Death, Mortality and Patriarchy: Ancestor Worship, Part I

Hello my dear readers, this is a new series about the Chinese observance and ritual of death: ancestor worship. I hope you enjoy it.

In 2015, Derek and I went to Taiwan for his first Chinese New Year’s celebration with my family. We arrived just before supper time, and Mama was running around in the kitchen, getting our feast ready. Since the gods and ancestors must eat before we do, as she finished preparing the food, I would bring each dish to a large round table in the altar room where Buddha, Guanyin, and our ancestors live. In the center of the room is a picture of Buddha wearing a yellow robe under the Banyan tree, a golden statue of Guanyin, and our ancestors are next to them, represented by a wooden plaque in a glass case. 

While Mama was cooking up a storm in the kitchen, I sat in the bone-crushingly hard cherry wood sofa in the living room, mindlessly tapping on my phone. Derek walked into the living room, his nose crinkling, “Oh man, that food smells amazing!” He exclaimed. After a moment of pause, he asked, “why aren’t you in the kitchen helping Mama?”

“Oh, she’ll holler when she needs help carrying the dishes to the altar,” I said without looking up.

“But don’t you want to learn what she’s making?” He asked.

I turned my attention to Derek, this handsome man with twinkling blue eyes I was about to marry. Honestly, the thought of cooking with Mama had never crossed my mind. What business do I have in the kitchen? I would only get in her way. Besides, he was the cook in our family. But then again—if I don’t learn what Mama knows now, her knowledge will go when she goes. I pushed away this morbid thought. It’s not that I didn’t want to learn, but by learning, I am acknowledging her mortality.

The first time I was reminded of my mother’s mortality was at the funeral of my maternal grandmother. During the service, I sat next to Mama in the front row, my nose twitched at the sharp sting of the formaldehyde. While the monk chanted, Mama was heartbroken and bawling her eyes out. I gave her my hand to comfort her. She clutched it so hard my knuckles turned white. At that moment, I thought about the day I would have to cremate my mother—who is going to offer me their hand when that day comes? I hate having to think about the day when Mama will no longer be with us. But, I stood up anyway and walked towards the kitchen. 

“You are right. I should learn so I can cook for you.” I smiled at him. 

By the time I got there, Mama had finished cooking. “Okay, start bringing the dishes to the altar,” she instructed as she wiped her hands on a towel.

I was too late to learn anything.

Before we eat, we say our prayers with three burning incenses. First, out the window, praying to the Jade Emperor, the Zeus-like deity in the Chinese folk religion. Then, we pray to Buddha and Guanyin, and finally, the ancestors. After the prayer, we place each incense in their respective pots, one of the Jade Emperor, one for Buddha and Guanyin and the final one for the ancestors. When the incenses are burnt about halfway, Mama tosses two moon-shaped wooden blocks while asking if the ancestors were happy with their meal. If the blocks land in two opposite directions, it meant they were satisfied.  We could then bring the dishes to the dining room and start eating.

This is a typical Chinese New Year’s Eve feast prepared by Mama. Some of the items are store bought, like the bird.

In the Taiwanese tradition, like many Chinese speaking communities in southern China, the veneration of ancestors, or ancestor worship, is a significant ritual in the Chinese folk religion. It is how Chinese people understand and deal with death. When our parents pass away, they join the older generations of the family and become gods. It is the responsibility of the younger generation to remember our parents, our roots while asking for their blessings. The values of ancestor worship can be traced back to the Confucius concept of filial piety, the virtue of respecting one’s parents and elders by submitting to them. Not only do we love and obey our parents while they are with us, but we also continue to honor them in the afterlife with daily prayers and offerings. On special occasions, such as Chinese New Year’s, the offerings are more elaborate.  

On the first day of the New Year, my family always continue to worship our ancestors. First thing in the morning, we would visit the temple to worship Ama’s family. Then we head to the cemetery, where my parental grandfather, my Agon, had purchased the mausoleum for his family and descendants.  Derek and I got up early to help my parents load up the car with offerings, which consisted of fresh fruit, candies, and bottled tea. Then, we would stop by a flower stall and pick up freshly cut white Chrysanthemum, a gift to our ancestors.

