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

The Mysterious Zi Wei Dou Shu, the Purple Star Calculations

In early 2015, Mama was so excited about my engagement to Derek, she told everybody about it. Her friends congratulated her, of course.  She was beaming. Most of our family members were also happy for me, except for Aunt Lily. According to Mama, she was hesitant about my engagement.

Mama wanted Aunt Lily’s approval since she’s a reader of Zi Wei Dou Shu (紫微斗数), also known as the Purple Star Calculations, one of the Chinese astrological forecasting methods known to be accurate.

“Why can’t you be happy for Kayo?” Mama demanded.

Finally, Aunt Lily spilled the beans. She told Mama that according to my chart, my first marriage was supposed to fail.

Mama considered my first marriage to be a shameful family secret and didn’t tell anybody about it. She was a little rattled that Aunt Lily knew of it. At the same time, Mama was impressed with her ability.

“It’s okay,” Mama told Aunt Lily, “She’s already been married once. This is her second marriage.”

Relieved, Aunt Lily congratulated Mama. “Kayo will be very happy in her second marriage. She’s found her perfect match.”

Mama and me on my wedding day, October 31, 2015.

When Mama told me this story, I was a bit skeptical, but unlike when I was younger, I was also a little curious. For as long as I could remember, Mama always saw Chinese fortune tellers. I always considered it to be some silly superstition—the whole thing seemed so nonsensical to me.

When I was young, I used to crash my car on a pretty regular basis. Do you know the stereotype of an Asian woman driver? She drives with both hands on the wheel in a death grip, make a left turn from the right lane and never checks her mirrors because she never moves her head from the “straight ahead” position–that was me.  I was a hazard on the road.

Every time I crashed my car—anything from a minor fender bender to a huge accident where half of my car was totaled, Mama shook her head. “I shouldn’t have let you drive, the fortune teller did tell me that this is going to happen.”

After high-school, I wanted to take a year off before university. I might have even said I wanted to go to a community college first. She wouldn’t have any of it. According to the fortune teller, I was supposed to be “well-educated.” I scoffed. I went to university as I was told and almost flunked out my first year. I tried to defy what the fortune said.

18 years later, I am working on my third master’s degree.

There were other things Mama told me, but I don’t remember what they were. For the most part, when she started to tell me something about my future, I shook my head and told her I didn’t want to hear about it. At that time, I believed that fortune telling is a bit of a sham, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As an adult living in Asia, my feelings towards fortune telling has shifted. I thought it was wild that Aunt Lily could see that I would be married twice, though she didn’t know that my first marriage had already happened. I still wouldn’t call myself a believer, but I am intrigued. I did some research to get the gist of what Zi Wei Dou Shu is all about.

This is an example of a Zi Wei Dou Shu chart. I used Kurt Cobain’s birthday as an example (and guessed the time of his birth).

Zi Wei Dou Shu is a complex system involving using “stars” to tell a chart, which represents someone’s life or destiny. The chart is organized by the 12 “palaces” arranged and plotted in an anti-clockwise rotation.

  1. Self Palace (命宮)
  2. Siblings Palace (兄弟宮)
  3. Spouse Palace (夫妻宮)
  4. Children Palace (子女宮)
  5. Wealth Palace (財帛宮)
  6. Health Palace (疾厄宮)
  7. Travel Palace (遷移宮)
  8. Friends Palace, or Subordinate Palace (交友宮)
  9. Career Palace (官祿宮)
  10. Property Palace (田宅宮)
  11. Mental Palace, or Karma Palace, Ancestor Palace (福德宮)
  12. Parents Palace (父母宮)

There are 100+ stars in the system, and they are graded according to brightness. The brighter the star, the more influence it has in a palace. Some stars include Ziewei (The Emperor, the Purple Star), Tianji (The Advisor, Heavenly Machine or Heavenly Secret), and Wuqu (The Finance Minister or the Military Bureaucrat, Martial Tune).

Like the Chinese Gods,  Zi Wei Dou Shu is part of the Taiwanese culture and I find it fascinating. It’s not an infallible guide to what will happen, but it’s more of a forecast that provides a direction. While I used to scoff when Mama told me things on my chart, now I can’t help asking Mama, “What does my chart say about Derek and me having kids?”

