The Nikah

Hello dear reader,

Today, I am sharing “The Nikah” which was originally published and featured in the March 2019 issue of Sunspot Literary Journal. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Tears rolled down my powdered face, dampening my makeshift lavender headscarf. I bit my lower lip and cried without making a sound. I could have said no to Gökhan and walked away from the nikah, the Islamic wedding ceremony—but my conditioning would not allow it. Growing up in a Taiwanese family, the concept of “losing face” was ingrained in me. I understood how unforgivable it was to humiliate someone in public. I felt compelled to submit to the conditioning that I have willfully fought against my whole life, to maintain my future husband’s honor in front of his entire clan. But the obligation to compromise my integrity, whether it was real or imaginary, was crushing me. I hated having to pretend to believe in something to please my future mother-in-law.

Gökhan’s mother was a gregarious Turkish woman. Short and squat in stature, she was the matriarch of the family. She had moved to Denmark with her husband in the ’70s, and all her children had been born and raised there. However, she held onto the customs from the old country and behaved very much like a traditional Turkish wife and mother. I never saw her without her headscarf, even in the middle of summer. Gökhan’s father, on the other hand, had adapted to Denmark. He was a quiet man with a handsome, honest face. He owned a grocery store in the neighborhood, and when he found out that I loved strawberries, he’d bring some back from his store every day during my visit. He was the type who would go with the flow and let his wife take care of all the traditions and rituals.

I had just arrived in Denmark a week earlier and had met Gökhan’s family for the first time. We slept in separate beds because his mother thought it was improper for us sleep together until we perform the nikah.

            That summer, Gökhan and I were in-between places—we had just left Dubai and in the autumn moved to Bahrain where I would start a new job. My new employers instructed me to move to Bahrain alone, or marry Gökhan so I could sponsor his dependent visa. Since we did not want to break up, we decided to elope in Canada. We made a pitstop in Copenhagen on our way to Vancouver to see his parents before we legalized our union.

Even though Gökhan’s mother and I did not speak the same language, I wanted her to like me. I understood that the nikah was pivotal to his pious mother. I was not against it, but I also did not want to give her the impression that I was willing to convert to Islam. I am proudly secular, which caused major friction when Gökhan and I first started dating.

“If you want to be with me, and be accepted by my family, you will need to convert,” he said—it was the only time I remember Gökhan being adamant about anything.

“No.” I stared at him as if he had warped into a goat. Converting to Islam was unthinkable. Being secular is my mode in life, and I was not willing to change it.

He explained that all I had to do was to pretend, to do it for a show, which was what he had done his whole life. I still refused. He called me spoiled, stubborn and selfish. I cried but persisted. It was a battle of wills that lasted the whole day.

“If you love me, you will accept me for who I am,” I argued, my eyes blazing. “You wouldn’t ask me to compromise my integrity.”

Eventually, I broke him down with a combination of persistence and tears. “You won’t need to convert,” he said, hugging me. “I will talk to my mother.”  

It was no surprise that Gökhan yielded—I was the girl who always had her way. “Don’t smoke in the mall,” Mama used to glare at me when I was on my way out of the house when I was in high school, “someone might see you.”

You don’t want me smoking in the mall? I did just that with abandon. Don’t want me dating white guys? I did, just to make you cringe. Oh, you would disown me if I got a tattoo? I did, just to test you.

Gökhan was right: I was spoiled. Mama relented, and Gökhan did too.

My initial experience with Islam was when I moved to Dubai for my first job as a librarian, about ten months before meeting Gökhan. My first impression was that it was strict and conservative. I had to abandon wearing skirts to work because it was indecent to show my knees. The religion forbade many things that I enjoyed, such as alcohol and pork. During Ramadan, even non-Muslims could not have a sip of water in public. However, I kept an open mind. I wanted to be involved with my future husband’s traditions.

When Gökhan told me about nikah, I knew nothing about it. He described it as an engagement to tell Allah that he, Gökhan, had chosen me, Kayo, to be his wife. That did not sound awful—it seemed like a symbolic ceremony. I agreed that I was willing to take part in the nikah, as long as I did not have to convert to Islam. He talked to his mother who agreed that I would not have to. Overjoyed that her son would no longer live in sin, she invited the whole extended family, prepared an elaborate spread, and summoned the prestigious imam, a religious leader, who would officiate the ceremony.

