Lesson on Love, Part III

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

At an impressionable age, Mama and Ama, my parental grandmother, taught me what I know about love. Ama chose to be with a married man in exchange for a financially secure life. Mama broke down when she found out that Baba was cheating, but eventually decided to swallow her pride because she didn’t have economic means of her own (and she also loved him desperately). I would never want to be in a situation where I have to make the choices they made.

As soon as I got my graduate degree in library studies, I took a job in Dubai to start my career as an academic librarian (the alternative was to stay in Vancouver to write invoices for a plumbing company.) Since then, I moved to Bahrain, and then to Hong Kong for work, to ensure that I am always financially independent. That’s all I learned about love from the women in my life—I must never rely on a man.  

In 2012, I arrived in Hong Kong for a new job, a few months before my 30th birthday. With a failed marriage behind me, I still didn’t know what a healthy, lasting relationship looked like. Regardless, I plunged myself into the world of online dating. It was something I dabbled with in the past, but I always disabled my account the minute I found a new boyfriend.

At first, it was fun. Hong Kong is a transient place, and I met men from all over the world. After dating a string of men that didn’t materialize into a steady boyfriend, I was disappointed that it wasn’t as easy as when I was younger. Was it the curse of turning 30?

After venturing into the dating circuit for a while, I begin to feel that I wasn’t good enough. I was in my 30’s; I couldn’t compete with all the skinny 23-year-old Hong Kong girls. Having been in relationships my whole adult life, I didn’t know how to date. For example, a guy I was casually dating didn’t text me back, and that was supposed to be normal. Some of my guy friends suggested I shouldn’t expect so much; I was too needy, too emotional and maybe a little too weird. I didn’t know what to do. I drank, I danced up a storm, and I flirted shamelessly. I did everything to hide that confused and hurt little girl behind a carefree facade. I gave men what I thought they wanted, in the hopes that one of them would love me. Instead, they walked all over me, and I hated myself for it.

I was miserable. How do we end up living in a society where people take sex for granted, and fear intimacy? Why can’t a woman expect the man who she hooked up with to return her text and have an adult conversation after a night of fun?

For years, I put up with a lot of bad behaviors from men. One day, after ending an on-again, off-again relationship I decided enough was enough. I vowed that I would never allow a man to make me feel like I wasn’t good enough ever again. If he thought I was “too” something, then he wasn’t the right person for me. I vowed that I wasn’t going to be apologetic for wanting a serious relationship and that I wasn’t going to settle. I vowed that I would rather be alone than to be with someone who wasn’t going to accept and love me for who I am. I resolved to my fate: I would rather be single for the rest of my life than to be with the wrong person.

It’s not that I stopped dating—I just had zero tolerance for men who mistreated me. I had expectations and boundaries, and I commanded respect. Men called me demanding, bitchy, crazy. I didn’t care. I stopped putting up with shit.

Then it happened one day.

I had known Derek for almost a year at this time. I met him at SCAD Hong Kong, where I was the head librarian, and he was one of the graphic designer professors. He borrowed a bunch of books on typography. I told him about my fifth-grade teacher who made us practice calligraphy. We became friendly and eventually, our paths started to cross.

One night in the fall of 2014, he and I went out for a drink with a bunch of our friends from work. At the end of the night, Derek texted me. “It was great seeing you tonight. You looked cute, even though you were wearing a cat dress.”

He hates cats.

I was wearing the cat dress the day before my wedding, while my best friend Sarah and I were buying flowers for my big day.

“Is Derek flirting with me?” I showed the text to my friend Kuba, who was visiting me at the time.

Kuba confirmed my suspicion.

The rest is history. After a whirlwind engagement, Derek and I married a year later. We will celebrate our third anniversary on Halloween this year.

It’s very ironic that Derek, who hates cats, ends up marrying a cat lady. 

Last summer I resigned from my position at SCAD to work towards my M.F.A. degree in writing. I plunged myself into the world of freelance writing. I no longer have a regular paycheck, which taps into my primal fear —to be dependent on a man, like Ama and Mama. Sometimes I freak-out, doubting my abilities and decision. Derek has spent hours comforting and encouraging me. He won’t let me quit and go back to the library.

Sometimes I still can’t believe my luck: my husband not only loves and accepts me, but he also supports me in my writing career. By choosing not to put up with shitty men, I in return found the best man ever. I couldn’t dream of having a better husband.

So, this is what I learned about love. From my Ama and my Mama, I learned to be financially independent. From my dating experience, I learned to stop taking shit from men, and that I had to love and accept myself before I can find anyone who would do the same for me. From Derek, I learned to let go of my fear (though I still have moments of doubt). I couldn’t have got to where I am today without these lessons. Finding love was hard, but I was lucky. For those of you out there who are still looking, don’t despair: You have someone that has been through it all rooting for you.

 

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Lessons on Love, Part II

Hello readers. This post is a part of a series, Lessons on Love. Please read Part I if you haven’t done so already. 

Over the next few months, Mama slowly regained her composure. She started to cook again. She stopped threatening herself with knives and pills. But she was sad. Baba was still traveling constantly for work. As a teenager, I didn’t know if Mama and Baba were communicating and working on their marriage. When I was a senior in high school, Baba quit his job as a tour guide and settled in Taipei permanently when he got a job as the general manager of a hair transplant clinic. Mama started to visit him regularly, leaving a few weeks at a time. Over time, she began to extend her visit. I remember her not being there at all during the first semester of senior year in high school because I skipped my first class every day during that time.

