March 5, 2016, 10:11 AM: At Denver International Airport A thoroughly rigid search for my grandmother
I’m sitting in Denver International Airport, fidgeting until my flight to Tucson. Spending spring break in a city that was infamously called the dumbest city in America by Family Guy, where upon arrival Peter is greeted with a swift kick to the nuts. I replay that video instead of drawing an action plan. It’s not the most encouraging portrayal of a city I’ll be stuck in for three days as I try to talk to the most infamous person in my family: my grandmother, Pauline. This would be the first conversation I would have with her, ever. I tried to plan questions, such as “What regrets do you have?” “Do you ever want to begin speaking again to my mother, your daughter Lorna?” but no matter how gently I tried to phrase them, they sounded hostile. Bitter.
What I am scared to admit in my visiting her is that is selfish. I have a cloudy, yet disturbingly loud memory that happened in my turbulent teenage years that my mother compared my personality to Pauline’s. Since that time, I’d like to think I’ve grown up a little, but have been wary of my identity since. Asking now, maybe it was foreboding on her part; maybe it was said out of anger or spite. Or maybe she did see a dark glimmer – a mother would be able to tell. In my interviews with my relatives, one uncle called the comparison “unfair,” while the other uncle shook his head with absolute certainty: no, no, no! Ever since I’ve heard stories about her, I could feel her coursing in my veins. The same self-righteous anger, the occasional self-immolation, the brutal slash-and-burn approach to relationships; I am, I am, I am. Maybe this trip was more about seeing if I’m akin to someone who can be undeniably monstrous. What if I was capable of her livid fury? What did that mean about my own personality and being?
Maybe this trip is less family reunion, and more my own curiosity in finding out if I’m going to be confronting my future self. It’s seeing whether I’ve committed enough damage that I am beyond repair.
I had met my grandmother, Pauline, for the first time in 2010. She had, and has been, estranged from my mom, her youngest child and only daughter, since 1991. She had visited my mother at our home in California, where my brother and I, gleeful toddlers, were playing in our home’s front lawn. She believed we were in danger – though there was an infinitesimal chance of a car swerving directly into us, that chance was too close for comfort in her mind. Pauline claimed she saved us, despite there being no oncoming cars in our quiet suburban street. She began to hurl insults at her daughter while our neighbors watched from their windows. Tension escalated into a screaming match. Past resentments over-boiled, leading Pauline to demand a ride to the airport, immediately fly out of LAX, and never look back. Since then, she refused to acknowledge her daughter, her husband, or their children as familial. We were erased from her history, and life resumed.
What do ruined people do? Weird shit. This seems to be the consensus of psychoanalysts as far back as Freud and Jung; the traumatized self creates, out of necessity, a system of self-care that is keen to avoid repeat trauma. This makes change difficult; it makes people who’ve had part of their psyches destroyed by unmanageable emotions push people and emotions away, create obstacles, generate unnecessary drama. Emily Rapp,
As far as I know, my brother and I didn’t think we were missing anything. We had other grandparent-like figures in our lives growing up, like our paternal grandparents and our older neighbors, to provide plenty of birthday presents, baby-sitting, and comfort. Pauline never entered our minds unless my Uncle Bill, her eldest child, and my mother recollected their childhood. They tended to punctuate their stories with gallows-type humor, survivors of Pauline: The Experience. The word “abuse” seems to only recently surface, either to my own realization of their self-deprecation or their frankness in speaking to me as an adult. Self-censoring was no longer necessary for an impressionable child who had nothing to do with a grandmother’s grudge.
Either way, my Uncle Paul, Pauline’s middle child, thought it appalling Grandma had never known her grand-kids. He arranged for my brother, Alex, and I to take a road trip and “ambush her.” His words.
“We’ll have you meet at a restaurant. If we told her beforehand, she might back out. She tends to get cold feet. If she knows you two were coming, she’d run.”
I feel like I have grown into the anger that I have always been accused of / Blossoming wildly beyond the borders imaginable / Climbing through my veins, carrion sweet. Rushelle Frazier, Nobody Body
Her apprehension I now understand to be social anxiety, afraid to confront the unknown. Self-conscious about a multitude of things: her aging, our thoughts about her, and our inevitable betrayal in her paranoid mind.
