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

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

I agreed to participate in nikah without knowing what I was getting myself into. Illustrated by Ahmara Smith.

“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,” Gökhan 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 continued to sit on the bed and cry. I looked up and saw myself in his mother’s vanity mirror. My make-up had smeared, my lavender headscarf had fallen off, and my face looked like the damp, soggy tissue in my hand. 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 Mom is going to hate me forever, and I am going to feel lousy making you choose between her and me. However, if I do convert, I will resent you for as long as I live. I kept my head bowed because I couldn’t stand looking at the helpless expression on his face. I couldn’t utter a word because I knew that if I tried to verbalize what I was thinking, I would either start wailing or screaming.

I liked the fact that Gökhan added to my multi-cultural identity.

If I had known what I know now, I would have walked away—a marriage cannot be built on coercion and compromised integrity. Part of our attraction to each other was the fact that we came from such different worlds, which was intoxicating to explore. Also, I was his ticket out of Denmark and his parents’ house. For me, I liked that he added a layer to my multi-cultural experience and the idea of an exotic boyfriend who had grown up in completely different cultures than mine. I bragged to friends that between the two of us, there are four passports. I have spent my whole life crossing borders and adapting to different cultures, and 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. On the other side of the door, the imam was waiting for me to change my wicked, wayward ways and his entire clan was expecting us to profess our undying love and commitment to each other. I cried and cried. I didn’t 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. It’s not that I hadn’t thought of it myself, but it felt inconceivable to make a roomful of people believe I was something that I wasn’t. 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 also 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 a 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. I readjusted my headscarf. My eyes were still puffy; my smile looked pathetic but convincing enough to those who didn’t 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.

** To find out what happens next, read the final post, “The Secrets of Nikah, The Islamic Wedding Ceremony, Part III

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

I participated in Nikah, the Islamic wedding ceremony, without knowing what I signed up for. Illustrated by Ahmara Smith.

“If you want to be with me, and be accepted by my family, you will need to convert,” Gökhan, my boyfriend of four months said.

“No,” I stared at him as if his face had warped into the head of a goat. Converting to Islam was unthinkable. Being secular was my religion, and I wasn’t 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. I wasn’t going to fake it and be someone I wasn’t. 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.”

Less than a year later, I arrived in Denmark to meet Gökhan’s family for the first time. The room we stayed in at his parents’ house was bright and airy. It had a large window facing the yard filled with an assortment of flowers, as well as a garden of tomatoes, cucumbers, and various herbs. There were twin beds on each side of the room, one for each of his younger sisters. We each occupied an individual bed throughout our visit. His mother made this arrangement because she thought it’d be improper for us to share a bed until the nikah, the Islamic wedding ceremony.

I went to Denmark one summer to meet Gokhan’s family for the first time.

I told Gökhan that I was willing to take part in the nikah, as long as I didn’t have to convert to Islam. He talked to his mother who agreed that I wouldn’t 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, the religious leader who would officiate the ceremony.

On the day of the nikah, I found myself in the center of the room wearing an ivory, ankle-length, cotton maxi dress with grey embroidered flowers at the hem. I bought the dress a few days before because it was long and covered my legs. The top portion was too revealing for Islamic taste, but I bought it anyway because it was a comfortable and sexy summer dress that I could wear again. I wore a white cardigan, buttoned-up all the way, to cover 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 gawks with grins, they gasped, turned their heads and pretended it was normal to have this stranger in their bedroom, about to marry their big brother.

His boisterous aunts laughed and chatted in a combination of Turkish and Danish— languages alien to me. They clamored and made animated gestures with their hands and clapped as they giggled over some anecdote I couldn’t comprehend. 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 chaotic confusion 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.

He sat me down on his parents’ bed. Averting my quizzical eyes, Gökhan said, “I told the imam that you were a Buddhist when he asked me what your religion was. He said since you are not neither Christian or 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?

*** To find out what happens next, stay tuned for the next post, “The Secrets of Nikah, the Islamic Wedding Ceremony, Part II.”

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My First Secret: The Guanyin Tattoo

My Baba and Mama are always in my heart. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

Last night, my brother Davis called me. “Hey, did you know that Baba and Mama read your blog?”

