My Mum Still Puts Raw Onions in My Room To ‘Ward Off Illnesses’, and I Let Her
Top image courtesy of author

I always know when my mum has been in my room. Then again, she makes no attempt to cover her tracks. 

My blackout curtains meant to keep the sun—and heat—out, will often be unceremoniously drawn. My organised mess, reorganised.

The most telling sign, though, is the pungence of raw onions permeating the entire space. 

I usually smell them before I see them—red onions, sliced cleanly in half, placed in some inconspicuous corner. 

Their location changes every time, which I suspect is a strategy to avoid detection and subsequent disposal. Sometimes I’ll spot a slice on a shelf. Sometimes it’ll be hanging out on the base of my coat rack. Once, it was on the floor beside my bed (I nearly stepped on the damn thing). 

My mum is convinced they absorb bacteria and viruses—including COVID-19—and somehow purify the air. 

It’s a myth dating back to the 1500s that’s been busted time and time again, but I don’t tell her that. Instead, I leave the onions be for as long as I can stand them or until the first sign of mould. 

For someone in the science stream for most of my academic career, the presence of room onions goes against everything I know. But it’s the path of least resistance. 

Image courtesy of author

Raising a Millennial

My mother isn’t alone in her conviction in the power of raw onions, or other pseudo-science home remedies, for that matter. 

Telegram groups and WhatsApp chats spreading conspiracy theories and other myths count thousands of Singaporeans as members. Many belong to the older—and less digitally literate—generations. 

It can put their children in an awkward position, and I would know. As kids, most of us take our parents’ word as gospel. Only when we get older do we wise up to holes in their logic and grapple with the fact that sometimes our parents might not know best.  

Despite only finishing secondary school in Malaysia, my mum has always been adamant about giving her kids a good education. She even chose to move to Singapore after marriage so her future kids would benefit from one of the top education systems in the world.

Seniors like my mum sometimes get a bad rep, but one thing about them is that they will make sacrifices to give their families and children the best. As a millennial who’s more likely to have a furkid than an actual human baby, I can’t say I’d do the same. 

Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE file photo

For all their efforts, though, people like my mum sometimes end up with kids who can’t help butting heads with them. 

After all, as a communications graduate, it’s hard not to sigh internally when my family’s WhatsApp group chat buzzes. Oh look, it’s one of those messages that’s been “forwarded many times”, often peppered with misinformation. 

When Disagreements Become ‘Talking Back’

The problem with pointing out the holes in my mum’s logic (and the futility of her raw onions) is that it’s viewed as ‘talking back’ in our conservative Chinese family. 

It doesn’t matter how nicely you put things. Any attempt to correct her misconceptions earns the common refrain: “So you think you know better?”

I know that I know better. But to say that out loud would be disrespectful and hurtful. 

I’m not proud of it, but as a rebellious teen, rolling my eyes at my mother came all too naturally. I found fault with everything: Her fervent religiousness, her obsession with ‘natural’ and ‘chemical-free’ foods, her preference for home remedies over medicine.

Ironically, my mother created her own nemesis. She’d worked so hard to send me to the best schools, only to end up with a daughter who’s all about science and logic, refuses to go to church, and grumbles when she plies me with herbal medicines.

Image: Marisse Caine / RICE file photo

As we’ve both grown older, though, being at loggerheads with my mum feels shitty. 

Do I want to be right at the expense of upsetting my mother? Not to mention that the only reason I even had a good education was that she gave me opportunities that she didn’t have. Turning around and scoffing at her just reeks of ungratefulness. 

After all, at the core, the little onion slices she leaves around are signs that she cares. 

Ignoring the Onions in the Room

Filial piety means different things to different people. Some fulfil their duties to their parents with monthly stipends; others offer time, love and attention.  

For me, it’s living in a room that sometimes smells like a Subway outlet. Being right is satisfying, but so is keeping the peace at home. 

That’s not to say we should let older folks run around spreading misinformation unchecked. Some of them, such as the members of anti-vax group Healing the Divide cross the line and pose public safety risks. The same goes for ignorant (and downright bigoted) beliefs that should always be pushed back.

There are different ways to approach generational gaps at home. I just choose to do mine with empathy and love instead of hostility. And tolerate the crisp pong of onions when I go to sleep.

If you haven’t already, follow RICE on InstagramTikTokFacebook, and Telegram. If you have a lead for a story, feedback on our work, or just want to say hi, you can also email the writer at or at
Loading next article...