I thought I had a narrative on silence. My mother thought her mother’s feet were bound. She had confused generations. So had I. I thought I was just going to write about my grandmother. Doctors thought she couldn’t have children. She had twin girls and three boys. My mother thought the story should be “humorous.” And my grandmother explained she had read many books and knew her life was too detailed to make a good story.
Sociology isn’t interested in a good story or in humor. Sociology is all about anxieties – at least according to Professor Sue Fisher. She informed me that though the data I collected was good stuff, she was only interested in the themes of the course: marriage, motherhood, and career. There was no room for trauma, truth, process and self preservation –those were the things that could change my life –luckily I had Truth class and this story for that - but it would make a terrible sociology paper -unless of course, there were tangible statistics. Still, I’m happy I never considered quantifying the process. I had to collect data first. So I went to the source of the data: My 85 year old Popo – T.S. Yang. When I told her I wanted to interview her about her life for my classes, she immediately deflected the details of her life onto someone she trusted: “My English is not good. If you want to know ask Auntie Jean.” I told her I still wanted to speak with her. She asked me to prepare questions.
I had been avoiding the Q&A for weeks. I wasn’t yet ready to take on the burden of a life. Or maybe I was wary of the questions, would they be sufficient to encompass, shoulder, or draw out what my mother had always described as a “hard life”? The responsibility catalyzed a delay and only the obligation to do my assignment forced me into readiness.
Interview # 1: An Awkward Violation
There were pauses, misunderstandings, much I had to rephrase to be understood. She was pressured by our language barrier. Still, she was good about the chronology of her life. Her father had many wives. When she was 12, her mother passed away. I wanted her to elaborate so, I said: “Do you remember her?” Hoping she would share a memory. Instead, she said: “Of course, I remember!” She seemed too exasperated to push. So, we moved on with her life. In 1966, she moved to Libya “because they needed aid.” When questions designed for emotional response were dealt, they were met with an honest and evasive: “I don’t know.” When I timidly asked a direct question: “Popo, how did the war… make you feel?” and several other mutations of the same, she seemed annoyed and horrified: “Oh MY goodness! How can you write such terrible things?” and after other poor attempts on my part, she asked an important question: “How can [you] describe the emotional?”
When we were both sufficiently frustrated –she flustered, and I, at a loss for questions or answers - she explained she was traveling later in the week with Auntie Jean, we could talk at the end of the month when she returned from Spain. Once off the phone, I felt I had been violent. I had violated my grandmother, and yet, after the pillage, I had three pages of notes on 85 years. With language as the obstructive excuse, our connection had not surpassed blood or food. I associated her with dumplings and my first Butterfinger. She had spent the most time with me before my memory or speech began. I knew all of this had to be done in pieces in order to be palatable. I would wait.
Still, even after she returned I was reluctant to pick up the probe again. I was afraid of the palpable disconnection, the awkwardness of what would always be missing.
Grandma vs. Grandma:
The more the lack built, the bricks of language pushed against us, the more I started to miss my Jewish Grandmother. I mused in my head – of the untold, the fantasy of what I could have known or, at least questioned. She unlike Popo, was full of stories, full of pieces tailored for intimacy. Full of secrets and of ego. In these ways, she was T.S. Yang’s inverse.
With Rhoda I would have the burden of sifting. Never quite sure if I could really undress the full-bodied truth. I would be left with a residue of mistrust for myself and for her. Then, the wistfulness that struck me evaporated, as I realized Popo had blessed me with a small volume of unadorned truths. This I might prefer to detangling the trimmings that my Jewish grandma glued to a hero or heroine, villain or villainess. My Chinese grandmother’s life she left unadorned. It is a life she converted into fact for simplicity, a mode of coping with the frustrating complexity of her past. Anything that surpassed chronology, occupation and encompassed emotion was simultaneously simplified and complicated by the response: “I don’t know” The rest was born of “facts” and directness. However uncomfortable she was, her aim was honesty.
Two weeks after the necessary awkwardness, I talked to my cousin Jasmine who lives near her in San Diego.
“I’ve never seen Popo like this.”
“She was so weak, she couldn’t even lie down on the massage table for a massage”
“Oh. I think traveling is bad for her. Every time she comes back from a trip she gets weaker and weaker.”
“Wow.” This was odd. She was accustomed to travel and always moved well…
The massive deterioration Jasmine had described was shocking. I was concerned for her and suddenly, I worried about the health of my project.
Maybe decline would eat away her desire to share. I was fuzzy too, how this all could have happened on a trip. She loved to travel.