My brother and I had years of stories about her as a preface to this initial meeting. My uncles, my mom, and my dad had plenty to share. Tall tales or not, she was equally entertaining and horrifying.
Alex and I could only see Grandma as a banshee. A demonic succubus. Stories detached of our experience, she was only the adjectives my parents and other relatives described her as. She was objective to us – enough that we could warp her in any way we wanted, but she had never injured us in the way my uncles and mom had felt. She was so distant to us familiarly that she felt like a zoo specimen. Curiously inspected, like she came from another world.
We knew certain objective facts about her.
1) Pauline was married at 18 to my grandfather, Ah-Ling, who was way too old for her;
2) they had a grocery store in Continental, Arizona;
3) she had three children named William, Paul, and Lorna;
4) she was and still is a “difficult” woman, which is why my mom doesn’t speak to her.
I don’t remember much of the trip to see her, despite the intense build-up of weeks planning and ambushing through email. In total, I think Alex and I met her for a combined three hours altogether.
I do remember sitting impatiently in that Chinese restaurant, tugging the sleeves of my cardigan to hide my tattoos. I had stupid hair at the time; a slew of Manic Panic had made it a muddy blue-brown-blonde mess. I was overtanned from my summer job as a lifeguard, had thick thighs and an awkward goofiness. Bastardized Chinese, I thought. What would she think of me?
Uncle Paul escorted her in. She was a tiny woman, the spitting image of my mom with wispy, white hair. Freckled with liver spots, hunched over with slight osteoporosis, and walking with hobbled gait, she was no monster.
“Ma, these are your grand-kids! Alex and Colee.”
We stood up, smiled broadly as Uncle Paul pointed at us.
My memory is fuzzy ensuing. How I remember it feels like it was painted from a Hayao Miyazaki movie. I swear she said, after a dramatic pause:
Is it really you? I’ve been expecting you all these years.
The Nǚ Guǐ of Tucson Me, Pauline, and Every Demon We Know
I have a penchant for the dramatic, I admit. My suspicions, my fears – same spectrum – run my imagination wild as much as they run my blood cold. I felt that Pauline and I experienced certain traumas that caused irrevocable emotional disarray. Hers doesn’t have a name, but knows a fierce and volatile anger; mine falls under PTSD, depression, and anxiety nomenclatures. Consequences of tragedies where a part of your life can’t be reclaimed. Mine falls to sexual assaults that happened in high school and college, poisoning the past decade of my life. Years help distance trauma, as well as access to mental health and emotional support networks. I consider myself lucky nowadays. However, those memories are never far away. Eventually, they circuit back to the front of my mind, leaving me mourning.
I can’t imagine the isolation of Pauline’s memories. Her tragedies are of a whole other world, creating someone openly hostile and distrustful of anything that dared try to connect. Without any kind of mental health support available then, those memories turn into self-sabotage. She doused herself in gasoline and is ready to burn in the case of perceived betrayal.
In her old age, she is spectral. In Chinese mythology, she is like a living 女鬼, nǚ guǐ. A woman scorned so treacherously that apologies are no longer sought, but revenge is in the afterlife. They wander the world, lamenting their past abuses. Their existence is seen as an embodiment of a moral, a lesson an audience will hopefully learn. In some variants, the nǚ guǐ is a predatory succubus, leeching out the yang of the men who harmed her. In some ways, my uncles have parsed the thought with a joke – “Pauline was the worst thing that happened to my grandfather!” The eldest son, my Uncle Bill, has shown more sympathy towards Pauline as time passes; he gleams that actually, Ah-Ling was definitely the worst thing to happen to Pauline.
I wanted to, and was prepared, to meet the nǚ guǐ. I’ve never seen that side of Pauline. I wanted to desperately know what my uncles, aunts, mother, and father knew. Was it selfish of me to see the depths of her anger? To witness her unfold and wreak her misery on others? My wanting to be a pseudo-Attenborough dehumanized her, those hand-me-down stories of her glorifying the cold, unyielding Pauline as practically demonic.
