Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: family
Friday, 25 April 2014 00:00

Road to Her Mother

Lan takes the train every month, from Shanghai to the provincial capital where her mother lives, in a nursing home. The high speed train dongche gets to her destination in a few hours, unlike the "fast train" kuaiche that took more than twice as much time. It is sparkling clean and orderly, compared to before when people used to play cards noisily and eat sunflower seeds spitting out the shells in order to kill time. All around her, travelers are listening to their earphones, playing with their cellphones, or reading their magazines. She has slight motion sickness, which prevents her from reading, but has enough on her mind to keep busy. Last time when she called, the nurse told her that mother had been upset because she could not find her mother.

- Your mom - my grandma, died a long time ago, remember? Lan explained patiently over the phone.

- Is that so? Mom answered meekly and sadly.

Lan felt sorry for her. Mom was not always this soft. She had a sharp mind and a sharp tongue. Lan used to be afraid of her. Dad tried to keep peace.

- Your mom's tongue can be as sharp as a knife, but her heart is as soft as tofu.

That is a well-known Chinese expression, almost a cliché. Mother's heart did not need to be quite as soft as tofu, but they would all have been better off if her tongue weren't as sharp as a knife. Mother's condition did not become noticeable to Lan and her big brother until after their father's death three years ago. Poor dad had always acted like a buffer between mom and the children. The doctor diagnosed early onset of Alzheimer's disease, which has progressed rather quickly due to her diabetes.

At first, Lan's brother, who lived in the same city, took her in. But mom became increasingly difficult: she refused to take her medications, accused sister-in-law of stealing her money, and ran away several times. Humiliated, sister-in-law refused to be alone with her, and caregivers they hired would quit after a few days. Although Mom had always found something to complain about during each of her previous visits, Lan proposed to get her to live in Shanghai with her. She had bought a better apartment with a spacious guestroom. She would find a capable caregiver. Mom was thrilled to go back to Shanghai, her hometown. Her happiness lasted less than 12 hours. In the middle of the night, she started to scream and demanded to go home.

- Ma, this is your home, your own daughter's home.

- No, it is a hospital! I want to go home!

After a sleepless night, Mom was energetic and wanted to go see her older sister. Relieved, Lan left her there and went to work. Before lunch break, her cousin called. Mom and auntie had a huge fight and would not talk to each other anymore. They were both crying.

- What for?

- About how their big brother died, and whose fault it was.

Mom's big brother died during the 1937 Japanese bombing of Shanghai. Lan never knew exactly how. When grandma died, Lan saw him on an old picture in a keepsake box. It was a black and white family photo that had turned partly yellow. He looked about ten years old, and wore a dark suit like grandpa. No one was smiling. People did not use to smile on photos. Mother wore a little qipao dress and clang to grandma. Lan had a hard time picturing grandma running away from bombing with three children.

Lan picked up her mother from her auntie's home. Mom insisted on finding the home at Hongkou where grandma used to live. The entire neighborhood was demolished.

- This is not Shanghai! You are deceiving me!

Mom yelled loudly. People walked by, some stared at them frankly as if they were nobody, while others casted them their annoyed side glance. Lan hailed a taxi and took mom to the Old City God Temple and the Yu Garden, in order to prove that they were, in fact, in Shanghai. They had some raw-fried buns with ground meat filling (shengjian bao), and mom was in a spirited mood again.

Three days later, Lan was on the brink of exhaustion and the neighbors were complaining. Brother came to get mom. He had found an upscale nursing home for her.

At the beginning, mom cried and fought with the nurses, and then she gradually calmed down. Lan was not sure if it was due to her medications, or because her deteriorating condition made her humble. Last month, Lan was too busy to make her visit. When mom complained about having not seen her for a long time, Lan just muddled through:

- I was there last week, don't you remember?

- Oh, really?

Lan felt guilty, but somehow she enjoys talking with mom more, now that she is no longer afraid of her. She even plays with her over the phone, as if she were a little girl.

- Who am I?

- You are my daughter.

- What is my name?

- Oh, of course I know your name. Stop testing me.

Sometimes mom would try to show off her memory, or what is left of it.

- I know you have two husbands. Don't worry. I will not tell anybody else.

She laughed mischievously. Lan smiled sheepishly. There is no point reminding her mother that she does not have two husbands at the same time. But mother seems to be obsessed with Lan's husbands. Despite her promise, she keeps telling Lan's brother:

- Poor Lan. She has to cook for two husbands after work.

It feels wonderful that your mother is on your side, complicit, no matter how badly you mess up. It did not use to be that way.

