I Grew Up with Parents Who Didn’t Understand Mental Illness

‘The Woo-Woo’ author Lindsay Wong recalls childhood in a deeply superstitious household.

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Oct 24 2018, 4:20pm

Photo courtesy the author

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

The following excerpt of Lindsay Wong’s ‘The Woo-Woo’ is published with permission from Arsenal Pulp Press.

The Woo-Woo ghosts first came to visit when I was six, in 1992, when my baby brother was born. A month later, at 2 or 3 AM, “the aliens” supposedly had an interplanetary stopover in our kitchen.

My mother knew that she had acquired powerful psychic abilities, “like Superman,” she said excitedly, and because she had a fourth grader’s English vocabulary and loved swear words, she often described her ability to see what was coming as “Batman’s spidey sense or some shit.” Yet she’d never cuss in Chinese, arguing that it was repulsive. Later, I’d recognize that her fireball language was unlike most mothers. After all, what mom wakes up her daughter in the middle of the night by long-jumping on her bed and yelling that she was “very afraid, help!” Most nights, she’d sleep opposite me on my kid-sized mattress, her bunioned feet resting on my head.

Most mothers do not need to be comforted by their six-year-old daughters, but as a child, I found her physical presence to be both comforting and terrifying; her feet, funny-shaped, Spam-smelling, and certainly irritating, were a means to receive her attention. I see myself as that chubby little girl, moon-faced and urgently afraid of the dark, needing my mother to be more typical and less fickle—to generously soothe my whirlwind nightmares when we dozed together, yet she was always gone when I needed her most.

My mother’s delusions started early one morning; it all began as she had fumbled for baby formula in the pantry at my brother’s feeding time. She later told me the next morning that there had been a hot, staticky voice in her head that seemed to possess her. Look over here, the voice had demanded, and my mother’s eyeballs and neck robotically swiveled to the doorway as if by pure synaptic sorcery. You’re okay, the voice reassured her. You’re going to be absolutely A-okay.

“Lindsay, it was an alien or a ghost!” she wailed, grabbing my shoulders. “It took possession of my brain and body!”

Too young to understand, I shrugged her off and walked away. But I wanted to know why we weren’t happy or even nice to one another, like The Flintstones or The Jetsons on Saturday morning television.

This was the first hallucinatory “vision” that made her insist she had played host to the Woo-Woo. “They came here, right into the kitchen and hugged me!” she continued, clutching her belly, following me to the kitchen, where I was searching for leftover Halloween candy for breakfast. “Oh my God! Then the ghosts or aliens put fire in my body and gave me magical powers! So everyone in our family has to listen to me from now on!”

“Okay,” I said, wanting to show her that I heard her, “but does that mean I can have more chocolate?”

Unfortunately, in our large Chinese family, mental health was not a strong suit. I had a grandmother who had been diagnosed with serious paranoid schizophrenia, who everyone said was mentally weak (or suffered from embarrassing extrasensory perception, a.k.a. “fucked-up ESP”). Too many of us were inclined to nervous breakdowns, mainly in exciting, psychotic installments. And many years later, when I was twenty years old, on Canada Day 2008, my Auntie Beautiful One, the youngest of my mom’s five sisters, would take the city of Vancouver hostage, trapping more than 200,000 people as she threatened to leap off the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge.

According to what I would now describe as seventeenth-century Chinese psychobabble, it was thought that we were somehow more prone than other people to “demonic possession.” This wisdom, said to be common knowledge, was superstitious folklore that my family wholly believed in. It was a standard practice, like brushing your teeth, which had been handed down by my ancestors and perpetuated among our clan. My family was so mistrustful of all breeds of outsiders and North American newspapers, choosing to champion instead rambling phone gossip and ancient bullshit tradition: “Aiya! If you have the shit gas, go outside and hit yourself fifty times in the ass with a bamboo stick and it will go away! Fever? No problem. Run around in the snow. Naked.”

Later, when I was in high school and briefly took psychology as an elective, I saw my mother’s picture next to the definition of psychotic delusions, but of course, there was no mention of the Woo-Woo, whose foul moods ruled our household. Our family insisted that supernatural outcasts chartered our bodies because we were born with watery minds and squishy hearts, which meant that anything dead could rent us for free. Randomly leaping inside us, these ghostly villains rotated among their hosts at least once a week. It’s in the DNA and cultural beliefs of almost every village Chinese family to think ghosts, gwei, are haunting them every so often, especially if a new baby is born exceptionally ugly or someone gets a shocking grade on the SAT. But our family’s Woo-Woo was the most horror-worthy and innovative.

