Turns out interviewing my mum didn’t fix our communication problems
It’s never easy talking to your family. What do you say to them? “How’s the mortgage auntie?”, or “pretty scientifically inaccurate views you’re spouting huh, Greg?” You can bear a few phone calls every few months, but to be stuck with them for the holidays feels like a never-ending anxiety attack. It’s just the absolute worst chat over salad and forced smiles, counting down the minutes ‘til the “Leaving sunny Hawkes Bay!” sign is behind you on your way back to the big city. With rising tensions and still two more days in your hometown, you start Googling ‘hitchhiking murder risk statistics’. And yet again, unable to shake our obligations, we return for the holidays.
Unable to defend myself with excuses of borders or summer school or a job, I took my biannual trip to Hawkes Bay (while the flatmates are away, the ones who don’t get along with their families are sad if they stay). Two days, so minimal casualties, no? I was wrong, of course—it was back in the trenches from day one. My mum and I had a fight. A big one. What we fought about isn’t important, but what I took away from it is. I aired my gripes with our past, hoping she would see things my way. I sought acknowledgement, consensus (and secretly, guiltily, an out from my familial obligations to show face if neither could be achieved.) We both left frustrated and empty-handed, further apart than when I was 410.7 km away. So, instead of maturely reaching out an olive branch, I interviewed her for a piece.
It was a weird conversation. Uncomfortable. Unceasingly frustrating. The chat in itself exposed that it’s never really about what you fight about—it runs deeper than that. Even though the topic was on communication, the walls were still there. There would be moments of what appeared to be breakthroughs where finally she understood where I came from. A-ha moments soon after shattered with any variation of “we both have our opinions”. I’m sure she was thinking the same, though, that she was getting through to me.
I opened up the conversation (over phone of course, I don’t think I could’ve handled a video call), with a rundown of our topic (“I suppose it’s a very casual chat about commuica—”). She disrupted my wind up with an “Arela, if you want to be a lawyer you have to get to the point.” Fair enough.
A: What’s your thoughts on that argument we had when I confronted you over the break?
妈: I’m…very pleased…with that conversation. And I don’t feel confronted—that was expressing how we feel. I love communication, I do. I feel like I don’t try to communicate a lot because you’re very into your freedom mindset right now as a young person. I’m letting you grow your own thinking and using your own judgment, and be responsible for your own feelings.
A: Do you think it was hard for you when I disagreed with your recollection of the event we argued about, and how it actually impacted me?
妈: Well, you’re an individual, you have your own opinion and you’re old enough to have that opinion. I don’t think I can force my opinion on you, and so do you, right? There’s no black and white, you might have your own habits and you might think differently but that’s okay. That’s your right.
A: How do you feel about being unable to get through to me and have me understand your perspective?
妈: I felt frustrated because we have really short communication, and I really don’t know, I don’t really know what’s happening with you, what’s happening around you, who you’re associated with.1 You’re an adult so I guess I’ll respect your decision.
A: Do you ever think you’ll ever come around to agreeing with me?
妈: Yes.. or no.. I guess? Sorry. What you said was hard to understand, but I guess everything has two sides. For me, I shouldn’t judge you by one argument. We can agree, or disagree but I guess it’s only an argument.2
A: How do you feel about the idea that people become set in their perspectives and that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
妈: Well, it depends on what kind of old dog. It doesn’t apply to everyone, I think that people can be old and learn new tricks all the time. I think in general it might be, but you should talk to the individual person. Like all Chinese might be bad people, but they’re all actually not. I don’t know—it’s too much of an open-ended question.
A: Would you agree with me that it’s funny that our argument got so heated because even though you raised the fact we had bad communication, we still couldn’t communicate how we felt to make the other understand?
妈: Well, we wouldn’t have had that argument if we had more consistent communication. I’m sure it would be easier if we talked more often.3
There’s an unwillingness, not merely a failure, to communicate on both our ends, I’ll admit. My mother and I are both too stubborn to back down from a fight and at this point I don’t think we know how to. It’s a messy cycle that we can’t bring ourselves to break—because if we did, who knows what minefield of ugly things we’ll expose? Best to keep our guilt and our blame close to our chests. Easier to accuse our differences in cultural and generational understandings for our fundamental disconnect.
Maybe I’m just a sensitive Gen-Z snowflake who can’t take a few heated words and craves reassurances and a pat on the back for validation. Freud would probably scoff at this piece and write it off as the petty complaints of a spoiled adult child not even worth psychologising over. I should be more grateful for my family, the fact I don’t have to cross entire oceans to see them, that I can see them at all. And I am grateful for all these—but that doesn’t mean the return is any easier.
I don’t understand yet what I’ve learned after the argument and this conversation with my 妈. My sense of familial obligations to return still remain—it would take another global pandemic to interrupt them. But who should I be when I’m home? Opener of old wounds who tries to communicate more even if it can be so painfully one-sided? Or just mute, complacent, stoic: just present—nothing more and nothing less. For now, I’ll stick to sending awkward birthday well wishes, thumbs up reacting to unread WeChat articles about Covid, and book my intercity bus tickets.
 For some reason this made me laugh.
 My only response to this was “…Sure. Let’s move on.” I didn’t really understand what she was getting at either to be honest.
 I didn’t know how to explain to her that trying to communicate more and still being misunderstood just makes you want to give radio silence. I don’t think she’d get the thing about insanity being repeating the same thing over and over and expecting different results.