So You Want to Talk About Race: Understanding Racism in America

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo.

Have you ever tried to ignore the uncomfortable conversations about race that happen around you? Have you ever been angry that your well-intended comment has been labeled as racist? Have you ever defended yourself as not a racist because you have African American/Asian/Other People of Color friends? Have you accused a person of color of being overly opinionated or sensitive when someone cracks a racist joke? Do the words “white supremacist society” make you cringe?

If any of the above has happened to you, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo is the book for you. It’s a vital book in our divisive society, to help all of us understand what is racial oppression and why we need to talk about it.

This may not be a popular opinion, but here it is: As humans, we are inherently racist. Our tribal roots make us feel safer around people who look like us. However, this does not justify racism— in our globalized world, we need to question and address our tribal conditioning. We need to treat everybody, regardless of the color of their skin, with dignity and respect.

From the get-go, Oluo makes a strong case that race is a system of power and that racism is a systematic oppression against people of color. She says that its goal was to “profit and comfort of the white race, specifically, of rich white men. The oppression of people of color was an easy way to get this wealth and power and racism was a good way to justify it.”

This may sound harsh, but it’s true. Racism goes way back to slavery when slaves imported from Africa were considered less human than their white masters.  They were treated as property, were abused and dehumanized. Just because slavery was technically abolished 153 years ago doesn’t mean that racism died with it.  On the contrary, it still thrives.  In her book, Oluo provides statistics about African Americans and how they are less likely, compared to White Americans, to graduate from high school and go to college. Furthermore, they are also more likely to be incarcerated, repeatedly.  Not to mention that the number of African Americans who died at the hands of police brutality is high, and the number of prosecutions low.

Something is broken, and we must talk about it.

As a Taiwanese Canadian based in Hong Kong, my reality is vastly different than the African Americans in the United States. Hong Kong and Canada have their own set of problems related to racism, but nothing like it is in the United States. In the autumn of 2017 and the winter of 2018, I lived in Savannah, Georgia, taking classes for my M.F.A. degree in writing at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). There, I made a close friend. Her name is Halle. I adore her because she is talented, thoughtful, and one of the most poetic writers I know. She is also smart, funny, and a beautiful person inside out. She is also the first African American I can call a friend. Growing up on the west coast of Canada in the 90’s, I didn’t know very many African Canadians, let alone one I could call a friend.

Watching American news in Hong Kong, I was aware of police brutality, but I never knew how deep the fear is until I had spent time in the United States.  When Halle and I became friends, I got a glimpse of her world and reality. Earlier this year, we took a short road trip from Savannah to Atlanta to see a talk by the amazing Zadie Smith, one of our favorite writers. Our spirits were high in the car—we were singing along to the music, gossiping, laughing—until a police car drove by us. Halle flinched and her whole body tensed.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Oh, I get nervous when I see a police car,” she said, her hands gripping the steering wheel, her eyes frightened, looking straight ahead.

How can the police, who are supposed to protect the citizens, put so much fear in a law-abiding young woman? Halle was so terrified of getting pulled over, she didn’t go over the speed limit once during the whole 4.5-hour journey.

During that trip, I begin to understand the privilege of not having that same fear. Still, her fear resonated with me; it made me sad and angry.

So You Want to Talk About Race helped me further understand Halle and millions of African Americans’ experience in the United States. It explains how racism was created and how it still works in America. Oluo, in her informal and engaging way, defines racism, how to talk about it, and how to do something about it. She defines racism as”any prejudice against someone because of their race, when those views are reinforced by systems of power.” She further elaborates that racism is interwoven into our social, political, and economic system. She says, “instead of trying to isolate or ignore race, we need to look at race as a piece of the machine, just as we’d look at class or geography when considering social issues. Race alone is not all you need to focus on, but without it, any solution you come up with just won’t work.”

In addition to defining racism, Oluo also discusses different concepts that are related to racism, such as the importance of intersectionality, the disrespecting of oppressed racial groups through cultural appropriation, and the harmful effects of microaggression. Oluo is biased, as she should be—African Americans are dying within the racist system in America.

For those of us who stand by and do nothing when our colleagues make a racist comment or claim that we are not racist since we have African American friends, or think our African American friends are being over sensitive when something happens to them, remember:

“It’s the system, and our complacency in that system, that gives racism its power, not individual intent. Without that white supremacist system, we’d just have a bunch of assholes yelling at each other on a pretty even playing field—and may the best yeller win.”

