“My Life and Hard-ish Times” by Sivan

My name is Sivan. Some of you may know me already–I belong to The Man, The Woman, and The Cat, pictured below. This portrait was our family’s New Year’s greeting, and as you can see, The Cat hadn’t quite warmed up to me, yet.

The Man, The Woman, The Cat. And me.

I came from a Hindu temple in Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka. When the temple was renovating several years ago, they sold me to a dealer. I ended up in an antique store in Galle, which is a fort that was built by the Portuguese in 1588 and later expanded and fortified by the Dutch in the 17th century. Nowadays, it’s recognized as one of the remarkable cultural and architectural wonders of Sri Lanka. It is a tourist hotspot that attracts a constant flow of people from all over the world.

The Man and The Woman had moved to Sri Lanka in December. They treated themselves to a trip to Galle right after Christmas as a quick getaway from the city. They stepped into the antique store close to their hotel before they returned to Colombo. It was The Woman who found me first. Even though The Man was interested in a different peacock, he gave in to his wife’s choice (smart man). While I might be seemingly invaluable, The Man made a deal with the shopkeeper and paid the rupees to take me home with them.

Since then, The Man placed me on top of a tall blue bookcase, which is the highest point in the flat. Perfect for a royal peacock like me. The Woman spent the whole afternoon looking up “popular Sri Lankan boy names” to come up with one that suited me best. During the first week, The Cat sulked from the corner and gave me weird looks. But eventually, she succumbed to my charms and visited me often.

Since I perch facing the front door, no one can enter or leave the flat without my detection. In a way, I am a guard peacock to ensure that no unsavory characters come into my home. I don’t approve of some of the delivery people who bring The Man and The Woman furniture for our home–they sometimes walk into the flat with their shoes on. Very. Uncool. The Cat also seems to detest all delivery people–she would run and hide as soon as she heard or smelled them.

Besides the delivery people, The Man and The Woman keep a fascinating company. They’ve made some wonderful local friends. There are Saeeda and Eranda, a couple of young, local creatives in Colombo.

Stunning heirloom jewellery from Sour Metal by Saeeda Deen.

Saeeda runs two jewelry brands. Sour Metal repurposes vintage jewelry and Sri Lankan heirlooms. Samsara specializes in silver and rough stone jewelry. If that wasn’t enticing enough, both companies practice sustainability all the while embracing Sri Lankan roots and natural resources. I feel like I’d make for a perfect ambassador for Saeeda’s two brands.

Eranda works in management/HR but has other pursuits such as selling beard oil and helping his wife expand her businesses. The Man had fixed them beef tacos. They were delicious. Throughout the night, they drank cocktails and talked about jewelry, culture, and the future of design in Sri Lanka. I quietly observed from the top of the bookcase.

The Fabulous Fabienne Francotte, on the opening night of her show in Colombo, “I Don’t Know But I Remember.”

 Fabienne Francotte, a Belgium-born artist and her husband, Tung Lai, the former EU Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, also visited our home. The Man fixed our guests dinner, starting with cured meats, cheese, and bread, followed by a thick pumpkin soup. For the entrée, The Man served his world-famous Bolognese, made with the recipe he got from his Italian-American uncle. Throughout the night, they laughed and discussed everything from their travels to literature to art. The two women spoke about collaborating on a project. I also couldn’t help but notice that between the four of them, they drank five bottles of wine. This is something they can’t do anymore during the COVID-19 curfew, but that’s a story for a different time.

Up until recently, The Man and The Woman went out during the day–leaving me and The Cat to our own devices. However, for the last couple of weeks, they’ve been at home all day watching the news. I have been hearing about this COVID-19 business, which sounds terrible and is bringing the world to a halt. Now it seems that they will be home all day, all night, for the foreseeable future. I suppose it is up to me, their guard peacock, Sivan, to document all that’s happening in the flat during this difficult time.

Stay tuned.

Inspired and edited by Mohini Khadaria.

