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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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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You are Chinese

 

What does it mean to be Chinese these days? Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

Several posts ago, I made an argument that many Taiwanese people are ethnically Chinese. Since then, more than a few of you, my dear readers, pointed out that I need to clarify what I meant by “Chinese”.

I have spent days agonizing over this post. Then I realized that the whole idea of “Chinese-ness” is loaded because it covers so many different aspects—ethnically, politically, and culturally.

In this post, I will make an attempt to address the ethnicity and political aspects of being Chinese. In the future, I will discuss the cultural aspect and show that all aspects of Chinese-ness are connected— this why the idea is so contested and messy.

Let’s define “Chinese-ness”. There are two-folds of Chinese-ness. First, you are Chinese if you can trace your ancestry back to the Middle Kingdom.

Second, the word “Chinese” also describes something or someone that have an association with the Chinese state— in the mind of the current Chinese government, the CPC, this association is trans-historical, linking the PRC with every previous Chinese state all the way back to the Qing dynasty.

For the sake of clarification, in the context of this blog, I will use the term “Chinese” to refer to the ethnic group. For those who are politically or culturally associated with the Chinese state, they are “Zhongguo ren”, or “Middle Kingdom people.” Middle Kingdom people are subjects to the Chinese state, and they may or may not be ethnically Han Chinese.

In other words, not every Chinese person is a Middle Kingdom person. (a second-generation Chinese Canadian may be ethnically Chinese but not a Chinese subject), and not every Middle Kingdom person is ethnically Chinese— I will elaborate below.  

Contrary to popular belief, the PRC isn’t a monoethnic state. The Middle Kingdom is a country of diverse ethnic groups— there may be as many as 400 ethnic groups, though the CPC only officially recognizes 56 of them. At 92% of the population, the Han Chinese are the dominant ethnic group in PRC. 

The CPC see themselves as the leader of the Chinese and the Middle Kingdom people. They also see themselves as the custodians of the Chinese culture. Anyone who poses a threat to the dominant and national narrative of Chinese-ness and Middle Kingdom-ness, like the  Uighurs, are punished relentlessly. The Uighurs are a minority ethnic group from Xinjiang Province, located in the northwest region of the country. They are distant cousins of the Turks, speak a Turkic language, and are predominately Muslims.

Uighur is an ethnic group in China genetically related to the Turks. Photo from Wikipedia.

When Mao took power in 1949, Xinjiang province became a part of PRC. The CPC encouraged the Han Chinese people to settle in Xinjiang. They took vital roles in government, often discriminating the Uighurs, leading to numerous protests and uprisings that challenge the authority of the party.

Needless to say, the Uighurs in Xinjiang is a thorn in the party’s back. In an effort to control them, they banned the Uighurs to express their culture by outlawing long beards and wearing veils. Furthermore, even as recently as January 2018, the party is still trying to assimilate the Uighurs by forcing them into re-educational camps. The plight of the Uighurs people is appalling and terrifying.

The Uighurs, are Middle Kingdom people, as they are holders of People’s Republic of China citizenship. However, they are certainly not Chinese.

As for me, I am Chinese— my ancestry can be traced back to Fujian Province. However, I was born in Japan to Taiwanese parents and grew up in Canada; I do not identify as a Middle Kingdom person. In other words, I am not a Chinese subject, though PRC would beg to defer. I am of Han Chinese ancestry, my family is from Taiwan, a contested territory  —both of which makes me “Chinese” (ethnically, politically and culturally) in their eyes. All Taiwanese are Chinese and Middle Kingdom people, they believe— we will realize that soon enough.

I shudder at that thought. Taiwanese people use a special “return to motherland” permit to go to China (including Hong Kong) since the PRC doesn’t recognize our passport. I am in Hong Kong as a Canadian citizen. I hope that the PRC wouldn’t be able to tell that I was Taiwanese since I was born in Japan.  If I get into trouble somehow (through this blog, for instance),  I might be able to access Canadian consular services instead of the alternative— disappearing into a black hole where no one can ever find me.

Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

 

 

 

 

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