“You brought face masks?”
“And you ate something 30 minutes ago?”
“And you have the vaccination email, and your ID, and water, and a pen for filling in forms while you wait, and—”
“YES,” I said, with as much attitude as I could muster at ten in the morning. My mum seemed finally satisfied. She stood awkwardly outside our front door, dressed in her nightgown, and watched as my brother backed us out of the driveway.
“Good luck!” she called, after a moment’s hesitation.
Weird thing to say about a COVID-19 vaccination, I wanted to retort, but we were already on our way.
I can’t say I have the best relationship with my mum. After my exchange was cut short last March and I returned to live with her, my dad, and my brother just in time for lockdown, things only got worse between us. Maybe the pandemic put her on edge. Maybe working at the border for AirNZ made her especially protective or paranoid when it came to COVID-19. Whatever the case, I didn’t talk to my mum for days after she accused me of breaking COVID protocol to hang out with friends, when really I’d dressed up to buy tiramisu ingredients at Countdown.
“Can you nav?” my brother asked as we exited the motorway.
“Can you?” I agreed, before entering the address of the vaccination site into Google maps. I thought about how my mum had reminded me to tell the nurses that I’d had a “strong reaction” (mild fever) to the measles shot as a kid, in case that was relevant to getting the Pfizer shot…somehow. I didn’t want to do it out of pure spite.
Okay, remember when I said we didn’t have the best relationship? Let me rephrase that.
I’m an absolute bitch to my mum and I don’t know how to fix it.
My mum has always been overprotective. I don’t think it bothered me as a kid, because—let’s be honest—kids are stupid and I definitely would’ve contributed to our infant mortality rate without some protecting. It was just me, my brother, and mum when we first moved here. My dad had stayed behind in China to work. Maybe that’s why she wanted to do everything for us. My mum chaperoned my brother and I to extracurricular clubs, picked out our outfits for school photo days (colour coordinated, obviously), and immediately joined our primary school PTA, even though she struggled with English. She must’ve been brave. I wonder if she ever regretted coming here for two stupid kids and their futures. It never seemed like she did.
I think I felt infantilised, as I grew up. I remember one time she dropped me off at our high school cultural night. She was horrified at the huge queue snaking out the main gates and down the street.
“Someone might get trampled!” She exclaimed, to which I responded no one’s getting trampled, and please pick me up at nine.
It was my dad who later told me that she’d called the police as soon as she got home to report our high school trampling risk. The operator laughed it off, but I wanted to bury myself in a shallow grave and perish. I was mortified.
By 2019, I was desperate to get away from New Zealand—and if we’re really being honest, I was desperate to get away from her. I wanted to prove to myself that I could survive—no, thrive—on my own. So I signed up for a two-semester exchange to Montreal, though anywhere would’ve been fine. Even then, my mum insisted on coming with me, at least for the first few weeks. Eventually, I relented (she then suggested moving to Montreal for the entire duration of my exchange, which I shot down faster than soju). Honestly? I’m glad she came. Despite my lofty dreams of an Independent City Girl Life™, I didn’t even know where to start. From setting up bank accounts, to buying SIM cards, to speed-running IKEA 30 minutes before closure and getting the best damn deal on pots and pans in town, my mum was with me every step of the way. Before she went back to New Zealand, she cooked a big batch of stir-fry beef and tomatoes and left it in my fridge. It was delicious.
But I also somehow felt like I’d failed. I’d relied on her again for everything. What’s changed?
And when COVID wrecked our collective shit in March 2020, with one week left of my exchange, my mum moved my flight up. Using her AirNZ staff privileges, she’d been intently tracking the border policy and flight changes every day. Which would’ve been fine. Except she’d given me one day’s notice.
I mean, it’s the most privileged thing to complain about, right? People are dying, Kim. But that night, after I’d stayed up packing and saying goodbye to my friends forever (I know I’m being dramatic, but let me wallow), I sat in my dorm with a full tub of Ben & Jerry’s that I’d been saving for a special occasion that would now never come, and I cried. It’s like I had no agency in my own life. Also, Ben & Jerry’s is literally double the fucking price in New Zealand, and I was fucking heartbroken.
Even though she was on the other side of the world, my mum still did what she knew was best for me—or what she thought she knew. All I could think of was a Celeste Ng quote, from Everything I Never Told You (oh wow I’m sorry, I know this is the most pretentious thing ever; I swear this is the only literary quote I know; also I guess I use semicolons now?). Anyway. All I could think about was this quote I read in our high school English class:
“How suffocating to be so loved.”
The vaccination was relatively quick and painless.
The nurses took our temperatures, explained the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, and collected our consent forms. I reluctantly mentioned my relatively normal reaction to the measles shot. The nurses took note. Then one little jab, and we were sent to the observation area.
It was exciting. It felt historical. I glanced around the room as I sat down in a surprisingly comfortable plastic folding chair. What a soothing purple theme they’ve chosen for the vaccine rollout, I thought. My favourite colour. Well, my mum’s favourite colour. I wanted to copy her when I was really young, back in China, and now I don’t know if I actually like purple or if I’d pretended to for so long that I’ve fooled myself. Though what’s the difference? I think it’s pretty.
I thought about my mum. I thought about the time my primary school teacher was incredibly mean to me (sometimes justifiably so, but even I admit she crossed a line), and how my mum went straight to the principal to hold her accountable. I didn’t find out until years later, when my mum let it slip. I thought about the day she got the call from AirNZ telling her she’d been hired. We jumped and yelled throughout the house in celebration. I thought about the time I fell sick in Montreal. I didn’t tell anyone, obviously, and certainly not my mum. But I felt so lonely, lying feverishly in my bed on my own. I missed her chicken soup and honey-lemon water and her hand on my forehead and how hard she cared. I missed my mum.
I thought about how she’d been the most worried out of any of us about COVID-19. I thought about how angry and scared she’d been when she thought I broke COVID protocol, how she’d wipe down all the groceries with disinfectant and leave them on the floor for hours before touching them again. And I thought about how everyday she gets up, puts on her uniform, and goes to work at our borders. She’s always been brave.
The nurses sent us home after 20 uneventful minutes. My mum met us eagerly at the door./
“How’d it go?” she asked.
“Fine,” I answered.
“Does it hurt?”
“Are you hungry?”
I looked past her into the kitchen. I saw steaming plates of stir-fry vegetables and Peking duck in a takeaway box. I knew she’d bought that especially for us, in preparation for our return. I loved Peking duck.
“Yes,” I said, after a pause. “What’s there to eat?”
My mum beamed. She began enthusiastically introducing each element of the feast, and as I watched I felt a dull, constant, not-unpleasant ache in my upper left arm.
Finally, after all she did to protect us, I could do something to protect her.