“No! I thought they just like it on Facebook without actually reading it.”

“Well, they do. I was a bit concerned since you mentioned your coke hangover in your last post.”

I was astounded. At the same time though, how silly it was for me to assume that Mama and Baba wouldn’t be interested in reading my blog? After all, I did quit my successful career as a librarian and plunged myself into the unknown and unstable life of a freelance writer. They don’t understand why I would give up my comfortable life for something so uncertain. They read my blog, hoping to make sense of the choices I made.

In many ways, I am nervous about writing In the Shadow of the Middle Kingdom. It’s about politics; it’s about the clash of cultures. It’s also about identity and spirituality—but it’s also about secrets—there is an undercurrent full of them flowing through my story, and every so often, one of them rises to the surface.

On that note, it’s time for me to reveal a secret.

I got a new tattoo (sorry, Mama). It is an eight-inch tattoo of Guanyin, the Chinese bodhisattva of compassion and mercy. I got it a while ago, but I was too afraid to show it to my parents when I was in Taiwan last time. Last time I got a tattoo, Mama was so livid, she wouldn’t talk to me for days. Like many parents, they associate tattoos with gangsters and the unsavory underbellies of society. But this tattoo is important to me. I want them to understand why.

My Guayin tattoo.

My good friend Alex Prachthauser did a phenomenal job— my Guanyin is beautiful and serene, holding a water jar and a strand of willow leaves. I asked Alex to tattoo her as far up as my thigh as possible so she wouldn’t be visible unless I wear shorts. I did this intentionally so that I could hide her easily (mostly from Mama, Baba and other disapproving family members).

There are several reasons for getting this tattoo. First, it represents my vow to live my life with love and empathy. I strive to be cognizant of the suffering of others and help to make the world a better place.

Second, the tattoo is a tribute to my ancestral heritage, the aspect of me that I neglected and dismissed for most of my life. Also, it expresses my commitment to stay in Asia and learn about my own culture.  Since we’ve been married, Derek and I decided to stay in Asia for the long haul. However, up until this point, I am an Asian woman living in Hong Kong who knows so little about her own culture. I didn’t even try—I was what they call a”banana.”

Third, the tattoo also reflects my newfound fascination in Chinese gods, which is a little contrary considering my disdain for organized religions.  In high school, people took me to church with them, but Jesus never entered my heart. When I was in my mid 20’s, I learned about Islam while working and living in Dubai. I felt the religion to be culturally oppressive, and I became resentful towards it when I was coerced to convert (that’s another secret for a different time).

Despite my early indifference and later indignation towards religions, I am now interested in the Chinese folk religion. To me, judgment and fear do not pay a prominent role in the faith. My parents never used the idea of God as a crutch when I did something they didn’t like. They would yell that I was ruining my reputation or embarrassing them—they don’t care what a god thinks; they care more about what others would think of me, and how my actions reflect on them. I like that about the religion. I was so tired of people telling me that I was going to hell for believing in something or that something I was doing was haram, acts forbidden by Allah.

There are so many intriguing stories about my culture. But for me to share these stories; I have to reveal secrets. I have to tell the truth. My tattoo is only one secret, first of the many. However, the secrets I am going to share are not just mine. They are of my family’s too. In attempting to untangle my multi-layered identity and telling the truth, there is a part of me that worries about hurting the people I love the most. Sometimes the truth is painful.

I come from a place of love and compassion. My writing about my family is not in any way trying to or hurt them—instead, I intend to tell stories people can relate to and connect with. In doing so, I hope to help make the world a better place.

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Roman, My Teacher, My Mentor, My Friend

Roman is the current-day Aristotle. He is also my mentor and champion. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

Growing up is hard. Growing up when your parents are thousands of miles away is even harder. Lucky for me, I had a champion.  His name is Dr. Roman Onufrijchuk.

I met Roman in the spring of 2001. He was my professor in a class called “Sociology of Leisure.” We became close when I told him that I couldn’t do my presentation in class because I was hungover from doing cocaine the night before and hadn’t done my reading.  Since that class, I followed him around like a shadow.