Lan was in fact raised by her grandma, her mother's mother, who lived in Shanghai. Lan's mother followed her dad when he was assigned to work in the provincial capital. When Lan was about five, her parents decided to let her live with grandma, who was then widowed. Since they both "voluntarily" gave up their Shanghai resident cards (hukou) to support an "interior city", a (temporary) policy allowed them to leave one child in Shanghai, provided there was a relative as a guardian. Of course they did not tell her that right away. Instead, grandma came for a visit, and took Lan with her when she went back.

- You want to visit Shanghai with grandma? Asked dad.

Of course she did. Lan always liked grandma. She was the best-looking old lady she had ever seen, always impeccably dressed and put together. Best of all, she never yelled at Lan, unlike her mother. Lan went to the train station with grandma and dad.

- Are you going to miss us? Asked dad.

- No.

She brought her best "friend", a doll with a blue dress and big dark eyes that she always went to sleep with. She did not start to miss her parents and brother until weeks later, when she was told that she was to live in Shanghai for good. She cried for a while, but with a lot of "big white rabbit" candies, a five-year-old got over things. It proved to be a brilliant decision: Lan got a more and more coveted Shanghai hukou, and her older brother, who graduated from high school in 1976, did not have to go to the countryside, as the only child living with his parents. It was meant to be: Lan bore a closer resemblance to grandma than to either of her parents.

When Lan was in college, majoring in English, she watched Sophie's Choice. She cried and cried, and in the most unfair way, identified herself with the daughter that Sophie had to sacrifice for the sake of her son. She knew she was being ridiculous and a little hypocritical, because she would not have wanted to give up all the privileges that come with a Shanghai hukou, She never asked why her parents sent her away instead of her big brother though. It was obvious: a son is a son.

Lan's parents came to Shanghai every year for their Chinese New Year break, until grandma passed away when Lan was in college. After that Lan took the train every year to visit them during her winter break. The rest of the time, dad wrote letters. Only once, right after Lan's divorce, Mom added a few lines at the end of the letter:

"Do not come back for the New Year. Now is not the right time. Divorce is such a shame for us; none of our ancestors has ever done it. Now that you are no longer young, almost thirty, you need to find a suitable husband quickly, before it is too late. You need to be realistic. Older man is better, but no more than ten years older. Divorced man is ok as well, but with no children.
Mother"

That Winter Break, Lan spent her endless free time listening to an Elvis Presley Christmas CD offered by an American visitor. Her favorite song was "I will be home for Christmas". The more Elvis repeated himself, the more she had a hunch that he would not be home on Christmas, not even in his dream, because you do not get to order your dream. There should be some sad songs for Chinese New Year as well. How could a billion people all feel happy on the same day?

Lan did not go visit her parents until three years later, husband in tow and a baby girl in her arms. Her brother had a son, so her parents were ecstatic with a granddaughter. She apparently did better than her mother's commands: her husband was four years older. She never told her that he had a son from a previous marriage, who lived in Singapore with his ex-wife. Life finally smiled to Lan who, strangely enough, started to have a recurring nightmare.

She was with a panic crowd running away from some invading soldiers with guns, holding her baby girl in her arm. When they arrived at one side of the village, another group of soldiers were running towards them. The crowd screamed and ran in all directions...
Sometimes her husband would wake her up. She would be panting heavily and soaked in sweat. The nightmare kept returning, as her baby grew heavier.

-Next time you have your nightmare, make sure I am in it. At least I can carry our baby for you, her husband teased her.

Lan also felt it strange that her husband was never in the dream and stopped telling him about it. Luckily, the nightmare stopped when her baby was about five, quite difficult to be carried.

The train stops at the final destination. Lan steps into the station, the same one where she left for Shanghai when she was five, but completely renovated. Train station. Mom now thinks all the time that she is in a train station and insists on going everywhere with some clothes wrapped in a big scarf. Mirrors had to be removed from her room because she got upset whenever she saw "an old woman" there.

Lan arrives at the "Red Sunset Nursing Home" in late afternoon. People are doing Taiji with an instructor, and a few are taking a stroll. Her mother is standing alone under a banyan tree, a cloth wrap clutched in her hand. She gazes into the distance and does not see Lan until she walks near her.

- Mommy!

Lan is startled. Her mom throws her arms around Lan, tears running down her wrinkled cheeks.

- Mommy! What took you so long? I have been waiting and waiting...

 

Drawing by Bendu


Friday, 22 June 2012 15:24

Exploring the rise of Taiwanese Mormons

Two young missionaries overlooking Taipei. Original photo by Benjamin Lee.

Living in Taiwan, it is a common sight to see a pair of clean-cut foreigners dressed in suits riding around in bicycles and approaching people in the street. They are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and their numbers are ever-rising in Taiwan, according to their official records at least.


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