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.

 

 

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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 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!

 

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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.”

 

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