A few days later, new details emerged.
On the phone with my mother, I expressed a bewildered concern for Popo’s condition. How could such an extreme change in her occur? She would answer my question honestly if I agreed to play dumb. As long as I would never mention it to Popo or to Uncle Laurence, I could know what really happened. Everyone was afraid to tell Uncle Laurence because the shame of the event would make its way to China. Mom explained, she didn’t want her friends to know and we could not embarrass her.
Independence Lost: Secret Witness to Change
When I first spoke to her, the pride of her current life seemed to be: “I still drive you know, at 85.” Two weeks later this would change irrevocably. What was initially the odd jetlag my cousin described, was in fact, an independence-bruising car accident. My mother warned Grandma to be careful the day before she drove her Mercedes into the local post office. That day, in the hospital, they took away her license. My mother wondered if her warnings were to blame.
Untouched - a Happy Accident?: Sex:
The perks of the at times, oppressive language barrier surprised me. For the doctor, lying would have been illogical and unhelpful to the project. Aware of her sense of responsibility toward my academic result, I could slip taboo into the questions I could never ask in conversation.
I was required to ask my subject about pre-marital sex. I still hadn’t –needed time to accumulate courage for the necessary evil, so I needed the second interview. I told mom: “I’m supposed to ask Popo about pre-marital sex”… “OH NO, YOU CANNOT ASK HER”
“Mom, stop yelling. I HAVE TO.”
“Oh, no, you can’t…”
“Mom. Have you ever talked to her about sex?”
She answered briefly, and defiantly: “No.”
“Well, I have to ask.”
I warmed up by asking about marriage…Why had she never divorced grandpa when they split up? “Marriage has status. Old fashion cannot divorce, new fashion…of course divorce.” Then, I cushion us by explaining the necessity of the next question:
“In my class, the teacher asked us to ask the people we interview about pre-marital sex. Do you…uh…believe in pre-marital sex?”
“Um….Um…Um” I expected the pauses - that she would be uncomfortable. Some time later she said: “Uh…24… after marriage.” I had not expected her to misunderstand the question. I did not ever imagine knowing when grandma first had sex. The fact that this was an assignment made it difficult for my grandmother to not answer even the most personal, though misinterpreted, question. “Oh, that was not what I was asking. I was wondering about pre-marital sex.” There was a pause we were both taking in the consequences of this misunderstanding. Then she answered: “I do not believe. Chinese more conservative”
I called my mother immediately after my sex talk with Grandma to share the surprise nugget: “Mom. I just accidentally found out when Popo first had sex!” I thought she would laugh –but she did not see it as a happy accident, instead her voice tensed and she stated firmly: “I don’t want to know.” Whatever unwelcome knowledge seeped through and resisted - sank to the status of shameful secret.
Her need for denial - consciously and unconsciously - began censoring and shaping an acceptable public knowledge of her mother. In a light-hearted voice, she commanded: “Make the story humorous and poignant.” It was the same lightness of tone that seemed inappropriately “lala” when I asked her to ask her mother how she felt about the Japanese today, my mom’s voice floated a translated, mockingly dramatic response: “Tremendous hatred!”
I scolded: “Ma! This is serious.”
Coping or secrecy aside, my mother has always been bluntly honest. This has been cherished by some who see this as authenticity –those who desire a straightforward opinion, and horrific to others – “If you lose 5 pounds, you could be very pretty.” I had always thought that if it were not for the barrier of written language, my mother would be the best of writers. My mother has a talent for metaphor. Still her chronic and selective forgetfulness might leave her an unreliable narrator. She cannot tell me about her first period, though when I asked her to help me describe a cloud she said: “You wanna know what cloud is? Clouds are the fart of the earth.” Often, I love the way she frames the world.
When my mother arrived at Wesleyan, before calling her mother, she came with pictures she and my uncle had chosen. She’d arranged them but was very concerned about presentation. How did I want to present them? She is always prepared; she brought up poster board, glue, and scissors.
We sat together as the authorized stories became literally a bullet point list. One of these stories, was a survival tactic during the war. Though she was the doctor, my grandmother pretended to be the nurse while her “more charming” husband played doctor. They treated people in exchange for food. She beams as she told me these adventure stories. Mom chose to see their sufferings as a heroic comedy.
She had also framed words to go with the pictures. She accidentally spelled her mother’s name “Young.” After I pointed out the mistake she laughed and said: “Well, just pretend!” My mother had decided for herself the truths that mattered and the truths that didn’t. The opinions she had canonized into truth appeared again and again. Many times, she has boxed her own experiences into universals: “Men are so selfish, they all want women to cater to them.”