I didn’t meet the nǚ guǐ. Touching down in Tucson, my aunt had mentioned that it was the best time for me to see her. Ever since her head injury last year, Aunt Rocky said, she’s almost like a different person. She’s calmer. She even smiles!
I had completely forgotten this detail that was recounted to me a couple of weeks prior. She had suffered a fall that left her bedroom floor like a murder scene. The fracture required two brain surgeries and required physical and neuropathic therapy. She had to slowly relearn to walk, remember names and faces and routines again. My mother had taken time off to visit her in the hospital, where tension still remained icy.
Well shit, I thought. Will I get the story I want, or need? I had to quickly revise my own intents, as now this Pauline was considerably different from the one known in 2010. I had completely neglected to consider that with burgeoning symptoms of dementia, I was meeting someone more unknown than I had thought.
Too soon, we turned into her driveway. The quaint brick house with small flowers freckled out front, as I remembered six years ago. My aunt and cousin knocked and hollered for her as I tried to heave my backpack over my shoulder – the one with all my lenses and audio equipment, which turned out to be downright naïve to think I could use them quickly or effortlessly.
A tiny, frail woman shuffled to the door. She was wearing jeans too big for her, as well as a faded, striped pink shirt that overwhelmed her already small frame. Her glasses were thick, her eyes dull. Liver and kidney spots blotched her papery skin. Her formerly full, stark-white permed curls were gone; growing in was wiry wisps. There was still a green, brutally grotesque scab from her fall, which she would touch gently and wince in pain. I felt like I could fold her in my hands, she looked so delicate.
“Grandma, it’s Colee!” Aunt Rocky exclaimed.
“Colee? You didn’t tell me she was coming,” Grandma said. Her voice was as soft as cobwebs. I couldn’t even pick it up with the audio recorder.
“Yes, I did…Colee’s come to see you!” Aunt Rocky chided.
“From Suzie and Ernie?”
Note: Formerly Lorna, presently Suzie. Pauline switches between my mom’s names depending on which one she remembers first.
“Yes, yes.” I tried to jog her memory by bringing up my brother. “Remember when Alex and I visited you?”
I tried to bring up a Facebook picture of him. Last time we visited, she spoke mainly to him – an old-fashioned Chinese preference to defer to the, if not any, eldest son.
“I don’t know who that is…do Suzie and Ernie have any more babies?” she asked.
I chuckled a no. I wonder if she pictured them as forever twentysomethings.
I continued looking around, taking it all in. Her living room is filled with stacks of papers, magazines, Chinese opera CDs, but also with framed pictures. Mostly Uncle Paul’s family, with photo shrines dedicated to his son, Michael. Three or four have Uncle Bill and his daughter, Jennifer; the rest are filled with pictures of her in her youth. She was gorgeous, with pale, porcelain skin and a demure elegance. In photos where she’s smiling, she is the spitting image of my mother.
Old family photos of my uncles, mother, and grandfather also adorn her home. Though, some have Ah-Ling obviously snipped out, which must’ve been after processing another bitter memory. On the wall, a high shelf has a ceremonial altar to Ah-Ling, with a formal portrait, statues of Guanyin and Buddha, and incense. It’s a strange centerpiece, as she still has complaints and accusations about him to this day. But, it’s an obligation demanded out of her culture and time.
Background noise came in form of a Forensic Files-like program, detailing an old case. The television is always on, Aunt Rocky said. It stays tuned to the criminal justice channel, where Grandma apparently digs a good, suspenseful murder. It pretty much only stays on this channel. I felt an odd connection there, where my brother and I also have a morbid fascination with crime shows and serial killers. Nice. We are related!
Next to the television was the most surprising. On a sturdy, long bureau, rows of framed photos stood upright, like misaligned soldiers. A motley of moments, again, mostly dedicated to Uncle Paul’s family. In the back, a dusty portrait of my mother and me from 1993 was propped up – one from a series of family photos that also had my father and brother. I picked it up, slack-jawed like a moron.
It’s one of only photos featuring my mother as well, a mother. In all other photos, she is a toddler or a late teen – perhaps the way Pauline best remembers her. As I was looking at it, Pauline said I was pretty. That I looked just like Suzie. She then felt my skin, remarking at how white it was. “There must be no sun where you are,” she said as a compliment.
