My grandmother, who died in my junior year in an American college, had immigrated to Malaysia as a child bride of 13. Promised to a second-generation Chinese in an itty-bitty backwater town called Sungkai where he was a truck-driver and his father before him. As she told it, she hadn't even begun to menstruate. There, in sleepy Sungkai, with its main thoroughfare of one single row of shops, spread-out rural huts and makeshift wooden houses, she began to learn her duties as a wife, and once she began to menstruate, a mother. Every year, she was pregnant. She bore (counting all my aunts and uncles and my mother), four girls and five sons. There was one eldest boy who didn't survive past the age of one, a twin boy that died at birth, and a young girl who died at the age of four. There were also multiple miscarriages. All in all, she was pregnant at least twelve to fifteen times. For that alone, she amazed me.
Any twelve year old who crossed the Pacific Ocean in a boat with a load of passengers (mainly coolies) bound for a foreign land she'd never visited, by herself, had to be, ipso facto, spunky. My popo certainly was. She liked to tell this story from growing up in her village in Kwantung, China, memorialized here in an excerpt from a story I wrote for Madness This, a college journal, right around the time of her death.
"She was only five, still in China, and one day she was walking along the river path. She felt the need to pee, but she didn't want to dirty her new flower cloth shoes. So she took them off and put them on the side of the road before going behind a bush. When she came out, her shoes were gone. But there was a lady walking rapidly down the path away from her and she had a basket. Popo had run after the woman and accosted her, "Lady, did you take my new shoes? You must have taken my red shoes, because you are the only one who passed by. Why did you take something that belongs to a little girl? Why would you do that?" Her words so shamed the lady that her shoes were retrieved from the basket and handed back to her."
During the Japanese Occupation of Malaysia in World War II, difficult times meant not only starvation, but also the constant possibility of rape and abuse of civilian women by Japanese soldiers. My Popo told this story, among others: one that I heard when I was barely seven and struck me forcibly in vivid detail and imagination. The rule was: if you crossed a police station, then manned by Japanese soldiers, you had to bow. Whether or not anyone was standing outside the station to see it. If you were on a conveyance, you had to get off your conveyance and bow. My grandmother was seven months pregnant. One day, she'd cycled past the police station in Bidor (they'd moved to this neighboring town from Sungkai by then), and she'd forgotten to bow. She sailed right past, or so she thought when several soldiers came running out of the station. They grabbed hold of the read end of the bicycle. They shouted and yelled in Japanese. They made her get off the bicycle. Then they made her kneel in front of them before they each proceeded to slap her. They also made her bow.
She was diagnosed with throat cancer in her early fifties. By that time, she had several sons working and making a living in Minnesota. She was taken to the Mayo Clinic. The cancer was eradicated and never came back. But the chemotherapy and intense radiation treatments she underwent meant that her body, never nutritionally on its best footing anyhow and after at least a dozen pregnancies, never fully recovered. The cancer shortened her life, and the radiation gave her back ten years. She died in her early sixties.
I felt very removed from her death. I was actually interning at a law firm down in Alexandria, Virginia, when I heard the news. And this was about a month after it'd happened. I didn't even hear it from my parents. I heard it from my fifth uncle's wife. I tried to remember the last time I saw her. It had to be the trip I took -- my very first trip to the United States -- to start college. I'd accompanied her and a cousin-uncle. The long plane journey (in 1987, one could not fly direct to Minnesota, one had to clear Immigration in San Francisco and get one's bags and transfer them to the domestic flights) really did her in. I remembered giving her a bath that night. I remembered her quivering flesh, how hard I tried not to look at her privates, how badly I felt for her embarrassment at being washed down by her granddaughter. When I came out from giving her a bath and dressing her, all my aunts -- her daughters -- praised me for being such a good granddaughter. Great things lie ahead of me, they said. I showed such promise. Such filial piety would surely be rewarded. And I remembered thinking: it was my duty. I only felt that it was my duty.
All these years later, the facts remain: her incredible durability and suffering during the early years as a child-bride, surviving multiple infant deaths, the Japanese Occupation, cancer. I may not have an abiding innate sense of her personality, what she really was like, but her life wasn't trivial.