Friday, October 17, 2008

Introduction-Whys, Hows and whatfors

If it isn't obvious already, this is a blog for, about, and in memory of my grandmother. In chinese the term for grandmother is "Popo", and hence the title of this post and how i refer to her throughout the blog. I have always been a bit ambivalent about blogs in the past. But, my grandmother has been such a large part of who i am, and how i view life and family that i thought i should share a bit about her.

Many of you who will read this have been very kind to me over the past few weeks, and i want to express my sincere thanks for your kind words, kind actions, and kind thoughts.

Most of the details about my grandmother are colored by memory, and the simple fact that she just didn't like to talk about the past. In fact, i don't think i was ever able to get her to talk much about her family, or life in China, or even her life in Hong Kong. Most of the details i gathered from conversations with my dad, and my uncles and aunt.

I'll only have a couple of posts, but feel free to make comments, ask questions or add whatever you wish. I have opened this blog to some of my cousins who also have memories or thoughts about popo they may want to share.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Funny Grandma Tricks.

The most common descriptions of my grandmother over the years have all focused on her as a survivor, of her toughness. And rightfully so, her strength and determination have at times been the difference between starvation and survival for the family. The posts below are a sort of short biography, and i think her strength and toughness comes out pretty clearly when one describes her life. She is a woman who has survived two wars (one invasion and one civil war) losing her mother and father and several siblings to the fighting and political environment, fled to a strange city with no money and 4 kids to raise, losing her beloved husband to cancer, and finally traveling across an ocean far away from everything familiar to be with her children. She took pride in her toughness and her resiliency, and she earned that pride, but my favorite memories has little to do with her strength or toughness.

For whatever reason, i have always felt close to my grandmother, a closeness that ignored language barriers, generational distinctions and cultural gaps. I think it had much to do with the fact that my grandmother loved to laugh, and i, in turn, liked to make others laugh. i could not rely on wit as we didn't speak the same language, so as a kid, i almost always relied on physical, slapstick humor, and popo not only was a kind audience, but she in turn could give her fair share of laughs. She had a wonderful, deep laugh, and we were quite a pair at times, each of us gesturing, smiling and laughing.

So here are some of my fondest memories of my grandmother.

As a kid, on long car rides (which occurred frequently since i was shuttled between my parents) my grandmother and i would sit in the backseat. She would hold my hand, and let me play with her hands; they were very strong and very warm.

My grandmother came to the United States in 1969 or 70, and she tried to learn english with every birth of her grandchildren. (first in 70, 72, 73, 74x2, 76, 79). Each time she resolved that she would learn english at the same time and rate as her grandchildren, but as smart as she was, she never could learn more than five phrases. "Please", "Thank you", "Yes", "No", "How much?". Her inability to learn english however, was not much of a barrier for her.

As useful these phrases were, they did not always work. Once when i was driving my grandmother from PA to NJ, a highway patrolman caught me speeding. While the cop was writing a speeding ticket, my grandmother showered the cop with "Thank you"s,
"pleases" and smiles. The cop happily wrote me a ticket, with my grandmother thanking him and waving good bye.

Once, my grandmother saw a kid (around 11 or so i think) outside of the house trying to learn to skateboard. Despite not knowing anything about skateboards, she took it upon herself to teach the kid how to skate. She was over 70 at the time, and apparently fell down on her second or third try. She decided that she didn't want to go to the doctor for the pain, and instead took some chinese medicine. Impatient with how the medicine didn't seem to work right away, she ignored the directions and took several doses at once. Unfortunately, the chinese herbal medicine had arsenic in it, and she ended up having to be taking to the hospital anyway.

Whenever i brought casey over, my grandmother would try and sneak her food, and i am not talking about scraps, but rather entire dumplings-huge portions of meat. Needless to say, Casey and her bonded and my dog would follow her no matter where she went.

Popo was the first person in the family to find out that i use to smoked. (i used to smoke 2packs a day in college). One morning i woke up to my grandmother handing me a large bag of candy. She looked me in the eye and made it clear that i was to give up smoking and replace it with candy. I was never quite sure why or how she made the connection that candy would fulfill my nicotine needs. While I didn't quit right afterwards, i never forgot how important it was for her for me to quit.

At my cousin's wedding in the summer of 2006, popo joined me on the dance floor. It wasn't just slow dancing either, popo and i rocked out on the dance floor. I don't think i could forget that, ever.

She loved coca-cola. She liked playing poker, even though she didn't understand the rules. She loved trying to sneak me money.

Some of popo's wisdom over the years...

On why i should get married, "Who would you talk to if you weren't married?"

When she found out i stopped eating red meat, she would always chase me around with a large jacket and make sure i kept warm since no meat meant no heat.

She approved of Korean women for marriage.

She told me i should never marry a woman smarter than me. She thought it would lead to too much fighting.

