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.

 

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com

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. 

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com

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. 

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com

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.

 

 

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com

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.”

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com

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.

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com

Roman, My Teacher, My Mentor, My Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Roman, I graduated with honors in 2005.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine, come back in about an hour.”

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

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

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

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

 

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com

A Story of an Immigrant Kid: Growing Up Without Parents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back when pagers were cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I avoided him at all cost.

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

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

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

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

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

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com