As a kid, unlike my mother, aunties, and grandmother, I did not have this peculiar superpower, and upon finding out that my mother was in terrible trouble, and not entirely understanding the consequences, I desperately wanted to belong. No matter how hard I tried, or how much I peeked inside cupboards and closets, I could not see a single ghost.

As a small child, not having the Woo-Woo power was like not being invited to a birthday party whose host you detested, yet everyone you knew had been invited and came back raving about the laser tag and the seven-layer ice cream cake. Even though my parents’ fights scared me as a child, I also found their brand of crazy fascinating. Like a car wreck, I couldn’t look away.

To solve her supernatural problem at home, which in the real world was a case of severe depression and anxiety, my mother took my two siblings and me to our suburban shopping center after school. At the beginning, the mall, with its colorful stores and cheap deep-fried smells, was thrilling—a novelty fairground that was a parallel reality to school and home. It was where you could chug down unlimited Pepsi, choose sugary candy bars from magical vending machines, and ride a purple choo-choo train for seventy-five cents—a burgeoning wonderland scene where my mother wanted to exclusively spend time with me. It was like a mini vacation.

“You can have whatever you fucking want,” she would say, handing me her purse like she was the patroness of both Lunar New Year and Halloween.

But by the third day, I was so tired of the unrelenting chaos and crowds that I just wanted to stay at school, hurling sand in the playground and enthusiastically challenging other kids to ant-eating contests and kicking them if I didn’t win.

But Monday through Friday we stayed in the food court from opening to closing time, only leaving to attend school. Eventually, I became sulky and punched the back of her seat whenever she drove—I did not want to stay in the food court, but at 3 PM., she robotically scooped up my sister and me and we sat there until 9 or 10 PM. Anxious and infuriated after the first week, I was forbidden to return home if my father wasn’t there because she said we were all in terrible end-of-the-world jeopardy.

“Sears is not as safe as Hudson’s Bay because it’s not as bright,” she would exclaim. “Look for lots of lights and sunshine!”

She thought that if we hid out in retail paradise, then the elevator music, the hot dazzling display lights, and the blasts of delicious fatty-food smells would comfort and sustain us. There was less chance of getting killed if we were always surrounded by an anonymous daytime horde of housewives with strollers, all unaware of the vicious Chinese Woo-Woo who was afraid of crowded places, according to our mother. Our situation was not unique, as my extended family would often hang out at shopping centers after funerals or crises to cleanse us from bad luck. In our family, we were simply saving ourselves.

To keep us busy and to find answers to her scary “vision,” my mother usually made all of us loop around the mall thirty times, my sister and me barely keeping up with the stroller while she forged ahead. Since I complained that I did not like to run around the mall non-stop, she promised me a bucket of cheese fries and maybe two hot fudge sundaes if I did.

“What do you do if an alien or Woo-Woo attacks you?” my mother asked us, insisting that running would help us if the evil ghost somehow found our mall outside Vancouver. This was the only way that she knew how to care for us.

“Go to the Bay!” I screamed in a convulsing sugar-high monotone, while my sister nodded. This seemed to satisfy my mother, but then she’d ask us again, needing our unwavering childish reassurance, a million times.

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Photo courtesy the author

We wore mismatched, unwashed sweatshirts and leggings with weird kaleidoscopic patterns because our mother didn’t pay much attention to our clothes. The Wongs, she said, were not a vain people, unless there were family connections to impress. She dressed herself randomly and handed us whatever—I wore fluorescent-green overalls and boys’ orange T-shirts, all from my older cousins who had outgrown their wasted, shitty, are-you-sure-they’re-not-from-the-60s clothes, most likely passed on from other people in Hong Kong. The hand-me-downs were sequined leftovers with funny, misspelled messages, which I didn’t notice until I learned how to read. My overalls had glittery "Rain in Spring run Mainly in Plaine" on the sides and my beachy orange T-shirt said, "Luff Thee Mother." We were thriving suburban bums, self-made Hongcouver hippies, living in our self-imposed exile. It bothered me on some instinctive level that my clothes looked like figure skating costumes, but it did not become so apparent until kids in the older grades started to mock my outfits, which meant that I had to chuck rocks at their brains during recess.

