In Memory of My Mother

FullSizeRenderHong Kong has a special place in my heart. It is a city my family likes to visit again and again. My husband goes there often on business trips. My son loves to jump on and off the beautifully built, one-of-a-kind Star Ferry shuffling people from Hong Kong’s one island to another. To me, Hong Kong is like a giant collage juxtaposed between eastern and western cultures. It is a soft landing pad enabling me to travel back and forth without feeling lost in either world. There is also a deeper level of connection for me with Hong Kong. Each year we travel there on route to see my parents. They live one hour away — about 10 years ago my parents joined China’s elderly “snow birds” splitting their time between the north and south. Once we arrive in Hong Kong, I can feel their presence and the excitement of my coming home rises up.

On December 7th, I rushed back to Hong Kong once again. But this time I could no longer feel the city’s exuberance. It was gray, dreary and damp instead. I could feel its hollow emptiness, frozen in time. Previous day I lost my mother, a pillar in my life, a woman who has a profound impact on me, molding me into who I am today. I was consumed with sadness, but mostly besieged with guilt. How come I was thousands of miles away from her? What could I have done differently to be with her before her passing? Did she suffer during the final moments of her life? Could she feel the pain? Was she thinking about me, my dad and my sister? Where would she go after this life? Was there indeed a place called heaven where she could continue to live and watch over us? These were some of the million thoughts rushing through my mind upon hearing the sad news.

As I tried to regain composure, I started to think about what losing my mother means to me. No one loves you like your mother. She knows you better than anybody else. We Chinese have this metaphor: we think growing up is like a mother’s unleashing you from under her protective wings. Bit by bit. Eventually she let go of her leash, setting you free. You are on your own. But the older you get and perhaps farther away you are from her, the stronger the grip you have onto her—the leash is invisible but you know it is there for you when you need it. You feel the ultimate closeness drawn to her. When she passes on, there is a certain sense of being adrift, unmoored without the foundational support she has provided your entire life. While I feel this huge void in my heart right now, I also feel my mother’s presence with me when I breathe in and breathe out.

I thought my mother was the most remarkable woman ever.

She was born in pre-communist China to a prominent family, on December 8th, 1930. The middle of three siblings, she had an older sister and a younger brother. Her father was a banker and her mother a housewife. He was a good provider, hardworking, progressive, and a man of vision and integrity. Unlike many Chinese parents during that era who gave all the attention and privilege to boys, my grandfather insisted that my mother receive good education. So she did. She went all the way to college, enrolled in a top university until Mao Zedong came into power in 1949. Mao’s promise of a new China had brought out unprecedented exuberance and enthusiasm among China’s idealistic youth. My mother was one of them. Barely 19 years of age, unfazed by giving up her comfortable life at home, she left her ”silver spoon” behind and joined Mao’s revolution. Unbeknown to herself at the time, her life had later turned into a rollercoaster ride.

For those of you who have read Ms. Nien Zheng’s marvelous autobiography Life and Death in Shanghai, you may have already gotten a glimpse of China’s modern history: exciting and hopeful at times but sad and heart-breaking at others–from a war-torn nation, to a communist regime under the iron fist of Mao, to the great famine and the unimaginable Cultural Revolution. Mao’s era was nothing short of misery and brutality. Any remnants of wealth were an indication of opposition to his power which would be crushed by all means. Any individuals whose opinions dared to deviate slightly from his were deemed “counter-revolutionaries” and would meet their fate by persecution. Millions died through starvation, forced labor and execution under Mao’s regime. If you think Stalin’s Soviet Union was bad enough, Mao’s China was the evil twin.

For my grandfather, Mao’s China also meant no private assets were allowed. His bank was confiscated and properties taken away. He was put in jail. His crime? Stealing money from his own bank! All attempts to make him confess to the charges of embezzlement failed; all efforts to indoctrinate him were met by a steadfast and fearless refusal to accept the terms offered by his interrogators. But in the end, perhaps in the hope of sparing him and his loved ones from further mental torture and humiliation, he committed suicide in jail. The irony was all this happened while my mother was away fighting for Mao’s revolution. Decades later, when my grandparents’ properties were symbolically returned to their family, my mother chose not to claim her share of the inheritance, leaving it all to my aunt.

