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.