And of course, she told me i needed to always listen to my boss at work.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Our Funny Po Po

As linus described, Po Po was always known for being tough. She was one tough, strong woman. One of her big catchphrases (I'll try to spell it out to be phonetically close to how it sounds in her native dialect spoken in mid-China, jiang-bek wa), was: _ng ping ha tze!_, which basically more or less translated to, _I'll ..., well, to be honest, I'm not really sure there actually is a real translation. I guess you could say it roughly translates to: _Don't make me open up a can of whoopass!_. She said that a lot. All the time, even into her later years.

Like linus, I too remember holding and rubbing her hands and feeling their warmth, strength, and smoothness as a little kid.
Taking care of one's skin was pretty important to her. Skin and beauty were both very important to her, but if she thought someone was good-looking, she'd never say so, she'd instead say, _ta pea tze wan koo ye_, roughly translated: Her skin is pretty decent.

At home, growing up she did most of the cooking. It was during the most difficult years when the family was in Hong Kong (as you'll read below) that she was forced to learn how to cook for her family. She was, by no means, a gourmet - she did everything humbly, her rules were to be frugal and conserve everything you can. But, growing up as a kid, I loved every meal of her utilitarian cooking. It wasn't a gourmet meal, but it didn't have to be - she cooked with love. And I remember that more than once, in fact quite a few times, I'd be at the dinner table finishing up my food, exclaiming how good everything was, and that we should open a restaurant, and po po can be the chef! She always laughed at that.

Po Po never learned to drive, and if you've ever been in a car with my parents, you'll know that almost half the time it ends up with my dad driving, and losing his way somewhere, and trying to backtrack while my mother is having a conniption. If po po was a passenger in the backseat when this happened, she'd recognize this as the signal that we were lost, but she'd never understand what the big deal was about being lost in an automobile. Can't you just roll around endlessly until you find something you recognize? _Cha ha che!_ (again, in her native dialect), very roughly translated, _just wander around a bit, I'm sure we'll find the way_. You figure this might have been her way to be lighthearted about getting lost, but even before we got into the car, if she wanted to be driven to her friend's house, for instance, and none of us knew the way, and asked her how to get there, her response would just be: _Cha ha che!_

Thanksgiving: She would always make this sticky rice stuffing for the turkey, that was just unreal. It was phenomenal. I was always drooling a week before Thanksgiving.

The first time that Sam (my wife) and Po Po spent a fair amount of time together, Sam immediately noticed two things:

  • Po Po had an unbelievably strong grip, that while it was quite endearing, the way she clutched onto Sam's arm while walking, if it was at the wrong angle, she could probably rip Sam's arm right off.
  • Po Po only spoke jiang-bek wa, and Sam speaks Cantonese, and Taisanese (southern Chinese dialects), so they couldn't communicate very well, but Sam seemed to be able to get a good 40% of what she was saying, but with Po po's smiles and gestures, it was probably closer to understanding 80% of what she was trying to say.

The smiles and gestures always worked out well for Po Po.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The One Lumberjack

My grandmother's name was Lau Yat-Chiu and she was born on December 14, 1914 in the year of the Tiger. (Her married name tacked on "Chan" to the front of the name). Literally translated, her name means "One Lumberjack" By western standards i am sure most people would think it odd that a girl would be named "lumberjack", but in those times the tradition was to give your children modest, and even insulting names as a way to give them good luck.

What is interesting however, is the "one" part of her name. My grandmother's name was not given to her at birth, but was given to her by her adoptive mother. My grandmother was born the youngest daughter of a family with 6-7 children, but became the only child of a couple by the time she hit grade school. Popo's mother's sister was childless, and so, Popo's mother gave her youngest child to her childless sister. Her name reflected her new status as the only child, "one", and according to her new parents she was one-of-a-kind. From what i could gather, she saw her birth mother and siblings on a regular basis, and i like to think that instead of losing her birth parents, she gained another set of parents- all to herself.

Her adoptive parents were a bit older, and as common with elderly parents of an only child, popo was spoiled. She was the apple of her father's eye (the owner of a local farmers' tool store in the city) and apparently she could do no wrong. Her feet were originally bound, but after some pleas to her father, he loosed them and she got to keep her feet. And in a remarkable move for the time, she wanted more than just the normal rudimentary education given to chinese girls, and insisted on being able to go to a "Teacher's College." Her father found her a tutor, and she studied to go to a Teacher's College and eventually became a school teacher.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My Grandparents- Yin and Yang.

My grandmother's tutor turned out to be her future husband. By all accounts, as tough-minded and pragmatic my grandmother was, my grandfather was the yin to her yang so to speak. He was quiet, scholarly, and apparently a little ditzy. (Ask me about my dad and hornets some time).

My grandparents married, and in another remarkable move, my grandmother continued with her teaching with my grandfather's support. It wasn't until my grandmother had her first miscarriage that she left teaching.

My grandfather had joined the Kuomingtang and eventually became a military officer, a colonel in charge of supplies. This meant that the family had to leave their native village near Nanjing and move down to Xian. By this point, the family had grown to Daniel (born in 1936), Julia (born in 1938), and Samuel (born in 1941). My grandmother had to leave Samuel behind with her family for the time being as she thought traveling with such a young child would not be good for him. The picture posted in the first post above was of my grandmother, my uncle daniel and my aunt Julia. I think this was of them traveling to Xian.

