Do Not Say We Have Nothing: Chinese Modern History Spanning Over Three Generations

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien.

For a while, I got tired of reading Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The novel spans so many generations, and I became confused about who is related to who, how they are related, and why any of it matters. When I got to the part about Sparrow, Kai, and Zhuli during the cultural revolution, I thought their characters were so subdued and bland; I was almost bored to tears. However, I soldiered on, because as a Taiwanese Canadian living in Hong Kong,  modern Chinese history fascinates and horrifies me at the same time. Slowly and unknowingly as I continued to read, the book engrossed me as I became more and more attached to specific characters, especially Sparrow, the Quiet Bird.

The book starts in 1991 when Marie met Ai-Ming in Vancouver. Marie is the daughter of Kai, an accomplished pianist and an old friend of Sparrow, a talented composer who is A-Ming’s father.  When the reader first meets Ai-Ming, she had just fled China due to her activities during the Tiananmen Square protests. She found refuge in Marie’s home and was planning to seek political asylum in the United States. Through Ai-Ming’s storytelling, the reader, along with Marie, discovers the tragedies of the Great Leap Forward, the Culture Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square massacre presented themselves through a story that spans three generations.

Threaded through the whole book is the story from the Book of Records, a collection of hand-written manuscripts passed from husband to wife, from parent to child and from friends to friends, a novel within a novel that was amended and updated each time it was passed to a new steward. At time confusing, the Book of Records blurs the line between fantasy and reality. However, it is a book with no ending. As an unfinished book, it provides hope for the characters in the book, and in turn, enables the reader to imagine multiple, alternative, and perhaps more positive outcomes.

How many of us, Chinese or Taiwanese or Hong Kongese descendants in North America, understand the horrors of the Communist Party of China (CPC) inflicted on its citizen for the latter half of the 20th century? How many of us know about the starvation and death millions of people during the Great Leap Forward, the purging of the members of the intelligentsia class during the Cultural Revolution and the massacre of thousands of civilians in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests? Through Thien’s powerful and direct narrative, we learned the horrors of living under Mao and Deng in China–through modern history, the CPC dictated where people lived and worked, suppressed desires and aspirations, tore families apart and murdered their citizens.

One of the most vivid imagery in the book was how the residents of Beijing collectively gathered in the city, physically blocking the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to reach the Tiananmen Square, where thousands of university students were protesting. Thousands if not millions of people lost their lives on the night of June 3, doing what they thought was right. In the end, all was futile: “Street by street, no matter how many Beijing residents stood on the road, the People’s Liberation Army was forcing its way into the centre.”

Sparrow witnessed a the PLA soldier thrust a bayonet into a teenager on the street. He went to comfort the boy as he lay dying. “What had any of them done that was criminal?” He asked, “hadn’t they done their best to listen and to believe?” I imagine his question captured millions of Chinese people’s sentiment during the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests. So many lives lost and destroyed, and for what?

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an epic novel is intricate and touching. It’s a heartbreaking read, a portrait of the struggle of millions of Chinese people who have suffered, physically, emotionally, and psychologically under a regime. Perhaps it will provide a glimpse of why someone like me is terrified of China’s growing power and influence in the year 2018. If they could be cruel and ruthless to their citizens, what would they do to the rest of the world as they gain more control of the world’s economy and wield their influence across the globe?

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Death, Mortality and Patriarchy: Ancestor Worship, Part II

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

Once Baba parked the car on the unpaved gravel lot, we got off and started to unload the offerings. Derek emptied a basket of fruit and candies and passed them to Mama. He then tried to give her more but Mama, in her rudimentary English said, “Okay, enough. No more.”

Derek looked at me, puzzled.

“Sweetie, the rest is for the cemetery,” I explained.

“Why do we need to have different offerings for the cemetery?” He asked.

His question made me pause. I’d never thought about why. It has always been the way it is: Ama’s family get their offerings, the Chang ancestors get their own, plus the flowers, and the gods also get their set of offerings.

