Friday, February 03, 2006

Re-generation

Celebrating Chinese New Year with my mother's side is unfortunately not as heartwarming an event as it could be. With visits from relatives being inconsistent each year, and English not being the shared language for conversation, it's been difficult to feel a bond with my aunts, uncles and cousins.

One person I've been feeling particularly sore about in this situation is my grandmother. She is a small woman with a big voice that she is not afraid to use. But during moments of precious family time, she is more often than not seen cradled delicately in her rocking chair in the middle of the living room, either watching television, or having her head tucked into her chest, caught up in an enviously engaging snooze.

Only recently have I realized that there's got to be more to her than that. How to get past it was the challenge.

So this year, after the climax of dinner, with only my mother and her mother left at the table, I look across the table and ask sheepishly, "Mom, did Poh Poh ever get the pressure of getting her feet bound when she was younger?"

"Ask her yourself, she's here in front of you! Practice your Malay."

Grandma slowly turns her weathered face to me, her curious eyes snatching mine and holding me still. I shoot a desperate glance at my mother who makes it clear that I’m on my own.

"Poh Poh? Uh... dulu... uh... aku… oh wait, is it kalau? KALAU! Ya. Okay. Kalau... mesti... crap, what is tie in Malay? Tali? Um, kaki is leg right? What's the word for foot? Or can kaki be used for both?... Oh gosh. Poh Poh? Dulu, kau, mesti, tali, kaki?"

Grandma can only frown at the desolate state of affairs.

Mom finally butts in out of compassion, and asks the same question in Hokkien.

Grandma props herself out of a hunch and says no. She did not grow up in that era.

And the topic ends. I comfort myself knowing that I made the effort to try.

Mom then says, "You know, you should be asking her about the Japanese occupation instead..."

Finally feeling a bit more merciful for her anguished daughter, she initiates the topic and takes on the role of avid interpreter. I fuel the conversation with incessant interrogation. From daughter, to mother, to mother; a reply back to daughter, and daughter again.

Grandma's face continues to brighten, her raspy voice continues to swell, a new energy surges through her. She narrates her experience of youth with inflections of excitement rolling off her tongue and across the table, over the remnants of homemade dishes of a wonderfully indistinguishable nature.

The only child to a single mother, Poh Poh remembers the both of them taking refuge in the jungles of Tampin away from the Japanese soldiers, with foliage so thick that she could never see the sun. How it struck her that during the day, the owls in the trees would stare at her with eyes the size of saucers and yet never fly away.

I then hear about Poh Poh and her mother being taken away by a good samaritan from an abusive man one night when she was seven years old. How when they were on the run, there was a trail of huge black ants which she was terrified of stepping over, and her mother coaxing her on.

Poh Poh poignantly recounts the time when one of the men who fell in love with her mother was accused of being a gangster from China; she overheard his last conversation with her the night before he was to be deported. How she knew that he was innocent and full of good intentions and crouched into to a corner of the house and cried.

Then Grandma suddenly stops herself. She confesses that she has never talked about her life like this until tonight. Mom jokes to her that all these stories can be compiled into a movie. Grandma laughs. And in this moment, I feel like the luckiest person in the world.

8 Comments:

Blogger Joy / Quilana said...

Nothing better than a learning a little family history from the actual source, huh? :)

11:58 AM  
Blogger astrorat said...

A great way to spend Chinese new year (i reckon). Since you are in the movie business n all, how about at least a book? :)

2:57 PM  
Anonymous Keith said...

As I've said before Davina, we Malaysians have so much untold stories. It's good that you were able to know your grandmother a little better, and that she was open with you.

10:47 PM  
Blogger mere scribbler said...

i'm happy for you. it's definitely a privilege and i'm glad you got the chance to listen

4:10 AM  
Blogger cyber-red said...

priceless story huh? =) hugs

12:57 AM  
Blogger Albert said...

I regretted not paying attention to my grandpa's horror stories. I didn't know they were true. He passed away in Form 2, when all his recollection could've made sense to the Sejarah (History) textbooks!

9:01 PM  
Blogger disco-very said...

joy,
yeah! it was wicked.

astrorat,
thanks, that's an idea! i'll keep that in mind...

keith,
i was surprised how she was so eager to express herself, because i otherwise just make simple necessary talk with her. i was extremely touched.

mere scribbler,
i do feel glad i picked up the courage to ask, and to get much more out of it than i had expected. I hope you've managed to hear some stories from your own folks too.

cyber-red,
heck yeah.

albert,
that's a shame. the most you can do now is to make sure your own grandkids pay attention to your stories about wierd goings-on that have happened at your office :P

7:18 PM  
Blogger mob1900 said...

I think our parents and grand parents are in some sortha secret conspiracy, almost all the 'Japanese Occupational Times' stories are quite similar, hiding in thick bushes, rationing on sweet potatos and green vegs. But alas the story 'bout the good samaritan sets it apart.

3:50 PM  

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