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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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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