So You Want to Talk About Race? You probably want to say, not really. But we must. Please read the book. Please recommend it to your friends. If you are a teacher, please assign it as a class reading. If you are a parent, please read it with your children (though they are some cuss words in it, FYI). If you are a manager, please use this book when doing cultural sensitivity training. It’s time we all get uncomfortable and start talking about race.

 

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Heating & Cooling: A Delicious Bite-size Memoir

 

Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly.

Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs is an absolute delight. They are delicious bite-sized stories, filled with the wisdom and humor of Fennelly’s life as a wife, a mother, a daughter, a feminist, and a writer. The book deals with the whole spectrum of the human condition: joy, love, jealousy, loss. They read like flash fiction, except they are non-fiction pieces. Each piece is about a few pages to a few sentences long; there isn’t a single wasted word.

Some of my favorites pieces are short:

“Morning: bought a bag of frozen peas to numb my husband’s sore testicles after his vasectomy. Evening: added thawed peas to our carbonara.”

This little gem is number four of the “Married Love” series, and it gives the reader a snippet of Fennelly’s marriage and of course, cooking.

When I was watching 13 Reasons Why on Netflix, I’d cringe when the high school boys would call each other pussies. In “What I Think About When Someone Uses ‘Pussy’ as a Synonym for Weak,” Fennelly described the thoughts going through her head while giving birth to one of her children. She ended the piece with:

“The pain was such that I made peace with that. I did not fear death. Fear was an emotion, and pain had scalded away all emotions. I chose. In order to come back with the baby, I had to tear it out at the root. Understand, I did this without the aid of my hands.”

I wish every time a boy (or a man) call each other a “pussy”, he remembers that his mother tore him out of her body without using her hands. Pussies are strong and badass.

The book also deals with the challenges we all face, such as a quiet feud with a neighbor,  raising stubborn children, and the death of a loved one. I don’t want to say too much more about this book without giving it all away. All I can say is, when I finished reading the 52nd piece, I was sad. I wish there was a 53rd piece. Fennelly’s warm and humorous micro-memoirs are like little brain candies. I gobbled them up pretty fast. When you pick up your copy, I suggest you savor them while you can.

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Lesson on Love, Part III

Dear Reader, this post is part of a three-part series. Please read Part I and Part II before proceeding.

At an impressionable age, Mama and Ama, my parental grandmother, taught me what I know about love. Ama chose to be with a married man in exchange for a financially secure life. Mama broke down when she found out that Baba was cheating, but eventually decided to swallow her pride because she didn’t have economic means of her own (and she also loved him desperately). I would never want to be in a situation where I have to make the choices they made.

As soon as I got my graduate degree in library studies, I took a job in Dubai to start my career as an academic librarian (the alternative was to stay in Vancouver to write invoices for a plumbing company.) Since then, I moved to Bahrain, and then to Hong Kong for work, to ensure that I am always financially independent. That’s all I learned about love from the women in my life—I must never rely on a man.  

In 2012, I arrived in Hong Kong for a new job, a few months before my 30th birthday. With a failed marriage behind me, I still didn’t know what a healthy, lasting relationship looked like. Regardless, I plunged myself into the world of online dating. It was something I dabbled with in the past, but I always disabled my account the minute I found a new boyfriend.

At first, it was fun. Hong Kong is a transient place, and I met men from all over the world. After dating a string of men that didn’t materialize into a steady boyfriend, I was disappointed that it wasn’t as easy as when I was younger. Was it the curse of turning 30?

After venturing into the dating circuit for a while, I begin to feel that I wasn’t good enough. I was in my 30’s; I couldn’t compete with all the skinny 23-year-old Hong Kong girls. Having been in relationships my whole adult life, I didn’t know how to date. For example, a guy I was casually dating didn’t text me back, and that was supposed to be normal. Some of my guy friends suggested I shouldn’t expect so much; I was too needy, too emotional and maybe a little too weird. I didn’t know what to do. I drank, I danced up a storm, and I flirted shamelessly. I did everything to hide that confused and hurt little girl behind a carefree facade. I gave men what I thought they wanted, in the hopes that one of them would love me. Instead, they walked all over me, and I hated myself for it.

I was miserable. How do we end up living in a society where people take sex for granted, and fear intimacy? Why can’t a woman expect the man who she hooked up with to return her text and have an adult conversation after a night of fun?

