My mom, a little Asian woman with a huge smile and a fierce child-like wonder, is weeping over lunch.
She is telling her two daughters about favor from God. She’s been on furlough in North America from her missions work in China and she’s reflecting on the bounty of this summer. She is thanking God for letting her find the perfect size curlers on a thrift-store hunt and for being able to go to San Jose to visit her newborn grandson...and her favorite exercise guru.
It’s a rare moment for her. Both of her daughters are sitting there, sans husbands, sans kids, giving her their full attention. This she rarely gets.
She’s orating passionately on her thrift shop finds. They are trivial to everyone but her. And she feels their importance so keenly. Whenever she receives a little blessing in life (that great thrift store find! or in that sweet parking spot!), she attributes it to God. And she really really needs to share. When she does, she is so overcome with God’s goodness to her—that He would see her needs from heaven and provide, even though she doesn’t deserve it at all—it brings her to tears.
I am almost crying too. But I’m also kind of embarrassed (as I have been my whole life) by her antics. I know how people roll their eyes behind her back. I know her brash vulnerability and enthusiasm are too much for the worldly wise. I’m aware of the controversies that her passion has stirred, of how many people she can rub the wrong way.
I’m also kind of unnerved by how similar I am to her.
I may hide behind a bit more education, a bit more urbanity. I may not prattle on with a Chinese accent (and I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a huge sun-visor the way she does). But I am like her. I am my mother’s daughter.
How rushed and impatient she is, how she fixates over one thing and then won’t let go until her needs have been met or she’s been heard. How she emotes with great gusto. How she repeats the same thing over and over again until it grates on your nerves.
I do all these things.
I am like her in good ways and bad. She has one trademark story, told to all. It involves her, me—a sleeping baby in her arms—and Dr. James Dobson on the radio in 1979. His voice on the radio tells parents that society is going down the tubes and that the only answer is biblical parenting. And young 23-year-old Maylin Chui, newly immigrated from Hong Kong, with no Canadian education but a high school diploma, sits weeping in her chair, a newborn in her arms, and cries out to God in brokenness to teach her what biblical parenting is.
God answered that prayer. He answered it by giving her four children who still walk in her faith, by giving her six grandchildren before the age of 55, by giving her a legacy of parenting classes that she taught to Chinese immigrants in Canada and now to Chinese in China.
It’s not just Western parenting that the authoritarian Chinese need to learn, but Biblical parenting. It’s not just the self-esteem movement, but grace coupled with authority and discipline, unconditional love coupled with firm boundaries. Or maybe unconditional love that is so deep that it necessitates firm, gentle boundaries.
I remember the countless hours of mortified Junior High grief that I endured because my mom didn’t wear her hair like the other moms, didn’t talk like the other moms, didn’t drive nice cars like the other moms, didn’t dress in brand name clothes like the other moms, didn’t drink and socialize and go on cruises like the other moms. But now I am so grateful that my mom was not like other moms.
I can’t imagine God answering her prayer in any other way than in giving me the childhood that I had. The legacy is of biblical parenting, yes. A legacy my mother bequeathed to us and lives on in full force both in her life and in the lives of my siblings.
But the real legacy, the deeper legacy is one of softness toward God. It’s her ability to cry out: that hunger, that need, that brokenness.
If my mom’s signature prayer was “God I can’t be a parent. Show me how to parent.” then my signature prayer has and always will be “God, keep my heart soft. Keep it soft to you and soft to others. Never let it harden in cynicism or bitterness.” She uttered other signature prayers. One of them was “God please let my children get caught when they do something wrong.” The other was “God, please prepare the right godly spouse for all my children.” That God answered her in all these and more is testament to His goodness, yes, but also to her simplicity and child-like wonder at life.
She always says to me “Julia, it’s only by God’s grace that I and your father are not divorced!” It sounds shocking and violent, almost blasphemous to talk about one’s own marriage so lightly like that. But I get it. I get the tender balance between worst possible outcomes and God’s wide net of grace. Trusting God is safe and cozy. But it’s also shocking and violent. It’s exposing. It’s wild. And our trivialities and hang-ups don’t surprise Him. He sees them all and He walks through them, one by one, holding our hand.
“No request is too small for God,” my mom insists. “None, girls. If there’s one thing I tell you this summer, it’s to cry out to him. He cares. He really does.”
Okay mom. I hear you. I’ve heard you my whole life. You’ve sung the same song. Your tune has not changed.
I hear it and I believe it.
Julia Cheung is a cultural analyst and journalist of relationships, always on the lookout for stories of beautiful misfits. She lives in Vancouver BC with the loveable motley crew of her pastor husband and two preteen children. She is a bundle of antitheses, a lover of truth, a teller of tales, a too often emotional egoist and a fervently curious anti-narcissist. You can find her online at wifeinredemption.com.