Tuesday, January 15, 2008


She didn't always like us.

I'm quite certain this was true. I've been told the story by my mother about how when my sister and I were just a 2 year old and her month-old baby sister, she would talk to us and play with us whilst my mother accidentally eavesdropped from the other room. Talking to us about how she was prepared not to like us, how she was actually disappointed when we were both born, because we were girls. She was brought up in an era that taught her girls were inferior -even herself- and that to be born a girl was the worst gift, and that the best thing you could do make up for your mistake was to bring a son into the world to continue the family name. So she didn't like us. But my mother also overheard her telling us that after all she'd prepared herself to not like us, after the intial disappointment, she also discovered how adorable she found us. How unexpectedly loving she found herself being towards us.

But no matter how she felt, her duty called and she was always there: after school to make our snacks, taking us to the park, buying us a treat of hot chips, looking for me when I got lost; being our chaperone, our keeper. Years of living together, a family of six, was both a blessing and curse. It could be the best times we've had together and hell at the same time. We would brawl as a family, all six of us yelling at each other until it was over. Then hours later, we would all be eating dinner together again. Sulking, but still together. Because that was what families did. They stuck together. And that she did. She kept us together.

Bitterness kept her caged for years. When her body began to be ravaged earlier this year, bitterness was what she clung onto. Why me? she would cry, even before when she was well. Why has my life been so unlucky? Why does everything happen to me? Why me? It was all she had, isolating her from the world, friends, her children, daughter-in-law, granddaughters. At some point, though, she began to let go. She began to see that when it came to the end, as it was increasingly becoming apparent, it no longer mattered that her husband had died after only 2 years of marriage, that she was left with a 1 year old and a 3 month old baby, no real money or job to speak of. She was talented, having been the first in her family - and a girl too! - to go to university. Not that a university degree in economics was any match for the still-sexist society of 1950's. Though she was poor, she had her dignity and pride. That, she kept throughout her life, even right till the end.

I was her companion. I gave her small mercies, unknowingly so important to her, like going to the markets, carrying her groceries, checking her bank accounts, just being there. And in return, she gave me her native tongues, several dialects of Chinese that benefit me to this day; my dry skin and allergies; my cheekbones; my temper; my mind; my penchant for mahjong; my love for Chinese food. She taught me the meaning of scrimping, how it was to live in harder times than we were fortunate enough to be born in. A pity I didn't also get her slim, strong, long legs, her endurance, her resolve, her wisdom. But she taught me how to be a family, how to be polite, how to have the proper manners. She showed me determination, wit, strength of will. She didn't always like me, nor I her, but no matter what, she always loved me. A grandmother's love for her granddaughter never wavers.

In the last months, her body grew weaker, but her spirit prevailed. Though it was inevitable, her departure still caught me unaware. Still does. Like she's just gone on holiday. I guess in a way, she has. Only this time, I have to go looking for her.

In memory of her, our family returned with her ashes to China. And we, of course, ate. Po Piah is a native Fujian delicacy. Aside from inheriting a rough knowledge of the Hokkien dialect, I also inherited a love for these freshly made spring rolls. They are eaten at family gatherings, where the ingredients are spread out on the table and everybody rolls their own in accordance with how they want it - spicier, moister, crunchier. The po piah "skin", or thin wheat flour pancake, is used to contain a delicious filling of cooked vegetables, thinly sliced beancurd, chopped chinese sausage, crumbled sweet peanut candy, shredded omelette, sprinklings of ho ti (a finely shredded version of seaweed with smatterings of sugar and salt), and finally, hoisin sauce to hold the pancake together. I've eaten many versions of this, where the ingredients and contents can vary from country to country. But to me, this will always be the most authentic way of eating it. One day, when it doesn't hurt so much, I will try and make my own in the best way I know how. And I know she will be proud of me for just trying.

Courtesy of here