Gifts

The other weekend, I went to the local thrift store with a large, overflowing cardboard box. I poured its contents—shoes, clothes, handbags, books, toys, even jewelry—into a gigantic bin by the entrance. The Lupus Foundation gained roughly $100 in value. Meanwhile, my apartment gained about three cubic feet of space, free of miscellaneous objects that had been collecting dust. Most had been gifts.

This whole post is probably going to make me sound bratty and ungrateful, but I have never been big on presents. For one thing, I am not a materialistic person. I don’t want or need many objects in my everyday life to feel happy. When playing The Sims, I always got annoyed by the characters’ need to surround themselves with impractical possessions for a positive Room score, because I couldn’t relate. In the financial spreadsheets I have maintained for several years, luxury spending has consistently placed near last. If something serves no utility, then it is likely wasting space.

I wasn’t always this way. When I was a child, my parents had many family friends who would visit. They often came bearing gifts, some of which I actually quite liked. However, I was almost never allowed to keep them. The gifts would be stashed away in a closet, to be given to somebody else later. Knowing which closet it was, I would sometimes open the door to stare longingly up at the shelf of forbidden presents.

This is not to say I had an utterly deprived childhood. I did receive birthday and Christmas presents, but they were never what I requested in my petitions to Santa. They weren’t even as good as the family friends’ gifts, which I never understood. If it was a matter of economics, why couldn’t I keep their presents, and my mother purchase her own presents for the other kids?

The main issue with my mother’s gifts was that they were often very feminine things: sparkly outfits, delicate necklaces, fashionable purses. They tended to hail from popular brands, which didn’t fit the anti-mainstream aesthetic I started cultivating at an early age. More importantly, they made me uncomfortable because I didn’t—and still don’t—feel like a girl. They were constant reminders that my mother didn’t care about the person I was, and that she preferred to keep pushing me to become someone else.

Gift-giving, I soon realized, must be an inherently inefficient process designed to leave both parties less than satisfied. This belief was reinforced by guys I dated. As you could probably guess, this is the only “love language” that does not resonate at all. For some reason, when I tried to tell them I didn’t want to do presents, they didn’t believe me. Every generic necklace and handbag thus said three things: they also wished I were a woman, they still didn’t know me, and they believed in persisting inefficient processes.

Lots of people are lousy gift-givers, even to recipients without gender issues. Half the time, they pick one thing everybody knows you like, and get you something superficial pertaining to it. Posted a few cat pictures on social media? Next Christmas, you’ll be inundated with cat pens, posters, and paperweights. The rest of the time, they get something they would like, without considering whether you share their tastes. It’s not something you ever talked about, and nothing they know about you indicates you would be interested in it—but it appeals to them, so it should appeal to you, too, right?

I like to think I am more thoughtful with my gifts than most, but honestly, I have insufficient data for such a claim. This is the other thing that bothers me: the lack of outcome tracking. As a kid, when I gave my parents handmade arts and crafts or little mall purchases, I either spotted my offerings in the trash afterward or never again. How naïve of me to expect they would have decorated the refrigerator or nightstand with them.

I gave someone an audiobook on a topic with which he was obsessed, and I’m confident he never listened to a word. I gave someone else a necklace; after months of never seeing her wear it, I felt stupid and hypocritical for doing so. I gave someone else a robot vacuum cleaner; over a year later, she asked curiously at a party whether those things really worked, clearly never having tried running one.  For all I know, those presents—and more—were also stashed away in a closet to be re-gifted in the future. I can’t believe more people aren’t disgruntled about spending money on things that evidently never wind up seeing the light of day.

The only times I see it succeed truly and consistently are through crowdsourced efforts. When friends band together, each chipping in feedback and $20 for a substantial gift, it works satisfyingly well. I’ve learned my lesson and made decisions. I won’t be participating in any more holiday gift exchanges. I won’t buy anyone souvenirs anymore unless explicitly asked. If a couple getting married doesn’t have a registry, I’ll stick to giving them cash. But if anyone wants to join forces for a low-risk idea with high expected value, do still count me in.

Gas Lights

One evening, my mother returned from a routine grocery shopping trip with a six-pack of “YoBaby” yogurt. My brother and I were eight and ten years old, respectively. With such large, unmissable images of laughing infants plastered all over the packaging, this seemed a hilarious lapse of judgment even for someone who didn’t really speak English.

“Did you not notice all the babies?” we asked her. “Did you forget how old we were? Is this your way of announcing that you’re having another kid?”

“It was good deal,” she said, exasperated.

A few days later, the YoBaby mysteriously disappeared from the refrigerator. Being at an age when I fretted constantly over whether my every move was cool and mature, I certainly hadn’t gone anywhere near the stuff. I forgot about it altogether until weeks later, when we were looking at Shop Rite coupons and came across one for yogurt. I burst into laughter. “Hey, remember that time when you bought us that yogurt for babies?” I asked my mother.

