How A Desperate Housewife And Mom Became My Role Model
Recently, my colleagues have been talking about a popular TV drama, 我的前半生 (My First Half Life). As an ABC whose Chinese language skills are terrible, I don’t watch a lot of TV shows here. But I’m told that “everyone in China knows this particular show.”
When they described the story to me about a woman who has to go from being a housewife and mother to starting a career because of a marriage that’s gone bad, I said to my colleagues, “What’s so dramatic about that? I saw my mom go through the same thing in real life.”
My mom married early and also experienced a marriage that just wasn’t working out. By her late 20s, with three kids and living in the suburbs of North Carolina, she was feeling alone, irrelevant, and depressed. She had nobody to turn to who could help her. So to save herself, she decided to pursue a career in public health. This wasn’t just to keep herself busy. She wanted to do something meaningful with her life and good for others. Her first move to pursuing this was to go back to school to get a Masters degree.
At the time, that seemed like a crazy idea. My older brother was five, I was three, and my little sister was just one year old. My mom was also viewed as “the dumb, but pretty one” among her brothers and sisters. Nobody in the family thought she had any real potential to have a successful professional career. She went to a 3rd tier all-women’s college and was a ‘C’ student. As she would always say, “It was basically just a finishing school that young women would go to before you became a mother and housewife.”
But all this didn’t stop her from going back to school again, which she did head first. Of course, taking courses at a reputable university, the University of North Carolina, wasn’t easy for her at first. She struggled just to pass her classes.
Her turning point came when one of her professors encouraged her to apply to the PhD program. His words shocked her. There were many younger students with much more impressive academic backgrounds than hers. But this professor told her that among all his students, she was the one that he felt had the most potential. He said he saw a hunger and almost desperation to be successful in her. So upon his suggestion, she applied and got into the doctoral program. And so began her academic career.
All this time, she never stopped being an awesome mother. She did take some short cuts to manage both her family and career. We ate a lot of TV dinners and prepared foods. Sometimes, we had cereal for lunch or dinner. But we were kids. To us, it was fun. We liked it. We also ate a lot of reheated leftovers. She used to call them her, “momma specials.”
As kids, we knew how busy she was so tried to stay out of her way. Back in those days, we would walk to and from school by ourselves. We ran around the neighborhood playing with the other kids and entertaining ourselves. She’d drop us off at camps in the summer time.
I was her biggest headache. I loved playing all kinds of sports at the elementary school near our house and never noticed when it was time to go home for dinner. Half the time, my mom had to send our nanny from Hong Kong to go out and look for me. She’d walk up to the school and yell out in the dark, “Lally, come home, Lally, come home,” in the few English words she knew.
Meanwhile, my mom worked her ass off. When we moved from North Carolina to Maryland, she got a job at Johns Hopkins University, one of the top medical universities in the U.S. The only problem was that the university was 150 kilometers from our home. But again, that didn’t stop her. She got up at 6am every morning to catch a ride with some other people for the 1 1/2 hour drive. She would do work in the car to and from the university. She’d arrive back home at night in time for dinner, and then go up to her room to work until midnight or later. She did this all the years we were growing up.
Sunday though was family day. It was her quality time with us. She’d take us to do anything we wanted. Many of those days, it was to take my brother and me fishing. She’d bring along a lawn chair, her floppy hat, and sunglasses, and sit by the lake doing work next to us, while my brother and I fished all day. We were enthusiastic, but terrible fishermen. Too noisy!
At the beginning of my sophomore year in college, my mom, dad, and I drove my sister to school to begin her freshman year in college. As the youngest one, she was the last one to leave the house. So during the drive, my parents told us that it was time to move on with their lives. There was no reason for them to stay together in the same house anymore.
So my mom made another bold decision then to move to Los Angeles to join the School of Public Health at UCLA. Having spent all of her life on the east coast up until then, she didn’t know anyone in L.A., except for me. I had moved there just a year earlier after graduating from university. At nearly 50 years old, she made another fresh, clean start to her life.
That was over 30 years ago. My mom would say that these past 30+ years have been the best of her life. Five years after moving to L.A., she met Leo. Suddenly, I was the one to worry and give her dating advice. “What does he do for a living?” Why isn’t he married now?” “What are his intentions?”
Of course, she didn’t listen to a thing I said. They got married after just three months of dating. “At our age, we’re both very clear about what we want,” is what she told me. They’ve lived happily together ever since.
It was after getting to UCLA that my mom started making regular consulting trips to China, usually 2-3 times a year. During these trips, she would lead teams of Masters and PhD students to work with her on healthcare projects sponsored by the World Health Organization and Ford Foundation. These projects addressed a wide variety healthcare issues that included family planning, prenatal care, AIDS awareness, cigarette smoking, and waste recycling. She collaborated with different universities and medical institutions here and built an impressive network and following in China’s healthcare community.
On one of these trips, my brother-in-law, who also has a PhD in public health, had the chance to work with my mom on one of her projects. She was already in her mid-60s at the time. I remember him saying, “You know, mom is unbelievable! Every day, she’s the first one up and the last one to go to sleep. And in between, she’s running around and has more energy than any of the rest of us. And we’re all half her age!” I remember thinking to myself, “Yup, that sounds just like mom, alright.”
Independent, brave, tough, resilient, dedicated, passionate, heartfelt, dealing with adversity, overcoming the odds, rising from the ashes, pursuing an inspired life. These are all words and phrases that describe my mom and her life. So watching a TV drama to see these things doesn’t sound that interesting to me. I’ve witnessed a real version of all these things my whole life through my mom. Now if she only had a steamy affair or two, maybe her life would make a good TV series to watch too!返回