Lessons From My Mother On How To Wear the Pants

My mother is strong-willed woman. When she was a small girl, and she wasn’t getting her way, she’d hold her breath until her face turned blue and her opponent gave in out of fear that they might inadvertently drive a child to death by stubbornness. This might give you an idea of exactly how strong-willed she is. She once told me my grandmother could pick up a snake by its tail and crack its spine with one deft whip to protect her children, and I’d look at this woman, all 4’11 of her, and think, how the fuck did she do that? I was never able to experience this party trick in person, mind you. (I think it’s safe to say that, at 80 years old, her snake murdering days are through—though she can still build an army from her couch. Use your walking stick as a tool for delegation and you’ll soon have everyone scurrying around like ants.)

Until she was 14, my mother wore heavy earrings that dragged her earlobes to her shoulders. Running to school from her longhouse barefoot, the brass weights would clop her in the face and make her slower than the boys. That made her madder than my grandmother did the snakes. For her, it was coming first, or nothing at all. She later became her school’s Head Prefect, and, upon receiving her final marks—placing her among the top four students in the village—was told she was to go to Australia to study medicine, and that was that.

She travelled a lot for work when I was young. When I began university, she began her second Masters degree, on top of a demanding full-time job. She’d stay up until 3am to get her course work done, and rise again at 6am to go to work. She wore the pants. When I’m older, I want to wear the pants, too, I often thought. Many of her beauty lessons came to me in driblets, from the bottle of vitamin E oil and tube of sunscreen, to the shopping trips to Clarins. When you come from a remote village in the highlands of Borneo, where ornate tattoos, long necks, and longer earlobes are considered the apogee of beauty, the lessons she learned from her own mother were relics from another time. Beauty paled in the face of hard work. If you could spend 14 hours harvesting a rice field, you could do anything with your mind.

Thanks to YouTube’s proselytising show-me-how-to-live beauty vloggers, I didn’t really need my mother to teach me how to wash my skin, let alone how to “strobe” or “contour.” What she gave me instead was her unyielding determination and diminutive stature, and a free pass to the unrivalled beauty of the Sarawakian rainforest and its people.

Words, Rose Howard.