In 1988, after a bad break-up, I wept on a New York City subway for 45 minutes. No one looked directly at me and most people slowly slid away from me. Unless you’re bleeding to death – and maybe even then – New Yorkers don’t like to get too involved. It’s a self-preservation thing. You never know who is really lurking behind the seemingly sweet façade of a teary young woman. It’s a big city full of all kinds. New Yorkers learn to mind their own business.
Which is why it’s deeply weird for me to walk out the door of our Hong Kong apartment. We live inside a street market and, unless it’s high tourist season, the vendors are usually so bored that any diversion is of interest to them. If the diversion happens to be me, that quirky Gweilo mama, then all the more welcome.
First there are friendly hellos and questions about where I’m going, what I’m doing, and where my daughter is. Sometimes there are comments on my appearance:
“You don’t look so fat today Carla…”
what I’m carrying:
“Why do you go to that expensive foodmarket… too expensive..”
what they hope I’m doing:
“Going to get Kate? Bring her back home so we can play with her!”
If I have a cold - diagnoses, medicines and herbal treatments are recommended. If Kate has mosquito bites, various unguents are pressed into my hands. If I’m dressed up, eyebrows are raised and I am asked questions about the location of my husband. Nothing goes unnoticed or uncommented on.
This winter there is a low level of shock and awe when Kate and I emerge dressed in what I feel is appropriate clothing for January in temperate Hong Kong. As our eternally over-heated girl bounds down the market street in a tee-shirt and light hoodie, I am besieged by concerns for her temperature. Hands reach out to touch her hands and stroke her arms. “She’s cold, she’s so cold… are you cold Kate?” I try to point out that they are standing still while she is generating the heat of a normal energetic child. My excuses are greeted with nods and sweet smiles, but underneath there is a question brewing. How clueless is the quirky Gweilo Mama?
They have uncovered my Achille’s heel: Mama Imposter Syndrome. Each morning the curtain rises just outside the door to our apartment, and my fears of being unmasked are realized. Sometimes, my wee drama queen doesn’t even make it down the stairs before she decides that it’s time to have a messy tantrum. Her loud wails rip through my shaky grasp on parenting and expose me to a rapt audience. I am on stage with no costume. I am taking a test in my pajamas. The salespeople and store owners from the street market where we live; the ancient bowlegged woman who tears up the cardboard boxes; the sanitation workers taking their morning tea break; the local philosopher who sells Ming vases; they’re all clucking, pointing and, incredibly, laughing. Maybe it’s my quirky Gweilo mama paranoia, but I feel like they all know something I don’t and it’s me they are laughing at.
I stand beside the histrionic pocket-diva and harrumph about a “huge time out” and “no videos for a week,” but she continues her barefoot soliloquy. All she lacks is a bullhorn, a sandwich board and a giant inflatable rat. She rejects the sneakers I am asking her to wear. She not only rejects the sneakers, she refuses all footwear that threatens to enclose her hot little feet.
It’s a stand-off. Actually, it’s a kneel off because now I’m kneeling down to make some serious and significant eye contact. It’s a useless gesture. At this point, the star of the show is speaking in tongues and practically levitating with the force of her indignation. Then, without warning, the Deus Ex Machina descends. It’s the lady who runs the silk bathrobe shop. Before I can make any more threats, Kate is scooped onto the bathrobe lady’s lap where she happily sucks a sweetie and patiently allows both sneakers to be placed and then firmly Velcro-ed on her newly placid feet.
I am left kneeling in the street, raw with the scratches of public humiliation and furious that bad behavior has been rewarded with candy. But, while I yearn for the anonymity of the F Train and my posse of "time-out-wielding-mind-your-own-business" mama-friends, I see that my daughter is growing up with an unparalleled sense of love and safety. Here strangers reach out to touch Kate’s hair or stroke her cheek with curiosity, affection and even reverence. She is often photographed, handed sweeties and engaged in conversation as if she was her own decision-making entity and not a dependent child.
Sometimes toothless grannies will see her eating an ice cream and, in clear-as-a-bell sign language, demand that she give them a bite. When she reluctantly offers up her treat, they applaud her generosity and kiss her on the cheek. They’re just testing her – it’s their job as part of the Hong Kong community that is raising our daughter. Grannies teach morality, bathrobe ladies give sweeties.
Before Kate and I go back to New York for a visit, I usually stage an intervention by role-playing “bad guys” and lecturing her on staying close and not trusting strangers. It feels strange to be injecting this element of fear into her innocent life but I think she understands that the world is filled with different kinds of people. I also think she understands that her tantrums won’t always end in sweeties. I know she understands, better than I do, that her quirky Gweilo mama is doing the best she can.
I can't tell you about it because you're a grown-up. Grown-ups can't know about these things.