At any given time, Roman was parked at a table on the spacious and shaded patio of Tree’s Café on Granville Street in the business district of downtown Vancouver, a mere two blocks away from campus. In front of him on the table was a worn black plastic case filled with Gauloises cigarettes, an ashtray half full of orange filter tips with yellow flecks, a full cup of foamy café macchiato and an empty porcelain cup stained with coffee sediments.

Roman was a distinguished looking gentleman with a neatly trimmed grey beard. His usual attire is a black fisherman’s hat, a khaki button-up shirt, cargo shorts and sporty sandals. Though he looked like he might be going fishing, he was not the type to do so. His blue eyes were deep, indicating many lifetimes worth of stories. The way he sat in his chair slightly slouching with a cigarette between his nicotine-stained fingers, he looked wiser than his 51 years.

A current day Aristotle,  Roman is a sage-like character who enjoyed retelling the Greek mythologies to any student who would listen. Like Aristotle’s Lyceum, Roman had his Tree’s Café where he counseled students, the members of his so-called “tribe.”  Gregarious in nature, he was fond of adopting “strays,” those troubled students on whatever brinks they were on. He took these directionless souls under his wings and nurtured them with his infinite wisdom and generous attention. I was an active member of this tribe and saw him about everything, from research papers to unfortunate romantic encounters.

Thanks to Roman, I graduated with honors in 2005.

Roman put out his cigarette and waved me over as I approached the patio. He had a bad habit of smoking only two-thirds of his cigarettes. He wrapped up the conversation with the student in front of him. “Thank you so much, Roman.” The student said as he stood up to leave.

Roman lit another cigarette as I took the seat across from him. “You okay?” he asked in his gruff but modulated radio voice, one that had been soaking up tobacco and whiskey for years.

“Ugh.” I moaned as I dug through my massive, bottomless purse for a lighter. Roman leaned over the table and lit my cigarette. “Thanks.” I exhaled.

“That bad eh?” Roman chuckled, “So, what now?” Roman asked, his blue eyes twinkled with a hint of laughter.

I began to narrate the most recent episode of my boy drama. Roman smoked and listened patiently as I told my woeful tale.

When I finished, he took a puff from his cigarette, “Well my dear,” he exhaled, “You should never go to bed with someone who’s got more problems than you.”

“But how do I know he’s got more problems than me?” I whined. 

“You learn, kiddo, by paying attention.” He winked and took another puff from his cigarette, “In the meantime, this guy sounds like a bozo. Lose him.”

His attention drifted to something behind me, “My next date is here.” He announced as he stubbed out his cigarette, “You’ll be okay. Don’t go around breaking too many hearts.”

“But I still need to talk to you about my paper!” I wailed in a panic.

“Fine, come back in about an hour.”

All day long, when Roman was not in class, he sat on this patio smoking his cigarettes, sipping on his café macchiato and advising students on all aspects of their lives.

Everybody needs a champion. With Roman’s guidance and constant encouragement, I eventually graduated with honors. I went to graduate school, and after graduation started my career as an academic librarian. In my career in Dubai, Bahrain and Hong Kong, I met plenty of students who needed that extra push and a pat on the back. Everywhere I worked, I tried to channel Roman— it’s only fair that I give back what was so generously given to me.

Roman was my teacher, my mentor, my friend. In June 2015, I was devastated to learn that Roman passed away. I never had a chance to say good-bye.  I was heartbroken that Roman never met Derek, my now husband, after hearing so much about my boy drama over the years.

Derek held me tight.  “I understand what Roman means to you.” He whispered, “And I get to meet him every day through you.”

 

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A Story of an Immigrant Kid: Growing Up Without Parents

As satellite kids, My brother Davis and I had to take care of the house, and each other. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

I would like to think that I was an average teenager. I always wanted to hang out with my friends. I had a part-time job in the new movie theatre. Sometimes I skipped school with my friend Chelsea to smoke cigarettes in the food court at the mall.  Deep down, I also knew that my life is more complicated than the average. I am Canadian. I am Taiwanese. Some might call me Chinese, and others argue that I am Japanese, since I was born in Tokyo.