For years, I put up with a lot of bad behaviors from men. One day, after ending an on-again, off-again relationship I decided enough was enough. I vowed that I would never allow a man to make me feel like I wasn’t good enough ever again. If he thought I was “too” something, then he wasn’t the right person for me. I vowed that I wasn’t going to be apologetic for wanting a serious relationship and that I wasn’t going to settle. I vowed that I would rather be alone than to be with someone who wasn’t going to accept and love me for who I am. I resolved to my fate: I would rather be single for the rest of my life than to be with the wrong person.

It’s not that I stopped dating—I just had zero tolerance for men who mistreated me. I had expectations and boundaries, and I commanded respect. Men called me demanding, bitchy, crazy. I didn’t care. I stopped putting up with shit.

Then it happened one day.

I had known Derek for almost a year at this time. I met him at SCAD Hong Kong, where I was the head librarian, and he was one of the graphic designer professors. He borrowed a bunch of books on typography. I told him about my fifth-grade teacher who made us practice calligraphy. We became friendly and eventually, our paths started to cross.

One night in the fall of 2014, he and I went out for a drink with a bunch of our friends from work. At the end of the night, Derek texted me. “It was great seeing you tonight. You looked cute, even though you were wearing a cat dress.”

He hates cats.

I was wearing the cat dress the day before my wedding, while my best friend Sarah and I were buying flowers for my big day.

“Is Derek flirting with me?” I showed the text to my friend Kuba, who was visiting me at the time.

Kuba confirmed my suspicion.

The rest is history. After a whirlwind engagement, Derek and I married a year later. We will celebrate our third anniversary on Halloween this year.

It’s very ironic that Derek, who hates cats, ends up marrying a cat lady. 

Last summer I resigned from my position at SCAD to work towards my M.F.A. degree in writing. I plunged myself into the world of freelance writing. I no longer have a regular paycheck, which taps into my primal fear —to be dependent on a man, like Ama and Mama. Sometimes I freak-out, doubting my abilities and decision. Derek has spent hours comforting and encouraging me. He won’t let me quit and go back to the library.

Sometimes I still can’t believe my luck: my husband not only loves and accepts me, but he also supports me in my writing career. By choosing not to put up with shitty men, I in return found the best man ever. I couldn’t dream of having a better husband.

So, this is what I learned about love. From my Ama and my Mama, I learned to be financially independent. From my dating experience, I learned to stop taking shit from men, and that I had to love and accept myself before I can find anyone who would do the same for me. From Derek, I learned to let go of my fear (though I still have moments of doubt). I couldn’t have got to where I am today without these lessons. Finding love was hard, but I was lucky. For those of you out there who are still looking, don’t despair: You have someone that has been through it all rooting for you.

 

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Motherhood: Should I, or should I not?

Motherhood by Sheila Heti

I picked up Sheila Heti’s Motherhood because like the narrator of the book,  I am in my mid 30’s, a writer and often ponder whether or not I want a child with my loving and supportive husband, Derek. I had no idea what to expect when I started reading it, and the book is something beyond my imagination—it is not a conventional work of fiction.

The book is an intriguing journey of a woman talking herself out of motherhood. The narrative is generally plot-less and follows the stream of consciousness of the unnamed narrator, who I believe might be the Heti herself. Heti blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction, and the result is a poignant work that made me think about my attitude towards having children.

Throughout the book, the narrator obsessively tackles and reasons with herself about having children with Miles, her long-term boyfriend. She tosses her coins, which is a technique used by people who consult the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination system, used to help people with their life problems. Through the coin tossing, she addresses her uncertainty such as whether or not she is truly deserving of Miles, whether her anxiety is ever going away, and visualized her fear (a kitchen knife with a black handle) that cuts away hope and optimism out of her.

At one point, Heti tries to reason logically, at why having a child is narcissistic. She writes,

“The egoism of childbearing is like the egoism of colonizing a country—both carry the wish of imprinting yourself on the world, and making it over your values, and in your image.”

Then she follows up by comparing her religious cousin who has six children and herself, who has six books. Then she muses, “maybe there is no great difference in our faith—in what parts of ourselves we feel called to spread.”

I think I would rather have six books too.

