Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 6, 2022

My mother’s hand in my life

By ALIZA LI | October 7, 2022

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COURTESY OF ALIZA LI

Li discusses her mother’s influence on her decision to pursue writing.

This past summer, I watched a matinee with my mom every Monday at our local AMC Theater.

We picked our movies almost arbitrarily. One week an indie film about a slow-burn romance set in foggy London. The next a major action blockbuster (think: Yakuza and locomotives) upon which my mother — who usually prefers drama over action — awarded the glowing review of not bad.

The choice of film was less important to us than the time spent together, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have an extensive discussion after each showing.

Our Monday routine began with a movie around 10 a.m. followed by afternoon tea at one of the only dim sum shops in our suburban community. Over little plates of cheung fun and har gow, my mom and I would trade reviews of our respective viewing experiences. 

My cinematic tastes usually rely on three things: pretty cinematography, a moving soundtrack and attractive actors. My mother, on the other hand, takes a much more refined and holistic approach to movie-watching that touches on technical aspects of lighting and camerawork, acting ability, plot structure and editing style.

Her understanding of movies comes from a combination of her film degree, her past work as a TV director in Hong Kong and her innate knack for analysis (on matters both on and off screen).

It’s safe to say that my mom’s love and knowledge of movies influenced my own experience of cinema growing up. My childhood is full of many happy memories sitting cross-legged in big plush theater seats and peering up at a silver screen. I’ve grown to subsume many of her opinions on specific films, partially because her rationale behind them is so expertly persuasive.

My mother’s artistic influence goes beyond cultivating my love for movies though. I would not be where I am today — a Writing Seminars major at Hopkins — without her artistic background and her kind but firm hand.

My mother, having grown up somewhat estranged from her own parents, learned the importance and value of freedom and independence early on. She exercised that freedom in her 20s when she decided to leave Hong Kong and study film in Los Angeles. Her first flight ever was a 17-hour flight to the U.S., a place she was entirely unfamiliar with culturally, geographically and linguistically.

While my mother is not as much of a risk taker anymore, she still brought that mentality of independence to how she raised me and my sister.

Rather than signing me up for piano or ballet classes as a child, she gave me the freedom to choose what I wanted to do. You might balk at this idea. How can a seven-year-old safely decide for herself what she really wants to do? What if her immature decisions cause her to miss out on some valuable experience or hidden talent?

My mother wasn’t so much concerned with training my technical skills as she was concerned that I was forging my own path, gaining independence and enjoying my childhood.

Because of this, I decided from a very young age that I did not want to play piano or violin or take ballet lessons or sign up for after-school tutoring. No, I wanted to read.

My weekends were spent in the library buried in a stack of books, feasting on words and stories, forming in my mind the beginnings of my own stories, which developed in me from a very young age, a love of writing. This love is what eventually led me to where I am today.

I’m eternally thankful for my mother’s parenting style and her loving acceptance of my choices.  Yet, despite her best attempts to cultivate a strong and independent spirit within me, I am inevitably — as a still growing person — fallible to doubts.

I sometimes question my own decision to pursue writing in college. I think of myself as a happy, privileged fool. Happy in the sense that I’m pursuing what makes me happy. Privileged in that I have the financial stability and opportunities to do so. And a fool in the sense that I will pay for my own happiness in the future through financial ruin and instability.

In Chinese there’s a saying that translates to “wealth does not last beyond three generations.” The first generation, starting off poor, makes money. The second generation, growing up middle-class, stewards the money. And the last generation, growing up wealthy, squanders and uses the money.

Another saying, this time American, expresses the same sentiment: “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.”

In some ways, my pursuit of an arts degree is like a fast track to the third generation of financial squander. The middle-class status that my parents cultivated is now being wasted by my pursuit of a seemingly fruitless career.

My own contemplations on my choices are met with many conflicting perspectives. First the perspective from my religion which preaches a release from earthly pleasures, a rejection of the extreme accumulation of wealth and an embrace of humble, meaningful living.

But from a more practical standpoint, the perspective of my friends who do not have the privilege of pursuing arts careers and instead must wage through pre-med classes and engineering internships to find their footing in life.

And finally, my mother.

My mother grew up poor and neglected by her family. Her faith in God formed the foundation of her emotional and mental stability. She decided, despite her impoverished upbringing, to pursue an arts career.

In some ways, her decision is very much informed by her time. She lived in a generation where people could afford to fund their degrees simply by working a minimum wage job for a few years. The choices back then were more diverse and more attainable.

This is a reality I wish everyone could have. I wish the choices could be more diverse and attainable for everyone. I wish we all had that privilege, that the framework of our society was built to cultivate these opportunities in everyone instead of only a few.

Somewhat paradoxically, I hope that after working hard to sustain their wealth, my friends are not afraid to have it squandered. I hope they can give their children the freedom to decide. And I hope my friends can give themselves the freedom to enjoy and create art in ways they could not before.

I hope I can handle the future, and I hope this is all worth it. And after my mom one day leaves, I hope to look back at these years fondly. I hope what I create can be a testament to who she is.

Aliza Li is a junior from Houston, Texas studying Writing Seminars. She is the Voices Editor for The News-Letter. Her column discusses her journey as a writer and how words have transformed her life.

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