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  • Writer's pictureJoy Chi

murky waters (2021)

Throughout my life, I have had somewhat of a difficult relationship with my mom. After reading Ocean Vuong's On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous and the late Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower, from which the epigraph I used to guide the piece was taken, I was deeply inspired to write a piece about my mom and I's relationship. This is a deeply personal piece and probably the most vulnerable I have been with my writing, so I really hope I am able to convey the pain and despair and hope and anxiety of the piece.

Trigger Warning:

The piece will include writing about mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, even if only in small amounts. There are no particularly graphic descriptions of the topics mentioned above but please be advised while reading.


Drowning people
Sometimes die
Fighting their rescuers.


dear mom,

I’m writing because it’s late and I can’t sleep.

Because it’s 3:46am on a Sunday morning and all I can think about is the vacant look on your face that day in the record store in Taiwan, as if you didn't recognize who I was.

I clutched Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk to my chest, pleading to use the $64 I had earned the day before from tutoring middle school children for three straight hours.

“You don’t have a record player,” you argued. Your eyes darted around the shop, foot tapping on the hardwood relentlessly. Every time a pair of eyes wandered in our direction, you promptly shot them a glare and an “it’s all under control here” or “she’s just throwing a tantrum”.


“No. Let’s go.” You snatched the record from my hands and slotted it onto a nearby shelf, swivelling on your heel.

Three hours ago my friend slipped off our FaceTime call to wish his parents a happy birthday. It’s been months since we last spoke, but I am still Drowning in the coldness of your gaze. In less than a week I will turn 16, but now I realize that in your eyes, I am still the immature six year-old you once knew, no matter how many times I’ve proved myself; I have long since stopped ageing in your mind.




dear mom,

I am still mad at you but I am writing because I just had an argument with my friends and I want to talk to you about it. But I can’t because no matter how hard I try, I can’t forget the day I let you down. You said you would never forgive me.

It was 8th grade, and for the third time that week, you threatened to put me up for adoption after I mentioned wanting to hang out with my friends after school.

I ran into school five minutes late, tears clouding my vision as I sprinted up the stairs. The class was watching a movie, so I slipped into the back, only to be pulled aside moments later by my history teacher.

“Are you ok?” she asked, her eyes searching mine “You look…” She gripped my shoulders firmly, redirecting my gaze down from the ceiling.

“I’m fine,” I said, my tone flat, moisture welling up behind my eyelids.

I don’t think she believed me. She was right not to because my mask of indifference came crumbling down as she coaxed me into the counsellor’s office, as she nudged my hand towards the tissue box. I could have run, right then and there; locked myself in the bathroom or escaped to the woods behind the school. Instead, for the first time in weeks I cried, free from the labels of “over-emotional” or “just another hormonal teen” and my strict schedule of 45-minute classes and homework I was rushing to finish for the next day.

I remember the quick visit to the restroom that followed. I saw my pupils blown wide from a lack of sleep, cheekbones too prominent to be associated purely with puberty, and a pale, thin quality to my skin that I had previously told myself was from swimming pool chlorine. As a workaholic and perfectionist who was constantly rushing between swim practice, school, and home, it was only then that I realized the depth of the hole of self-neglect I had dug myself into.

I may have made progress that day in finally accepting my emotional side, but as I read through my journal entry from that day, I relive my resounding fear that I had let you down, that you would get a call from the counsellor and confirm your worst suspicions of your daughter being a ‘troubled’ kid.




dear mom,

I tried to talk to you the other day but now I feel like I can’t. I am writing because I am in my room and so alone and I haven't eaten in 18 hours and I can’t skip a meal without remembering how you would refuse to make me food if I didn’t finish a previous meal.

I remember getting up at 4:00am on a school day in 4th grade to teach myself to make myself eggs and toast before school because you had refused to do it for me. Three cracked eggs and one hour later, I remember you slapping the plate out of my hands right after I finally succeeded, for ‘being ungrateful’ and because I had used ‘your ingredients’ to make my food, a clear violation of your punishment. I arrived 30 minutes late at school that day, after you made me clean up the egg yolk splattered on the floor.

This time around, I had had an anxiety attack– you like to call them my ‘freak attacks’’– and the nurses had brought me hot food. Green beans and grilled chicken and mashed potatoes that were reminiscent of those meals I would buy from Wellcome and microwave for lunch. I think I sat there for at least an hour, willing my hands to bring the food to my mouth, for my jaws to chew and grind it up and for my tongue to force it down the throat. But anxiety coiled so tightly in my stomach that I couldn’t finish.

I am 7908 miles away from you but as I try to disentangle myself from your control I am Drowning. You are a sea away from me so today I am punishing myself for not finishing my dinner from the night before.




dear mom,

My counsellor says you act out because you’re lonely and Drowning, like me, so I’m writing to get to you.

Remember that conversation we had in that hotel room one night?

It was past 3 in the morning and I lay awake, the crinkling of perm-straight sheets and flashing of the fire alarm going on and off, basking the wall behind me in a thin veil of blue light. I couldn’t sleep because my thoughts were too loud, my heart too restless.

Living in two separate rooms at home meant that you never had to deal with my insomnia, but in a shared hotel room it was impossible to do so as I moved from bed to armchair to the spinning desk chair.

You got up and we ended up talking about life and family and values and boys. You told me about how I could only fall asleep with my head on your stomach, as a kid; the doctors said it was my way of recreating the feeling of being in your womb for 9 months. And for the first time in 3 months, I had a good night of sleep, no sleeping-pill required.

The last time we had had a conversation like that was probably when I was 6. The moment I turned six I was on my own and ten years later I am writing this to change that.

I’m sorry I’m not the daughter you want me to be. I’m sorry I cannot be the host to your unfulfilled ambitions. I’m sorry my depressive disorder and life plans cannot fit into that picture perfect narrative you have crafted for yourself and for our family and for your friends.

I think what I’m trying to say is that I want to trust you again—I want for us to stand on the same ground. I think I love you, and you can learn to love me too—even if you never wanted me in the first place.



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