Growing up, I was the black sheep of the family.
I didn’t drink, take drugs, or sleep around, but my parents thought I was a juvenile delinquent because I failed to meet their Chinese standards for an oldest daughter.
For them, an exemplary oldest daughter shows irreproachable and responsible behavior, both at home and at school. When asked, she joyfully washes the kitchen floor on her hands and knees with damp paper towels. She doesn’t forget her homework assignment on a regular basis or lose her sneakers or whine about practicing piano.
A good oldest daughter promotes harmony with her younger siblings. She selflessly provides for them instead of spending a good portion of her energy trying to figure out how to wangle the largest brownie or biggest cookie. She certainly never runs around the kitchen holding said cookie in the air while the others chase her.
Most importantly, and where I failed the most, the perfect oldest child never defies her mother. Like Confucius, Mama believed that the greatest virtue is filial piety—devoting oneself in obedience to one’s parents and elders.
“I never asked to be born oldest,” I’d defend myself.
Despite my holy terror identity at home, in the outside world I was a perfectly behaved, high achieving, polite and respectful Chinese Christian girl. So Mama regularly called me a hypocrite.
And she was right. I didn’t walk my talk.
In fact, I still don’t, no matter how much I’d like to.
So who’s the real Kathy? Good Kathy or Bad Kathy? I always assumed that the true Kathy was the selfish rebellious jerk at home, and the fake Kathy was the high achieving nice person outside the home. As a result, I experienced a butt-load of good ole’ Chinese shame and self-loathing.
I’m thinking about this because all my kids are re-living my life pattern—negative and challenging at home, impeccably behaved and perfect outside the home. And I’m giving them the exact same messages I received, that their true selves are awful and their false selves are the perfect visages put out to the world. But somehow that seems wrong.
Yet my friend Jeff says that Mama got it right. The Bible seems to say that our true selves are the rotten rebellious self, that every part of the good creation we were created to be is now corrupted. He knows the Bible and theology a lot better than I do, so I had to think about that.
So here’s where I’ve come thus far. I don’t think either “sucky” Kathy or “perfect” Kathy can be the “true” Kathy because both identities are based on behavior, one positive and one negative.
In my experience, I am most truly myself when I embrace that I’m a frail broken human being but that I am deeply loved, forgiven and that God won’t give up on me so you shouldn't either. To use Biblical language, I’m a sinner saved by grace. When I rest in the reality that I’m deeply flawed but also infinitely valuable, I don’t need to prove anything. I can just be.
Unfortunately, I seem to be able to inhabit “true Kathy” for about 30 minutes after a 3 day spiritual retreat. When I step into the house to greet my kids, everything crashes again, only it’s usually the kids fighting for the bigger cookie.
Can I be the “true” Kathy when I’m shrieking at the top of my lungs at kids?
I wanted to be a mom, so I have no one to blame but myself.