Also, typical teenagers didn’t have their parents move out on them when they were still in high school. My younger brother Davis and I became what is known as “satellite kids”— Asian children whose parents went back to their countries of origin to work while leaving their children in Canada or the U.S.

Before Mama left, she cooked up a storm and filled the deep freezer with all sorts of traditional Taiwanese treats, like marinated chicken wings, braised pork, and fried rice. After a couple of months of her absence, my brother Davis and I looked at the empty deep freezer and agreed that we needed to go grocery shopping.

In the past, we had gone shopping with Mama when she was around, but we had never gone shopping for ourselves.  In the grocery store, we pushed around a giant shopping cart and didn’t know where to start. We pushed our way through aisles and aisles of stuff— everything from spices to cleaning detergent. After we looked around for a while, we decided that frozen dinners would be our best option— we didn’t know squat about feeding ourselves but we were experts at using the microwave.

Here are Davis and me in my very 90’s bedroom.

We ate our way through every single frozen dinner brand and got tired of eating them. So, we experimented with the stove and learned to make Kraft Dinner. However, the powdery, cheesy Styrofoam got old pretty fast, which motivated us to call Mama to asked her how to cook basic things. Through these informative long-distance phone conversations, we learned how to stir-fry broccoli with garlic. We learned how to make omelets with tomatoes. We learned to sauté garlic and onions with ground beef and adding pasta sauce to make it more flavorful. Unlike other Taiwanese kids who had their parents around, Davis and I had to grow up fast.

Also, we had to learn how to keep our house and ourselves safe, through trial and error.

When I was seventeen, I threw a Halloween party and invited my friends from school. I also invited my new friends that I met from my new part-time job, kids my age who lived in different parts of Surrey and the neighboring city of Langley. I was naïve and didn’t expect that these new friends would invite their friends, people I didn’t know. Within hours, the party was entirely out of control. I ran to lock the front door someone had opened, only to have others unlock the back door, allowing uninvited guests into my home.

Eventually, I called 911 in a desperate attempt to shut down my own party. Several hours later, when the blue and red lights flashed outside of my house along with the blaring of the police siren, everybody scattered. My home was trashed with bottles and spilled beer everywhere. The unruly kids stole Baba’s cherished antique sword, my CD player, Davis’ CD player, the DVD player, and all my CD’s.

Of course, my parents found out about the party. Their insurance covered the damage and the lost property, but as a result, their premium went up.  They yelled at me on the phone, but what else could they do?  They were the ones who left their teenaged daughter to her own devices in a faraway country.

Thinking back, I was a lonely and scared kid. When Mama first left, I relished the freedom— there were no more curfews, no more rules, no more sneaking around.  But the feeling didn’t last long. Eventually, I started to miss my Mama. When I was eating the rubbery microwave dinner, I desperately wanted Mama’s comfort food. When those stupid assholes robbed us, I wished she was there to make everything go away. When someone broke my heart, I wanted to cry in Mama’s lap. I needed her, though I would have never admitted it at the time.

Davis doesn’t like to talk about this period of our lives. However, we agreed that we were never angry with our parents. They love us and did what they thought was the best to provide for us.

And, as satellite kids, we grew up and turned out pretty okay.

 

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A Story of an Immigrant Kid: They Called Me a Banana

Banana: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

My family moved to Canada when I was ten. We settled in Surrey, which is a sprawling suburbia about an hour from Vancouver. I didn’t speak a lick of English, but luckily, I didn’t pee myself when moving to a foreign country this time.

When we arrived, Baba had to come up with new names for my younger brother and me.

He gave my younger brother the option of “David” or “Davis”. The little eight-year-old boy chose “Davis,” so Davis he became.

With me, Baba said that I should be “Kayo,” the Japanese pronunciation of my Chinese name. I wanted a fancy English name like Davis, but Baba was persuasive.  So, Kayo I remained.

However, when I got to school, the other kids butchered my name. They called me “Kay-yo” when it was supposed to be “Ka-yo”. I tried to correct them with my limited English but to no avail.   So, “Kay-yo” I became. Now, everybody calls me Kayo, even my parents.