During all these years I had known her, my mother had not mentioned a thing about her life before me. Each time I attempted to find some answers from her, she would simply say, “Not worth telling it again.” Years later after I had settled in America, I was able to gather bits and pieces of her story from my aunt—my uncle’s wife. I started to realize that the memories must have been too painful for my mother to revisit. This time at my parents’ home, while digging through my mother’s treasure boxes, I discovered a photo. It was taken about 8-9 years ago. She and my uncle were visiting my grandparents’ graveyard in their hometown, Chengdu, Sichuan Province. On the picture, my mother was kneeling down, holding a stack of burnt incense in front of my grandparents’ tomb–burning incense is an old Chinese tradition to pay respect to our ancestors. The anguish and sorrow were written all over her face. She was crying, and crying uncontrollably. I was deeply touched. My mother, the woman I had known for being reserved, observant, and yet capable, disciplined and confident, had rarely shown her vulnerable side in front of other people, not even her loved ones. Here she finally gave herself in, pouring all her emotions out. Looking at the photo, I couldn’t imagine how much guilt and agony she had buried in her heart for all these years! I was in immense awe of my mother.

After the Korean War, my mother joined a West Point equivalent army institute, teaching mathematics to male officers while finishing up her bachelor’s degree in Statistics. There she met my father. Their life and love stories would later unfold like a Hollywood tearjerker. Under Mao’s iron fist, China had been through unimaginable human catastrophes one after another, and the “Brand New China” Mao had propagated before 1949 had turned into a giant human tragedy brewing pot–millions died through persecution, starvation and forced labor. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution had become symbols of human suffering and ultimately, the epitome of human resilience.

During that time period, my mother’s privileged family background deemed her an “enemy of the state.” My father’s gutsy courage to speak up his mind about China’s cruel reality “earned” him forced labor in Siberia, farming in the Northeast, and studying Mao’s doctrines in re-education camps. For the next decade or so, my mother followed my father from one Gulag to another, sometimes together and other times on heels, enduring mental and physical hardships I couldn’t even start to imagine. As a result, my sister and I were brought up mostly by my paternal grandmother during our formative years.

When the Cultural Revolution ended, my parents were finally able to settle back home with us. My mother dived right into her line of work, trailblazing her way into a world of math and numbers dominated by men. She quickly became one of the most sought after statisticians at her workplace, often traveling to places to attend conferences, give talks and work on number-related projects. But because of her family background, she had been kept outside the door of “Chinese Communist Party” throughout her career. Like many people of her time, my mother’s youthful exuberance about Mao’s new China was ultimately squelched by Mao himself, perhaps the biggest tragedy of her generation.

For anyone whose life experience had a slight similarity to my mother’s, s/he may have already succumbed to the physical and mental torture, but for my mother, the suffering and anguish didn’t dampen her spirit; rather, they strengthened her character. No complaints. No regrets. No second guesses. She continued to charge on with her life like a real soldier. To me she had transcended everything I knew about human resilience.

In this time of loss and reflection, I have had so many memories about my mother come washing over me. One favorite story involved how she used clothes to subtly express her feminine side. In Mao’s China, women were not allowed to celebrate their feminine side in any shape or form. No skirts. No high heels. No make-ups. Not even waves of long hair. Women were all dressed like men: blouses and pants in color black, blue, gray, white or army green. Any deviation from that was deemed counter-revolutionary. Growing up I was always so impressed at how my mother put together each and every day. Yes, she followed the Party’s dress code, but her blouses were wrinkle free and pants crease sharp. Often she amped up her fashion by showing a hint of bright color through the collar of the shirts she wore underneath her dark-colored blouses. Refreshing and endearing. This little gesture had set her far apart from the crowd, and she had kept her fashion sense and sensibility till the last day of her life.

My mother left many gifts to me, but perhaps the most significant gift she passed on to me is her teaching of “believe in yourself” and “get up where you fall.” I call it the Girl Power. Growing up as the younger of two girls in the pre-one-child-policy China, I was keenly aware of the many brothers and sisters my neighborhood friends typically had; some even went so far as to have 4-5 sisters until a baby brother descended to the family. Suffice to say, I was part jealous and part grateful. When I grew older, I realized just how much boys were preferred in my culture and how important for a family to have one. I was curious to find out why my parents didn’t continue to produce a male heir. Were they ever regretted? I often wondered. One day I raised this question to my mother. She looked at me amused and burst out: “How silly! Boys are trouble makers!” That was that. But the story my father once told me had me love my mother all the more. After finding out another girl had joined the Zhao family, my paternal grandmother lobbied many times in vain for a grandson, but every time my mother would tell her: “Why do we need a boy when we already have two beautiful girls?”