“Chicago, yep. No sun yet. Only cold.”
“Don’t like Chicago. Too cold. But such pretty skin. Not like me. My skin black compared to yours.”
She pinched her arm forcibly, skin textured like an overripe peach. It was slightly tan, which in some (shitty) Chinese perceptions, is the skin of a lower-class peasant. White skin is cherished as aristocratic and beautiful, as it didn’t absorb the sun from working outdoors. Though I had to begrudgingly excuse the old-fashioned colorism, I was surprised she said nothing of my tattoos, especially as she caressed the forearm that has a giant octopus on it.
Aunt Rocky and my cousin, Sena, were able to convince Grandma to go out to eat. She went to draw on her eyebrows, penciling them in gently with a light brown crayon. I wanted to take a picture of her.
“No, no. Put down. Be a good girl, no picture.”
I complied. Another hurdle: I came specifically to shoot portraits of her. Still self-conscious of her appearance, it wasn’t likely I would gain her trust in so little time. I wanted to. Selena whispered a lifehack: “She loves Michael. He can convince her.” A cheap loophole.
Before departing, she dug through her purse. She pulled out a hongbao, a Chinese red envelope of money given from elders to youngsters for special occasions. She pressed it into my hands and I about cried; I still keep the hongbao she gave me in 2010 in my wallet, with my name she learned to etch in English. I hugged her frame and felt her shoulder blades, while she lightly tapped my back. The offering was sweet from someone who has only known me for the teeniest fraction of their life. I had nothing to offer back other than the want to know her.
“She doesn’t let anyone get near her. You must be special to her if she let you hug her,” Aunt Rocky beamed in amazement.
Did she remember me from 2010 so well? Or was I her daughter, Suzie, back to haunt her? Perhaps I was a proxy, her daughter’s facsimile, for her to extend the peace offering she knows she can’t do.
Memory is a fascinating thing. Briefly reading up on it (from what I’ve found and can understand), a single memory is less like an archived book in hundreds of thousands of shelves, but more so discrete elements that form together upon recall. Richard C. Mohs, author of a well-written, easy-to-understand article on HowStuffWorks, says it’s a brain-wide process. When a memory is encoded, different pieces form together from different systems. Mohs writes:
Consider, for example, the memory of the first person you ever fell in love with. When you met that person, your visual system likely registered physical features, such as the color of their eyes and hair. Your auditory system may have picked up the sound of their laugh. You probably noticed the scent of their perfume or cologne. You may even have felt the touch of their hand. Each of these separate sensations traveled to the part of your brain called the hippocampus, which integrated these perceptions as they were occurring into one single experience — your experience of that specific person.
Your brain’s request to access a memory reignites those original neurons involved with lightning-fast coordination every time you try to remember. More interestingly, a copy of that memory is made each time of recall, every time those pieces need to form together to create what you thought was the right experience. It creates another degree of separation from the original memory, perhaps depending on what aspect you need, or want, emphasized. The umpteenth recall – a copy of a copy of … – might barely resemble its original form, years later.
Your memory is a monster; you forget - it doesn't. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you - and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you! John Irving
As we know, memory isn’t infallible. It gets rewritten all the time as the plasticity of the brain learns new things and encounters new experiences. Then, we get older, and memories might change or fade into blurred copies. Old age especially renders memory vulnerable; as synapses deteriorate and the brain shrinks, the mind is substantially less efficient by the time you’re 80. However, some studies have focused on something called the fading affect bias – happier memories are emphasized, negative emotions are reduced over time – which, needing more research, tends to affirm why older people are happier.
Of course, this is definitely not the case with Pauline.
My relatives often said that Pauline loves embodying the martyr. She has certain stories she presents about herself, first and foremost, that laid stake to her claim that her life has only known suffering. Memories on repeat, like the one about breaking her mother’s expensive porcelain dish, which earned her the punishment of cutting off her education at the third grade and becoming her baby sister’s nanny. (That baby sister later received all the education, all the opportunities she never had, married rich, and became a Hong Kong socialite.) Meeting Ah-Ling for the first time and knowing he wasn’t the man she deserved. Anger and resentment playback, forever on a loop. Audrey Hepburn was quoted as saying, “Happiness is health and short memory!” With neither, what in the utter fuck do you have left as any kind of motivation to live?