The temple where we keep Ama’s family’s ashes is a short distance from Taichung. Most families only worship one set of ancestors, as the responsibility gets passed down by the oldest son in the household. However, my family is unique. Based on what I gathered, Ama’s family moved to Vietnam to pursue wealth and fortune when she was an infant. They only took the older boys with them, leaving Ama and her two older sisters behind in Taiwan. It seemed unthinkable for people nowadays to leave their children. But back then, the journey on a boat to Vietnam would be treacherous with young children.  Ama’s parents decided to keep the boys, who carry the family name and gave their three daughters away. A childless widow adopted Ama who raised her with love and kindness. Ama claimed that the reason she chose to be with Agon, a married, wealthy doctor, was to have the means to take care of her aging adopted mother. 

When her adopted mother passed away, Ama, as her only child, took on the responsibility to worship her. Ama also worshipped her adopted grandmother, who doted on her, as well as her ancestors. Their ashes are kept at the columbarium next to the temple. Now that Ama is getting older and less mobile, it’s Baba and Mama who make the trip to venerate Ama’s ancestors. Since 2012, when I moved to Hong Kong, I would join them on every Chinese New Year’s. And now, Derek also participates in the ritual. 

The temple was destroyed by the “921 Earthquake” in 1999, and in its place are some temporary structures. Before the earthquake, it was a beautiful place a broad, concrete staircase led to the grand temple,  the railings on both sides are in the shape of dragons. One dragon was blue, and the other was red. As I walked down the stairs with my hand trailing down the back of the dragon, I felt the grooves of its scales. The sculptor painstaking painted each scale of the dragon in the hue of vivid sapphire. At the bottom of the stairs, the dragons had their mouths wide open, revealing their sharp teeth and blood-red tongue. There was also a garden on the grounds where my brother Davis and I used to play with our cousins, chasing each other around near the pond where koi fish swam in lazy circles, surrounded by luscious tropical plants.

In the year 2018, there are no remnants of its former beauty and magnificence. The temple raised funds to rebuild it, but somehow it never got finished. On the top of the hill where the temple once stood is a half-built structure, an abandoned construction project. Currently, the temple and columbarium are housed in flimsy, make-shift structures, though the earthquake took place almost twenty years ago.

The next post will illustrate the rest of the ancestor worship process. Have you been to a columbarium before? It’s super creepy but cool at the same time.

 

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Telltale Signs that China is Slowly Taking Over the World

My first experience with censorship was when I first moved to Dubai. When I first moved there, I tried to log into my OkCupid account. Instead of the blue and pink login page, I was directed to a grey and red warning sign that told me that this site was restricted. I was stunned. Growing up in Canada, I had never had an experience where I couldn’t access a website due to government censorship. I eventually got a VPN and accessed whatever I wanted. However, I vehemently disagree with censorship in any form, personally and professionally.

When I was working as a librarian, I made a pledge to provide equal access to information and to fight censorship. China, with its great firewall, blocks thousands of websites and services, most of them from the West. Obviously, the Chinese policies regarding the internet and the dissemination of information have never sat well with me. However, now living in Hong Kong, reading about how the Communist Party of China (CPC) is controlling their populace and using their wealth to control other countries’ foreign policies and economies brings a chill down my spine.

On August 6, I read an article in The New York Times, A Generation Grows Up in China Without Google, Facebook or Twitter. It describes a group of Chinese millennials who grew up with social media sanctioned by the CPC. Unlike the rest of the world, they didn’t use Google, Facebook or Twitter. Except for one student who studied in Australia, the young people interviewed for the article either don’t know about western social media or don’t see the need for them. They basically trust whatever is fed to them through Baidu, WeChat, Tik Tok, and Weibo:

Accustomed to the homegrown apps and online services, many appear uninterested in knowing what has been censored online, allowing Beijing to build an alternative value system that competes with Western liberal democracy.”

What worries me is that these young people have zero curiosity over other ways of thinking and a lack critical thinking skills. They will not question or hold their government accountable.

It gets worse:

“These trends are set to spread. China is now exporting its model of a censored internet to other countries, including Vietnam, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.”

This is a digital colonialism.

Back in April, I wrote “China’s New Silk Road” where I talked about the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) and how it’s changing political and economic policies in Central Asia, West Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. In some ways, BRI is a form of Chinese colonialism, where the CCP can exert control over and gain strategic advantages by investing in foreign countries. This in itself is scary enough, but now, they are entering another realm importing their internet to African countries.

 

Original illustration for “China’s New Silk Road.” Illustrated by Ahmara Smith.

Am I being paranoid, or is China trying to take over the world through their version of the internet?

