• A mother (Jenny) reaches out to her estranged son (Carl) for healing and a resolution on Look Me In The Eye. (SBS - Look Me In The Eye)Source: SBS - Look Me In The Eye
"I sat in front of her and we just looked at each other and all the feelings came out. It was just the most intense, emotional rollercoaster I’ve ever been on.”
Sharon Verghis

8 Sep 2017 - 10:13 AM  UPDATED 8 Sep 2017 - 1:57 PM

For Carl, a young man raised in Brisbane to a single immigrant mother from China, the gap between East and West has proved a difficult tightrope to walk.

As a child, this path was relatively free of minefields.

He respected the cultural dictates, the rules of filial duty, was prepared to fulfill the academic and cultural expectations of his mum, Jenny – a woman born and raised in China who came to Australia as a student, had Carl, and raised him by herself since he was two. Her sacrifices put a roof over his head and allowed him to attend the best schools.

“It’s really interesting being brought up by a Chinese mother in Australia, because this society here is so laidback. But you have all these expectations and pressures put on you."

Carl tells SBS he always strove to do his best as a child – and he did. He dutifully toed the line, studied hard and did what he was asked.

“It’s really interesting being brought up by a Chinese mother in Australia, because this society here is so laidback,” says Carl. “But you have all these expectations and pressures put on you.

"You sort of grow up with this. It is such a cultural thing: it is like they [your parents] can’t see your life being any other way."

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But in his late teens, Chinese culture's strict demands began to seem too hard a price to pay. “All your friends are saying, wow, why isn’t Carl here, why can’t he come and hang out with us, all kind of stuff?”

Then Carl met a girl. He fell in love and ‘all hell broke loose’, as he puts it.

“I was very bitter about the situation and felt very conflicted. I was ready to not talk to her ever again.”

“My mother was not a fan of me getting a girlfriend,” he says dryly. There was a collision of culture, values and beliefs. “It all went pear-shaped. I stopped seeing [my girlfriend] as a result. But it really affected me in a very negative way. I was furious. My mum said a few hurtful things… it was a really toxic time.

“At the time, it felt like this is the one thing I really wanted to do, and she was saying no. But I was willing to sacrifice everything, put everything on the line for it, because, you know, being young and in love…”

Open rebellion flared for the first time, fueled by resentment. “I was very bitter about the situation and felt very conflicted. I was ready to not talk to her ever again.”

Carl explains that even now, he is still emotional when recalling day he left home. “Mum said that if you [choose your girlfriend], leave this house right now, and I felt pretty cut about that. Words can’t be unsaid, and I took that really deeply to heart. And so, I said, okay, I’m going to leave. I packed my stuff and left."

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Carl and his mother were estranged for over year. Until one day, he got a phone-call from a producer at SBS’s new show Look Me In The Eye inquiring about his interest in being involved. Based on studies by neuroscientists that fund direct eye contact can communicate emotions and facilitate healing in some people more than words, estranged couples face each other, stare into each other’s eyes, forbidden from speaking for five minutes. They are then given the opportunity to talk, heal – or walk away.  

The estranged son explains that at first, he was deeply sceptical about the phone call and what he was told about the chance for re-connection. “I didn’t know if it was a joke.” 

But it turned out that his mother was behind this desperate bid to reconnect. “I hadn’t talked to her or seen her for over a year. I said yes, I guess, because of her effort in signing me up for this, which made me really feel I should do the same, it’s only fair.

“If I was ever upset with anyone, I wouldn’t want to hold a grudge, and I respected my mum for doing it this. I think she was trying to search for a way to fix things… I thought – why not give it a go?”

But it still took all his courage to participate. “I had basically cut her out of my life… and so I was definitely nervous [about the whole social experiment]. I couldn’t stop thinking what I was going to say to her and what it was going to be like because I hadn’t seen her for such a long time.”

He flew to Sydney and was interviewed by journalist and LMITE host, Ray Martin. “He asked me questions, and I was pretty open, but I got a bit emotional after a while.”

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Carl was then taken into a room “with minimal light, empty, two seats. She was already sitting there”.

"I sat in front of her and we just looked at each other and all the feelings came out. It was just the most intense, emotional rollercoaster I’ve ever been on.”

For Carl, the eye contact theory proved true. Somehow, it cut through to the heart of this messy, loving and emotionally fraught mother-son relationship. Angry words had torn them apart the last time they saw each other. Could silence, in contrast, end up bringing them together?

"She sacrificed so much for me.”

Through this process, he discovered that a lot of his guilt was fueled Jenny being a single mother, having raised him in a close knit, fiercely protective unit – just the two of them. “I really feel that the main reason we sort of came back to each other was because we were all that we had. She sacrificed so much for me.”

So what is his advice to other young people who find themselves caught between East and West, who are walking the cultural tightrope uneasily?

“I definitely think the hardest thing is balancing who you are as a person and what is expected of you. In both these cultures, you are expected to do different things and often these are in conflict. I would say to someone in this same situation – stay true to yourself and be your own person. Don’t change yourself for the world.”

He adds that eye contact is what we need more than ever in our electronic age. “It was beautiful, looking into someone’s eyes. We definitely spend too much time looking at our phones instead of at people.”

If you need help, or this story has raised issues for you, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or contact Relationships Australia on 1300 364 277. 

The ground-breaking new six-part documentary series, Look Me In The Eye, continues on Wednesdays on SBS at 8.30pm. Each episode will be available to view on SBS On Demand after broadcast. 

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