This was my first tattoo. The design is a result of daydreams I had while I worked as a reference assistant in my college library. With not much to do but to wait around for questions from students, I’d sit for hours and doodle on scraps of paper. The design is made up of four different symbols: the Latin anatomical symbols for male and female, the Christian cross and the yin yang. Each part represents something biological to me. The Latin male and female symbols are the union of my parents. The cross, which you can see on the outside of the overlay, represents my Western side or my American father, and the center is the yin yang which represents my Eastern side or my mother who is Chinese.
The design wouldn’t see the side of my arm for many years though. Instead, it lived drawn on a poster board that hung on my bedroom wall all throughout college. Getting a tattoo of it didn’t occur to me until after graduating. I always wanted to get a tattoo. When I was in middle school, I used to draw on myself all the time, imagining that my doodles were actually tattoos. So for months leading up to the actual sit down, I drew the design on the side of my arm in magic marker. Doing this helped me get used to the idea of getting one. When I finally did get used to my faux tattoo, it then became just a matter of when.
That time came in the fall of 1997. I was living with my aunt in New York City, which is where I moved to right after college. One night, my aunt received a phone call from relatives in California informing her that my mother (her sister) had been in a horrible accident—a car had hit her as she tried to cross the street and she was in terrible condition. The news left me beside myself. Five years prior to that, my relationship with my mother had been virtually destroyed. I was a freshman in college when suddenly one day my mother decided to move from our childhood home in Virginia Beach to San Diego with the intention of starting a “new life.” The move would leave me and my 14-year-old sister behind. The news startled us both. My sister ended up moving to Puerto Rico to live with our recently re-married father, and I was left to stay behind in Virginia to complete college. Our mother had literally given us two-weeks notice, and then—Poof! She was gone.
In retrospect, I chalk it up to a mid-life crisis. My mother’s realization that her kids were growing up right before her eyes and soon she’d have nothing to "live for" left her feeling completely unfulfilled. But despite her aspirations for a more fulfilling life, I still couldn’t get past my own feelings of sudden abandonment, and by the time the news sunk in about her accident, it seemed that resentment and bitterness had already built a thick enough barrier to keep me from experiencing any real feelings of sadness and concern for this woman who had apparently nearly escaped death.
So when my aunt did finally tell me what had happened, I waited with anticipation of feeling that sorrow and dread of having almost lost my mother, but incidentally, those feelings never came. Soon a rush of tears sprang forth from my guilty gut. I knew these tears were not actually from the sudden fear of losing my mother, but that actually these tears came from the frustration of not caring whether or not we had lost her at all. I was sick at the notion. I couldn’t believe I was feeling this way. Guilt, shame, and embarrassment kept me from telling my aunt the truth, and even though I was having all these mixed emotions, I knew it would still be expected of me as daughter—an ingrained Asian characteristic—to go out, if for nothing, to see her to health. So after years of practically no contact and under a very heavy heart, I flew out to San Diego to be reunited with my mother.
It was surreal seeing her for the first time in five years, all mangled and bruised up in her hospital bed. Surprisingly enough, I never once felt a sense of poetic justice, though in hindsight, I can see how one might interpret the events as being so. I remember she was completely groggy when she saw me, but she managed to crack a smile, and I instantly noticed the sense of relief she felt as she recognized her oldest daughter standing over her with eyes of concern. And remarkably, I had been concerned, especially when I finally did see what the car had done to her. I think this was one of the first times in my life where I suddenly felt grown up. I recognized the fact that I could easily treat this situation to my own advantage. I could’ve mustered up all the blame and judgment to plead a very good case against this broken woman that lay in front of me, but how would’ve that fixed me? I will agree that in situations like these, it’s easy to conclude victory, and the temptation to swell in utter satisfaction is about as enticing as a scratch to an itch. That would’ve been very “human” of me, and I wouldn’t judge anyone harshly for succumbing to such an impulse. However, it’s also in situations like these where there’s a definite distinction between doing what is human or doing what is more than human. And for me, I just didn’t see the sense in reveling—what good would that have brought to me OR to her and how would that have repaired our relationship? I know many would also suggest just abandoning the relationship all together, but regardless of her sins against me I still knew that she was my mother and she was the only mother I’d ever have and abandoning her—for lack of a better metaphor—would’ve been giving into the “dark side,” and I didn’t want to do that. I still loved her too much.
So when I did look down at that hospital bed I didn’t see the woman who left me and my sister, and for years would prove to subject our family to tons of mental and physical abuse. Instead I saw a woman who hadn’t been dealt the luckiest hand in life and who, herself, had been subject to years of abuse from her own mother and at times her ex-husband, my own father. A flood of compassion passed over me at that instant, and soon I found myself and my mother not only trying to heal what a car had done to her, but also at what life had done to us. The only choice I gave myself during that visit was to mend and forgive. So on the second night of my stay and as I made my way back to the hotel, I stopped at a tattoo shop in downtown San Diego where I got my very first tattoo, my tribute to my mother as she went into surgery. That evening, we'd hope and pray together as we both went under a needle to begin the journey towards recovery.