My mother truly believed in the Girl Power. She was not a person of many words, but every time she spoke, her words were authentic and carried tremendous weight. She often said to me: “So long as you set your mind on things you like, you will succeed.” Growing up I had never heard her label such and such “are for boys only,” or such and such “are not good for girls.” Rather, she encouraged me to play with boys, even if that meant to be rough and tumble. When I was 6 or 7 years old, I spent 6 months with her in her re-education camp—my happiest childhood memory. All day long I ran around with the local kids, chasing dogs, catching flies, playing hide and seek in the corn mazes. In the evening I would come back to our small cottage with cuts and bruises all over my body, sometimes in tears. My mother would check on them, wash off the dirt, pat on the injured spot and say something like “You are fine. Go have some fun tomorrow.” Perhaps because of her support on my back, I never felt subpar to boys, and always happy to take on challenges, mental or physical. Years later, these characters had served me well when I was thousands of miles away from home, on my own feet, reaching for the star. After her passing, while organizing her treasures, I found an army medal of honor she had received decades ago. Along with it was a certificate issued by China’s most respected and all-time military leader: General Zhu De. Her achievement? “Dedication to her teaching.” She was only 22 at the time. I was in immense awe of her.

My mother was the biggest fan to my sister and me. She had been there for us every step of the way even when I had my share of the terrible teenage rebellion. I loved that she encouraged me to follow my heart’s desire, but I also liked that she was not shy of giving me her input to my opinions. In my culture, science and engineering were considered superior to social science and liberal arts. They were core skills that would likely to grow with age, people say. They were also safe haven from political persecution as far as you stayed away from critical and independent thinking. A famous Chinese saying goes like this: “Mastering of math, physics and chemistry will take you to the top of the world!” Not surprisingly, all China’s leaders have engineering background. But I loved storytelling, and I was a thinker. So when I decided to apply for colleges, I wanted to study social science, like journalism. My mother cheered on my decision, but at the same time pointed out the pros and cons as a journalist, namely, lack of independent journalism in China. And she was right—journalism in China was merely a lip reading of the official Party line. So in the end I didn’t apply for journalism schools, but was admitted into a top university in Beijing known for its training ground for China’s future diplomats. The best decision for me!

When someone you love dies, it makes you wonder what happens in death. We Chinese believe in after life. We send our loved ones to heaven and their souls stay with us. For the first few months after their passing, we visit their graveyards every few weeks, burning incense to pay respect to them, bringing food to them, talking to them, checking on their life on the other side. These moments are sacred through which we are forever connected, and they are part of us who live on. I have brought my mother’s spirit with me back home and it will stay with me forever.

Upon my return from China, I soaked myself in a Yoga class. It was taught by a friend of mine, that younger, fun-loving quintessential Yogi girl. Her class is typically upbeat, reflective. This time, at start of the class, she read a short essay to us, a touching, beautiful essay, bringing many tears to my eyes. I am sharing it here:

Life is so ephemeral. Here one day and gone the next. You never know when your life is going to change in an instant. Cherish each blessing in your life. Life is so delicate and tender. Take nothing for granted because you may wake up one day to find everything is changed forever. No matter how much you want it back, you’ll never turn back the clock to a time gone by. Take the time now to appreciate the gifts that you have in life. Your body, your breath, your family, your friends. All the love that surrounds you, all the love you heart. It’s all that matters.”

I can feel you inside me, Mom, your love and support! I know you would love to see us continue to embark on what life bestows on us.

I love you Mom!

On Being 50

I became bold lately: by posting online photos of a few fun and seemingly challenging Yoga poses I did at home the other day, I made it known to my Facebook friends that I turned 50 this year. Yes, that number in all caps–FIFTY. On May 13th, I celebrated this half century milestone quietly with my family— no drama, no hype, just like many other birthdays I had celebrated in the past. But why such a big deal now? Well, lately I have given some serious thoughts about what turning 50 means to me, and often I find myself dancing around the two radically different cultures about youth, age and mortality.