I imagine Pauline experiences her memory like a play. Re-casting and assembling the stage with all the elements she thought was there, re-arranging and re-decorating, reading the lines my mother, uncles, and grandfather over and over in different tones. Spite is Soma.
Act infinity, scene never-ending. The setting: South Pasadena, California. Two toddlers are playing on the lawn. They begin to run towards the street. Pauline saves them and chides, no wait, -yells at- her daughter, Lorna, for bad parenting. Well, not exactly. They were already playing in the street. Or were they sitting there, and a car was coming? It doesn’t matter – Lorna heads inside her home with the in-tact, safely sound babies. Pauline exeunt, storming off stage.
The stage is now on the inside of an airplane.
“This is your captain speaking, we are on time to depart for Tucson, Arizona.”
Pauline is righteous. Pauline is upset. Pauline is vindicated.
The last part never changes.
Immigrating to America Sounds like the fucking worst
Ah-Ling’s immigration story is muddled. It is complicated enough that I can barely explain it here: according to one uncle, Ah-Ling was able to buy a birth certificate from a mother who had recently lost her son but had family located in the United States. Formerly Ah-Ling Yeung, he memorized his new family tree, Tang, and came to the US around 1938-1939 under what’s nicknamed “the Nephew Law,” where Chinese men could only be brought into the America through already existing relatives. The other uncle mentioned a white, very Lutheran family, the Ohans, who somehow were able to sponsor Ah-Ling. The Ohan patriarch, a pastor, provided a fatherly role during Ah-Ling’s teenage years.
A few questions, which my family has no answers for:
How did a pastor from Lemont, Illinois, come to mentor a Chinese teenager? What did that pastor see in him to want to sponsor him?
How did Ah-Ling get to the United States from China?
How did he end up in Chicago from Lemont?
We know one answer to a different question: the reason why he left Chicago. According to one uncle, his “paper brother” – a Tang – was suspected of murder in Chicago. Paranoid that his alter ego would be found, he needed to escape the city. At one point, he was in Fort Wayne, Indiana, working in a laundromat. A co-worker mentioned the availability of farming jobs in the southwest region. Before he would move to Arizona, he needed a wife.
His marriage to Pauline was arranged through a matchmaker, Pauline’s parents, and himself back in Guangdong. He posed himself as much richer and much younger than he actually was – he was 41 and had $5,000 to his name. With a promise to eventually buy Pauline’s siblings passage to the United States, Pauline, 18, was his new bride.
In a quick honeymoon, Ah-Ling ushered his new bride into a run-down motel suite. She saw there was a sheet to half the room – they shared it with another couple. “Imagine seeing that this is the very moment you know that your life is over,” my uncle Bill said, who recounted this story. “Pauline was upset, understandably. She took it out on the other couple. You couldn’t really blame her; she was still, really, just a teen.” Here she was, swindled. Bound to a middle-aged, poor stranger. Before he left to the US, he also got her pregnant.
My father remembered: “I don’t know how the topic of conversation came up, but one time, your mother – when she was young and she and Pauline were still on speaking terms – asked Pauline how…sex was with Ah-Ling. Pauline didn’t have much to say about it. It was something that happened, then it was quickly over with.”
An obligation, surely, much like remaining in this marriage. Two years after Bill was born, Paul was born. And two years after that, Lorna was born. Consummation was like clockwork, with just about the same rigor and excitement.
In 1950, the New Marriage Law tried to outlaw arranged marriages, brideprices, and concubinage in China. It wouldn’t be until 1980 that divorce would be liberalized; however, divorce remains somewhat taboo. Compared to the US’s divorce rate of 53%, China hovers around 3.93%. Even if Pauline could pursue divorce financially, socially it would disgrace her family. In every respect, Pauline had absolutely no choice over any of these aspects regarding marriage and family, which is one of the most damning realizations looking back on her life as to who she was then and remains today.