“Hello, your son or daughter is absent today…” The monotone automatic message from my high school would start when my answering machine picked up. I would open my eyes momentarily, turn over and go back to sleep.

At an impressionable age, I learned that my parents weren’t gods—they are humans with flaws. Watching my mother’s meltdown caused by my father’s infidelity, I discovered the dire consequences of being emotionally dependent on a man. I told myself back then that I would never want to be in her position. I would never allow my love for a man to turn into ammunition that he could use to maim me. Through Mama, I also learned how vital it is for a woman to be financially independent. With no economic means, she couldn’t have left Baba even if she wanted to. She was the old-school, conventional Asian housewife; she had never worked a day outside of her home.

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

My Baba is the best father in the whole world.

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

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

When I completed my first year of studies at university, Mama sat me down at the kitchen table. At this time, I was getting high regularly and was barely passing my classes. However, Mama didn’t know this. She asked me if she should go back to Taiwan for good. This conversation was probably the first time we had a heart-to-heart as two women. Mama was sitting at the kitchen table, while I perched on the stool next to her. She looked thoughtful and a bit pained—she had to choose between her husband and children. What woman had to make a choice like that? Having taken a women’s studies class that year, I felt empowered and believed that women should do whatever is best for her future. I told her just that.

“When I am old, you and Davis will have your own families, and I will only have your Baba,” she said slowly, after considering what I had told what I know about feminism. “Also, I need to go keep an eye on him to make sure that you and Davis don’t find out that you have half-siblings.”

When Mama moved back to Taipei for good, Davis was still in high school, and I was barely 19-years-old.

In the next post, I reflect on how the stories of my parents and grandparents, and how they affected my relationships. 

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Lessons on Love, Part I

Hello, my dear readers.  You are about to read about an event that shook my family. Thankfully, we all survived and we are closer than ever. I am telling you this story because it shaped the course of my life and how I view relationships. This is also a part of my writing sample that I’ve been sending to agents. I welcome any comments or feedback. Thank you for reading.  

When I was fifteen, something happened that changed my life forever. At the time, my family and I lived in a two-story suburban house with four bedrooms, a games room a three-door garage in Surrey, sprawling suburbia about 35 km south of Vancouver. My father, Baba, was working as a tour guide and lived in Taipei most of the time. Every two weeks, he would fly with a group of Taiwanese tourists and take them on a 10-day tour around western Canada. They went to the Rockies, spent a couple of days in Jasper and made their way to Banff to look at the stunning glacier-fed, impossibly turquoise Lake Louise. Before they flew back to Taipei, Baba took them on a city tour in Vancouver, and at the end of the day, he always came home to spend time with us. The next morning, he would leave again for two more weeks. Sure, I missed him, but his schedule had become routine. And on one fateful morning, nothing was amiss, until the moment Mama found a letter in Baba’s black nylon travel bag.

Mama visiting our old house in Surrey, BC, taken years after my parents had sold it. This is the house where Davis and I grew up.

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

With this discovery, Mama lost her mind. She wanted answers. She demanded Baba to explain himself. Baba, however, couldn’t deal with the situation because he had a flight to catch. He left Mama a wailing mess. I don’t remember how I got to school that day.

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

At this time, Mama was in her mid-30s, but she dressed and acted like a much older woman— a dedicated mother whose husband had been away for long stretches of time. She mostly wore dowdy, faded sweatsuits. Spending her days cleaning and cooking, Mama never did her hair or makeup. She paid little attention to herself. Her world revolved around Baba, my younger brother Davis, and me.

Several days later, when I came home from school, the house was quiet. I expected an aroma of something delicious to greet me, since Mama usually had a snack ready by the time I came home from school, like a steaming bowl of Taiwanese-style beef brisket noodle soup. When I wandered into the kitchen, she wasn’t at her usual station in front of the stove, engulfed in steam coming out of a bubbling pot that she was stirring, and telling me that my snack would be ready soon.

I began to search the house to make sure that Mama wasn’t hurting herself. At the entrance to my parents’ room, I held my breath, turned the doorknob, pushed open the door and tip-toed inside. As I entered the room, the stale odor of unwashed hair and desperate sadness overwhelmed me. Mama was gone to the world, snoring away even though it was the middle of the afternoon. Her jet-black hair matted on the cream-colored pillowcase, her usually smooth forehead crinkled with despair. Her skin was oily; her lips pointed downward in a permanent frown. Even in her sleep, she was in agony. On the nightstand, I noticed bottles of pills. Sleeping pills, seductive, secret sleeping pills that promised peace and a pain-free slumber. I picked a bottle up and rattled it. It was almost empty. I gathered every bottle and took them with me. I rushed out of the room and threw them in the bottom drawer of the nightstand in my bedroom where I had stashed all the knives in the house a few days prior.

For the record, my Mama and Baba have worked through their problems, and are now living happily ever after in Taipei, Taiwan. I love them both very dearly. The next post will illustrate the aftermath of this event. 

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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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