Last June, my family took a trip to the beautiful Croatia. Swimming in the crystal clear Adriatic Sea, strolling along the gorgeous Dalmatian coast, indulging on hearty Mediterranean food…I enjoyed every minute of the incredible experience. Unprompted, my then 10-year-old son took a picture of me and my husband standing on a rock against the magnificent Dalmatian coastline. Both clad in swimming suits—me a one-piece cover-all and him a simple swimming trunk, we looked happy and healthy. Excited, I posted the photo on my Facebook wall. A friend of mine–a younger, fun-loving and quintessential Yogi girl, teased me about not wearing a bikini. Ever so conscious and embarrassed, I immediately took down that photo. “Come on, you are 50, and you are not the centerfold of “Sports Illustrated”!” I kept hearing that roaring voice in my head—that inner Chinese voice which was so strong and condemning as if I had done something seriously inappropriate. On top of that, an amplified version of the voice only an introvert could hear ten times louder.

Here are the points I want to make. You see, in my “old” culture, the one in which I was born and deeply-rooted, a woman does not have to feel pained or embarrassed to reveal her age. As a matter of fact, she gains certain privilege and respect with each year advancing to the next. Wisdom and experience count, we say. “The bridges we have crossed are more than the roads you have paved” is something we would often hear from older women, be our mothers or grandmothers. While commanding respect is admirable for an older woman, the idea of being older has also added a certain expectation in a twisted way. No longer a risk taker, an older woman is expected to be less daring but more complacent. The vitality, the energy, the passion, the curiosity…all things associated with youth and being young are lost in the years. Light has dimmed, curtain has closed–life has become less dynamic but more static. “I am old” has become a trademark excuse for many of us who take a comfortable back seat, watching exciting and exuberant life unfolding right in front of our eyes. If we are lucky and get upgraded into grandmotherhood, we are expected to immerse ourselves happily in the joy of taking care of our grandchildren, as if an older woman’s life can only be extended through her children and her children’s children. I often feel ambivalent and perhaps a bit heavyhearted about my role when I get to that “not so inspiring” age. Sigh…

Now enter my “other” culture, the one which I adopted 25 years ago and have since adapted to, more or less. This is a culture that embraces and celebrates youth wholeheartedly. Being young means being fabulous, beautiful, sexy, full of life, and most importantly, being desirable. The consumer market targets the young ones–have we not noticed that Victoria Secret’s models are all 18 or 20 year olds? The media focus on the glamorous but plastically reconstructed ones—have we not noticed that many familiar faces in Hollywood and on television all have frozen smiles, puffy lips and stretchy eye lids? The pop culture tailgates closely the ins and outs of the Kardashian clan—have we not noticed that these women are the epitome of narcissism but lack of substance? Alas, the list can go on and on and on.

Talking about another kind of expectation…A few days ago I made an appointment for my annual mammogram. Upon taking down my name and age over the phone, the receptionist asked me a question that almost floored me: “Do you have any breast implants that I should be aware of?” Not sure if I wanted to laugh, cry or do both, I replied with a bitchy sense of humor: “So if I tell you that my breasts are 100% of my own, does it make me an unwanted 50-year-old outlier?” I could hear the uncomfortable silence on the other end of the line, and then she said, “Well, I have to ask you this just because…” I have no hard statistics on how many women these days choose to have breast implants for cosmetic reasons, but I can easily believe the numbers are increasing.

It reminds me of a Facebook profile I’ve stumbled upon recently while researching for my blogs. A woman turned 50. She opted to have a facelift and posted photos of its entire procedure online—from having her face cut open, to her chin pulled tight, and to her skin stitched back together… Never comfortable seeing blood, I quickly skimmed through the pictures, but paid close attention to the many comments other women wrote on her post. “Inspirational”, “brave”, “courageous”, “role model,” “trailblazer,” “paving the way” are just a few examples of the overwhelmingly positive feedbacks she received. I am not here to judge as she may have many reasons behind her decision. But honestly I still can’t quite process why a woman goes so far as to self-inflict permanent scars and then hide them behind the ears and under the chins, just in exchange for a less-wrinkled forehead or more stretched-out cheeks?! It is lost on me. Besides, what’s so bad about having a few extra lines on our faces? It is called life and living.

