The 8 a.m. bell hadn’t even rung yet and sweat was already trickling down my back. The late summer sun simmered the humid air, foretelling triple-digit temperatures during lunch time. I was already cursing the long jeans my legs were sweltering in.
The pink printed tank top and shorts I had decided on a week before would have been mercifully breezy enough for me to survive the heatwave, but instead I found myself reaching for jeans that morning to cover the purple welts and scabs striping the backs of my legs.
The night before, my clothes for the next day had been deemed indecent for someone my age, sparking a storm of rage. Stinging words and hands slapped my face, and then a wooden ladle descended across my legs until it splintered into several pieces. Screaming and pleading through tears only incited further anger, something I had learned very early on, so I resorted to crying myself to sleep when it was over in the early hours of the morning.
The day of my half-sister’s promotion from eighth grade, she was beaten on her legs until she couldn’t sit on the wooden dining chairs for the rest of the summer.
Punishments extended beyond the physical and took on the form of humiliation. Years before these incidents, I was stripped of everything but my underclothes, dragged by my hair onto the porch and locked out. I was huddling behind the slotted fence, trying to quiet my sobs so that I could be let back in, when a car pulled out of the night and stopped on the curb right in front of our home. A man I had never seen before stepped out and looked around. I scooted over to a narrow pillar to conceal myself behind it, its popcorned points digging into my skin as I held my breath for an eternity. After about three minutes, the man left, and 20 minutes later, I was let back in.
It would be unfairly forgiving and incredibly false to assume that these are the only instances of abuse I have experienced and witnessed; dozens more episodes and their perpetrators have blurred and become indistinguishable from each other.
And though these memories have been scarred on to my being, it would also be wrong to consider me uniquely strong for enduring them. Being beaten by your parents and grandparents has become a sort a twisted joke in the Asian American community. Comparisons of the creative and painful punishments that they have conjured up are punctuated freely with laughter and smiles. YouTube personalities have made “on the street” videos asking Asian American millennials about their experiences with physical punishment. Being hit with metal coat hangers is not uncommon, and the interviewer himself lightheartedly recalls a time he was sent to the emergency room by his parents’ hands.
Our apparent insensitivity toward the subject reflects a saddening acceptance of violence. Like some messed up family tradition, violence is passed down through generations, rearing its head in the form domestic abuse, child abuse or both. Often, one causes the other. Many of us hurt as children are left with permanent emotional and physical scars, but we don’t always vow to end the cycle. Instead, we often believe that the diligence and work ethic beaten into us enabled us to fulfill our dreams. In an immigrant-heavy culture, temporary pain means nothing if it is rewarded with socioeconomic success. By attributing our successes to our bruises, the abused become potential abusers hoping to instill the same values in our own children.
But our jokes and banter, though they may draw sneers from outsiders, also symbolize the end of normalized physical punishment. Moving away from this violent form of “tough love” won’t be solved by bombarding parents with statistical mumbo-jumbo, though. The generational chain of violence can be severed with an honest self-evaluation by the abused, on the years I’ve wasted wallowing in anxiety and severe depression. And by realizing the debilitating consequences of our abuse, and not just our subsequent success, we can mend the splintered ladle and cook up some real love.
Sarah Heo writes the Friday column on the semblance of security. Contact her at [email protected].