By: Lian Hong
My name is Ing-Su-hau which means POPPY in Mandarin, although everyone calls me Midge because I am the smallest girl in my class. I am eleven years old and live with my mum, dad, big sister Ling and and little brother Cheng.
We live together in a small bungalow in Carpenders Park on the other side of the railway track from South Oxhey.
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Why did you choose to name the project At-one-ment ?
At-one-ment means to make amends or reparation for a wrong –doing.
The original meaning for this transitive verb is “to achieve a state of at-oneness, or reconciliation of two parties.“
This project has been a very long journey; a cathartic process to find peace and harmony within myself.
How often do you think of your childhood or past?
I think about it almost everyday. Not really about my ‘childhood’, meaning I never re-live the physical or the mental tortures that were afflicted on me by both my parents. I mostly try to comprehend why my parents behaved as they did. For the past two decades I’ve been trying to unravel one question: why single out one child at such an early age? It was and still is incomprehensible. I usually think about ‘that’ on different levels everyday whether I will be feeling sorry for my mother or trying to think about what they were going through at the time to behave in such a manner. Over the years the pain has got deeper and deeper and the questions more and more profound. The older I got, the more I observed my peers who became parents and their behaviour with their children. Over time I have understood the pattern of repetition and this has made me even more curious to discover my parents background.
How did your parents meet?
They were carefree lovers who met in the 1950s within their social circles. When my mother an orphan, departed for England, as a carer for an elderly Englishman, they mutually conceded to separate. The Englishman and my mother had met at a social gathering in Malaysia. They cultivated a strong friendship and corresponded weekly on his return to the UK, which led to my mother emigrating to England.
My parents rekindled when, on arriving in England aged twenty, my mother discovered she was with child (my sister). My father assumed his responsibilities by leaving his close-knit family and left for England to live with my mother and elderly man in a small two-bedroom bungalow in suburbia England. My parents did not wed out of love – rather out of necessity. They were very unhappy together, trapped and isolated by their circumstances. My mother’s relationship with the Englishman remains her secret. She nursed him through terminal cancer and out of gratitude he bequeathed her all of his possessions. My mother inherited the bungalow, where my siblings and I were born and raised.
My father studied in the UK and became a banker. Not only did he support his family, but like most immigrants, he sent money home to his family every month. When my father finished his studies in the UK, the whole family left England for Malaysia, leaving the Englishman. We returned two years later when he became very ill and needed the care of my mother.
My parents became British citizens.
How does it make you feel that your early life was without love, care and affection?
Mostly, I feel lonely and dislocated knowing that I have no support system. The aftermath has led me to become a real survivor. I’ve learnt never to ask, rely or to expect anything from others for fear of being let down. I’m also a great risk taker, for in my eyes, there is nothing to lose. I also don’t know what ‘love’ is. There is a part of me that would like to let go, to stop being in control, to learn to trust and build a meaningful relationship. Yet in the back of my mind it seems so ludicrous: Can I be loved for being myself? Can I be loved even though I was rejected by my entire family? Can I love back? Most importantly, can I love myself?
I’d never been so afraid in my whole life than during my time living under the care of my parents. With hindsight, I have to understand they were unhappy people. Their problems were multi-layered: they were locked into a loveless marriage, too fearful to separate, bound together as immigrants in hostile English suburbia, sharing strong Chinese values that collided with Western ideals, and sacrificing everything for their children. We were expected to be straight ‘A’ students, future doctors, lawyers etc…
I became a ‘lone wolf’ with the determination to do things my way, finding refuge in my own creative world. I felt safest there in the comfort of my solitude. It has been challenging not having grown up with love, care and affection. Not having these foundations has embedded in me a lack of self-esteem and self-confidence.
How do you explain that your siblings were treated differently?
They were well behaved and worked hard to attain the academic levels that were expected of them. This differentiated me from my siblings, and these differences remain today as they still follow routine and instructions. The fact that I couldn’t and wouldn’t be forced against my will triggered the problems with my parents. My sister suffered at a later date when she became a teenager and began an eight-year relationship with a man from Nigeria. They never forgave her and she lost her privileged place within the family. She never redeemed herself in their eyes. I feel that her transition to normality was even heavier than mine, as I only knew hostility towards me. My brother went on to become a successful corporate lawyer.
Can you understand why they behaved in this way and the reasons for their cruelty?
