My Mother’s Pain

In my Chinese Indonesian family, massage has been the sole consistent method to work through pain, to recover our sense of choice.

Someone's hands massage a person's forehead.
Christian Nasca / Getty

About the author: Cynthia Dewi Oka is the author of the forthcoming Fire Is Not a Country, Salvage, and Nomad of Salt and Hard Water

My massage training began when I was 4 years old. On Sundays after church, my father would lie belly-down, head hanging off the side of the bed, while my mother guided me, step by step, up and down his back. The first few times, her arm hovered beside me as a guardrail in case I slipped. Beneath the human skin are many valleys, mounds, crevasses, and knobs. Balance and concentration are required to read this landscape of aches. Because I was small, I needed to use my full body weight to apply pressure. When my father groaned from the pain, my mother instructed me to press down with the heel of my foot until I could feel the hard spot crack inside him.

Once I was older and strong enough to withstand the discomfort, she started treating me with massage whenever I was sick. She would begin with pijat, Indonesian massage that evolved from a combination of Ayurvedic and Chinese traditions, then finish with kerokan, the methodical scraping of the camphor-lathered skin on my back and chest with a coin to open up the pores and release the bad winds trapped inside my body. I was 9 the first time I was allowed to reciprocate.

While my father was troubled by back pain, my mother suffered from migraines that often left her slumped over at our dining-room table, yanking at her hair to relieve the pressure inside her skull. Like many Indonesian families, we sometimes hired a tukang pijat, a masseuse, to treat my mom. The tukang pijat was an old woman with cataracts so thick, her eyes looked like pearls in the wrinkled sand of her face. Working in the guest room, she flooded our home in Denpasar with the scent of eucalyptus oil. I would peek through the door, marveling at how lightly her thickly knuckled fingers danced across my mother’s back, expanding and contracting like webs around swarms of stubborn, subterranean pain. Between her visits, I was on duty, as the eldest daughter, to give my mother relief. This made me feel trusted, capable, important.

On March 16 Robert Aaron Long purchased a gun and drove to three Asian massage parlors in the Atlanta area, where he killed eight people, six of them Asian women: Soon Chung Park, 74; Sun Cha Kim, 69; Yong Ae Yue, 63; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Xiaojie Tan, 49; and Daoyou Feng, 44. I watched the news unfold in shock. Then rage erupted in my body, rage that for decades I have redirected back into myself so I could survive in a hostile land. In my Chinese Indonesian family, massage has been the sole consistent method to work through pain, to recover our sense of choice, control, and inviolability as human beings. Long made these massage workers his target for elimination.

I cannot say with certainty the causes of my mother’s pain. What I know is that by the time my mother was born, her parents had lost everything but a handful of gold jewelry my grandmother had managed to bury in the dirt just before they fled their looted home in Yogyakarta. My mother, the youngest of 10 children, is the daughter of a Chinese immigrant to Indonesia. Her family was driven out of their home at least twice during Indonesia’s struggle for independence—first by their Javanese neighbors, then by Japanese occupying forces during World War II.

Home was not the only thing her family lost. In 1965, as part of its effort to contain communism in the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S. government assisted the Indonesian military in carrying out mass killings to purge the country of its estimated 3 million Communists. My mother’s first language, Mandarin, was banned from public use, and her name was changed to an Indonesian one as part of the country’s forced assimilation policy toward the Chinese. She did not recover her Chinese family name until we migrated to Canada in 1996. My Chinese name, Hwi Siang, was not revealed to me until we were on the other side of the Pacific.

Our pain is old; it spills across generations, and has no respect for borders. I now live 3,000 miles away from my mother and younger sister, in the U.S. Once, before the pandemic, as I waited for a Lyft in Philadelphia, a bus full of kids, slowed by traffic, stuck their heads out the windows and yelled at me in unison, “Ching chong bing bong!” It was tragically comical, a scene out of an introductory anti-racist training about stereotypes. In the past year, Asians living in the U.S. have reported 3,800 racist incidents, and many more go unreported.