“No, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she answered, seeming offended at the very suggestion. I was bewildered. I thought I caught a glimmer of humor in her expression, but couldn’t be sure.

Over the years, however, there were so many more of these kinds of incidents that I stopped finding humor in them—and instead started vacillating between irritation and concern.

At dinner parties, my mother liked to tell family friends—de facto competitors in Asian-American child-rearing—how much I looked forward to being a lawyer someday. I couldn’t recall ever having expressed such career aspirations. Perhaps I had once asked her a question about the justice system. While some of my peers complained about their parents pushing them to become doctors, I was relieved yet offended that this was a dream reserved only for my brother. As the television doctor Mindy Kaling once wondered in her memoir: why not me?

Other times, my mother would combine, confuse, or confabulate aspects of my brother’s life and mine. “They are such picky eaters. Don’t like try new food,” she would tell her friends, when it was only my brother who steered clear of vegetables and unfamiliar substances. When she tidied up the house, my books, CDs, and even T-shirts would often wind up in my brother’s room. “She is shy,” she would apologize on my behalf to new acquaintances, before they had the chance to address me and hear the mouthful I had to offer on current events.

The three of us were pondering the dinner menu on a family cruise when a server passed by with a plate of beef and noodles in brown sauce. “That wouldn’t be any good,” my mother declared. She had a tendency to improvise rapid-fire judgments and believe them to be immutable truths. I sighed internally.

A few minutes later, she pointed to the menu and said, “What do you think, beef teriyaki?”

“I don’t know, but you already said you didn’t want it,” I said.

“No, I didn’t. When did I say that?”

“Just now. The server had a plate of it, and you said it wouldn’t be any good.”

“That didn’t happen.”

“Yes, it did!” My voice rose involuntarily, as if the correct decibel level might jumpstart her memory. “You always do this. You always assume things without any basis whatsoever, and then you paint the rest of us as liars!”

The years of putting up with all the reinvented narratives and adamant denials finally took their toll then. I spent the remaining two days of the cruise drifting in and out of events alone.

An explanation for my mother’s behavior, as well as a glimpse of her destiny, manifested during our family vacation to China. My parents pulled my brother and me out of school two weeks before winter break, and we divided a month between both sets of grandparents. It was my brother’s and my first time meeting them all, but for our maternal grandfather, it was already too late. One minute, he would be smiling and asking us about American schools. The next, he would be shouting, “Who are these children in my home?”, terrifying us into corners and under tables. “What are they doing here? Who the hell let them in?”

That’s what’s happening to her, I half-jokingly thought to myself one random day, years later. My mother was only forty at the time of the YoBaby purchase, but it must have already begun creeping through the recesses of her mind, subtle and insidious as the shadow of a snake. Yet the more I considered it, the more I felt obligated to be seriously concerned. How much worse would it get? What would we do about it? How much longer did I have?

My relationship with my mother has been asymptotic from the beginning, slowly approaching a limit resembling love. When I finally connected my grandfather’s savage senility with her own self-gaslighting, I felt sorry about the inevitability and sorrier that I didn’t feel something more. Here was a woman who had spent my childhood trying to suppress my individuality and conflate it with my brother’s; admonishing me whenever I fell ill because it was somehow my own fault; telling me I only needed to go to a respectable college in order to find a respectable husband; and rejecting my words and experiences in favor of her own expectations or imagination.

And yet, my mother had been passionate about endowing us with childhoods rich in activities and opportunities. She clipped coupons for hours on end and suppressed her materialistic urges for years so that we would never have to forego a school field trip, and could have even have the occasional family vacation. My brother and I were enrolled in music lessons, athletic teams, Chinese school, and summer camps. Although we didn’t necessarily enjoy all of these at the time, we grew to appreciate the experiences when we got older—just as our mother always said we would.

When I collapsed from a nervous breakdown during my first year of college, my mother drove the six hours round-trip to take me home. I had kept silent about my condition for years prior to the incident, because I so dreaded and hated her preaching. But instead of lecturing me for being sick, she tried to be supportive and find help. When you come from a culture that has only recently begun to acknowledge depression as a “real” illness, this means a tremendous deal.

Thus, here also was a woman who loved me and always tried to make me happy; who wanted to help with any task or favor, regardless of scope; who genuinely believed all this was for my benefit and wellbeing.

One night, our plans to go out for dinner in my neighborhood were foiled by a sudden, raging tempest that hit right when my mother arrived at my apartment building.

“Can we stay in and eat here? Do you have any food?” she asked.

All I had were pasta ingredients, but my mother had always found marinara sauce repulsive, calling it “that disgusting red stuff.” I had never seen her try it once.

“I do,” I said reluctantly, “but you wouldn’t like it.”

“Yes, I will! I like anything you make!”

I prepared some spaghetti with marinara sauce and served it to her. Before she even took her first bite, she declared, “It’s so good!”

I sighed internally, amused, annoyed, worried, and feeling a little something like love.