Remember that Day-O Banana Boat song? My classmates used to sing their adapted version: “Kayyyy-yo! Kayyyy-yo! Daylight comes and me wanna go home!”  My face would go beet red and they would howl with laughter. I hated that song.

Despite that, I learned English and became a typical teenager. I met my friend Chelsea in a math and science split class in grade eight. On Sundays, we went to the flea market to look for Sailor Moon Cards. In grade nine, I bought my first CDs: No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom and Smashing Pumpkin’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I saw Gwen Stefani when No Doubt was touring with Weezer—I was a very excited fourteen-year-kid.

Back when pagers were cool.

In grade ten I smoked my first cigarette. By grade eleven, in addition to my smoking, I also had (still have) a book addiction. Remember those Scholastic catalogs we used to get from school? Mama bought me anything I ever wanted from it, unknowingly created a book-devouring monster. To pay for my smoking and book habits, I got a part-time job at the cinema that opened the same day as Star Wars: Phantom Menace. I made friends outside of school. I met my first boyfriend.

I have known Chelsea since we were 13. This picture was taken shortly after our graduation, on my 18th birthday.

Luckily, the kids in secondary school didn’t sing the stupid Day-O song. Instead, Chelsea gave me a cool nickname: Knock Out, aka KO.

Everything was trucking along in my teenage life. I almost felt cool—  until a new Taiwanese kid moved to my school. His name was Rodney.

Every time Rodney saw me walking down the hallway with my friends, he greeted me in Mandarin.  I was mortified each time. I always replied to him in English and kept the conversations as short as possible.

He reminded me of my foreign-ness, my otherness— and all I wanted was to blend in, be like everyone else.

I avoided him at all cost.

Back then, I didn’t want to be Taiwanese or Asian. I tried to minimize any perceived differences between my friends and me. For instance, I refused to bring Taiwanese food to school for lunch. Instead, I ate the mush and Jell-O at the cafeteria or munched on chips from the vending machines. Also, I wouldn’t associate with Rodney or the other Taiwanese kids.  They thought I was a snob and called me a “banana”—yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

I realize now that I’ve carried that label around for most of my life. The first time my husband Derek went to Taiwan with me for Chinese New Year’s, he asked me why I wasn’t in the kitchen learning to cook all the amazing Taiwanese dishes Mama was making. I shrugged. Now I understand that underneath the exterior of the worldly 30-something Kayo, there is a teenaged Kayo who felt humiliated by her otherness. Buried even deeper is the ten-year-old Kayo who was taunted because of her weird name.

Perhaps this why I get upset when people only see my Asian face and not my Canadian-ness.

Derek suggested that my Canadian-ness is keeping me from my Taiwanese-ness. He is absolutely right.

I will not subject myself to this “banana” label anymore. Next year, I will be in the kitchen with Mama during Chinese New Year.

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Who are the Chinese Gods and Why Do We Worship Them?

The Chinese folk religion is polytheistic. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

One of my favorite stories to tell about my time in Dubai was the fact that I needed an “infidel card” to purchase liquor in the Emirates. There are, of course, unofficial channels to purchase booze in the country, but it’s not as easy as popping into a store. The infidel card comes in handy when you had drunk the last bottle of wine and suddenly remembered that you were invited to go to a birthday party over the weekend. This is when you need to go to the MMI—the government liquor stores. It’s more convenient, but it’s a lot more expensive.

In the Emirates, Islam guides every aspect of life. This is why alcohol is so severely regulated. In that part of the world, asking someone about their religious belief is completely legitimate and expected. When I got an offer for a librarian position in Dubai, they sent me a form that asked for my personal details, such as my name and address. They also asked for very personal information, such as and my birth date, who my parents are, and my religion.

I used to write “Buddhism” in the religion section because that’s what made sense to me at the time.  I thought it might have been better to write that than “none.” Besides, my family is Buddhists, sort of.

My parents would consider themselves Buddhists, but they are more than that. My family practices rituals that are associated with the Chinese folk religion. The Chinese folk religion is complex—it is polytheistic and borrows from multiple sources, such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.

