Conversation with my dad

My father is a man of few words. Because we live in different cities now, our interactions have been reduced to short, simple sentences flung back and forth through cyberspace.

“ How are you?”

“ Still kicking”

“ Anything new?”

“ Same old, same old.”

I remember getting early morning car rides with my father to the inner city train station. He was heading to work, and I to the university. The rides were blanketed in that familiar silence. Some days I would try to spice things up with a question.

“ When did Grandpa first come to Canada?”

“ I don’t remember.”

“ What was it like when you came to Canada?

“ It wasn’t easy.”

Over the years, I’ve managed to draw out more of my family’s story from my father. But his silence has worked its strength as a barrier against unpleasant memories and painful losses. Downstream, life continued with adult children leaving home, grandchildren, and retirement. Why open the dam when there’s still plenty of fishing on a calm, tranquil lake?

When I was younger I had interpreted my father’s lack of words as rejection. He rarely said anything harsh, but neither did he say anything encouraging. Surprisingly, I never acted out to gain his attention. I had two older brothers to watch over me. However, brothers are a poor substitute for a father. So too, as I later discovered, are boyfriends.

But my father, with all his limitations as a fallible human being, also carries kindness. When my pet budgie suddenly died, my young heart broke. Unable to bear the sobbing of his eight-year-old daughter, he immediately purchased another budgie without saying a single word. His kindness also looked like working long shifts to feed the family, fixing up an old tricycle for my first bike, and teaching me how to use power tools.

I may have longed for a different father. A father that looked more like an 80s sitcom dad: white, funny, and physically affectionate. Instead I was given a sullen, Chinese man who never knew how to fully express himself and who never seemed fully content except when holding a fishing rod in one hand and a freshly-caught trout in the other.  I may have used the Heavenly Father as an alternative for my earthly father…. but I am too much like my Baba to deny the resemblance.

When I had decided to go into ministry I told myself I didn’t need my father’s blessing. I braced for his anger. While I didn’t get the verbal acceptance I secretly wanted, he helped load my possessions into his van and a rented trailer. He and my mother drove it for several days to set up their daughter in a new city, a city where she would eventually stay to work for the Church that he has distrusted all his life.

I can now say I never needed another father. He was there and he never left. Though I may still desire his approval for the work that I do, I no longer fear losing his love. I fear losing against time. In the years that I’ve been away from home, my father goes fishing a little less and moves a little slower. I think of that time in the near future when there will be no more fish to catch and no water to float on. Will that dam finally crumble? Or will we sit in silence with all the things we wish we could say?

This was a contribution to Asian American Women on Leadership, a gathering of Asian American Women for leadership renewal and development.

Embracing our Grandmothers

Poh PohI did not know my maternal grandmother well. Come to think of it, I did not know any of my grandparents well. Both my grandfathers died when I was young, and language barriers kept me from conversing with my paternal grandmother, even though she was present throughout most of my life.

My mother’s mother, Poh Poh as I would call her, came into my life in the early 90s. She followed the path set by my two uncles as they both brought their families to Canada from Hong Kong. Until that point, I had no relationship with Poh Poh, and not much of one there after.

Again, language barriers did not help. I with my broken Cantonese could barely string together a sentence and she could hardly speak a word of English. But language was not the sole barrier. She treated my brothers and I like someone else’s family. We did not belong to her because we did not come from her sons. We came from her eldest daughter.

I knew and accepted that implicit rejection. I did not mind because I never needed her approval. She was Poh Poh; an eccentric old woman who loved Mah Jong, who at times drove people crazy, but was kind in heart and strong in will.

It was not until her recent death that I began to consider the spiritual and emotional impact of my grandmother. On the surface it would seem that there would not be much of one. She came from rural China. Patriarchy, ancestral worship, superstition were all parts and parcels of being Chinese. These were elements that influenced my upbringing but were eventually erased from my identity as I embraced a western Christ. I was so different from her, so foreign. There was no relatedness other than through blood.

But as I watched my mother struggle with her mother’s approval and acceptance, I realized that I have been carrying the same burden. We long for our mother’s embrace; we long to identify with the one who has shaped our meaning of what it means to be a woman. We long to stand in line with our foremothers who have endured tremendous hardship, suffered deep losses, and triumphed in creating beauty in midst of tragedy.

So I began to listen for my grandmother’s story and try to patch together what I knew of her and what I could understand. I used to feel disdain for her apparent ignorance and blatant favoritism towards male family members. But she was a product of her environment and so am I. Despite the differences, I began to appreciate her story and now I marvel at the distance between hers and mine. I have become so much because of the opportunities I have had here in North America. But if it were not for my grandmother, my mother would not be who she is. And if it were not for my mother, I would not be who I am.

A friend who is pregnant with her second child (a girl), shared with me that the baby is now just past the point where she has developed all the eggs she will ever have. Therefore, my friend is also carrying her possible future grandchildren. This thought floored me. It meant that at one point in my pre-history, I was in my grandmother’s womb.

Though biologically life seems to pass down through generations, spiritually the pattern is reversed. I was the first to become a follower of Christ, my mother second, and at last my grandmother who made a confession of faith on her deathbed. This is God’s redemptive power mysteriously at work and which continues to surprise me with hope. Hope that one day I will see my grandmother’s face again. Hope that I will see her and I will know her, and she will know me.  Those feelings of foreignness and distance will finally be erased by the common bond of God’s love and friendship. And without any need for more words, we will be embraced.

 

This was a contribution to Asian American Women on Leadership, a gathering of Asian American Women for leadership renewal and development.