No post about Oma is complete without giving you the the post about A-mah, my Taiwanese grandmother.
Oma is easier to write about, I guess, because she’s still here. Yes, she was here for my formative years, but who really raised me? Who elegantly swished around the living room only to grab a running cockroach (first try), and tear it in half, only seconds later to matter-of-factly say, ‘oh, it’s dead’? I’ve tried condensing this post down to just one, but with abundant stories and memories I don’t want to lose, I don’t want to limit myself.
My Taiwanese grandparents effectively raised us. Again, with our parents working at night at their English cram school, we were taken to the lowest point of the village where my mother grew up to spend evenings with them. My grandparents had, what to me was a mansion, but lived only downstairs. Upstairs rooms were dusty with memories and smelled of wood furniture long forgotten. Every once in a while we’d go upstairs and sift through the hordes of stuff A-mah rat-packed, and find random photos or old sweaters that were only used for a few weeks a year. They didn’t have running water in the house, only a tap outside the kitchen on the wall. When we came back to Taiwan to visit after a year of living in Holland I remember my sister and I going up to the tap and using our souvenir airline coffee cups to get a drink of water. We had completely forgotten you’re not supposed to drink out the tap in Taiwan.
They were amazing people. My father tells me that when I was just one or two, my grandfather would sit with me for hours and hours just rolling a ball back and forth, no complaints, no copping out. I remember his rusty, broken bicycle that he refused to get fixed or stop using. From my faint memories, I think he still worked in the rice field when I was a kid. Everyone’s favorite memory of me is eating me duck poo. In front of my grandparent’s house, there was this massive concrete courtyard. They kept a few chickens and ducks for eggs and I would practice walking and falling all over the courtyard, and apparently, I would pick up what I found. Now, with the ducks and the chickens playing with me (ish), I of course wanted to know what they kept dropping. Although I don’t have that memory specifically, I can literally see my A-mah, with her back hunched from years of toil, run towards me going ‘eh eh eh!’ and first slapping the poo out of my hands and then digging her fingers into my mouth to scoop whatever was left out. I can also imagine her muttering lovingly at me while she did so.
My parents tell me that our ability to be compassionate and empathetic comes from them. There have never been kinder people. A-mah would fan us with an old newspaper or a paper fan from bedtime at 7pm until my parents came to pick us up at around midnight, because they didn’t have a fan. They gave us everything they had. Their patience and love knew no bounds, and they were always there for us. The uneasy part comes where this traditional old world life starts clashing with the modern, and also our Western side.
My grandparents were rice farmers. As far as I know, that’s what they’ve been for generations. My mom’s generation is the first generation to ‘get out of it,’ and my grandparents worked damned hard to ensure that they did. I often explain the poverty by saying my auntie was born in a rice field. A-mah gave birth to her, and almost without skipping a beat swaddled her in cloths, put her on her back, and kept working. I remember A-mah saying that my own mother had to stay home and cook, being the youngest child, so at age 12 she was already feeding her family. My auntie never went to school, and A-mah would sometimes stand outside classroom windows piggy-backing her to make sure that she was listening and learned whatever she could. My uncle was the first to finish high school, being the boy in the family. My mother was the first to get a University education (funded by my uncle who got a good job with the national telecom service).
Giving back wasn’t even a question for my mother. She did everything she could for them, from having us raised by them, to bringing things like food, clothes, and always reluctantly, money. They even lived with us at different times of our childhood- when my uncle decided to have their house knocked down and rebuild an actual mansion (on top of like 3 metres of cement so the yearly floods wouldn’t come at them again), and also when my grandpa got too ill for them to be living alone. And why not? They provided her an opportunity at a better life and she did so with gusto. I guess that’s why she’s such always been such a workaholic, because she wants to keep providing, for her family. And that mentality definitely hasn’t been lost on me. I am already thinking about my parents’ retirement, and as much as I know that they will be trying to be as self-sufficient as possible, I won’t buy a house with less than three bedrooms so they’ll have somewhere to visit. I want to get a ridiculously good job and be successful just so that I can provide for my family the same way my mother (without question) took care of her parents. And let’s face it, if I didn’t, A-mah would turn in her grave. I am the granddaughter she raised me to be, and that’s something I’ll never ever forget. We were taught to be/have 孝順 (Google Translate says it means filial piety… I call it respect for your elders), and that’s what we will always have.
So about this Western culture… we are taught to be self-sufficient and independent. We don’t need to feel like we owe our family anything, because they did their best to raise us, and therefore we should strive to be successful for ourselves. I find that a really difficult to wrap my head around. And I’m not saying this is true for all Western families, and that is totally devoid of emotion, but there is a sense of leaving the nest, and not having to come back. You would think it would make for better social mobility, but let’s not get into that now.
I will leave you with these thoughts, anyway, about how you want to treat your family, and how you want them to be in old age. How do you want to be in old age? Do you want your children and grandchildren around you, taking care of you and loving you, regardless of your financial situation? Or do you want them to just go, and leave you to yourself? My argument is, living your life for your children isn’t quite going to be the difficulty it is, because they will be living their life for you, too, further down the line.