By Ziyu Zeng

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Image by Thomas Ulrich from Pixabay
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I hate voice messages.

I mean, I hate the way my mom uses WeChat voice messages.

It was another ordinary noon in high school when I was having lunch with my friends in the dining hall and my phone rang a few times. I swiped to unlock and found two new voice messages from my mom, 30 seconds each.

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Without thinking, I clicked on the voice bubbles and immediately regretted it. The sudden loud voice knocked my phone out of my hands, and under the table shouted my mom:

"I just read news about children getting parasites from biting nails and feel I should tell you this. Are you still biting your nails? I have warned you not to, but you won't listen. Look how short and ugly your nails are. And…"

One thing about WeChat is that there's no way to stop a voice message from playing once you click on it. What's worse, my phone was set to the maximum volume because my mom didn't want me to "miss out on her important messages."

As I tried to reach out to my phone, I already felt gazes from everywhere, searching for the target like laser beams. I frantically muted my phone and nearly dropped it again as I hurriedly threw it to the very bottom of my bag, just like Neville Longbottom wanted to do when he received another howler from his Grandma. If gazes were needles, I would have been a moving cactus. Opposite to me, my friend Anna's face distorted from her great effort trying not to laugh. My friend Alex also looked at me sympathetically and every muscle on his face was saying "I understand. Sorry about that."

Thanks, mom. Now I know that my nails looked ugly and probably just provided a great meal for the wriggling worms in my belly *vomit*. And my friends also learned that. They also happened to know that I lost my metro card eight times in a single month. That I fell asleep on the metro train and almost got lost in remote suburbs. That I microwaved an egg and it exploded inside the oven. My mother would use voice messages to complain about every tiny mistake (or, well, occasionally big mistakes) that I made. Not only this, she would use a voice message for anything more than four words, from asking me how my exam was to announcing that my aunt is coming to visit us. She loves to send several long voice messages in a row, and makes every effort to make me also send her voice messages. "I've done so much for you," she says. "Shouldn't you sometimes make a little sacrifice and satisfy my little wish?" Every time I would compromise, but the sense of being obligated slowly built up.

This nails-parasite event put the last straw on the camel back. The conflict erupted.

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"You know, it's more convenient to speak than to type, especially when I'm in a hurry."

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"I just find voice messages more intimate. You know how much I love you and I just wanted to hear your voice. It's certainly easier for you to type, because you've been using a mobile phone since you were little. Unlike you, I'm old, and typing on a phone is a pain for me. I'm upset how selfish you've become. I've satisfied nearly every wish you had, and now you won't even put up with my little requests. Have I spoiled you?" she said, as if I were a cold, detached, unloving, inconsiderate daughter who responds to her love only with indifference and resentment. Again, the feeling of being morally oppressed made me feel extremely uncomfortable. But this time, I decided to fight back.

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I typed so hard as if every word I typed was a little soldier, and altogether my army charged forward to overthrow the dictatorship masked as "love."

Several minutes passed when finally, at the top of the screen "Mom is speaking…" appeared, but immediately, the words became "Mom is typing…"

A courageous revolution! A memorable day! A monumental battle! A remarkable victory! A new, democratic family is on the way!

Things went smoothly from then on. She no longer interfered with my choices, except when giving some advice; she let me be involved in important family decisions; she grew used to using text and mastered typing on the phone; she even learned to use memes and emojis under my encouragement. Together, we decided that I would go to United States to receive my higher education and worked together for my college application. With our commitment, I was accepted by University of Notre Dame and was provided a chance to attend the Outward Bound program, in which I would spend a week in Minnesota's Boundary Waters, canoeing, camping and walking long miles.

We both agreed that I needed to acquire a strong mindset to face all challenges studying abroad alone, and this program would be a great opportunity. Of course, this meant I needed to say goodbye to the sheltered life I have lived, including modern technology, including any social media.

The challenge was unprecedented. The fragile shoulders of a spoiled metropolitan could hardly bear a backpack twenty times as heavy as my ordinary school bag, and the weak limbs of a sedentary student were nearly worn out by hours of continuous rowing. Worse were the cultural obstacles. Every day when other members in my group were chatting about the Office or joking about the Minnesota accent, all I could do was nod and smile, just like they did when I talked about how Cantonese has nine pitches for each sound. My lack of knowledge in American culture and their lack in mine determined that the conversations with other members simply a single-way "telling," but not the reversible "talking." Sometimes I would feel as if I was a lonely narrator talking to myself, since I was the only one really engaged in the talk. Although every group member was kind to me, every night lying in the hot, humid tent with sore limbs, I still desperately wished to hear my mom whispering encouragement into my ears.

When the week passed eventually, and I was on the bus back, I felt too exhausted to speak to anyone and instead leaned against the bus window and started dealing with all the messages I had missed in the precious week.

Most of the unread messages were from my mom. She seemed to totally forget that I had no access to my phone that week. She vigorously typed me about her recent life, that she got along well with the young colleagues in her company, that she got together with her old classmates, that she went shopping with her sister. She asked me how I had been and complained that I didn't reply.

Shaking my head, I typed her:

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Almost immediately, at the top of my phone screen appeared "Mom is speaking…" and a voice message popped up.

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I clicked.

"Congratulations for successfully challenged yourself! How do you feel about the experience? Have you slept well and eaten well? Have your groupmates been friendly to you? I was worried that you may have a difficult time, since you've been overprotected for too long. I'm so happy that you seem to be adapting well. I couldn't sleep the whole night because I knew you'll be back today. I miss you, and your grandparents miss you too…"

The familiar voice started flowing out of the speaker. Never had I been so glad to hear her accents, the slight rising and elongation of each sound reminding me of her origin and also mine. Never had I been so excited to hear her breaths, the uneven intervals telling me her uneasiness. Never had I been so touched to hear the rises and falls in her tone, the trembling voice revealing to me she was probably crying. Even her occasional slips in tongue were so dear to me, since she must have hurried to speak to me once she found I was online. Combined, her voice became the most beautiful music to me that showed her very existence at that moment. I could imagine, lively, how her lips moved, how she grinned, and how she held her phone to her mouth when she spoke. The almost tangible image slowly melted all pains, both physical and mental, like ice melting in warm sun. All of a sudden, I realized how powerful voice was. Her love, care and concern for me all hid in these details of voice, which were lost in the text form. How ignorant I myself was to give up a medium capable of conveying such delicate emotions, and how selfish I must have been to keep her the lonely narrator all the time?

Then, two more messages popped up.

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She even remembered that I prefer text to voice.

Though herself still preferred voice to text.

I deleted the words in the input box and held the phone to my mouth.