I am sure Mama had Aunt Lily look at my chart. However, her answer is ambiguous. I guess it will the revealed itself to me when it does!

 

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

Do You Speak Chinese?

There are many different Chinese languages with up to 200 dialects, and most of them are mutually intelligible. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

With Beijing’s growing influence, its dialect, Mandarin, also known as Putonghua (the common language), has become the most dominant Chinese language. But this wasn’t always the case, not according to the speakers of other Chinese languages.

In the late 80’s, my family moved from Japan to Taiwan. This was just a few years after the Taiwanese government finally lifted the martial law. I was six years old.

Let’s quickly revisit Taiwanese history and its languages: Historically, at least up to the 1940s, most people in Taiwan spoke Hokkien, which is a version of a southern Chinese language from Fujian province, where many Taiwanese people came from during the 1700’s. During the Japanese occupation, some Japanese words and expressions were integrated into the Taiwanese Hokkien language. I remember clearly my grandparents speaking this Japanese-fied version of Hokkien.

When the Kuomintang (KMT) took control of Taiwan, they made Mandarin the official language and forced everyone to learn it.

I spoke neither Hokkien or Mandarin.

This is me as a Kindergartener in Japan.

Regardless, my parents threw me into a local school.

During class one day, I needed to use the toilet. Unable to communicate with the teacher verbally, I stood up and made my way towards the washroom. I only made it halfway down the hall when my teacher caught up with me, led me back to the classroom and sat me back down in my little wooden chair at my desk. A few moments later, I got up again and made another attempt. The teacher got me again and scolded me as she led me back to my seat.

I didn’t know exactly what she said, but I understood that she was displeased with me. I didn’t dare to get up again. Instead, I sat in my chair and concentrated on holding it in.

Eventually, a warm stream trickled down my legs and created a large, dark stain on my pleated navy blue skirt and a yellow pool around the legs of my little wooden chair. I burst into tears—I was powerless without speaking the language.

This sad little story is a segway to discuss the power of language, and specifically, the Chinese language. Spoken Chinese is organized into five main groups, Mandarin, Yue, Min, Wu, and Hakka. These languages are mutually intelligible.  Within those groups, there are hundreds of dialects, limited to small geographical areas.

Mandarin is only one of the hundreds of spoken Chinese languages. The Beijing dialect is the most common, spoken by approximately two-thirds of the Chinese population. At 55 million speakers, Cantonese, which is part of the Yue family, is the second most common Chinese language.  Hokkien, a language that is common in Taiwan and other countries where Fujan ancestry is common, is part of the Min language family.

How did Mandarin become “Putonghua,” the common language of China?

When Sun Yat-Sen overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Beijing became the capital of the new China. After some debating, the leadership decided that Mandarin is the official language of the new republic (This is strange because Dr. Sun and many of the leaders of the new republic are from Guangdong Province, and their mother tongue would have been Cantonese).

In Taiwan, Mandarin is known as “Guóyǔ”, literally translates to “the national language.”

During the occupation, the Japanese didn’t force the Taiwanese people to learn the language of their colonizers.** However, when the KMT arrived, they did. Baba told me a story of how his classmates were punished for speaking Hokkien at school. They had to wear a humiliating sign that said, “I spoke Hokkien” for the whole day for speaking the “uncivilized” tongue.

Here in Hong Kong, 97% of the population speaks Cantonese. If Beijing had their way, they would eliminate Cantonese completely. However, that would create an outcry that Beijing is not prepared to deal with. Instead, they slowly influence the educational curriculum in Hong Kong, to teach the next generation their version of the history.

The truth is, Mandarin is already common in Hong Kong. When my parents passed through Hong Kong in the early 90s, they said people didn’t speak Mandarin and yelled when spoken to in Mandarin. Thirty years later, the majority of people still speak Cantonese, but I can now get by speaking Mandarin if English fails.

Hmm. I wonder what the common language will in Hong Kong in another thirty years.

**As it turns out, The Japanese implemented an imperialist movement during their occupation. It was an assimilation initiative that forced Taiwanese people to adopt Japanese names and learn to speak Japanese.