I had no idea what I signed up for.

On the day of the nikah, I was in the center of the room wearing an ivory, ankle-length, cotton maxi dress with grey embroidered flowers at the hem. I’d bought the dress a few days before because it was long and covered my legs. However, the top portion was too revealing for Islamic taste, so I wore a grey cardigan, buttoned-up all the way, which hid my tattooed arm and immodest cleavage.

Gökhan’s three aunts were fussing around me, trying to pin a lavender pashmina over my head as a temporary headscarf. His little sisters, aged 11 and 13, whose room had turned into a bridal dressing room, stole curious glances at me. When I returned their stares with grins, they gasped, turned their heads and looked away. His boisterous aunts laughed and chatted in a combination of Turkish and Danish. They clamored and made animated gestures with their hands and clapped as they giggled over some anecdote I couldn’t understand. I stood amid this commotion with a dumb smile on my face and nodded my head as Gökhan’s only English-speaking aunt asked me if I was doing okay. Despite the chaos in the room, a part of me was having fun, soaking up his aunts’ contagious excitement. I felt euphoric and found myself smiling more as time passed. I was putting the finishing touches on my makeup when Gökhan poked his head in the room, “Hey, can I talk to you for a minute in the next room?” he asked in a quiet voice, avoiding my eyes, his thick, dark brows furrowed.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

***

How did I, my mother’s rebellious and stubborn daughter, ended up participating in nikah with a Danish-Turkish guy she had only dated for less than a year? The truth was that the defiant teenager who continually stretched boundaries and pushed her mother’s buttons found herself a lost and scared 26-year-old woman in the Middle East.

I was born in Japan to Taiwanese parents and grew up just outside of Vancouver, British Columbia. I always prided myself on being an adaptable third-culture kid—I was fearless and foolish. Fresh out of graduate school, I moved to Dubai to start my first job as a librarian, even though I would not have been able to find the city on an atlas. 

When I first got on the transport bus to the terminal of the Dubai International Airport, I burst into tears—the warm and humid air tinged with dust reminded me how far away I was from home. Homesickness was only one of the many challenges I faced in Dubai. For the first month, I tried to get an internet connection in my apartment to stay in touch with my faraway family and friends. I spent all my free time going to Etisalat, the national internet provider. Each time, I spoke to an indifferent woman at the counter who wore a black headscarf and emitted an intense frankincense perfume. Each time, she told me, “two weeks, in’shallah.” Each time, I left the building defeated and depressed. Before I knew any better, I was convinced that ‘in’shallah’ meant ‘go away.’ It took over two months for me to have an internet connection at home.

On the weekends, I would roam around the city wide-eyed, trying to absorb this strange, desert landscape filled with glitzy shopping malls and imposing skyscrapers surrounded by endless construction sites. As I walked by in my short-sleeve t-shirt and knee-length skirt, South Asian workers gawked at me with their unblinking, saucer eyes. I ran away to divert their gaze. I was confused, misunderstood, and isolated from everything and everyone I knew.

Within days of arriving in Dubai, I cried on the phone to Mama. After three days of crying, Mama broke down and came for a visit. She cooked for me, helped me settle into my new apartment, and we explored the city together. We shopped in the souk, went dune bashing in the desert, and had afternoon tea at the Burj Al Arab. However, after she left, I was even more homesick and lonely, which drove me to go out to meet new people. Eventually, I made friends with other expatriates, young women close to my age who had also moved to Dubai for their careers. But they did not ease my sense of alone-ness. What I wanted was someone to come home to and wake up next to every morning. Someone who would understand me, someone to go on adventures with, someone who would take me away from this loneliness and despair. After dating Gökhan for a few months, I thought he could be that person.

The truth is, my definition of a good relationship was simplistic and naive. I did not know a thing about a healthy relationship—as a teenager, I watched my parents struggle with their marriage. At the tender age of fifteen, I found out that Baba, my father, had been cheating on Mama.

Baba was a travel guide and was often away from home. At this time, Mama was in her mid-30’s, but she dressed and acted like a much older woman— a dedicated mother whose husband was away for long periods. Since Mama spent her days cleaning and cooking, she paid little attention to her appearance. Her clothing of choice consisted of dowdy, faded sweatsuits. Her world revolved around Baba, my younger brother Davis, and me.

Before school one morning, I was eating my eggs sitting on the high stool next to the kitchen counter when I heard Mama scream 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. 