While living in Xi'an, my grandmother gave birth again, this time to the youngest, Moses, otherwise known as BoBo. (little treasure). The picture here shows the entire family some time later.

The family stabilized in Xi'an for some time, even as the entire country was engulfed in both a Japanese invasion, and Civil war between the communists and KMT. (Nationalist government). My grandfather's family suffered terribly and eventually his twin brother was killed by the communists. My grandmother did retrieve Samuel, and the after the fall of the KMT in 1949, she took her children and fled to Hong Kong. My grandfather was not able to join them as he felt it would be a desertion of his post, and had to stay in Xi'an.

When my grandmother left Xi'an and China, the country of her birth, her youth, and her adult life at the time, she did not know that she would not return for more than 30 years. She also didn't know that she would never get to have any communication with her family for decades due to the delicate political problems at the time.

I have often wondered what that was like for my grandmother. She loved her children and the family so much, and I simply can't fathom what it would be like to not know or hear anything about your mother, your father, your brothers or sisters for decades. She never spoke of her sibling or her parents to me, and she rarely spoke of them to her children too. By the time my grandmother died, she was the last surviving member of her generation.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Life in the "Fragrant City"

My grandmother arrived in Hong Kong with three children in tow and no husband to help her. My father was an infant at the time (3 or 4) and only my uncle daniel was over the age of 11.

The choice to go to Hong Kong was an odd one. Most of the KMT went to Taiwan, and for good reason. Hong Kong was a large British port and the language spoken was not the normal "Mandarin" but rather was cantonese. (in all fairness, my grandmother's mandarin is only marginally better than her cantonese). Most of the KMT structure was back in Taiwan, and in fact had hijacked the government there. The choice to move to Hong Kong where the family would be treated as refugees, and foreigners was an odd one, but one that probably shaped the family and the eventual move to the United States.

My grandmother lived with her children on the top floor of a farmer's house in the outskirts of Hong Kong without any communication or knowledge of the whereabouts of her husband and without a keen grasp of either cantonese or a means to get food on the table and a roof over the family's head.

It was during this period that she began to earn her reputation as a survivor and the "tough" one. In China, shewas the wife of an army officer, which meant not only status, but also special quirks such as servants, a cook, and what not. (I think most of this was prior to the move to Xi'an, but i am not sure). However, by the time the family was in Hong Kong, they were living in buildings made of straw, with straw ovens.

The family, at my grandmother's direction, did everything necessary for survival. The family raised chickens and ducks (poorly), created tourist items, and my uncles and aunt were earning money from an early ages. The beaded belts and other tourist items were a staple for the family and the subject of competition from my uncles. Food was scarce, my father remembers going as a small child with my grandmother to the open air markets to pick through the produce and food left the stalls had closed.

My grandfather was able to rejoin the family after nearly a year, and he rejoined the family with a harrowing tale of how a junior officer gave his life for him to help him leave China. My grandfather changed his name to mock the communist party.

Despite my grandfather's return, he did not do much to contribute to the family finances. He was more of a scholar and eventually after a religious conversion, entered seminary. During his studies, once again it was my grandmother who was expected to keep the family together. My uncles and aunt worked, but my grandmother made sure they all continued to go to school and get educations.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Land of Milk and Diplomas

The pull of America had little to do with money (i think) and much more to do with degrees and education. My uncle Daniel was the first to make his way to America, receiving a scholarship to study at Heidelburg College. Uncle Samuel moved away from Hong Kong to get his college education in Japan (a pretty dramatic decision given the Japanese invasion was less than two decades old) and went to Rutgers for his graduate studies in Biochemistry. My father, Moses, got a scholarship to go to Bridgewater College in 1967 (he chose the school partially because the name sounds nice in Chinese). And my Aunt Julia came to the United States in either 1968 or 1969.

My popo and yehyeh (grandfather) was living in Hong Kong away from their own families, and all their children were in a strange and foreign land. When my uncle Daniel got married, my grandparents were unable to afford to fly to the United States, and so instead had a Wedding Banquet in Hong Kong in their honor.

The parents and children communicated on a weekly basis using "aerograms". I have wondered what it must have been like for my grandparents. Apparently all the children were encouraged to pursue their studies, and back in that time, there was no better place in all the world to get an education than in the United States. But, how strange! how utterly exotic and foreign it must have been, to send your children across the oceans. They both had been forced out of their hometowns and native country, forced to live away from and even communicate with their siblings and parents. Yet, here they were encouraging all of their children to make their way to a land that couldn't have been stranger.

Did they think that my uncles and aunt would return to Hong Kong at some point? Did they dream about their own trips to the United States? This was the Age of Aquarius in American cultural history, and i can't help but wonder what my grandmother thought of hippies, free love, and drug use.