I was the source of great frustration and worry for them. I’m sure they were worried for my future. My sister with her academic achievements attended Watford Grammar School securing me a place there, but I was expelled after the first year for bad behaviour and consistently playing truant. The incident brought great shame to my family. To this day I feel remorseful about what I did there – my parents were so happy that I had attained a place in a reputable school and they had hoped things would improve with my studies. There was a glimmer of hope. Having fallen so far behind in primary school it was impossible to keep up academically with my peers or my siblings. I preferred to take the easy option and to give up rather than to fail continuously despite my efforts. Their cruelty was a result of their anger towards me for not obeying or studying hard at school. It was evident from an early age that I wouldn’t be moulded easily.
They tried to break me down with beatings and mental abuse.
This treatment only increased my resolve to fight their plans for me. Their behaviour was also layered with their own personal frustrations and insecurities, making me a scapegoat – an outlet to vent their own personal problems.
How do you feel towards your siblings?
Nothing. I don’t know them well enough to comment about my feelings.
Were there any happy moments… you mentioned the school sports day?
Occasionally. Happy moments were when we had relatives over from Malaysia. My mother was happy because she was not alone; she would be occupied cooking, showing them around London and so on. I was happy because I wouldn’t be beaten or humiliated during their stay. The best time was when my mother found a job as a sales assistant in a C&A store. The job gave her financial freedom and purpose. She was happy and life got better for me at home. I never really knew why she gave up the job. She never worked again.
Did anyone suspect your bad treatment? Were your teachers and/or psychologist aware of the family problems? Did you tell anyone about your suffering?
If they did suspect nobody reported anything. I used to go to school with belt marks across my thighs and calves. It was very different in those days as corporal punishment was legal in schools. I had a child psychologist for my behavioural problems and learning difficulties at school. I didn’t confide in anybody about what was happening at home – maybe I thought it was normal. I had a clown-like persona, which concealed my sadness. For me there were two worlds: the one at home, which was full of humiliation and fear, and the other one at school where I could play and pretend to be someone else.
What spurred you to run away?
When I left school at the age of sixteen I found a full-time job as a sales assistant at a jewellery store. My sister had stolen a bracelet and came to sell it in the shop on my day off. It was reported as stolen, which subsequently led to my immediate dismissal. I didn’t have the heart to tell my parents what had happened and decided to runaway and work as an au pair in Oxford. I wanted to get away, to gather my thoughts and to feel free. I intended to return home as soon as I found my feet. I thought it would be three weeks – little did I know that I would never return.
Did you expect that your parents would worry?
No. I didn’t think they would worry or even try to find me. I later learnt that my parents had been looking for me for years, especially around Trafalgar Square. They used to go there with food and hot beverages and help young teenagers who had run away from home. They were worried that I had become a drug addict or prostitute. They also used the services of The Salvation Army.
How do you feel towards you family today?
I will never rekindle ties with my family. I am sad for my mother for making the wrong choices. And I am upset that she is unable to face the truth, making up her own version of events. I see my mother as a child who never grew up. She behaves like a teenager, with no self-control. I can’t say that I love her or even like her.
How did you feel when your father died? Did you see your father as a bully or victim?
At first I felt nothing at all. Then after a day or so I felt very, very sad for him. I didn’t see him as a bully or victim. I saw him as a frustrated, weak man. It was a pity he was too weak to walk away from my mum who constantly put him down. They were together for forty years in a strained and loveless marriage. He wasted his life with a woman who didn’t love him and he hated living in England.
Will you continue to see your family?
No. I don’t feel very good when I see them.
I understand why I came back to London two years ago. I wanted to clarify and understand the whole situation, to reconcile with the past. For the past twenty-five years I have had to carry this burden on my shoulders, not knowing what really happened.
Now that I am coming to the end of the project, and having found answer to my questions, I can actually leave England and move somewhere else. I can leave without confusion or guilt. For the first time I have accepted that what happened wasn’t my fault.
In what ways has your childhood affected you in later life?
I thing it’s affected me in two ways. Firstly, I just do what I want to do, as there is nothing to lose. Somehow largely due to resilience I have managed to carve out a successful creative career. On the other hand it’s been a disability; with more confidence, money and support I believe I would have excelled and achieved more.
How has it affected your relationships?
In my relationships it has been difficult to accept and to give love. I don’t like to attach myself for fear of abandonment.
What was the single most damaging aspect or your childhood?
When will your childhood cease to haunt you? What needs to happen?
The book will be my symbolic closure of the horrors that were repeated over the generations. It will be a positive testament that proves you can always choose to get out of a situation. I have also accepted that I was not to blame.
Are you ready to turn the page of your childhood?
What do you want to see happen as a result of the At-one-ment project?
I will be freed of the guilt I have been carrying around with me for so long.BW