Mama lost her mind with this discovery. She wanted answers. She needed reassurance. She demanded Baba to explain himself. He could not. He ran out of the door with his luggage to catch a flight and left behind Mama who had turned into a wailing mess. I do not remember how I got to school that day.

After 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 wailed and screamed that she wanted to die. She clutched a crumpled-up letter in one hand and with her other hand, made slashing gestures with a kitchen knife as if she was going to slit her wrist. I was terrified.

Several days later, I came home, and the house was silent. Before this whole fiasco, Mama always had a snack ready by the time I came back from school, like a brothy bowl of Taiwanese-style beef brisket noodle soup, savory braised pork with rice, or flavorful soy-sauce marinated chicken wings. But that day, when I wandered into the kitchen, she wasn’t there. She was not at her usual station in front of the stove, engulfed in tantalizing steam coming out of a bubbling pot that she was stirring, telling me that my snack would be ready soon.

The eerie stillness was a stark contrast to what had happened in the kitchen only a few days before. I began to search the house to make sure Mama had not hurt herself. At the entrance to my parents’ room, I held my breath, turned the doorknob, pushed open the door and tip-toed inside. I entered the room inundated with the stale, feminine odor of unwashed hair—the scent of desperate sadness. Mama was asleep and snoring loudly 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—even in her sleep, she was in agony. On the nightstand, I saw bottles of pills. Sleeping pills, seductive, secret sleeping pills that promised peace and a pain-free slumber. I picked up a bottle and rattled it—it was almost empty. I gathered every bottle in sight and took them. I rushed into my bedroom and threw them in the bottom drawer of my nightstand where I had stashed all the knives in the house a few days earlier.

At an impressionable age, I learned that my parents were not gods—they are flawed human beings. Watching my mother’s meltdown caused by my father’s infidelity, I discovered the dire consequences of being emotionally dependent on a spouse. 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. I also learned the importance for a woman to be financially independent—with no economic means, Mama could not leave Baba even if she wanted to. She was an old-school, conventional Asian housewife who had never worked a day outside of her home.

During this dark time, I was overwhelmed and did not know how to process my conflicting 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, as a Daddy’s Girl, I was confused. Baba 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 Davis snowboarding on the weekends. I knew he loved Davis and me, but his affair broke Mama’s heart and spirit. I did not understand how such an amazing father could be such a shitty husband.

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 would not 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 smoked and defied her mother 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 someone who would love me because I am always “too” something. I am too fat. I am too emotional but also too ambitious. I am too crazy, too free-spirited. I talk too fast, think too much, and has too many feelings. I am too strong-willed, and at the same time, 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 met Gökhan, the nagging voice subsided. We connected on OkCupid and hit it off. He was living in Copenhagen and seemed like a reliable and attentive man. He was cute too, with wavy, dark brown hair, deep-set mahogany eyes, a straight nose, and a thoughtful demeanor. He quieted my anxiety with his patient, soothing voice. We fell asleep talking to each other on Skype many nights. I felt safe having him in my life.

The start of our relationship was a sweet and romantic internet fairy tale that spanned continents. After chatting online for three months, we met in person in Istanbul. On our second night together, Gökhan and I climbed several flights of creaky stairs to reach the rooftop of one of the budget hotels in the Old City. Opening the door to the terrace, the twilight before sunrise greeted us. Gökhan draped a blanket around me when he saw me shivering in the chilly, pre-dawn gust. Then, groping his way in the darkness, he led me to the shabby lounge on the far side of the terrace. We shuffled in our flip-flops, trying to suppress our giddiness. I looked up, enchanted by the constellation above me. As my gaze followed the horizon, I saw the flickering white lights from the boats and ferries dotting the Bosphorus, the strait that functions as a border between Asia and Europe. The twilight was misty, making it hard to see where the sky ended and the Bosphorus began. Over the railing of the terrace were the muted shadows of the shops, homes, and hotels of Old City, peacefully asleep. All around us, the shutters were drawn, the lights dimmed, and it was quiet. We sat bundled up on the lounge in the blanket. I was snuggling up next to a man whom, days before, I had only seen on a computer screen. He bent down and planted a kiss on my lips.

“Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar, Ash hadu an la ilaha illal lah…” the muezzin called out the first stanza of the haunting and melodic adhan at the crack of dawn to remind all Muslims it was time for the opening prayer of the day. My eyes flew open. To my surprise, my surroundings had transformed. Twilight had receded, and in its place, the sun emerged. The first pink and orange rays illuminated the sky, chasing away the stars. I rubbed my eyes as the sunshine warmed my face inviting me to crawl out of the warmth of Gökhan’s arms. At dawn, the Bosphorus was no longer shrouded in a mysterious mist– it was bustling with ferries and ships moving back and forth between Asia and Europe. The city below was no longer sleeping; it was buzzing with horns and chatter as people arose from their beds to begin a new day. I was in awe of Istanbul’s transformations between night and day. Looking at Gökhan’s handsome face on this brand-new day, I kissed him before we headed back to our room. I was happy and in love.

***

Less than a year later, we faced a conundrum.

I followed Gökhan out of the room and closed the door as his aunts and sisters giggled behind us. We entered the next room, which was his parents’ bedroom and he sat me down on the edge of the bed. Averting my quizzical eyes, Gökhan said, “When the imam asked me what your religion was, I couldn’t tell him that you didn’t have one. So, I told him that you were a Buddhist. He said since you are of the Book—neither Christian nor Jewish, you would need to convert.”

             His words took a few moments to sink in. Once I understood the gravity of the situation, I started to panic. Did he know this was going to happen before talking me into the nikah?

“This is not part of the deal,” I shouted, shaking my head. The pins keeping my lavender headscarf in place pricked my scalp. “You promised that I didn’t have to convert if I go through the nikah!” I glared at him; my gaze was accusatory.

“I’m sorry I didn’t know,” he muttered, “You don’t need to go through with it if you don’t want to. It’s completely up to you.”

Is it up to me? No, it’s not up to me! I started to cry. Gökhan looked at me with his thoughtful eyes. He handed me a tissue. I dabbed my eyes, blew my nose, and shed more tears. I looked up and saw myself in his mother’s vanity mirror. The rebellious teenager inside me mocked my puffy face and smeared make-up—but I could not stop crying. Gökhan fidgeted next to me, occasionally patting me on the shoulder and repeating the phrase, “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”

Don’t you fucking understand? I shouted inside my head. From now on, we can never be truly happy together. If I don’t convert, your mother is going to hate me forever, and I am going to feel lousy making you choose between her and me. If I do convert, I will resent you for as long as I live. I kept my head bowed because I could not stand looking at the helpless expression on his face. I could not utter a word because if I tried verbalized my feelings, I would start wailing. The teenaged me would have walked out of the door without looking back. She was, however, overpowered by the decent Taiwanese daughter who did not want her future husband to lose face.

Looking back, I realized that I put myself in this messy situation on an impulse and deeply rooted fear. I was in love with the idea of being in love. I also loved having an exotic boyfriend who had grown up in a set of cultures that were vastly unlike mine. I bragged to friends that between the two of us, we had four passports. At the same time, it was my fear of being alone that drove me to this irrational decision to go through with nikah. Knowing what I know now, I should have walked away—coercion and compromised integrity are not a good foundation for marriage. However, as a third culture kid, I have been crossing borders and adapting to different cultures my whole life. I thought I was ready to cross a new one with Gökhan.

I was wrong.

I wept for an eternity, shed enough tears to fill the Bosphorous. The girl with a cigarette dangling between her fingers, dated white boys and covered herself in tattoos had turned into Gökhan’s bewildered bride. On the other side of the door, the imam was waiting for me to change my wicked, wayward ways and Gökhan’s entire clan was expecting us to profess our undying love and commitment to each other. I cried and cried like a lost child. I did not know how to get out of this mess.

Out of nowhere, Gökhan’s father walked into the room. He was smiling. He closed the door behind him and started laughing. I gave him a look of bafflement as he spoke rapidly in Turkish. He paused and nodded his head. Gökhan looked at me and interpreted what his father had said, “My dad said you are taking this whole thing way too seriously.” 

His father grinned at me, said a few more words and nodded again. Gökhan translated, “He said it’s totally fine if you don’t want to go through with it. But you could also put on a show by pretending to convert, which would make everybody happy.”

I stared at his father, shocked that he had just asked me to go out there and tell a lie in front of the whole family. He chuckled, nodded at Gökhan again and left without saying another word. What his father wanted me to do was what he had done, and what Gökhan had done his whole life: pretend and go through the motions to make peace. I felt defeated and exhausted. I forced my gaze back to Gökhan. Oh, what I would do just to make this awful situation go away!