Her readily shared opinions and cautionary tales serve a purpose. She says she tells me them because she wished she her mother had told her more. She always uses the past tense. She uses this tense because as she has said verbatim over and over: “If my mother had told me more about men, I could have saved my marriage.” This is the reason that shortly after my first kiss, when I was a nervous lamb - my mother warned – “Be sure to use a condom!” These words haunted me at a time when I was barely ready for the kiss! She admitted she was compensating for what I had come to believe was my grandmother’s inability to share. But with my mother’s “I don’t want to know” life policy, I began to doubt that she had ever asked. She acted as if she had already lost what she could gain from communication with her mother. She had already lost a central aspect of her identity: her marriage.
Interview #3: The Language of Emotion
The language and intimacy void was filled somewhat when my Popo was able to speak in Chinese to someone she trusted. My mother’s tongue curved into a bridge to my grandmother’s emotion. I had only known the “humorous” and “poignant” story of my grandfather’s charm. He was a playboy; he was naïve, romantic and adorable. From our very first interview, Popo, after 45 years of separation, had no trouble stating the greatest conflict in her life: “your grandfather.” It was not until the third conversation which my mother mediated in chinese that I realized the details and depth of this conflict. My grandmother’s discomforting trauma could only be expressed in words she was comfortable with. Suddenly, Libya was not just a career option as she had indicated before, but a necessity to stop a philandering husband from fleeing to Hawaii – leaving her to support four children. With emotion, her history surpassed chronology, fact and all the flat interest in cultural anxiety. Here, finally, we tapped into the personal.
Shame on Me?: Secret Lessons
After hanging up the phone, my mother was still thinking. She muttered almost below her breath a secret: “She even sold her house to pay off the other woman. It didn’t work.”
“I don’t know…” She was beginning to brush the story away as it surfaced. “It was something like that...” She trailed off - regretting the spill. She then turned stern: “I don’t care if you get A, B, C or D. You cannot tell this story.” The story is nothing that hasn’t happened before countless times. A woman’s effort to stop her husband’s infidelity. I have decided despite warnings to tell you what’s important. My reasons have surpassed what were selfish reasons, into good reasons.
When I first heard the secret, I knew I wanted to tell it. At first, I wanted to defy my mother’s secretive ways. At first it was easy rebellion. I came to class armed with my grandmother’s history in a highlighted handout. When Professor Vera Schwarcz challenged the high-pitched eagerness with which I had highlighted and bolded the events that few knew, I came to see that I had stripped the protected past of its sacred nature. So when it came time to write, I bowed and deliberated. I decided I would only share the details of my grandmother’s pain if it had a purpose. I came to see it had many.
I wanted to strip this shamed history not of its essence, but of its lens of shame. To sell one’s house takes courage, to do all one can to save one’s marriage is brave. The shame my mother applied to this story is the failure in surrender. The failure of a woman to keep her husband. This is what in my grandmother’s reticence, was passed to her daughter. A legacy in the form of the perpetual vulnerability of “independent” women caught in the perpetual harm of the charming kind of man.
After contemplating the secret spill, mom sighed, quickly and quietly demanded:
“This kind of Asian sacrifice… has to stop.”
How could it stop if it was never shared? My mother’s reluctant inheritance was culturally perpetuated too. She feared I was next. She forgets how she saved her marriage (after divorce). She forgets that her failed marriage became a successful and loving friendship. There is no shame in that. As for me, I’d like to think that this is the “sacrifice” I inherited – a love that defies “others”, passion or contract. Perhaps, this is what I choose to see. Maybe for me, my mode of coping –lens for the truth - is optimism. I need to open shame and secrets into light. I like to see the dead as alive.
On mother’s day that year, we went as a family to visit Grandma Horn. She was in a lovely mausoleum with marble plaques indicating who rested where. As I saw her name, I began to cry. My father wept too. We rose to touch the marble. Hold it… and I even heard my father alone whispering to this marble - to her. Before we left, my father, mother and I kissed the cold marble –ridiculous thing to do thinking back, but it was the closest thing we all had to connection. Even before my lips moved forward, I was aware of the fact that it was nothing like her warm cheek. She prided herself on her soft skin. She told me if I used Dove soap, I could have skin as soft as hers. I use it now and well, my skin will never be as soft…but she’d be proud. I reached to Popo now for the first time, because it was the first time I was aware that if I chose, she should and could reach back.
P.S. Sorry Ma, for not making this humorous –we can laugh about it later.