I am sitting here trying to grapple with my fear. Why am I so freaked out? Other people who read The New York Times article might pick up on the fact that this article is not legitimate—it is merely Chinese propaganda on the New York Times—after all, no sensible Chinese citizen would speak out against the CPC and its policies, especially to a foreign newspaper. To me, just the fact that the New York Times printed the views of these young people shows that they want to normalize this alternative, Chinese approach to the internet. It’s like they are saying, “Look, censorship is working. We’ve just brainwashed a population of young people who aren’t curious or critical and would not defy the government.”

Remember the man who stood in front of the tanks during the Tiananmen Square Protest? He wouldn’t have existed in the year 2018.

Tank Man by Jeff Widener,
1989.

Using the power of technologies and harnessing the wide reach of the internet, the CPC has bred the perfect citizens under a dictatorship. And, it only took less than a generation. We should be worried, very very worried.

For the last month or so, I have been writing personal stories, such as lessons on love and my first marriage. I almost forgot that this quest to tell my story and discover my Taiwanese culture came from a deep-seeded fear of China’s influence. I don’t want to live in a world where the government restricts our access to information. I don’t want to live in a world where people are passive and uncritical of their surroundings. I don’t want to live in a world where activists, writers and artists and jailed for speaking up against the government and challenging the status quo.

I can feel the chill as the shadow of the Middle Kingdom creeps closer. I don’t really know what to do about it. I don’t know if I can do anything about it. All I do is read news about the growing influence of CPC around the world, be horrified by it and write about it.

 

 

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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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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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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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The War Between Traditional and Simplified Chinese

In early June, Harrow International School sent a letter to parents announcing that the school will adopt simplified Chinese characters for their kindergarten and primary school curriculum  to better prepare their pupils for “the context Hong Kong will be in by 2047.”

Why is this controversial?

Language, spoken or written, has a significant impact. In a previous post, “Do You Speak Chinese,” I wrote about the transition between Hokkien and Mandarin in Taiwan and how Baba’s teacher punished his classmate for speaking Hokkien in school. This story demonstrates that language is not only the soul of a society, it is also a powerful weapon that can be used to control the populace.

It’s starting to happen in Hong Kong too.

Simplified Chinese characters were introduced in China in the early 20th century to increase literacy rate. During the latter part of the 20th century, the PRC government made it the official writing system of China. Other Chinese speaking countries, such as Singapore and Malaysia have also adopted simplified Chinese, but Taiwan and Hong Kong are still using the traditional script. The use of traditional characters sets Hong Kong (and Taiwan) apart from the PRC. It is a not-so-silent protest: “We are not part of the People’s Republic of China!”

The pro-independence camp in Hong Kong, those who were involved in the umbrella movement, are against integration with Mainland China. They see Harrow International School ‘s decision to adopt simplified characters as kowtowing to the PRC.

The Umbrella Movement, a series of pro-independence protests, kicked off in Hong Kong in September 2014. It lasted 79 days but did not succeed in creating permanent changes in governance.

To the dismay of many Hong Kongers, Hong Kong will unlikely be independent of China. It has been geo-politically part of the PRC since the United Kingdom handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 after a 150-year rule.  The stipulation is that the PRC would have sovereignty of Hong Kong, but they would rule Hong Kong under “one country, two systems” model, meaning that the PRC’s would not enforce their socialist system in Hong Kong for fifty years.  However, PRC is already exerting their control over Hong Kong in many ways, like in education. Recently, the Education Bureau mandated a new Chinese History lesson in all secondary schools in Hong Kong.

The PRC’s effort to influence education in Hong Kong made more progress when Harrow International School decided to adopt simplified Chinese characters in their curriculum. They are the first international school to do so—how many more will soon follow?

Reading the article about Harrow International School is just another reminder that the clock is ticking for Hong Kong, and possibly Taiwan too. Taiwan has a slightly different situation than Hong Hong—its status in the international stage is ambiguous. However, living in Hong Kong, I can’t help but feel what’s happening here will eventually occur in Taiwan too—the PRC is patient, they are taking their time and making substantial progress in changing Hong Kong. First, they modify the school curriculum, then they take away the language.  Slowly but surely they are taking over Hong Kong, one step at a time. Most recently, the PRC plans to enforce Chinese law on a new train station on Hong Kong soil. 