 After taking a couple of deep breaths, I asked Gökhan to fetch my makeup bag from the next room. I cleaned my face with fresh tissue and wiped away the black smudge under my eyes. When Gökhan returned, I smeared a thick layer of foundation and powdered my face. Then, I applied a sparkly lilac eyeshadow that matched my lavender headscarf. Staring at my reflection in the mirror, I grinned. My eyes were still puffy; my smile looked pathetic but convincing enough to those who did not know me. I smiled again and knew that my mask was secure. I reached for Gökhan’s hand and led him out of the room.

Sadly, Mama’s rebellious Canadian daughter did not have big enough guns to fight the rebellion in Denmark. After all, I was only one young woman trying to keep my integrity abreast in the face of a conservative, cultural tidal wave.

I followed the imam, who told me to repeat the Shahada, the Arabic script that would declare me a Muslim. “La ilaha illa Allah wa-Muhammad rasul Allah,” which translates to “I testify that there is no other God but Allah, and Muhammad is God’s messenger.” The imam said it slowly, pausing after every few syllables to allow time for me to mimic the foreign sounds. Afterward, I signed a piece of paper that the imam had prepared. Shortly after, he declared us husband and wife. 

From that day, I resented Gökhan. I never forgave him for putting me through a conversion.

Our union did not last long. Four months after we arrived in Bahrain, the Arab Spring broke out. A series of protests swept across the Arab world. In Bahrain, the government cracked down on the demonstrations, which created an environment of fear and uncertainty. The turmoil made it difficult for Gökhan to find work. A year and a half later, when he finally secured a job in Dubai, our marriage crumbled. Instead of following him, I got a job in Hong Kong to be closer to my parents in Taiwan. We broke up.

Many years later, I found the lavender headscarf in my wardrobe. I am still in Hong Kong, but now married to a wonderful man who loves and accepts me just the way I am. Though painful, I learned so much from wearing the headscarf that day, like communicating expectations, and accepting the people I love for who they are, instead of trying to change them.  Even though going through nikah and living in Bahrain was challenging, I would not trade that experience for anything else. Without it, I would not have learned how to be in a loving and equal partnership. Taking one last look at the headscarf, I put it in the trash bin. I have come a long way— the girl who smoked in the mall has grown up and learned how to love herself. I now know that I am strong enough to be the person that I have become.

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The Rosewood Sofa

Dear Readers:

As some of you may know, I’ve been working on a collection of memoir-essays titled In the Shadow of the Middle Kingdom. I’ve used the thread with the same title on this website as a sketchbook to craft full-length essays. Today, I would like to share one of my essays with you. The piece I am sharing, The Rosewood Sofa, is close to my heart–it’s about my grandmother and a partial story about my family. It’s also about women’s body, what society expects from us, and strong women who had to make tough choices. Though I’ve worked on it for a while, I don’t think it’s quite ready to be published yet. I am putting it out in the world for some feedback. What can I do to make it more enticing? Feedback in the comment section or to my email would be much appreciated: helloatkayochangblackdotcom.

THE ROSEWOOD SOFA

“Whoa, Kayo,  how did you get so fat?” Ama asked in her dramatic, judgemental tone.

This was how Ama, my paternal grandmother, greeted me during my yearly Chinese New Year pilgrimage to Taichung, Taiwan. Although I hadn’t seen her for a whole year, she never seemed to have anything nice to say to me—the only grandchild of hers who regularly visited her during the holidays. I wanted to shrug off her harsh words, but I couldn’t. She had always made me painfully self-conscious about my body. I stormed off.

“What’s she so angry about?” Ama asked, knowing I was still within earshot.

When she was still able to walk, she used to meet my parents and me in the dining area of her house when we arrived from Taipei. In the center of the dining room was a large rosewood round table with eight matching chairs. Along the walls, Ama had a collection of stone paintings depicting classic Chinese motifs – birds, deer, and flowers made of jade and coral. But in the corners of the room, Ama stored stacks of stock market magazines dating back to the 80s, next to layers of flattened shopping bags from famous bakeries and department stores in Japan, along with folded paper bags made of old magazines, used for discarding pumpkin shells, a popular teatime snack in Taiwan. The clash of luxury and hoarding never ceased to amaze me.

If Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizing consultant and author, came to Ama’s house, she would say, “Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest. By doing this, you can reset your life and embark on a new lifestyle.” In Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, a Netflix’s hit show, Kondo helps many cluttered and messy Americans organize their homes and make them happier. “Does it spark joy?” she often asks.

The truth is, Ama has little joy in her heart and no desire to change her lifestyle.

Ama hasn’t spark joy in my heart for a long time, but I couldn’t just dispose of her like old, unworn sweaters in my wardrobe. Baba, my father, justified 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 said—but the way she expressed her sentiments didn’t make me feel nice.

 “Ama is very old, and she isn’t going to change.” Baba sighed, “She’s lonely. You should spend more time with her.”

When it comes to matters regarding Ama, I always obeyed Baba. As with any pilgrimage, I took my suffering in stride.

Bracing myself for the moment when she would say something mean, I sat next to her in the living room while she watched a Taiwanese soap opera. Ama’s living room, like her dining room, reflects her twin sensibilities of having the best of everything and never parting with any of it. Shortly before my family left Tokyo and moved in with her, she had renovated her house. Back then, it had brand new, top-of-the-line everything, but that was over thirty years ago. Now everything is dated, dusty and depressing.

Ama’s living room is also cluttered with junk and contains furniture made from polished, dense rosewood that glistens in the fluorescent light. With mother-of-pearl inlay in the shape of sparrows and cherry blossoms on the backs and the armrests, the furniture is grand—reminiscent of Qing Dynasty royalty. If I could find a more appropriate word for the three-seater ‘sofa,’ I would. Normally, I associate ‘sofa’ with something to relax on, something soft, padded with a cozy quilt on top to curl into. Not this one. Like Ama, the sofa felt like solid steel—unbending, unrelenting, and uncomfortable. Ama had placed thin Japanese-style cushions as a buffer between the sitter and the hardwood. These cushions are greenish brown—maybe at one point they were gold, but now they are the color of a half avocado a few days past its prime.

Throughout the living room, Ama displays her collection of artwork, statues of Chinese gods, and old photographs. Between faded bouquets of dried roses, mismatched candles, and other junky knickknacks, Ama hangs the family photographs. There is a professional studio portrait of me when I was about twenty-two. I am wearing a form-fitting red t-shirt and a striped knee-length skirt in pink, red and white. It cinches in a way that shows off my tiny waist. My long, shiny black hair is in a high pony, my smile wide and confident.

“See, you used to be so pretty,” Ama mocked me as she pointed to the photograph. “How did you ever get so fat?”

I shrank deeper into my uncomfortable seat.

There is also a family portrait of all of Ama’s children and grandchildren, taken when I was about eight. Ama, all smiles, sits next to my grandfather, Agon, in the front row. He was an obstetrician and an aspiring artist, who had collected many of the paintings in Ama’s house. The picture captures a time when my relationship with Ama was easier. When my family and I moved in with her, she lived on the third floor of the house, and we lived on the fourth. On weekends, my younger brother Davis and I used to have sleepovers with her. She would gently clean our ears with a Q-tip until we fell asleep. The next day, she would take us to a 7-11 for a Slurpee and a hotdog, which were rare treats. During the week, I hollered at her door to say hi before I went to school.  She always handed me a few coins to buy candies—I had the best treats in my class. On the days when Mama yelled at me for misbehaving, I’d go running to Ama.

“Your mama is so mean,” Ama said, standing between Mama and me. There was nothing Mama could do when I used Ama as a shield. As a child, I noticed that Mama and Ama had an uneasy relationship. I exploited it to my advantage.

Ama was my favorite person for a long time, until we moved to Vancouver when I was 10 years old.

Two summers later, my perception of Ama changed forever. I was 12 when Baba introduced Davis and me to our ‘cousins’ visiting from California, Frankie, Tommy, and Michael. Baba said they were children of his brother, my Uncle Steven. 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 Baba bought us ice cream cones. We had a great day.

Despite the fun, I harbored a nagging question: If they are our cousins, why didn’t we meet them sooner? I decided to talk with Tommy, also 12. We established that we had the same last name, Chang. When we started to share our memories of Agonand Ama, I realized that we call different women ‘Ama.’