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com

China’s New Silk Road

The effects of the Belt and Road Initiative on my family. Illustrated by Ahmara Smith.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a development strategy proposed by the Chinese government to promote economic co-operation between People’s Republic of China (PRC) and countries in Central Asia, West Asia, the Middle East, and Europe—essentially, countries situated on the original silk road. When Xi Jinping proposed the initiative in 2013, he envisioned the integration of the region into a cohesive economic area through investing in local infrastructure, enhancing cultural exchange, and broadening trade.

Does all of this sound too abstract for you? Let me put it in a context that you can relate to.

In 2016, my husband Derek and I went to Sri Lanka for a vacation with my parents and younger brother, Davis. While planning the trip, I asked Mama for her and Baba’s passport details so I could apply for their tourist visas. She sent me scans of their Taiwanese passports.

I called her up. “Why are you using your Taiwanese passports?”

“Oh, our Canadian passports have expired,” She said nonchalantly.

“Whaaaaaaa!” I yelled, “How did you allow that to happen?”

“Calm down. The Taiwanese passports are handy now. We can go to the U.S. without a visa, and we even went to the Czech Republic for your cousin Yoshi’s wedding…”

Since there was no time to renew their passports before our trip, I stopped fussing and used their Taiwanese passports to apply for their visas.

My parents had a rude awakening when we landed in Colombo in November of 2016. Derek used his American passport and Davis and I used our Canadian passports—we entered the country without a hitch. We stood around talking while waiting for our parents, who were right behind us. Ten minutes went by, they still hadn’t joined us. They weren’t even in the queue to see a customs agent.

We waited for another 15 minutes or so. Finally, Davis and I decided to look for them while Derek fetched our luggage. I spoke to an airport staff who told us to trace our steps back to the immigration area and see if we can find our parents there. (I find this bizarre—most countries would never allow this to happen.)

Through the window of an office in the immigration area, we saw our parents.  Facing away from us, Baba was filling out a form while Mama looked on. Twenty minutes later, they came out looking visibly impatient and annoyed.

“We had to apply for a visa,” Baba said, “we had to fill out a long form and pay.”

I am not sure why the visa I applied for them wasn’t good enough. However, this minor ordeal was completely forgotten once we left the airport.  We toured around Sri Lanka, a country steeped in history, culture, and beauty. We visited the mountains, the historical sites, a baby elephant orphanage and the beach. For the last day of our trip, we returned to Colombo for a city tour.

We visited with baby elephants in Sri Lanka!

During the tour, we saw many construction projects for new skyscrapers. We also noticed simplified Chinese characters on the hoardings and around the construction sites— these projects belong to Chinese corporations.

And this, my friends, is why my parents had such an ordeal at the customs. Sri Lanka didn’t officially join the Belt and Road Initiative until December 2017, but Chinese investments obviously affected their visa requirements. To appease China, they had unofficially kowtowed to the One China Policy—this is why their visa process was so fuzzy and confusing when we were there. By now, it’s pretty clear that Taiwanese citizens need a visa prior to landing in Sri Lanka.

The Belt and Road Initiative is China’s new Silk Road. It more than an economic initiative; it is changing diplomatic relationships and more. It has already affected my family.

In some ways, the Belt and Road Initiative can be seen as Chinese colonialism. Stay tuned.

Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com

Is Taiwan Part of China?

A crash course on modern Taiwanese history. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

In my last post, I pondered whether Taiwanese people are ethnically Chinese. The answer to that is complicated and requires a crash course on Taiwanese history.

Taiwan is an island off the east coast of mainland China. Historically, it was part of the Middle Kingdom territory up until the Qing dynasty. My ancestors and many other people immigrated to Taiwan in the 1700’s, mostly from the provinces of Fujian and Guangdong.  Most likely, they intermarried with the aboriginal peoples of Taiwan, who are a part of the Austronesian ethnic family, which are related to the peoples of the Philippines, Malaysia, and other South East Asian countries.

In 1895, the Middle Kingdom lost the First Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese Empire demanded control of Taiwan as a part of the peace negotiation. As a result, the Japanese occupied Taiwan for the next 50 years, under the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

The Japanese made huge impacts on the Taiwanese psyche during their occupation. They modernized Taiwan by developing its infrastructure,  building roads, government buildings, hospitals, and schools. Furthermore, their language and culture also permeated Taiwanese culture–many Japanese words were absorbed into Hokkien, which was one of the main languages of Taiwan.

