Rescuing A Heroine’s Voice Haunted by Tradition

For two years, my mother has been lamenting about the need to make repairs to her mother’s gravesite in Taiwan.  At 77, she is the oldest of the remaining children.  Her one sister and three older brothers have passed.  At last, she is returning to Taiwan in January to celebrate the Chinese New Year, but more so, to fulfill this responsibility that has been so much on her mind and in her heart.

After Christmas dinner, as the two of us sat drinking tea, I was encouraging her to plan her trip.  As she has aged, making logistical plans has become increasingly burdensome for her and so I have taken the role of planner, communicator and soother.  In the midst of our conversation, she mentions that a longtime girlfriend warned her about her decision to repair her mother’s gravesite.  Well-intentioned I’m sure, this friend said “this is not your place to do this.  You are the daughter. If you make a mistake, they will blame you.”  I can feel myself sitting up, as an animal does sensing a predator’s approach, as my mother said this.  With a resigning sigh, my mother said “I should contact your xiao jiu jiu (younger uncle), maybe your biao ge (her nephew) to see what they think.” I retorted, “what they think?  What do you mean what they think?  You are finally the eldest child now.  You can make the call.” And then my heart broke when I heard her say, “but I’m not really a Liao now.”  With rage that came from I did not know where, I stormed away from the table exclaiming, “I can’t even have this conversation with you mom.”  As I went to the kitchen to clean the dishes, I started to bawl.

My mother is the strongest, bravest and one of the most heart-centered persons I know.  She is a woman with a strong sense of right and wrong and, in my estimation, a mighty voice.  This voice, I have learned, emerged as a result of years of claiming her sovereignty, through friction and force, likened to the earth’s platonic plates grating at each other.  The Chinese patriarchal tradition has allowed only certain parts of society to be heard.  As in family, and in country, that has traditionally meant the people at the top of the hierarchical chain, which has also meant men.

I don’t think heroines choose to be one, they become one.  For my Chinese mother, her heroism grew from her wanting to count as someone, in part because it’s who she is, in part because she’s come from a line of strong women who were so constrained by the limits set by their culture.  My mother was born into significant wealth in China and escaped to Taiwan in 1949 as the Communists raided her family compound, which left her family with almost nothing to their name.  Her mother was brought up in the Qing dynasty, and so, she acquiesced all decisions to her eldest son, who became the head of the family. Deemed just a girl by this eldest brother, and hence not deserving of the family’s remaining money, he refused to pay for her to go to college (my mother went to the #1 girl’s high school in Taiwan).  In an attempt to be free from this tyranny, she ran away from home to secretly take the nursing college exam in the hopes she could go to school tuition-free and live away from home. She got in.  Decades later, my mother’s voice of sovereignty emerged again, as she immigrated to the United States with my father, brother and me, seeking a better life for her children. As a nurse, she was a welcomed immigrant given the nursing shortage in the US. But again, she she had to start all over. This time with my father. Lacking everyday language skills and any familiarity with the US culture, they integrated into American life, oftentimes with the welcome salmon receive swimming upstream. When we first arrived, we lived in Washington Heights in NYC and eventually moved to the middle class neighborhood of Riverdale in the Bronx.  During the early years, this same eldest brother, who had arrived in the US before her, continued his tyrannical rule over her.  As a child, I would watch him verbally abuse her, demean her in front of her children.  An otherwise outspoken person, my mother would whither into nothingness, saying nothing back to him.  Even my father, who would defend her when things got too far, would abide by the “eldest brother rules all” tradition.  As the years progressed, my confusion turned to incredulity and eventually to despise, at this aspect of my native culture.

Into her fifties, my mother found a voice that was even more certain and unwavering.  Again, created more by her reaction to the threats on her sovereignty and her honor than anything else.  The times she came home from work, through the decades, enraged over her inability to adequately retort to wrong accusations because she couldn’t get her words together, or incredulity that others would make fun of her English usage when they spoke only one language or accepting the fact that she would never make it to supervisor, regardless of her much lauded surgical nursing skills, because as she believed “they don’t think I’m really American.”  When she finally had launched her two children through college and budding careers, with the horizon ahead to relax with her husband with whom she had built an incredibly bonded family in a new country, her husband dies.  On her own, as reluctant as she was and has been, she’s created a new voice through sheer will to survive and I believe, to be present for her children and grandchildren.

As strong as we are.  As brave as we are.  As much as we create an identity so far removed from that which we were born into, the haunting of a tradition and way of thinking, of many millennia, has an insidious way of enveloping us, pulling us into the undertow of what was — when we were not counted, irrelevant, inconsequential, existing for the sole purpose of serving the needs of others.  And as much as my mother, my heroine, has so courageously carved out her sovereignty, she succumbed to this immense pull, from the mere mention of this traditional thinking from a well-intentioned friend.

As her daughter, I did for my mother what she has done for me throughout my life. I made her know that her life means something and that her voice has to be heard. As the Universe would gift this opportunity, my biao sao (my mother’s nephew’s wife) called the next day to wish us a Merry Christmas.  Serendipitously my mother was not at my home so I had the chance to talk to her.  It just so happens that she and my cousin were returning to Taiwan at the same time as my mother and I took this opportunity to speak about my grandmother’s grave and my mother’s wishes that it be fixed.  My mother returned the next day, telling me she had a good talk with my biao sao, stating that the gravesite would be fixed, clearly relieved that this so very important matter to her, would be handled.

The voices of heroines, as strong as they are, need support.  Most heroines of this earlier generation have been created through such a deep struggle to simply matter, to be seen, to be counted.  The Herculean effort they have made and the lessons they have learned through their struggles can show up, to their children, as insistent, relentless and dominant Chinese mothers.  It’s taken me decades to appreciate that my mother’s insistence that I be somebody was akin to a mother running out of a burning house with baby in arms.  You are safe, you are well, so fly my child.  Keep flying and don’t let anything hold you back.  But these heroines get tired.  In their moments of needing to take a breath, my hope is that we beneficiaries are there for them, to ensure that their sovereignty, honor and amazing voices continued to be heard.  And counted.