Deep down, the narrator has never wanted a child, but often feels pressured by society. She thinks perhaps she might be sorry for not having a child, and therefore, should have one to prevent future regret. Furthermore, there are unrelenting expectations people have over women, to fulfill their “biological destiny.”She writes,

“It suddenly seemed like a huge conspiracy to keep women in their thirties—when you finally have some brains and some skills, and experience—from doing anything useful with them at all. It is hard to when such a large portion of your mind, at any given time, is pre-occupied with the possibility—a question that didn’t seem to preoccupy the drunk men at all.”

It is true—men don’t think about having a child in the same way because men aren’t expected to be the primary caretaker of the child. This responsibility squarely falls on women, to feed, clothes, and love the child while the man is away in the big world earning a living.  Heti criticizes our contemporary world— after all these years of feminism, the structure of our society hasn’t changed much at all. It is still patriarchal, and women are the ones judging other women when they choose not to have a child.

Heti, through her narrator, also criticizes how women are conditioned to have children to find fulfillment, instead of pursuing their interests and careers. She writes:

“All this wondering about children is just evidence of how much a person can give up what they know is right. It would be easier to have a child than to do what I want. Yet when I so frequently do the opposite of what I want, what is one more thing? Why not go all the way into falsehood, for me? I might as well have kids. Yet that is where I draw the line. You can’t create a person dishonestly.”

This passage was a bit of a revelation for me. I never really thought that it would be easier to have a child than to pursue one’s dreams. I’ve always thought to have a child would be so much harder, and the stakes are so much higher because once I am a mother, I’d be responsible for another person’s safety and well-being. There will be no more time to write, to travel, or do anything. That seems daunting to me.

I have nothing but respect for all the mothers of the world, and glad that their children bring them satisfaction and fulfillment. But I can’t help but think, how many women fell into the trap of motherhood because it’s too scary to say, pursue a new career at age 35?

At the end of the day, the question of motherhood is emotional and illogical. Logically, I understand all the reason against having children. However, as I get older, emotions are slowly clouding my logic. I can’t help but wonder: what would it be like to have a child?  I think Derek and I would make a pretty and bright child. We would teach her (I want a girl) to be kind, and she will make the world a better place.

As I sit here in front of my computer writing this book review, I ask myself, would I rather do this than say, comforting a screaming baby? The answer is, I would rather write.

But, I still think I might want to have a child.

 

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Lessons on Love, Part II

Hello readers. This post is a part of a series, Lessons on Love. Please read Part I if you haven’t done so already. 

Over the next few months, Mama slowly regained her composure. She started to cook again. She stopped threatening herself with knives and pills. But she was sad. Baba was still traveling constantly for work. As a teenager, I didn’t know if Mama and Baba were communicating and working on their marriage. When I was a senior in high school, Baba quit his job as a tour guide and settled in Taipei permanently when he got a job as the general manager of a hair transplant clinic. Mama started to visit him regularly, leaving a few weeks at a time. Over time, she began to extend her visit. I remember her not being there at all during the first semester of senior year in high school because I skipped my first class every day during that time.

“Hello, your son or daughter is absent today…” The monotone automatic message from my high school would start when my answering machine picked up. I would open my eyes momentarily, turn over and go back to sleep.

At an impressionable age, I learned that my parents weren’t gods—they are humans with flaws. Watching my mother’s meltdown caused by my father’s infidelity, I discovered the dire consequences of being emotionally dependent on a man. I told myself back then that I would never want to be in her position. I would never allow my love for a man to turn into ammunition that he could use to maim me. Through Mama, I also learned how vital it is for a woman to be financially independent. With no economic means, she couldn’t have left Baba even if she wanted to. She was the old-school, conventional Asian housewife; she had never worked a day outside of her home.

During this time, I felt overwhelmed, not knowing how to process my emotions. On the one hand, I was angry. How could Baba betray Mama when she dedicated her whole life to us? At the same time, I was a Daddy’s Girl, and I love my father. He was indulgent, showering me with his affection and bringing me trinkets from his trips. When I needed help with my chemistry homework, he was attentive and patient. He was also a fun-loving father who took me and my younger brother Davis snowboarding on the weekends. I knew he loved us, but his affair broke Mama’s heart and spirit.

My Baba is the best father in the whole world.

I developed unhealthy relationship patterns around this time—I worried about men cheating on me or leaving me, but I also desperately dreaded being alone. My strategy was to become infatuated with a person and charm him with attention—the goal was to have him fall hopelessly in love with me, so he wouldn’t cheat or leave. At the same time, because I never wanted to be dependent on a man for my financial well-being, I moved around for my education and career. I never stuck around for anybody.