Meanwhile, in China, Sun Yat-Sen overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and established the Republic of China (ROC). His political party, Kuomintang (KMT) became the official ruler of the new Republic.

The world turned up-side-down for many nations in East Asia in 1945. The Japanese Empire fell when they lost World War II. They lost all their colonies and returned the control of Taiwan to the Republic of China. At the time, Chiang Kai-Shek was in charge of the KMT in mainland China. He set up a provisional government in Taipei, in order to gain control of the island and its populace.

The KMT eventually set up the official government of the ROC in 1949, when they were defeated by the People’s Communist Party (CPC), led by Mao Zedong. The Taiwanese suffered greatly during the transitional period between the end of Japanese occupation in 1945 and when the KMT officially took control of the island.

The transition between Japanese colonialism and KMT rule was bloody. The KMT government enforced martial law in 1947 after Taiwanese people rebelled against inflation. This is the start of what is known as the White Terror– the KMT government arrested, imprisoned and executed dissents who opposed them.

Many Taiwanese people who opposed the KMT government were arrested. This image is from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film A City of Sadness, in which Tony Leung’s character was imprisoned due to his friends’ political activities. .

The martial law was finally lifted in 1987. A couple of years later, my parents moved back to Taiwan from Japan. I was six, and my brother Davis was four.

My family history is intertwined with Taiwan’s.  My ancestors moved from Fujian Province in the 1700’s. Also, we are a product of Japanese colonialism: Both sets of my grandparents spoke Japanese fluently; my parents and many of their siblings were educated in Japan; I was born in Japan.

Taiwan’s history is complicated and this is why there are so many debates about whether Taiwan is part of the PRC. Depending on who you ask, you will get a different answer.

To answer my own question, I suppose I am mostly ethnically Chinese (my ancestors may have intermarried with the aboriginal people of Taiwan), but I am Taiwanese through and through.

However, the more interesting question is whether or not the Chinese ethnicity is one ethnicity. That’s one more complicated question for another time.

Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

 

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com

Why now? Why me?

On March 20th, Xi Jinping made a speech at the closing of the 2018 National People’s Congress. It was a nationalistic speech in which “he warned against challenges to China over Taiwan, Hong Kong or other regions where Beijing’s claims to sovereignty are contested”.

Xi Jinping

“All maneuvers and tricks to split the motherland are sure to fail,” Mr. Xi said. “Not one inch of the territory of the great motherland can be carved off from China.”

Some might say this is nothing new. China has always been sensitive about Taiwan and considers it one of its wayward provinces. Taiwan’s reunification with its “motherland” is integral to the “One China” policy. However, many people in Taiwan, my family included, have been in Taiwan for many generations and consider ourselves Taiwanese. This is a problem for China.

The dear leader claims that we are all Chinese.  Well sure, there are overlaps between Taiwanese and Chinese cultures; my ancestors came from a town near Xiamen, Fujian province in the 1700’s. Having said that, Taiwan had since been colonized by Japan and it’s populace absorbed some aspects of its language and customs into their culture. Also, our resentment towards “the motherland”, also make us uniquely Taiwanese. My point is, many people in Taiwan don’t consider themselves Chinese.  But… do we consider ourselves ethnically Chinese? That’s the tricky part. I don’t know what to think about that.

Mr. Xi’s speech spurred some anxiety with me, not only because I am Taiwanese, but also because I live in Hong Kong. In the same speech, Mr. Xi  “vowed to strengthen the national identity and patriotism of the people of Hong Kong and Macau.”

Map of South China, including Taiwan, Xiamen, and Hong Kong. Courtesy of http://www.johomaps.com/as/china/chinasouth.html

Hong Kong had been a British colony until 1997. Upon its return to China, Beijing guaranteed that the city, as a special administrative region, will have a high degree of autonomy, and China’s socialist systems will not be implemented until 2047. However, incidents such as the disappearances of Hong Kong booksellers, and the imprisonment Joshua Wong, a young activist who was one of the leaders of the umbrella revolution in 2014, are indications that civil liberties are going away fast in Hong Kong.

So yeah. Mr. Xi’s speech posed a double whammy for me. He made me uncomfortable about who I and where I am.

 

Follow and Like kayochangblack.com