Ama’s Aurora Borealis Bead Necklace

This is a picture of Ama, my paternal grandmother. Undated. (I suspect she was probably in her early 30’s)

One of my favourite things to do as a child was nosing around Ama’s drawers in her massive bedroom. I was about 8 or 9, living in Taichung, Taiwan. My parents and my brother lived on the fourth storey of a low-rise building Ama owned, and she occupied the third floor. This is the same building my Ama had raised her children–my Baba and his older sister and younger brother. On the weekends, I headed downstairs to spend time with my Ama, who was my favourite person at the time. While she watched the television, I opened all her drawers and boxes, digging for treasure. There was one object that held my attention: an aurora borealis bead necklace made of sparkling, multi-faceted Austrian glass. When Ama wore it with one of her pretty floral dresses, the necklace glistened in a spectrum of light, radiating rays of pinks, yellows, and blues. I thought it was the most glorious thing in the world. When I pulled it out of one of her jewellery boxes, I held it up to her. “Ama, can I have this?”


“You can have it when you grow up,” she said as she took the necklace from me.


Three decades later, I found myself in Ama’s room. It was late at night, and I snooped around her drawers, as I had done when I was a little girl. Since the autumn of 2019, Ama has been living in a nursing home where she can receive full-time care. When Derek and I visited for Chinese New Year’s, we stayed in her room. It felt surreal to be in the place I had spent so much time. So much has changed–I am no longer a child, and my relationship with Ama had hardened over the years. As a little girl, I idolized Ama. Even after we left Taiwan, I was still close to her–Baba had found a stack of letters I had written to Ama from my first couple of years living in Canada. However, the physical distance had taken a toll. As I became more westernized in my behaviour and thinking, Ama ceased to be important in my life. Then, in my 20’s, our relationship took a turn for the worse.

The top picture was taken in Canada, the bottom one was in Taichung.

As a young adult, every time I’d visited Taiwan, Ama was critical of me. The minute she laid her eyes on me, she tsked. “How did you get so fat?


I was already subconscious about my body, and though I am sure she didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, she did. She was also unkind to Mama, which upset me. I witnessed many times when Ama belittled her cooking, commented on her appearance, and said unflattering things about her family. For many years, I was angry at Ama. Despite my animosity, I made annual pilgrimages to Taichung during Chinese New Year’s. Each year, I bore Ama’s verbal lashings and thought that I was doing it out of my love for Baba. Lately, I am starting to think that maybe it wasn’t just for Baba, after all.


As Derek snored in Ama’s queen-sized bed, I opened one of the drawers. It was jam-packed with stacks of papers–electricity bills from the ’80s, old bank statements, receipts from a doctor’s visit. I opened another drawer and found a round, plastic orange box commonly given away by jewellery stores in Taiwan. Inside, glistening beautiful vintage rings of jades and pearls with unique settings that are no longer in production. Then I found a bottle of Rémy Martin XO Cognac, a pair of diamond studs, a red envelope filled with 10,000 NT (about $330 USD). I had forsaken sleep and was driven by an obsession to open more drawers and cupboards. I peered at old letters and photographs, flipped through ancient address books and notebooks, and found many old fashioned brass keys that no longer open any doors. The more I discovered, the more insatiable I felt–subconsciously, I was looking for one thing–the aurora borealis bead necklace. As dawn drew near, I gave up my search, laid down next to Derek and slept.

The next day, I poured over the letters and the photographs. Old love letters she wrote my grandfather that she probably never sent. Black and white photos of relatives that I never met. Through her things, I got to know a side of Ama that I had always known but forgotten. Perhaps I am not so different from her after all–my obsessive need to hang on to memories is not too different than Ama’s. Instead of keeping every scrap of paper, I store my thoughts and sentimental objects in my notebooks, which I have done since I was 13. Ama and I are both hoarders in our own right. Unlike her, I don’t have a house to put away my memories. However, I do keep a box of bound journals that I lug around the world–my life in words and images for the past 25 years.


My resentment towards Ama has thawed, exposing the tender feelings underneath. Though I was embittered for how Ama treated Mama and me, deep down, I was always looking for Ama’s aurora borealis bead necklace. A few years ago, I found something similar when I was living in Savannah, GA. I bought the necklace without thinking twice. Now, I know that I have always wanted to be close to Ama, whether or not I wanted to admit it. During my last visit to Taichung, I visited Ama in the nursing home. I held her hand and spoke to her, even though I knew she couldn’t hear me. I was sorry for the wasted time, all the years I could have asked her about her youth, what her dreams and aspirations were, and why she chose to be with a married man for all of her adult life. But I didn’t. Now, I can only get glimpses of who she was–filtered through her pictures, words, and possessions. I suppose that is better than nothing.