On the surface, I seemed accomplished and strong, but underneath, I was insecure and lonely. The tough girl who skipped school and smoked in the food court at the mall was just a façade. Since having my first boyfriend at seventeen, I had not been single for more than a few months at a time. Like a rabbit chased by an unknown assailant, I dashed from one man to the next, looking for someone to validate me, to calm the nagging, neurotic voice inside my head: I would never find a man who’d love me because I was always “too” something. I was too fat. I was too emotional but also too ambitious. I was too wild, too free a spirit. I talked too fast, thought too much, and had too many feelings. I’m too strong-willed, too needy. Over and over again, this voice whispered to me throughout my relationships. With every failed relationship, it confirmed that I was unlovable.

When I completed my first year of studies at university, Mama sat me down at the kitchen table. At this time, I was getting high regularly and was barely passing my classes. However, Mama didn’t know this. She asked me if she should go back to Taiwan for good. This conversation was probably the first time we had a heart-to-heart as two women. Mama was sitting at the kitchen table, while I perched on the stool next to her. She looked thoughtful and a bit pained—she had to choose between her husband and children. What woman had to make a choice like that? Having taken a women’s studies class that year, I felt empowered and believed that women should do whatever is best for her future. I told her just that.

“When I am old, you and Davis will have your own families, and I will only have your Baba,” she said slowly, after considering what I had told what I know about feminism. “Also, I need to go keep an eye on him to make sure that you and Davis don’t find out that you have half-siblings.”

When Mama moved back to Taipei for good, Davis was still in high school, and I was barely 19-years-old.

In the next post, I reflect on how the stories of my parents and grandparents, and how they affected my relationships. 

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A New Category: Book Reviews

 

Besides talking about books, we also enjoy all-you-can-eat sushi. 

My brother Davis often asks me for book recommendations. I’d give him a list of books to read. Months later, he’d come back to me, and want to talk about the details in books such asThe Orphan Master’s Son or The Underground RailwaySadly, I usually have very little to offer—because I had forgotten what I’ve read almost immediately after I’ve finished the book. Oh, I’d remember that the book was enjoyable, clever, sad, or whatever, but I wouldn’t be able to remember the name of the characters or what happened to them.  Oh, me and my terrible memory!

My desire to improve my reading memory and be able to have meaningful conversations with Davis about books are the inspiration for this new “Book Review” category.  I hope you, my dear readers, will enjoy it.

My first review is My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.

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My Year of Rest and Relaxation: A Vapid, Spoiled Brat Took Pills to Sleep for the Whole Year

 

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year. The premise of the book is pretty far-fetched— a thin, pretty, and rich young woman, our unnamed narrator, decided to check out from life for a year by sedating herself with an array of pills. This was made possible with the assistance of the world’s most unethical psychiatrist, Dr. Tuttle.  She was the impersonation of the pharmaceutical industry who touts that there is a pill for every illness and cure for every ail. If only life was that easy.

When not in a drug-induced sleep, our unnamed narrator watched movies on VHS, ate animals crackers while taking Ambien and Nembutal, and eventually drifting off into a deep somber on the couch. Instead of having her laundry picked up and dropped off like a civilized person, she opted to throw away her dirty underwear and orders tacky lingerie from Victoria’s Secret. The only time she left the house was to get coffee and cigarettes from the bodega at odd hours of the night. Meet our spoiled, vapid, and entitled narrator—who despite all that she had, went into “hibernation” in June 2000, when she was 24-years-old. At this time, she had been fired from her cushy job at an upscale art gallery for sleeping in the supply closet. Her on-again-off-again boyfriend Trevor treated her like a disposable piece of trash. Her only friend, Reva, was a whiney, insecure woman who was jealous of the narrator’s beauty, wealth, and her size 2 wardrobe.

This is the starting point of the book, and needless to say, none of the characters seemed likable. Yet, I couldn’t put down the book. In some ways, reading the book is like witnessing a trainwreck— it is horrifying, yet fascinating in a morbid way—how will this unnamed narrator destroy or redeem herself?

I’d like to be clear: the trainwreck metaphor only applies to the characters in the book. The book itself is flawlessly written— it is engaging and funny in a despondent way:

“You’re so needy,” I said. “Sounds frustrating.”

“And there’s Ken. I just can’t stand it. I rather kill myself than be all alone,” she said.