How could this be? Even as a child, I knew my burning question pointed to something bigger than me. There was an air of taboo about it. Before the age of 12, I didn’t realize there was another branch of the Chang family. However, I always knew something was amiss. When we still lived in Taiwan, I wondered why Agon didn’t live with us. On Sundays, he would come by the house and take all of us—Ama, Baba, Mama, Davis and me out for lunch. We would spend the afternoon in a department store or a park. My favorite was when he took us to Baskin-Robbins. To this day, when I taste the tangy sweetness of Rainbow Sherbet, I think of Agon.

I have fond memories of those Sunday afternoons. But I noticed he never stayed for dinner, let alone spent the night with Ama. When I was about eight or nine, I asked Baba why Agon always left.

“Agon is a very busy doctor. He needs to go back to his clinic to see his patients,” Baba said, eyes downcast.

When I made my discovery at age 12, instead of confronting my parents, I talked to my Aunt Christine, who also happened to be visiting us from Taiwan. She is Mama’s brother’s wife, my favorite aunt, and an adult I trusted.

“Why do Tommy and I have different Amas?” I asked her in private.

“You are too observant and smart for your own good,” she said. “You are right. You and Tommy do have different Amas.”

She didn’t explain why we have different grandmothers, but I pieced together a partial story of the open secret: For most of her adult life, Ama was Agon’s mistress. They met at the Taichung Hospital where he was an accomplished obstetrician, and she was his young, pretty nurse. Despite the 13-year age gap, and the fact that he was already married with children, they fell in love.  Over the years, Ama bore him three children. Baba is the middle child—he has an older sister and a younger brother.

When Ama and Agon were young, it wasn’t uncommon for accomplished men to have mistresses. Though he couldn’t give her the legal status of a wife, Agon took care of Ama bygiving her stocks, jewelry, and property. Ama became a wealthy woman. In the upper society of  Taichung, people gossiped. Back then, Ama was known as a beautiful, cunning man-stealer.

 Despite her reputation, she raised her three children with the best of everything.  When Baba finished college, he moved to Japan for his master’s degree—where affluent Taiwanese people sent their children to be educated. There, he met Mama. Soon after, I was born in Tokyo. When I was six, we moved in with Ama in Taiwan. To prepare, she renovated her house, furnishing it with the best of everything—she bought many expensive things that sparked joy for her at the time, like the opulent rosewood furniture.

In many ways, Ama did well for herself—she had a house, money in the bank and three successful children. Though I have spotty knowledge of Ama’s upbringing, I know that as a baby she, along with a few of her older sisters, was left in Taiwan while her parents took the younger children and moved to Vietnam. A kind, childless widow, a friend of her parents, adopted Ama and raised her. It couldn’t have been easy for Ama to grow up knowing her parents had left her. I don’t know what kind of resources her adopted mother had, but it couldn’t have been easy for a single woman to raise a child. And I can’t help but wonder why Ama chose a married man over other eligible bachelors. She was pretty, educated, and clever—she probably had a lot of suitors. When Agon presented Ama with the prospect of a more comfortable life, she took it in order to better take care of her aging adopted mother—at least that was what I was told. Or maybe she was desperately in love. Either way, it must have been agony to be with a man and watch him leave for 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 as an educated 21st-century woman.

A couple of years after I unearthed the secret, Agon passed away. Shortly after, Baba moved to Taiwan for work, and Mama soon followed. They visited us regularly in Vancouver, but Davis and I hardly ever went to Taiwan. I only visited Ama once or twice through my teenage years. When I was a senior in high school, she came to visit us—the only time I saw her in Canada. When I was a sophomore in college, I flew to Taiwan when Baba told me that Ama was dying of colon cancer. The doctor snipped a big chunk of her intestines, and she survived. The following summer, I was told to visit again because she was dying of breast cancer. The doctor removed both her breasts, and she survived. She was one tough lady. While Ama was sick, Mama took care of her—cleaning her surgery wounds, bathing her, feeding her. In Mama’s eyes, it was her filial duty as a daughter-in-law to take care of her husband’s mother. She made no complaints, though Ama wasn’t always kind to her. 

It wasn’t until I finished graduate school and started working abroad as a librarian that I began to visit my parents and Ama regularly. By then, my relationship with Ama had been changed by years of neglect. I started to see a side of her I hadn’t when I was a child, and how unkindly she treated Mama. After Ama had recovered from her second cancer, and was well enough to eat with us during Chinese New Year Eve dinner, Ama always held her nose and grumbled about Mama’s cooking.