I am not entirely sure if Chinese folk religion is a “religion” in the strict definition of the term. It doesn’t have a definitive text. It doesn’t have a congregation, each family just does their own thing. My family, for instance, worships Buddha, Guanyin, and our ancestors. My Mama’s side of the family is also a huge fan of Mazu, less so on Baba’s side. 

I was first introduced to the Chinese folk religion when my family moved from Japan to Taiwan. We lived with my Ama, my paternal grandmother. As a six-year-old, I watched Ama change the water in little cups in front of various statues.  Then she’d gave me three sticks of lit incense and showed me how to bow to Buddha, Guanyin and the ancestors in the worship room while she said a prayer.

The worship room at Ama’s house. Photography by Derek Black.

In the worship room, a picture of Buddha hangs above the altar. Below the picture, the golden figure inside a glass case is Guanyin, the goddess of compassion and mercy. On the right side, there is a picture with three bodhisattvas. In the center is Buddha, to his left is Guanyin, and I have no idea who the third one is. To the left is a wood plaque inside the glass case—that’s our ancestors.

The worshipping of ancestors reflects a virtue in the Chinese folk religion: filial piety. It basically means to be loving and respectful to one’s parents and elders and to obey and make sacrifices for them.  It is a Confucius idea—he believed that filial piety is the foundation of a good society. Like many Taiwanese families, ancestor worship is an important ritual in my family,  a way for us to remember our roots and our loved ones who have passed away.

Ancestors are basically gods. Buddha and Guanyin are too. These are the ones that are important to my family. The gods live in our hearts, and they guide our actions. We worship them to be in their good graces, so they would protect us and bring us good fortune.

People worship different gods for different purposes. For business owners, they may have an altar of Kuan Ti, the god of war, facing the front door. This is to ward off ghosts. For a couple wanting a healthy baby, they might pay a visit with Zhu Sheng Niang Niang, the goddess of marriage and fertility. For students preparing for exams, they would worship Wenchang Wang, the god of literature and culture. The thing is, each of these gods come from different sources. For instance,  Kuan Ti and Wenchng Wang are based on historical people. Zhu Sheng Niang Niang came from Taoism. In the end, none of it matters.

In the Taiwanese soul, gods are important, and the more gods the merrier.

 

 

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The Goddess Who Found My Love

Mazu is the protector of the fishermen, Queen of Heaven in the Chinese folk religion. She also found Derek (according to Mama). Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

It was 2014 when Mama handed me a red bracelet made of red threads knotted together. She told me to put it on, so I did. Within six months, Derek and I started dating. A year later, we were married. Since then, Mama is convinced that the bracelet, which was made using a thread blessed by Mazu, led Derek to me. In other words, it was Mazu who found my love.

Mazu is well-venerated by people in southern China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and other places where there are descendants from south China region.

In the Chinese folk religion, Mazu is the protector of fishermen and Queen of Heaven. As a mortal, Mazu’s name was Lin Moniang and she lived in the 10th century on Meizhou Island, near the coast of Fujian province. One day, she dreamt her father and brother were in a shipwreck. So she went to rescue them. She grabbed her father with one arm and she held on to her brother by clenching his clothes between her teeth while she swam to the shore. However, when she heard her mother call her name, she opened her mouth to reply. At that moment, her brother disappeared into the water.

The next day, she learned that her father and brother had indeed been in a shipwreck. Her father survived but her brother didn’t. She blamed herself. Since then, she devoted her life to helping others.  After she died, the local people built a temple in her honor.

Her fame grew as many fishermen reported seeing a young woman in a red robe with a lantern during storms who led them to safety.  People started to worship her for protection and blessings. She started to be known as Mazu, which translates to Mother Grandmother. To this day, she is well-venerated in many parts of the world where there are descendants of people from southern China.

Like many Taiwanese people, Mama is a big fan of Mazu. When one of our family friends had invited a well-venerated Mazu from a nearby temple to her home, Mama went to the welcome parade. At this parade, she saw the man whose job is to announce the arrival of Mazu—he was also the person who carried the red threads that had been blessed by the goddess. When he walked past Mama, he gave her two threads.

Mama and her friends met the announcer of Mazu during this year’s parade. The announcer is the one who carries around the sought-after red threads.