Edited by Mohini Khadaria

The Nikah

Hello dear reader,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had no idea what I signed up for.

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

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

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before school one morning, I was eating my eggs sitting on the high stool next to the kitchen counter when I heard Mama scream Baba’s name. I am not sure what business Mama had poking around Baba’s black nylon side bag— maybe she was putting something in there, or perhaps she was looking for something for him— either way, she pulled out a love letter in Baba’s handwriting, addressed to another woman. 

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

After school, I found Mama standing disheveled in the middle of the kitchen, wearing her frumpy, pale pink cotton nightgown even though it was three o’clock in the afternoon. With tears streaming down her face, she wailed and screamed that she wanted to die. She clutched a crumpled-up letter in one hand and with her other hand, made slashing gestures with a kitchen knife as if she was going to slit her wrist. I was terrified.

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

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

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

During this dark time, I was overwhelmed and did not know how to process my conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I was angry. How could Baba betray Mama when she dedicated her whole life to us? At the same time, as a Daddy’s Girl, I was confused. Baba was indulgent, showering me with his affection and bringing me trinkets from his trips. When I needed help with my chemistry homework, he was attentive and patient. He was also a fun-loving father who took me and Davis snowboarding on the weekends. I knew he loved Davis and me, but his affair broke Mama’s heart and spirit. I did not understand how such an amazing father could be such a shitty husband.

I developed unhealthy relationship patterns around this time—I worried about men cheating on me or leaving me, but I also desperately dreaded being alone. My strategy was to become infatuated with a person and charm him with attention—the goal was to have him fall hopelessly in love with me, so he would not cheat or leave. At the same time, because I never wanted to be dependent on a man for my financial well-being, I moved around for my education and career. I never stuck around for anybody.

On the surface, I seemed accomplished and strong, but underneath, I was insecure and lonely. The tough girl who smoked and defied her mother was just a façade. Since having my first boyfriend at seventeen, I had not been single for more than a few months at a time. Like a rabbit chased by an unknown assailant, I dashed from one man to the next, looking for someone to validate me, to calm the nagging, neurotic voice inside my head: I would never find someone who would love me because I am always “too” something. I am too fat. I am too emotional but also too ambitious. I am too crazy, too free-spirited. I talk too fast, think too much, and has too many feelings. I am too strong-willed, and at the same time, too needy. Over and over again, this voice whispered to me throughout my relationships. With every failed relationship, it confirmed that I was unlovable.

When I met Gökhan, the nagging voice subsided. We connected on OkCupid and hit it off. He was living in Copenhagen and seemed like a reliable and attentive man. He was cute too, with wavy, dark brown hair, deep-set mahogany eyes, a straight nose, and a thoughtful demeanor. He quieted my anxiety with his patient, soothing voice. We fell asleep talking to each other on Skype many nights. I felt safe having him in my life.

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

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

***

Less than a year later, we faced a conundrum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rosewood Sofa

Dear Readers:

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

THE ROSEWOOD SOFA

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ama hasn’t spark joy in my heart for a long time, but I couldn’t just dispose of her like old, unworn sweaters in my wardrobe. Baba, my father, justified his mother’s behavior as “the way of the older generation.” Apparently, her calling me fat was supposed to demonstrate her concern for me. She was trying to be nice, he said—but the way she expressed her sentiments didn’t make me feel nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shrank deeper into my uncomfortable seat.

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

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

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

Two summers later, my perception of Ama changed forever. I was 12 when Baba introduced Davis and me to our ‘cousins’ visiting from California, Frankie, Tommy, and Michael. Baba said they were children of his brother, my Uncle Steven. We hit it off right away. Baba took all of us around the tourist attractions in Vancouver, like the aquarium and the suspension bridge. We went to Stanley Park, and Baba bought us ice cream cones. We had a great day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dinner was ruined before we even started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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.

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.

 

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. 

Lessons on Love, Part I

Hello, my dear readers.  You are about to read about an event that 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.

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.

The next post will illustrate the aftermath of this event. 

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.