“How does she expect me to eat this overly salty fish?” she complained, while Mama sat next to her. “Does she want my cancer to return?” Mama never said anything at the table, but her face was distorted with anger.

 One year, I happened to be in Taiwan during Mother’s Day and we all went out for dinner.

“Your mother’s father didn’t like to study and he only became an anaesthesiologist,” Ama said to me while I sat with her in the backseat on the way to dinner, “unlike your Agon, who was a famous doctor.”

I didn’t reply and she continued her monologue, “Just because her family has money, doesn’t make him a good man.”

The dinner was ruined before we even started.

Around this time Ama started to be hostile towards me — I am my mother’s daughter, and I look like her. Calling me fat was her favorite insult, and it was effective in ruining whatever tender feelings I had towards her. If it weren’t for the fact that she was Baba’s mother, I would have had nothing to do with her. There were times I wish I could have used the Marie Kondo method on Ama—I wanted to abandon her. Not only did she not spark joy, she was hurting me. I resented having to visit her year after year, but I continued my pilgrimage. If Mama stuck around Ama after all the years of emotional abuse, surely I could too.

Lately, as I get older, I have begun to see Ama in a more humane light, and try to see the world from her point of view. Maybe she called me fat and complained about Mama’s efforts to take care of her because she had spent her youth vying for the attention of another woman’s husband. In that situation, I suppose I would have become bitter too. 

In more recent years, instead of suffering in silence, I have started to pipe up when she calls me fat.

“Ama, if you are so mean to me every time I see you,” I said with a forced smile, “I won’t come to visit you anymore.”

She pretended she didn’t hear me, and started to fuss about how much luggage we had brought.

The closest I’ve come to having an open conversation with Ama was years ago, when she still had her wits. I don’t remember what prompted her, but she brought out a box of old photographs, containing pictures dating back all the way to her childhood.

“My Mama and Baba.” Ama pointed to a black and white photograph of a couple. I don’t remember what they look like now, but I remember feeling a little connection with Ama—she was, after all, somebody’s daughter.

There were images of the young and beautiful Ama, smiling with other young women in nursing school—the Ama with whom Agon had fallen in love. I love the pictures of Baba and his siblings when they were young, dressed in fancy western-style clothing that must have cost an arm and a leg. Baba and his siblings look like any other happy children playing together. There were pictures of me, Davis and our cousins as babies—her grandchildren. All of her memories were inside that box. She didn’t speak much as she shared its contents, just who’s who. I was transfixed. Touching the fading yellow-hued photographs, I didn’t ask any questions. I wish I had.

The photos were a contrast to the rosewood sofa of the latter part of Ama’s life, captured in endless awkward family portraits taken over the years. Each year now, after Chinese New Year Eve dinner, Ama, Mama, Baba, my Uncle and Aunt gather to share pleasantries and force a smile for another portrait, under the gaze of our younger selves, forever frozen in time. I have a loving relationship with my parents and younger brother, but Baba never shared a close bond with his siblings and neither of them took care of their mother. Except for the fact that they look like each other, there is little evidence that they are related —just forced smiles and visible distance.  The Changs are an extended family by blood, yet our relations are as rigid and uncomfortable as the very sofa on which we sit.

Time has been unkind to Ama. From a strong-willed matriarch, she has been reduced to a feeble 90-year-old woman who can no longer take care of herself. Her body has shrunk and confined to a wheelchair. She has lost all her teeth and has trouble eating. Her razor-sharp tongue has dulled. She hasn’t called me fat for a couple of years now. I do my best to see her through a lens of compassion. Part of me feels sorry for her. After all, if she hadn’t done what she did, I wouldn’t exist.

Now, instead of greeting us in the dining area of the third floor when we arrive in Taichung, she lies in bed. Last year, I went to see her at her bedside and held her weathered but soft, cool hand. When I turned her hand around to look at her thumb, it was like seeing my own. She is family, I know. I wish I could put aside my childish resentment and ask her: Why did she choose to be with Agon? Does she regret her choices? If she could do it all over again, would she choose differently? I have no idea if my questions would upset her. I don’t know if my shame—for her and for myself for wanting to know—should even be vocalized. Maybe next year I will work up the courage to ask Ama for her stories—but I probably won’t. I can only try to be at peace with what little I know.

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