Before we know it, Hong Kong will have centralized media and censored speech.  Residents will be living in constant fear as there will be more people like Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel laureate, and democracy activist who died in Chinese custody. He had spent his life protesting against the one-party rule in China and was serving an 11-year sentence when he was diagnosed with liver cancer. I don’t want to live in a society where people are imprisoned and denied access to medical care because they criticize the government.

Sadly, that’s the way the world seems to be going right now—and it is frightening.

 

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The Mysterious Zi Wei Dou Shu, the Purple Star Calculations

In early 2015, Mama was so excited about my engagement to Derek, she told everybody about it. Her friends congratulated her, of course.  She was beaming. Most of our family members were also happy for me, except for Aunt Lily. According to Mama, she was hesitant about my engagement.

Mama wanted Aunt Lily’s approval since she’s a reader of Zi Wei Dou Shu (紫微斗数), also known as the Purple Star Calculations, one of the Chinese astrological forecasting methods known to be accurate.

“Why can’t you be happy for Kayo?” Mama demanded.

Finally, Aunt Lily spilled the beans. She told Mama that according to my chart, my first marriage was supposed to fail.

Mama considered my first marriage to be a shameful family secret and didn’t tell anybody about it. She was a little rattled that Aunt Lily knew of it. At the same time, Mama was impressed with her ability.

“It’s okay,” Mama told Aunt Lily, “She’s already been married once. This is her second marriage.”

Relieved, Aunt Lily congratulated Mama. “Kayo will be very happy in her second marriage. She’s found her perfect match.”

Mama and me on my wedding day, October 31, 2015.

When Mama told me this story, I was a bit skeptical, but unlike when I was younger, I was also a little curious. For as long as I could remember, Mama always saw Chinese fortune tellers. I always considered it to be some silly superstition—the whole thing seemed so nonsensical to me.

When I was young, I used to crash my car on a pretty regular basis. Do you know the stereotype of an Asian woman driver? She drives with both hands on the wheel in a death grip, make a left turn from the right lane and never checks her mirrors because she never moves her head from the “straight ahead” position–that was me.  I was a hazard on the road.

Every time I crashed my car—anything from a minor fender bender to a huge accident where half of my car was totaled, Mama shook her head. “I shouldn’t have let you drive, the fortune teller did tell me that this is going to happen.”

After high-school, I wanted to take a year off before university. I might have even said I wanted to go to a community college first. She wouldn’t have any of it. According to the fortune teller, I was supposed to be “well-educated.” I scoffed. I went to university as I was told and almost flunked out my first year. I tried to defy what the fortune said.

18 years later, I am working on my third master’s degree.

There were other things Mama told me, but I don’t remember what they were. For the most part, when she started to tell me something about my future, I shook my head and told her I didn’t want to hear about it. At that time, I believed that fortune telling is a bit of a sham, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As an adult living in Asia, my feelings towards fortune telling has shifted. I thought it was wild that Aunt Lily could see that I would be married twice, though she didn’t know that my first marriage had already happened. I still wouldn’t call myself a believer, but I am intrigued. I did some research to get the gist of what Zi Wei Dou Shu is all about.

This is an example of a Zi Wei Dou Shu chart. I used Kurt Cobain’s birthday as an example (and guessed the time of his birth).

Zi Wei Dou Shu is a complex system involving using “stars” to tell a chart, which represents someone’s life or destiny. The chart is organized by the 12 “palaces” arranged and plotted in an anti-clockwise rotation.

  1. Self Palace (命宮)
  2. Siblings Palace (兄弟宮)
  3. Spouse Palace (夫妻宮)
  4. Children Palace (子女宮)
  5. Wealth Palace (財帛宮)
  6. Health Palace (疾厄宮)
  7. Travel Palace (遷移宮)
  8. Friends Palace, or Subordinate Palace (交友宮)
  9. Career Palace (官祿宮)
  10. Property Palace (田宅宮)
  11. Mental Palace, or Karma Palace, Ancestor Palace (福德宮)
  12. Parents Palace (父母宮)

There are 100+ stars in the system, and they are graded according to brightness. The brighter the star, the more influence it has in a palace. Some stars include Ziewei (The Emperor, the Purple Star), Tianji (The Advisor, Heavenly Machine or Heavenly Secret), and Wuqu (The Finance Minister or the Military Bureaucrat, Martial Tune).

Like the Chinese Gods,  Zi Wei Dou Shu is part of the Taiwanese culture and I find it fascinating. It’s not an infallible guide to what will happen, but it’s more of a forecast that provides a direction. While I used to scoff when Mama told me things on my chart, now I can’t help asking Mama, “What does my chart say about Derek and me having kids?”