“At least you have options.”

In some ways, whether I like to admit it or not, I can relate to Reva, or even the narrator herself, living in a world consumed by vanity. As women, we are always told to strive for the size 2 body, the rewarding career, and give all that up when we meet the perfect man. When we don’t achieve what is expected of us, we are made to feel bad about it. Ironically, the unnamed narrator seemed to have it all, and instead of living it, she chose to sleep her life away. What does this say about ourselves and the values we hold dear?

This book took place in the year 2000, right before the boom of smartphones and around-the-clock tweets.  And yet, little has changed since then. Like 18 years ago, women are still subjected to ridiculous expectations, and we continue to allow men to treat us badly (in the book, the narrator’s boyfriend Trevor would come over to have sex with her like it was a favor for her, and Reva was involved with a middle-aged married man who just “loves” her on the side.) Many of us are still afraid to die alone and would do anything to avoid this fate. The #MeToo movement brought some awareness to women’s plight, but, has it achieved a lasting impact on how women view our worth?

Through My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Moshfegh is holding up a mirror for us to examine ourselves, in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. It’s an intriguing and refreshing read, perfect summer book for the beach.

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Lessons on Love, Part I

Hello, my dear readers.  You are about to read about an event that shook my family. Thankfully, we all survived and we are closer than ever. I am telling you this story because it shaped the course of my life and how I view relationships. This is also a part of my writing sample that I’ve been sending to agents. I welcome any comments or feedback. Thank you for reading.  

When I was fifteen, something happened that changed my life forever. At the time, my family and I lived in a two-story suburban house with four bedrooms, a games room a three-door garage in Surrey, sprawling suburbia about 35 km south of Vancouver. My father, Baba, was working as a tour guide and lived in Taipei most of the time. Every two weeks, he would fly with a group of Taiwanese tourists and take them on a 10-day tour around western Canada. They went to the Rockies, spent a couple of days in Jasper and made their way to Banff to look at the stunning glacier-fed, impossibly turquoise Lake Louise. Before they flew back to Taipei, Baba took them on a city tour in Vancouver, and at the end of the day, he always came home to spend time with us. The next morning, he would leave again for two more weeks. Sure, I missed him, but his schedule had become routine. And on one fateful morning, nothing was amiss, until the moment Mama found a letter in Baba’s black nylon travel bag.

Mama visiting our old house in Surrey, BC, taken years after my parents had sold it. This is the house where Davis and I grew up.

Before school one morning, I was eating my eggs sitting on the high stool next to the kitchen counter when I heard Mama shout Baba’s name. I am not sure what business Mama had poking around Baba’s black nylon side bag— maybe she was putting something in there, or perhaps she was looking for something for him— either way, she pulled out a love letter in Baba’s handwriting, addressed to another woman.

With this discovery, Mama lost her mind. She wanted answers. She demanded Baba to explain himself. Baba, however, couldn’t deal with the situation because he had a flight to catch. He left Mama a wailing mess. I don’t remember how I got to school that day.

When I came home from school, I found Mama standing disheveled in the middle of the kitchen, wearing her frumpy, pale pink cotton nightgown even though it was three o’clock in the afternoon. With tears streaming down her face, she was howling that she wanted to die. She clutched the crumpled-up love letter in one hand and with her the other hand she made slashing gestures with a kitchen knife as if she was going to slit her wrist.

At this time, Mama was in her mid-30s, but she dressed and acted like a much older woman— a dedicated mother whose husband had been away for long stretches of time. She mostly wore dowdy, faded sweatsuits. Spending her days cleaning and cooking, Mama never did her hair or makeup. She paid little attention to herself. Her world revolved around Baba, my younger brother Davis, and me.

Several days later, when I came home from school, the house was quiet. I expected an aroma of something delicious to greet me, since Mama usually had a snack ready by the time I came home from school, like a steaming bowl of Taiwanese-style beef brisket noodle soup. When I wandered into the kitchen, she wasn’t at her usual station in front of the stove, engulfed in steam coming out of a bubbling pot that she was stirring, and telling me that my snack would be ready soon.