But here is the thing. We live in a society where women are expected to look and behave younger than we are. Judging and self-judging has become part and parcel of our life. If an older age is the sole culprit of a man’s wandering eyes, or can hurt the potential love life prospect or squelch the hope of getting promoted at work, then who wants to show the sign of aging? Perhaps we will not be surprised at why a woman would carefully guard her age and forever celebrate the 29th birthday? Perhaps we will understand why a woman would resort to extreme measures to modify, enhance and repair her otherwise beautiful face? Sigh…

So what does turning 50 mean to me? Well, to me 50 is not the new 20, it is not the new 30, and it is certainly not the new 40. Don’t get me wrong. 20, 30, and 40, these are all wonderful years–so much to dream about, so much to aspire to, so much to cry over…but none has allowed me to fully be me. At 20, I was riddled with self-doubt, at 30 I pursued relentlessly the “American Dream”– whatever that was, and at 40 I walked gingerly between the fine line of a career and new motherhood… I’ve searched. I’ve paused. I’ve examined. I’ve let go. Finally I have gained the ability to see life from a different perspective. It’s like in Yoga, our constant inhaling and exhaling have finally brought us to the point where we can feel the whole being of ourselves. Yes, the whole being–this is the 50 I am having and aspired to have. Simply put–to do, to say, to be.

I am lucky to have lived and experienced two cultures where a woman’s roles and identities crisscross. It allows me to reflect on both, weave together the wisdom of both, and also critique the nonsense of both. It broadens my view on differences: rather than dismissing them, I empathize with them, and most importantly, I embrace them.

The new 50 allows me to continue to challenge myself in the context of myself. I often gush at the impeccable Yoga poses some of my younger Yogi girlfriends can do—the grace, the beauty, the strength, the power, the artistic expression… I can only dream of. If these are not artwork made out of human bodies, nothing else is. I cheer for my friends and cheer for their incredible artistic and athletic capabilities, but I no longer try to be like them. I probably would if I were in my 20s or 30s, but not in my 50s. I still do all these crazy Yoga poses –the wheel, the grasshopper, the flip-the-dog, the hand stand, the pretzel like twists and turns I can’t even name … I try, I fall, I try again, and I fall again. Some days are better than others. I will keep trying, but at the same time I will not sweat if I need to use one arm to fake my grasshopper pose or if my back bends are not as bendy as say, 5 years or even 1 year ago. But in the end, I only challenge myself, and I see the changes in me.

The new 50 allows me to rethink what’s more important in life and be able to say “to hell with the societal norm.” I still work as hard as ever before, strive to be the sought-after subject matter expert at work, and will not give up my career for the sake of anybody else, but I no longer aim to obtain a crown jewel of a glamorous corporate title like VP or SVP. I won’t feel pained to see younger women, and even encourage and help them, to step ahead to fulfill their career ambition. But if there is a schedule conflict between my son’s piano recital and a corporate function, I will not by a heart beat miss the opportunity to watch him perform on stage.

The new 50 allows me to relax and enjoy myself more. I still watch what I eat and manage my body weight, but I also indulge myself from time to time with calorie-loaded and sugar-laced junk food and then work twice as hard to get back in shape. Even if I can’t get back in shape quickly–hell, the ever slowing down metabolism at this age–I won’t feel ashamed to have a few extra pounds sit stubbornly on my love handle, saggy belly, or that politically incorrect location–fat butt. There is just more to love myself. Besides, paper thin body is not a vocabulary we “older women” should feel elated when talking about mature elegance.

The new 50 allows me to inject a sense of humor into the otherwise all too consuming menopause. That bitchy hormonal roller-coaster ride—the mood swing, the hot flash, the out-of-mind forgetfulness, and the extreme fatigue, a full spectrum of discomfort and embarrassment. I used to think I was invincible until a few months ago when I had completely transformed from a night owl to an early riser. And I still need more rest. Hey I am not ashamed to admit it. Still I loved turning 50.

The new 50 also allows me to fear less, mind you, only FEAR LESS not FEARLESS, about the prospect of getting to that extremely advanced age one day. I may not be able to enjoy a full range of the things I used to take for granted, I may not be as sharp intellectually as I used to be, and I may have to trade my independence with reliance on other people’s help. But for now, I choose not to dwell on a mere number; rather, I will only marvel at and be thankful for “What a ride I have had!”

I have no plans to hide my years, no matter how advanced they get. This is the beauty and benefits of getting old and I look forward to the second half of my life!