We showered twice a month to save money, and a kindergarten teacher at the new Montessori school called my mother in one day to convey the stinky verdict.

“Does Lindsay shower?” the woman asked, a naive new teacher straight from college, having absolutely no clue that she was confronting an ogress. “We’ve had countless complaints.”

“Do you think my kid smells like shit?” My mother became enraged. I stared at my desk, which I was defacing, intently, with a felt-tip marker. “Tell me, out of all the teachers in this school, how come we got stuck with a bitch?”

She suddenly turned to me. “Come on, Lindsay, let’s quit this school!” she snapped. “You won’t learn anything from a crazy woman who thinks you smell like poo. She’s picking on us because we’re Chinese.”

But the next week, as was customary, she forgot about the argument and sent me back, because we had tried almost every elementary school in the district, and I was already very resistant to any education that did not have an immediate cash reward. Although I was six, I could not read or write, and I wasn’t even sure if my parents knew the English alphabet—no one had bothered teaching me letters or numbers. But to instill in me a burgeoning work ethic, my parents paid me to go to school: 25 cents per day. My Chinese parents understood the value of monetary pride, but my teachers complained about my compost stench and were too stingy to part with a nickel or a dime, which annoyed me, like a nagging stomach ache. I tried not to show it, but it worried me that I was the sad, radioactive source of such freakish ping-pong screaming between my mother and teachers.

I did not know this at the time, but my mother liked to lose herself at the mall, a kind of fragile ghost woman—enormous caterpillar-brown eyes and fried hair from the 80s that made her look permanently electrocuted—who was teetering into a protracted nervous breakdown with three little kids in tow. She must have wanted to be a proper suburban housewife. Even though it was 1993, three kids meant that you had achieved a certain financial status. She could not stop having children until she had produced a boy because she would not be blessed according to our Chinese superstitions. And after all, a son made you the envy of everyone in the Chinese community, no matter where you were in the world. It was like suddenly becoming the owner of a fancy new Porsche, whereas being the mother of a girl was like leasing a Toyota.

This was what, I would come to believe, also led to her breakdown—she had been waiting and waiting for the birth of my baby brother and when it arrived, there was no starry-eyed revelation where the skies ruptured and the universe thanked her by raining pellets of gold.

Instead, my mother got depressed—in retrospect, I see it might have been postpartum depression and treatable. But instead, she used the mall, where she was hoping to be saved, muttering apprehensively to herself about divine intervention. But what I also didn’t see then was that this nervous breakdown was supposed to be fun: she enjoyed the frenzied bustle in her own emotionally stunted way—freedom from our asylum-colored house.

“Pizza? Hot dog? French fries?” she would yell enthusiastically when she picked me up from school. “At the mall, you can eat whatever you want! We’ll be safe and I don’t have to ever fucking cook!”

“Whatever,” I said, ignoring her heady excitement and secretly wondering when we could permanently move back home. To emphasize my monstrous displeasure, I kicked the back of the driver’s seat over and over, but she didn’t seem to notice or care.

Maybe my mother also saw our relocation as an active unwifely rebellion against my father, who was afraid and unsupportive of her reaction to her ghosts, so he would be responsible for making his own wonton noodle lunches and ironing his own collared shirts.

Looking back, we were superstitious, paranoid Chinese suburbanites who were trying our best to fit in. The Woo-Woo ghosts haunted us to the point where if someone fell down or cut their finger, it was blamed on a nasty spirit—“Aiya! Get the Polysporin! But make sure there are no ghosts in the fucking medicine cabinet!”

After a week of whirling around the mall, all I wanted was a mother and father who inspected what I wore to school, made me lumpy purple jelly sandwiches for lunch, and read to me at night. As fascinated as I was by my volcanic parents, I thought maybe I had been born into the wrong family. That loud-mouthed aliens with poor hygiene and cantankerous manners had kidnapped me. It was devastating, no, a pure tragedy, in my probing kid-mind that we weren’t similar to any cartoon family on TV.

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