treated me as a confidante, telling me everything that was wrong in her marriage. When I confronted her about it decades later, she acknowledged it wasn’t appropriate and apologized. You’d think that’d be a good thing, right? Wrong. She’s doing it again, and she acknowledges she’s doing it, and then she continues to do it. She complained about something my father did after saying she needed to get it off her chest in an apologetic tone and then vomited her feelings all over me. The thing is, in this particular case, I could see a sliver of his point. (It was about her criticizing him for something minute.) My mother is very nitpicky about things, and while some make sense, some are just her personal preference. I’ve bristled when she’s told me to do something in a way she perceives as the right way, so I could understand why my father might get a bit miffed. But then he started getting paranoid about it and dramatizing, and blowing things way out of proportion before giving her the silent treatment. In other words, he went OTT with it.

I don’t know how to respond when my mother tells me these things, though. This time, she asked me what to do and said I was her daughter! I don’t know what the last had to do with anything, but to me, that’s why you don’t come to me with these things. One, it creates an unhealthy alliance between the two of us against my father (which, quite frankly, is already the dynamic), and two, she’s the parent. I’m not her therapist, goddamn it. The reason I had a hard time saying anything is because there’s nothing I can suggest that she would actually do. My father is not going to change. If anything, he’s getting worse as he gets older. I did give her the gray rock solution which she says works really well, but you can’t do it all the time. My other solution is the same one I have been giving to her since I was eleven–divorce him. Or, if not divorce, just leave him.

She won’t do that, however, and I’m not sure it’s the ethical to do at this point, anyway. But he is such a burden on her shoulders, and she’s not getting any younger, either. The thing I wish for her is to have a few years of peace before it’s her time to go. Then again, I think being a martyr is so ingrained in her that she would find a way to replicate the situation if it no longer existed.

I’m tired. My shoulders are heavy with the burden. I don’t know how much longer I can bear it.

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