Right now I yearn for my mother’s fingers, moving in deep, rhythmic circles along the nape of my neck, reading there what I am unable to articulate. My mother and I rarely say “I love you” to each other, and never in Indonesian. But I know every freckle on her back. I know how to knead her shoulders when they are as hard as tires from long days of menial, monotonous labor at the factory; how to glide the heels of my hands across the constricted mass of tiny muscles below her neck, alternately pulling and rolling until it sighs open. I rub my thumbs in crosswise circles down either side of her spine; I press my index and middle fingers together when unraveling the knots where tension gathers under her skin. I know to keep going if—when—she starts to cry. Pijat has taught us both that we must endure the pain to release the pain.

My own struggle with chronic pain began in my mid-20s, in the form of recurrent migraines and back and neck pain. The first loss I felt when the pandemic began was the cancellation of my monthly massage sessions, on which, like my mother, I had grown dependent.

My pain is, of course, my rage.

It first took root in the hallways of my high school in Richmond, British Columbia, where I was chased and groped so frequently that I began stealing money from my parents so I could take boxing classes. In those years, I struggled against my own conditioning to not rock the boat every time anger moved me to action. I felt like I was disappointing my parents, who had raised my sister and me to distinguish ourselves academically, but to never fight back or show outward defiance, because that’s how people back home disappeared. In my sophomore year, I began offering massages to the most egregious offenders, so I could physically reposition myself out of their line of sight. It put me temporarily in a position of control. To survive the gap between my reality and my upbringing, I had to weaponize the skill I had cultivated for healing.

Years ago, I was physically attacked by a white man I had been dating for a couple of months. He tried to strangle me when I ended the relationship after he referred to me as his “Oriental rug.” Other people I dated racialized and sexually objectified me in less overtly dehumanizing ways, but their expectations that I would be agreeable and submissive became obvious the moment I said no to something.

Again and again, I have been advised to relax. But what does relaxation look like when I have to remain on guard, both in public, against virulent anti-Asian racism and murderous anti-Asian misogyny, and in private, against my own rage at a lifetime of violations?

During the pandemic, my partner has become my tukang pijat at home. As I did with my parents all those years ago, he is learning to read the map of tension in my body, to respond to its crisis points with loving yet unrelenting pressure until they abate. The relief is temporary, because rage is a permanent part of my body now, and massage is part of the arsenal of survival tactics I have inherited from a long line of Asian women.

There is no panacea. Those who have the luxury of reducing us to their fantasies, or the hubris to seek to eliminate us, have put the lives of people like me, my sister, my mother, and my Asian women friends in danger for generations, not just here, but in the homelands so many of us were forced to flee as a consequence of American greed, fear, and desire to destroy.

We might as well go on, saving ourselves and loving one another, because so many of the wounds in our recent yet distinct histories as members of Asian diasporas have to do with our peoples being dispossessed of the right or capacity to do either. The women who were slain in Atlanta had lives of their own, independent of the fantasies of others. I imagine that, like many of us, they wanted to raise their children, play with their grandchildren, cuddle their lovers, gossip with their friends, support their families here and abroad. I am thinking about the way loss becomes the wind, and the weight we do not know how to put down, and the light that falls through the windows of our lives, illuminating everything.

I keep being moved, pulled forward by our pain. The pain Asian women endure and work through to make some other world possible, a world where we get to preserve our languages; share our histories; cross borders; stay; compose songs (and sing our guilty pleasures with all of our pent-up feelings on karaoke nights); argue with one another; dance; take long walks with one another; give one another mind-blowing tarot readings; orgasm; celebrate not only the birthdays and anniversaries, but the days when we tell our own truths whether anyone likes it or not and the days when we revise our truths; pick ourselves flowers; fight for justice with everything we’ve got, with all the other oppressed peoples in this country—all of this when, where, and however we choose, we choose, we choose.