I began to search the house to make sure that Mama wasn’t hurting herself. At the entrance to my parents’ room, I held my breath, turned the doorknob, pushed open the door and tip-toed inside. As I entered the room, the stale odor of unwashed hair and desperate sadness overwhelmed me. Mama was gone to the world, snoring away even though it was the middle of the afternoon. Her jet-black hair matted on the cream-colored pillowcase, her usually smooth forehead crinkled with despair. Her skin was oily; her lips pointed downward in a permanent frown. Even in her sleep, she was in agony. On the nightstand, I noticed bottles of pills. Sleeping pills, seductive, secret sleeping pills that promised peace and a pain-free slumber. I picked a bottle up and rattled it. It was almost empty. I gathered every bottle and took them with me. I rushed out of the room and threw them in the bottom drawer of the nightstand in my bedroom where I had stashed all the knives in the house a few days prior.

For the record, my Mama and Baba have worked through their problems, and are now living happily ever after in Taipei, Taiwan. I love them both very dearly. The next post will illustrate the aftermath of this event. 

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Don’t Call Me Fat

“Oh, Kayo. You sure got fat!” Ama, my paternal grandmother, would cry out in Hokkien as soon as she saw me on the first day of the Chinese New Year.

Even though I wanted to shrug off her words, I couldn’t. Ama has always made me incredibly self-conscious about my body. Her shrill words hurt the most when I first moved to Hong Kong as a recently single 30-year-old woman. I convinced myself that she was right and that I was too fat and too unattractive to find a partner again.

I stormed off. “What’s she so angry about?” Ama would ponder loudly, knowing that I was still within earshot.

It is common for Asian women, especially the older ones, to feel that they have the right to comment on another woman’s body. I, However, never thought it was okay to be cruel. Ama‘s thoughtless remark always sours my mood upon my arrival, and I always dread spending time with her.

Baba, my father, would justify his mother’s behavior as “the way of the older generation.” Apparently, her calling me fat was supposed to demonstrate her concern for me. She was trying to be nice, he would say—but of course, the way she expressed her sentiments didn’t make me feel nice. I would protest, but Baba would sigh and say, “Ama is very old, and she isn’t going to change. She’s very lonely. You should spend more time with her.”

I often sat with Ama in the living room, which consists of a set of opulent redwood furniture. It is made of solid cherry wood with gorgeous mother-of-pearl inlay, and it is some of the most uncomfortable furniture I have ever encountered.  Many awkward family portraits were taken on the three-seater over the years.

I always feel fat and awkward visiting Ama during Chinese New Years. I swear that rosewood sofa makes me fat.

Next to the three-seater sofa is a bronze bust of a balding, stern looking man—my paternal grandfather, my Agon. He was an obstetrician and an aspiring artist, who collected many of the paintings that are in Ama‘s house. He and Ama had an affair for most of her adult life until he passed away.

Though I dread visiting her now, my relationship with Ama wasn’t always negative. When I was six, my family moved from Japan to Taiwan, and we lived in the same house as Ama. She lived on the third floor, and we lived on the fourth. On the weekends, my younger brother Davis and I used to have sleepovers with her, where she would gently clean our ears with a Q-tip until we fell asleep. The next day, she would take us out to 7-11 to get a Slurpee and a hotdog, which were rare treats. During the week, I would holler at her door and say hi to her before I went to school.  She always handed me a few coins to buy candies. Ama was my favorite person for a long time. Then we moved to Canada when I was ten, and I didn’t see Ama for most of my teenage years.

Since I was little, I knew that Mama had a challenging relationship with Ama. Little kids always have a way of picking up these things. Ama also often complained about my aunt and uncle’s spouses —it seems that Ama doesn’t care for anyone who isn’t related to her by blood.

After I finished graduate school and started working abroad, I would visit Taiwan regularly. During these visits, I began to see how poorly Ama treats Mama. For example, in the car on the way to a Mother’s Day dinner, Ama criticized Mama’s family —she made some insulting and unflattering remark about Mama’s father. I can’t remember exactly what she had said, but Mama was infuriated. This encounter ruined our Mother’s Day dinner.

When I was 21,  I wasn’t “fat.”

It was around this time Ama started to be hostile towards me —I am my mother’s daughter, and I look like her. Maybe the reason Ama torments others is that she’s been suffering her whole life. She spent her youth vying for the attention of another woman’s husband. I suppose I would become bitter and cruel had I been in that situation.

In the last decade, I’ve struggled every time I have to visit Ama. But I do it because it’s important to Baba, and I would do anything for him. However, instead of suffering in silence, I started to pipe up when she called me fat.

Ama, if you are so mean to me every time I see you, I won’t come to visit you anymore.”