“Mama,” I asked in Mandarin, “Why do we have different offerings for everybody?”

“Well, you wouldn’t offer leftovers to your guest when they come to your house for dinner, right?” She stated, matter-of-fact, “it’s the same with the gods and ancestors.”

Ironically, Derek, my American, Midwestern husband who grew up in a Christian household, was the person who got me thinking about the traditions I always took for granted.

Baba led the way to a little shack next to the make-shift temple. He approached the two smiling nuns with clean-shaven heads at the counter and pass them two 1,000 NTD notes. One of them gave him a donor form. He filled it out using his mother, Ama’s name as the head of the household. He wrote down everybody’s names,  including his older sister and younger brother, along with their spouses and children. This year, he also added a new name on the form: Derek’s.

We placed the offering on a table in a large room. A gigantic, golden Buddha took up most of the front of the room. There are numerous round tables with little lotus shaped signs with the names of the donors written on them. By donating to the temple, our names sit in a room with Buddha all year long, bring us peace and prosperity. Mama gave me, Derek, and Baba each two lit incenses. We first worshipped the Jade Emperor in the sky. Then we turned around to worshipped the Buddha.

In the last few years, Baba had moved Ama’s family ashes to a new temple.

After the temple,  we headed to the columbarium.

Mama forbade Derek and me to enter the columbarium the first time we visited because she wanted us to avoid ghostly spirits close to our wedding day.  Despite Mama’s best effort to avoid entanglements with the afterlife, Derek and I got married on Halloween, my favorite holiday, later that year. We had a costume party, and my wedding dress was black.

When we revisited the following year, we went inside. As we entered, there was a faint waft of incense and I shivered—the temperature dropped slightly as if appeasing to the dead who no longer needed warmth. Baba guided us through a narrow hallway that had rows and rows of wooden urns stacked on top of one another.  Following behind Dad, I made mental notes of the almost identical containers labeled with the deceased person’s name, and sometimes it might also include a headshot. Some of the urns were new and shiny, while others looked dusty and faded.  Walking around in the columbarium was like traveling in a packed subway train during rush hour, surrounded by a bunch of strangers in a tight and intimate space. Imagine feeling squished and cramped but not able to see the other passengers. Though their spirits were invisible, their lack of manifestation still had a presence.

As I walk, I could feel the spirits of the people inside the urns brushing up against me, as if pleading with me to stop and visit them. I paused before a box to study a black and white photograph of a stern looking old man in a suit. His urn looked as though it’d seen the changes of seasons, and yet it was clean, and the picture on the box was fresh, indicating a regular visit from his family.  At one point, I came across a photograph of a young girl smiling in her pigtails. However, her urn was dusty and the features of her face blurred. Studying her young face, I wondered what misfortune had fallen on her, and why her family had not been visiting.  When we got to the front of the urns that contained the ashes of Ama’s family, Mom gently tapped on each of them to let them know that we had arrived. There weren’t headshots, but the urns had their names printed in black characters. I look at my adopted great-grandmother’s name and contemplated about this person who raised Ama. I have no recollection of her as I had only met as a baby before she died. We merely stopped for a minute or two to say hello. Then we took the same route out of the columbarium, leaving all the spirits behind.

Derek and I only went into this columbarium once. The following year, Baba moved Ama’s family’s ashes in a brand new temple on a hilltop with a pretty garden. It took a lot of research for Baba to choose this place because this is where Ama will be after she passes. Typically, when the matriarch of the family passes away, she goes into her husband’s family’s tomb. However, since Ama was not Agon’s legitimate wife, other arrangements need to be made. I think Baba has always felt sad about his mother’s situation; this is why he always makes sure that we get up early every Chinese New Year’s Day to worship Ama’s family, to show her that when she joins them one day, we will be visiting her every year.

In the next post, we visit the Chang mausoleum in the cemetery, and I will tell you all about my ancestors.

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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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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 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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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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