Mama was ecstatic. The red threads are sought-after because they bring luck.  She considered it a good omen that the announcer chose to give them to her. She took the threads to a shop that specializes in Chinese knots and turned them into two bracelets. I got one and she gave the other to my younger brother, Davis. He didn’t wear the bracelet though— Mama is convinced that this is the reason he is still unmarried.

When I was younger, I never believed the power of Chinese deities. I didn’t need them. However, after meeting Derek, I am not so sure. I can’t help but be thankful that I have such an amazing husband— maybe it was Mazu who led him to me. I took the bracelet off the day I married the love of my life. To this day, it’s sitting in my jewelry box. It’s just as lucky, only faded now.

I called Mama today and asked her what year she got the red threads at Mazu’s welcome parade.

“Funny that you asked. Facebook just told me that I was at that parade exactly four years ago today.”

Huh. Is it a coincidence, or there is something magical about Mazu?

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Do You Speak Chinese?

There are many different Chinese languages with up to 200 dialects, and most of them are mutually intelligible. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

With Beijing’s growing influence, its dialect, Mandarin, also known as Putonghua (the common language), has become the most dominant Chinese language. But this wasn’t always the case, not according to the speakers of other Chinese languages.

In the late 80’s, my family moved from Japan to Taiwan. This was just a few years after the Taiwanese government finally lifted the martial law. I was six years old.

Let’s quickly revisit Taiwanese history and its languages: Historically, at least up to the 1940s, most people in Taiwan spoke Hokkien, which is a version of a southern Chinese language from Fujian province, where many Taiwanese people came from during the 1700’s. During the Japanese occupation, some Japanese words and expressions were integrated into the Taiwanese Hokkien language. I remember clearly my grandparents speaking this Japanese-fied version of Hokkien.

When the Kuomintang (KMT) took control of Taiwan, they made Mandarin the official language and forced everyone to learn it.

I spoke neither Hokkien or Mandarin.

This is me as a Kindergartener in Japan.

Regardless, my parents threw me into a local school.

During class one day, I needed to use the toilet. Unable to communicate with the teacher verbally, I stood up and made my way towards the washroom. I only made it halfway down the hall when my teacher caught up with me, led me back to the classroom and sat me back down in my little wooden chair at my desk. A few moments later, I got up again and made another attempt. The teacher got me again and scolded me as she led me back to my seat.

I didn’t know exactly what she said, but I understood that she was displeased with me. I didn’t dare to get up again. Instead, I sat in my chair and concentrated on holding it in.

Eventually, a warm stream trickled down my legs and created a large, dark stain on my pleated navy blue skirt and a yellow pool around the legs of my little wooden chair. I burst into tears—I was powerless without speaking the language.

This sad little story is a segway to discuss the power of language, and specifically, the Chinese language. Spoken Chinese is organized into five main groups, Mandarin, Yue, Min, Wu, and Hakka. These languages are mutually intelligible.  Within those groups, there are hundreds of dialects, limited to small geographical areas.

Mandarin is only one of the hundreds of spoken Chinese languages. The Beijing dialect is the most common, spoken by approximately two-thirds of the Chinese population. At 55 million speakers, Cantonese, which is part of the Yue family, is the second most common Chinese language.  Hokkien, a language that is common in Taiwan and other countries where Fujan ancestry is common, is part of the Min language family.

How did Mandarin become “Putonghua,” the common language of China?

When Sun Yat-Sen overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Beijing became the capital of the new China. After some debating, the leadership decided that Mandarin is the official language of the new republic (This is strange because Dr. Sun and many of the leaders of the new republic are from Guangdong Province, and their mother tongue would have been Cantonese).

In Taiwan, Mandarin is known as “Guóyǔ”, literally translates to “the national language.”

During the occupation, the Japanese didn’t force the Taiwanese people to learn the language of their colonizers.** However, when the KMT arrived, they did. Baba told me a story of how his classmates were punished for speaking Hokkien at school. They had to wear a humiliating sign that said, “I spoke Hokkien” for the whole day for speaking the “uncivilized” tongue.