She pretended that she didn’t hear me.

In the recent years, Ama has slowed down, and her razor-sharp tongue is duller due to her age. She is now 90-years-old, and I do my best to see her through a compassionate lens. She is, after all, an old and lonely woman who spent her youth chasing after someone that didn’t belong to her. I know she has stories. I wish I could put aside my childish resentment and talk to her— but I haven’t been able to overcome it yet.

 

 

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The Family of Forbidden Love

It was during summer vacation when Baba, my father, introduced my younger brother Davis and me to cousins visiting us from California.  Their names are Frankie, Tommy, and Michael. They are children of Baba‘s older brother, my Uncle Steven. Davis and I had never met them before, but we hit it off right away. Baba took all of us around the tourist attractions in Vancouver, like the aquarium and the suspension bridge. We went to Stanley Park and he bought us ice cream cones. We had a great day.

In the back of my mind though, I couldn’t stop this nagging voice: If they are our cousins, why didn’t we meet them sooner? I decided to discuss this with Tommy, who was also 12 at the time. We talked about our Agon, our fathers’ father and established that we have the same last name, Chang. Then we talked about our Ama, our fathers’ mother—that’s when we learned that we call different women “Ama.

Instead of confronting my parents with my discovery, I talked to my Aunt Christine, who is Mama‘s brother’s wife. I’ve known her my whole life.

“Why do Tommy and I have different Amas?”

“You are too observant and smart for your own good.” She said, a little in awe of detective skills. “You are right, you and Tommy do have different Amas.”

She didn’t explain why we have different grandmothers, but I figured out the truth pretty quickly: For most of her adult life,  Ama was in a relationship Agon, a married man. She bore him three children. Baba is the middle child—he has an older sister and a younger brother. Agon‘s wife also had three children, and Uncle Steven is one of three—he is also the middle child.

Before the age of 12, I didn’t know there was another branch of the Chang family. However, I always suspected something was amiss. For instance, I wondered why Agon didn’t live with Ama. On Sundays, he would come by the house and take all of us—Ama, Baba, Mama, Davis and me out for lunch. Then we would spend the afternoon in a department store or a park. My favourite was when he took us to Baskin-Robbins. To this day, when I taste the tangy sweetness of the Rainbow Sherbert, I always think of Agon.

I have fond memories of Sunday afternoons spent with my grandfather. However, I also noticed he would be gone by dinner time. When I was about eight or nine, I asked Baba why Agon never stayed for dinner.

Agon is a very busy doctor, he needs to go back to his clinic to see his patients.”

Ama and Agon’s relationship was an open secret—everybody in town knew about it.  But, how does a man explain that he is a product of extramarital affair to his young daughter?  Even as a child, I instinctively understood the topic is taboo. However, over the years, I put together a partial story of this forbidden love.

My parental grandparents.

Agon and Ama met at the Taichung Hospital.  He was an accomplished obstetrician, who was 13 years her senior.  She was his young,  pretty nurse. Despite the fact that he was married, they fell in love. Sometimes I wonder why Ama chose a married man over other eligible bachelors. One explanation I heard was that  Agon was wealthy and Ama wanted to take care of her elderly adopted mother who raised her when her whole family immigrated to Vietnam.

Back then in Taiwan, it was more common for accomplished men to have mistresses—Agon took care of Ama by giving her stocks, jewelry, and property. With his generosity, Ama became a wealthy woman. I heard from Mama‘s side of the family that Ama had a bit of a reputation in Taichung when she was young— she was the beautiful, cunning woman who stole Agon from his wife and children.  However, despite her reputation, she raised her three children with the best of everything.  Education was a priority and Baba and his siblings went to the best schools. When Baba finished college, he moved to Japan for his master’s degree—where affluent people sent their children to be educated. There, he met Mama. Soon after, I was born in Tokyo in 1982, and Davis was born in 1984. When I was six, we moved to Taiwan.

In many ways, Ama did well for herself—she has a house, money in the bank and three successful children. However, it must be so hard to be in love with a man and watch him leave to go to the arms of another woman. What did she tell herself to live this way? I think there was genuine love between Agon and Ama, but at the end of the day, Ama chose financial security over love. It’s something unthinkable for me, but how can I judge her? If she hadn’t done what she did, I wouldn’t exist.

Every family has secrets. Ours just happens to be forbidden love, one that created a family—mine.

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