THE FIRST THREE MINUTES OF LADY BIRD
Of course my mom loves me, but does she like me?
Lady Bird came out during my senior year of high school. The movie took the world by storm: the poster occupied every teenage girl’s bedroom wall, and made everyone who once had a ‘rebellious hair streak’ feel a sense of belonging. The movie explored the complexity of a mother-daughter relationship, its characteristic ups and downs, and above all, captured its perfect alchemy of tenderness and tension.
More than I’d like to admit it, I saw so much of myself in Lady Bird. In my growing pains, I was too proud to admit my faults and mistakes; as appreciative as I was of my upbringing, it was hard for me to verbalize my appreciation until much later on.
My mom preferred harsh truths in place of more flattering, loose platitudes.
Like Lady Bird’s family, my dad took on the role of good cop, and my mom took on the role of bad cop; my mom was never the one to shy away from the truth, and in fact preferred harsh truths in place of more flattering, loose platitudes. As a kid and teenager, it was hard for me to accept things like “are you sure you’re going to wear that outside” or “you look like you’ve put on some weight lately” with a grain of salt. Just as I was trying to figure out who I was in the real world, I had someone breathing down my neck. I felt like I was always doing something wrong, and letting them down one way or another. My parents were nowhere near the degrees many others experience with helicopter and tiger parenting, but they were critical and stern in their own ways, having grown up with hardships of their own. My parents wanted to put me on the right path, even if it might not have been the path I wanted.
My reluctance to be told what to do, or even at times, who to be, was seen as an act of rebellion and caused a lot of friction between my mom and me. Most of our conversations escalated to heated arguments, and at times as screaming matches. “You’re just like your father!” She’d say, “You married him! How is that my fault?” I’d argue. In moments of our usual heated debates, we would stare at each other in disbelief at what was coming out of her mouth. Her honesty imparted a cruel specificity: she knew to kick where it hurt the most, knowing pointing out my insecurities and weaknesses would force me to retreat from furthering these arguments.
Yet, as the saying goes, mother knows best. No matter how fickle my relationship with my mom may be on that given day, I still feel comfortable reaching out to her, even in anticipation of an “I told you so.” I inherently trusted her brand of honesty— even if it was sometimes too honest. My mom always called things as she saw them: they may not have been pleasant to the ears, but at least they were grounded in reality. Even so, they could be startling. There’s such a fine line between the honest truth and the harsh truth. I was not necessarily looking for advice, but rather comfort. I love my mom, and I did not blame her for my hurt feelings, but I was frustrated that she couldn’t understand what I was looking for.
Especially in my first high school relationship, I dreaded input from her, especially from the much anticipated “dump him”. I wanted her to be supportive of me and my relationship— one that I was unsure of already, even if she may not have believed in it.
I sometimes think that the comments our moms make about us, hurt more than the ones we make about ourselves. If my mom, the woman who birthed me thinks of me like this, how could I not, too? It hurts more so when the comments or criticisms become weapons of verbal combat, and all I can do is wave the white flag to the truth.
But I digress, back to Lady Bird.
My brother had gone to a pre-screening of Lady Bird in New York, and he loved it. As he walked out of the theater, he had texted me, urged me to watch it with our mom, and raved about how it reminded him of us because it was “just like us”.
It took some convincing to get my mom to watch Lady Bird with me, or rather to get my mom to sit through a movie with me, My mom was particular about her movies, which had had a big influence on her: after watching CockTail in 1988, she became a bartender for two years at the Grand Hotel in Taipei. (Though I’d like to believe that had more to do with Tom Cruise than the appeal of the bartending profession.) Amongst our family members, she is notorious for walking out on movies, having walked out of Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood two years ago, just because she “wasn’t feeling it.”
I insisted the Lady Bird was a good movie and reminded my mom of how much she loved Saoirse Ronan in “Brooklyn”; eventually, I wore her down and she caved at the request of her two children.
So there we were, watching Lady Bird throw herself out of a moving car, and the screen cutting to her bright pink orthopedic cast with the words “FUCK YOU MOM” in all-caps etched on.
My mom blurted out, “she’s such a bitch.”
“Lady Bird is an asshole to her mom,” she added. She paused, then asked, “is that how your brother sees us?”
Even though my brother had moved out six years prior to that moment, he knew to some extent of our turbulent relationship. My mom and I are both headstrong and are determined to do things the right way — our own ways, to be exact, and this has often resulted in passive-aggressive comments in the family group chat.