Here in Hong Kong, 97% of the population speaks Cantonese. If Beijing had their way, they would eliminate Cantonese completely. However, that would create an outcry that Beijing is not prepared to deal with. Instead, they slowly influence the educational curriculum in Hong Kong, to teach the next generation their version of the history.

The truth is, Mandarin is already common in Hong Kong. When my parents passed through Hong Kong in the early 90s, they said people didn’t speak Mandarin and yelled when spoken to in Mandarin. Thirty years later, the majority of people still speak Cantonese, but I can now get by speaking Mandarin if English fails.

Hmm. I wonder what the common language will in Hong Kong in another thirty years.

**As it turns out, The Japanese implemented an imperialist movement during their occupation. It was an assimilation initiative that forced Taiwanese people to adopt Japanese names and learn to speak Japanese.

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Where Are You From?

It’s complicated. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

When I lived in Dubai, taxi drivers often asked, “Where are you from?”

“Canada,” I would say.

Studying me through their rearview mirror, they always looked doubtful. “But where are you really from?”

Ugh. Taxi drivers in Dubai aren’t that interested in me, personally. They wanted to put me in a box and be done with it.

Here in Asia, I face a different set of boxes. When Derek was in China for business, a woman asked him where I was from.

“She is a Taiwanese Canadian,”

The woman scoffed. “No, she’s a Chinese Canadian,” she said indignantly.

Ugh. Clearly, this woman and I have a different definition of Chinese-ness. I hate it when people deny me of my cultural and political identity without my presence.

I used to think it was easy for Derek when people asked him where he’s from. Most often, he would say, “The U.S.”

People are generally satisfied with this answer.

However, when we are traveling, he sometimes tells people that he’s from Hong Kong. People would look at him like he has lost his mind. The look on their faces basically says: a white person can’t be from Hong Kong!

Derek was born in Louisville, Kentucky and grew up in Madison, Indiana. Madison is a historic port city on the edge of the Ohio River. Back in its heydays, with over 100,000 residents, it was one of the busiest river ports in the country.

However, steamboats lost their place as the king of transportation with the advent of the railroad. These days, Madison has become a relic of its past, with only 3,000 people living in the downtown area.

In many ways, Derek is very American. My friend Kuba’s description of Derek as a “Gentleman Redneck” is perfect.  Derek has a polished, educated exterior, but underneath it all, he can skin a deer like nobody’s business. He’s a good boy from rural  Midwest.

He is also a product of American popular culture— he listens to Cat Stevens and Biggie Smalls.  His favorite movies are Spaceballs and The Princess Bride. He also loves the food of his land— when I came back from Savannah earlier this year, I basically brought back half of Krogers— my suitcase was filled with peppercinis, Texas Pete hot sauce, and Old Bay seasoning. Culturally, he is American through and through.

Derek and I did one of the most American things during our last trip— a bourbon tour!

However, Derek doesn’t identify as an American because he has such a disdain for the governmentHe thinks the two-party system serves the interests of corporations, instead of the people. Also, he believes that the function of the American federal government and state governments have skewed from their original intention— the federal government has far too much power, often overriding state decisions. This imbalance of power is one of the causes of the many problems in American society, such as gun violence, the gutting of public schools, and police brutality.

“The United States today doesn’t align with the values I was raised with,” he said. “The country needs to steer back to these ideals, but it won’t happen without great peril to the average citizen.

Another reason Derek chooses Hong Kong to be his home is that he wants to witness the next shift in power. At the turn of the 20th century, his great-grandfather witnessed the transfer of power from Great Britain to the United States. Derek wants to experience the next shift when China takes over as the superpower of the world. By staying in Asia, he is in a better position to navigate in this new world order.

Ugh. I don’t want China to rule the world.

Derek, on the other hand, is excited about the transfer of power. This is going to sound crazy, but he said at least with Chinese rule, he would know who is in charge, whereas American politicians hide behind the ruse of democracy and do horrible things.

Anyway, to answer the original question of this post, “where are you from?”

“I am from earth.”

If you had asked me, “Where do you call home?”

Now, that’s a question that leads to many stories, as long as you have the patience to hear them.

Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

 

 

 

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