I am sure Mama had Aunt Lily look at my chart. However, her answer is ambiguous. I guess it will the revealed itself to me when it does!

 

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The Secrets of Nikah, the Islamic Wedding Ceremony, Part III

*** This post is a part of a series. To get caught up, check out “The Secrets of Nikah, the Islamic Wedding Ceremony, Part II” 

The Arab Spring kicked off in Bahrain four months after I moved there. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

In the living room, the imam and Gökhan’s whole family was waiting for us. The imam guided 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.” He said it slowly, pausing after every few syllables to allow time for me to mimic the foreign sounds. Even as I was uttering them, I didn’t believe them— I merely made the sounds to appease Gökhan’s conservative and religious mother. Afterward, I signed a piece of paper that the imam had prepared. Shortly after, he declared us husband and wife.

Shortly after the nikah, we legalized our union in Canada. Then we moved to Bahrain in the fall of 2010. Our marriage was a secret— our plan was to get ourselves settled in our new home, give Gökhan some time to look for a job, and once he starts working, then we will tell our family about the marriage and have a proper celebration.

However, the universe had a different plan for us. In December 2010, a young fruit seller in Tunisia, a North African state located between Libya and Algeria, doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire in front of a government building. His self-immolation was a protest against the unfair “protection fees” demanded by the police. The event was a catalyst that ignited the Arab Spring— massive protests swept across the Middle East, from Egypt to Yemen to Syria. To this day, almost eight years later, the civil war in Syria rages on.

Bahrain is a small island state in the Persian Gulf, the site of the first oil rig in Bahrain. Also, the white dress I was wearing was the same one I wore for the nikah.

The Arab Spring caught on in Bahrain on Valentine’s Day 2011, led by the Shia Muslim majority against their Sunni minority rulers. Within weeks, with the help of the Saudis, the government took control and cracked down on the demonstrations. The Bahraini government shot the protestors, killing and injuring many.  They also arrested bloggers and activists. Furthermore, they charged the medical professionals with treason for treating the so-called “enemies of the state.” It was a terrible time in Bahrain— helicopters were whirling and buzzing in the sky 24/7, the roads were closed randomly when a protest was suspected and the smell of tear gas had become the norm.  The turmoil made it difficult for Gökhan to find work.

I was stressed-out and depressed. The civil unrest shook me to the core— growing up in Canada, I never experienced the government persecuting their citizens for speaking up against them. Looking back now, perhaps the situation in Bahrain was not so different from when the KMT first moved to Taiwan in the late 1940’s. I asked Gökhan to get a job elsewhere and take us away from the Middle East.

A year and a half later, he finally secured a job— in Dubai. He had dismissed my desire to leave the Middle East and chose to stay. By this time our marriage had crumbled— our union was built on compromised integrity and it couldn’t withstand the stress of political turmoil. Also, I never stopped resenting him for putting me through nikah and the coerced conversion to Islam. Instead of following him to Dubai, I got a job in Hong Kong to be closer to my parents in Taiwan. We broke up.

Three years later, Mazu found my love. After a whirlwind courtship, Derek and I became engaged on January 1, 2015. My parents were overjoyed— they adore Derek and was glad that I would share my life with an intelligent, capable, and loving man. We are happy and madly in love.  Everything was perfect, except there was one problem: I was still legally married to Gökhan.

I had tried to obtain a divorce as soon as I moved to Hong Kong. However, I learned that although I was able to marry in Canada as a non-resident, I was not eligible for a Canadian divorce. In Hong Kong, as a new resident, I also didn’t qualify to apply for a divorce.

I called Mama and told her my big secret. “Hi Mama, aren’t you so happy that I am about to marry this amazing man? By the way, can you help me get a divorce?”

She was shocked of course. And angry. And hurt. She yelled at me over the phone. However, she did help me. Within weeks, Gökhan flew to Taipei in March 2015. We filled out some paperwork in a municipal office and legally dissolved our union.

I learned a lot from my relationship with Gökhan, 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 wouldn’t trade that experience for anything else. Without it, I wouldn’t have learned the lesson I needed to be in a loving and equal partnership.

In October 2015, Derek and I had our Halloween art deco wedding. Since then, he’s been my partner, my champion and the most ardent supporter of my writing. I am ever so lucky to have him by my side.

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