By the time my senior year drew to an end, I felt like that was the end all be all. My relationship with my mom would remain distanced and strained, and it was something that would just have to heal through time later on.
At the time, I was spending more time with my friend’s moms in their homes than I was with my own. I dreaded being alone in the house with my mom sometimes because I didn’t know how to talk to her. I was jealous of the relaxed, intimate relationships my friends — especially my white friends, had with their moms. They were on a first-name basis, they baked cookies together, and they could even have a glass of wine (or two) at home together, talking about boys. Others had a best friend in their mom, but I felt like I had a roommate and a punch clock in mine. Don’t get me wrong, I love my mom, and I knew she loved me too, but I felt like she didn’t like me.
When my friend’s moms asked me about my college choices, asking me how I chose what colleges to apply to, I always joked that “the further away from home the better.” The joke quickly became a reality when I committed to the University of Amsterdam, 9,448 kilometers (5,870 miles) away from home. Like many people from my hometown, many of us dreaded the idea of staying where we’d grown up, with all of us fleeing Asia upon graduation, respectively chasing the American (European) dream.
Having grown up struggling with my Asianness, my impending ability to leave Asia was one of the things that kept me sane in the last months of my senior year. I couldn’t want to reinvent myself in a cosmopolitan European city, where I could shake off all cultural and racial expectations that have long-haunted me (spoiler alert: I was unable to shake it off).
I was determined to move to Amsterdam by myself. I didn’t think I needed anyone’s help. I was thrilled to be far away from home all by myself.
“If you’re going to fight with me then we shouldn’t even go at all.” My mom suggested, not wanting to commit to the plane and train fares with the hefty cancelation fees in mind.
“I’m not going to fight with you but are you going to fight with me?” I argued, thinking this was going to turn into a fight of its own.
“What if, we don’t fight? Then we don’t even have to have this conversation.”
To no one’s surprise, we did fight.
When the first day was a trip down memory lane where we respectively showed each other our favorite spots the previous times we came here without each other (her on a group tour, me on a study abroad). The second day, over lunch at Le Petit Quotidien, all hell broke loose. A minor disagreement about whether or not we should leave room for a macaron for the road instead contributed to a major recurring argument on my body image. Maybe it was the jetlag speaking, but neither of us was holding back, it was like we both needed to get it out of our systems before I leave for college. The neighboring tables were unsure of what to make of our hushed screaming (you still have to save face when you’re about to lose your temper) in a mix of Mandarin and Hokkien. We reached a point of disappointment and shocked disbelief that we couldn’t even go two days without an argument.
As we left the restaurant, she made a left to go on with the day as intended, and I made a right back to the hotel. As we went our own ways, we didn’t speak a word to each other.
After our big blowout in Le Petit Quotidien, I felt like the trip was destined for disaster. I felt horrible that the trip had gone south and our last two weeks together were to leave a sour taste in our mouths. When she returned to the hotel room hours later, shopping bags in hand, I tried explaining to her my side of the argument (in a much more polite demeanor), and that I did not mean any ill will. She simply shook her head and said we didn’t have to talk about it.
By the time my dad joined us in Amsterdam, we were somehow on the right foot. Our two-week trip had gone better than either of us had anticipated. When we woke up the third day, it was like the fight never happened, and we were getting along. Even to this day, I’m not sure what part of that blowout sparked the change. But we were able to blow off some steam and get all the things that we’ve long-waited to say off our chests. We even shared a pair of earbuds on the train ride to Amsterdam.
We didn’t become best friends overnight, but that fight prompted a change in the way we communicate. While we used to make the worst assumptions about each other’s intentions and dissect everything the other person said to make our case, when we stopped being on the defense, stopped putting our fences up to keep each other out, we actually found common ground. She would call me to gossip about my insufferable aunts, and I would text her a detailed review of my Uber Eats order. We still fight from time to time, but whenever we do, we manage to laugh about the stupidity of the subject and move on.
Especially now, when I haven’t seen my mom in over a year, I am even a little tempted to pick a fight with her just to keep her on the phone for a little longer. But for the sake of our relationship now, I won’t just yet.
I love my mom. We worked through our differences and saw more of ourselves in each other in the process. Even though I thought I had outgrown my shell, now I know I am just starting to grow into the person I want to be. Just like the last three minutes of Lady Bird, when you take the girl out of her hometown, away from her family, and away from her growing pains, we are able to see it all the more clearly.