I sat at the dining table watching her thin, boney fingers expertly handle the red globe grape, peeling the skin off so that she could cut it open, discard the seeds and hand it to me. I eagerly waited as she peeled each one, a time-consuming act of devotion. She did this continually until I either had my fill or there were no more grapes to peel. While I’ve actually never heard Po Po say the words, “I love you,” I know she does. Love in Chinese families is very often expressed in non-traditional ways, most often through food. Po Po is no exception.
Turning 98 this October, she is far from the vibrant figure I have in my mind from years past. I remember her younger self like a blurry figure caught in motion in a photograph. A true extrovert, she drew energy from being around others. Her full, voluminous head of white and grey permed hair was always on the move, bobbing up and down, never able to sit still for long. During summer breaks when we were younger, she would take Tim and I on bus rides from Baldwin Park to Chinatown so she could walk around, be amongst her people, socialize, grocery shop, and eat authentic Chinese food. She’s aged so much since then and lost a significant amount of weight. Her mental faculties aren’t what they were and her physical capabilities have deteriorated. The extended family gathered at her apartment this past Chinese New Year. Watching her slowly move across the room, only possible with the help of her walker, repeating the same phrase over and over again brought me to tears. She was reminding herself in Cantonese to take it slow. It was then that I finally saw with my own eyes how much of her we’d already lost. In the same way, you feel time is a thief when you have children. You feel it just as hard when you watch loved ones grow old.
Po Po was born Fung Wan Kwan on October 19, 1923 in Kaiping, China of the Guangdong province. She was the third daughter in the Kwan family of nine siblings. When she was young, she voiced a desire to seek education outside of her hometown. Her father refused because she was a girl. In elementary school, we were given an assignment to research our family history. We were told to pick one figure and share their story with the class. I chose Po Po. The language barrier required Mom to be our translator. Though nearly thirty years have passed, these still remain the only facts we know about her early life. With her mental state where it is now, it’s not likely we’ll learn anything more.
As I’m sitting down to write this, I’m wondering what she was like as a kid. She must have been a progressive and a traditionalist all at the same time, asking for education, but understanding her father had the last say. She would go on to be married in 1941 and have her firstborn, my aunt, one year later. In total, Po Po would have five children. Two girls and three boys, although two of the boys did not survive their childhood. When Mom was one, Po Po took her and her older brother, Peter, to Hong Kong to visit her parents. They never went back to China, staying in Hong Kong until their migration to the United States in 1971. Po Po never reunited with her husband. He remained in China until his death in 1983, the year I was born.
Po Po was a constant fixture in my childhood. A grandfather figure was not. What must that have been like for Po Po to never see him again? It is only now that I have my own children that I can even begin to consider what it may have been like to walk in her shoes. I imagine the pain of losing two children never dissipates. Couple that with the mental and emotional load that she carried as sole breadwinner. The lasting impact of it, if there was any, never showed up in her interactions with us on the day to day. But I wonder now if this is why she poured so much love into the relationships she had, why she always wanted to be around people. Because she knew what it was to lose them.
I am like her. If I close my eyes and picture her laughing, I see her covering her mouth with her hand. If we happen to be eating, the same gesture would be made, this time with a white napkin peeking out from her hand. A simple act, revealing paucity of self-confidence, mirrors much of how I’ve carried myself for most of my life. I find it hard to sit still as well. Sheltering in place for the last three months hasn’t been a breath of fresh air for me. Rather, it has been an exercise in maximizing productivity, where I’ve purposefully attempted to fill any dead time with an activity. An opportune time to binge-watch shows, I’ve hardly watched any TV because I’ve found it incredibly difficult to sit still.
In the age of COVID-19, I can’t help but think about Po Po. It is safer for her if I don’t see her and keep our social distance. While this has been a three-month recent reality, I am also guilty of not doing more when I could, before COVID-19 came into the picture. The window of time to spend with her, which I kept pushing to later, is diminishing. Although she is still with us, I’m filled with a deep sense of regret for all the time I could have spent with her that I’ve squandered away. As I grew up, my interactions with her became less fluid. Nearly all of the Cantonese I grew up speaking was lost. There was a limit to the dialogue we could have making the time we spent together disjointed. The pressure I felt to assimilate as a second-generation Asian American, left me straddling an old world and a new one. This pressure wasn't just something I felt, but something Mom felt as well, voicing it so many years later. “We were in America, so I thought you should speak English,” she said to me when I asked why the Chinese language wasn’t kept alive with us.
With the Black Lives Matter movement at top of mind, I’ve become a student again, re-educating myself on what I thought I knew about our country and its dishonorable history. Researching the roots of racism and social injustice as an Asian American, you’re bound to find an article that mentions the model minority construct and/or the model minority myth. In a very short summary, our community was used as a wedge, a proof point, to demonstrate that keeping your head down and working hard could be done and it would yield successful economic results. Referred to as a myth because, while this may be true for some Asian Americans, the glowing review of the Asian American community silences the plight of our refugee sisters and brothers, as an example. The rising xenophobic attacks on the Asian American community as a result of COVID-19 have reminded us all that we aren't equals, we are still outsiders. I’m frustrated that a part of me felt this sentiment my whole life and instead of celebrating our culture, I ran away from it. I'm sickened to think that our quiet assimilation throughout history provided a narrative that only widened the disparity between us and the Black Americans of this country further perpetuating their plight. This quiet assimilation angers me. It significantly shaped my upbringing impacting the relationship Po Po and I could have had. And, now, time is not on our side.
I look forward to the day I can see her again. Sit with her, even if it is in silence. To once again feel her love and to beam that same love back at her.