Friday, March 09, 2007

The Women In My Life

Thanks to a timely “ranting” from Marina Mahathir (MM), I was alerted to the International Woman’s Day, which falls every year without fail on March 8.

Coming from a Chinese family, I’m well aware of the traditional role of women as being subsidiary, if not subservient, to men, both from books and movies. Anecdotes of young girls being snatched away from home to become juvenile brides to the rich, of wives suffering the tyranny of their polygynous and philandering husbands, abound in the literature.

But those were the bygone ages. Nowadays, even in China women are being accorded their rightful place in national development, an economic force to be reckoned with. However, subtle and not so subtle prejudices still exist, even in Malaysia as enumerated in MM’s blog written in celebration of this special occasion.

I was brought up in a gender-neutral environment where both men and women played their chosen roles. Here I would like to single out three women who have influenced me tremendously and helped mold me to what I’m today.

The first woman is of course my late Mom, who carried and nourished me for nine months and had to endure the labor pain to usher me into this world. And for the next fifteen year, my mom had cooked every meal that I had, washed (by hand before washing machines became a household appliance) every piece of clothing that I wore, and shared my achievements and disappointments with me, even though she might not have known the full reasons for my emotional highs and lows.

My Mom came from Southern China to the then Malaya and was a full-time home maker while my Dad labored to provide for the whole family. Other than the occasional rebukes, she had never raised her voice to any of her children. But she could be stern when necessary, even to the extent of using the cane on us if she thought we deserved a spanking. But most of the time the cane remained hung on the wall, acting more like a deterrent than anything else.

While she had had very little education herself, she understood the value of one, and endured the absence of her children while still young in silence for the sake of their education. First, my two elder brothers went to Singapore for their study not long after their primary school education. I followed suit several years later, but to Kluang, Singapore, finally at University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur in successive years.

When I started working, it was also away from home, first in Muar, followed by Raub, Pahang. So I hardly had time to take her places, since she was frugal and did not wish for any material niceties. I think the only true joy that I was able to bring to her was her first grandson, from one of her very own (she had many grand children from my step-brothers and sisters). That was in late October, 1981 when I was domiciled in Raub. She even traveled all the way to Raub from Johore with my younger sister during my wife’s confinement to cradle the grandson in her arms.

She passed away less than two years later and never really got to know her grandson, whose younger siblings have never had the opportunity to be pampered by their doting grandmother as I had. But she continues to live in my memory.

The second woman that I have come to know and respect since I started dating is my wife’s late GrandMa. Like my Mom, she hailed from China too, with one distinct difference. She was one of the products of the feudalistic era when men (in then China under the rule of the Ching Dynasty) coveted women with small feet. So girls from a young age would have their feet lapped in layers and layers of cloth to prevent their natural growth to attain the status of the so-called “three inch golden lotus”. But she moved around in tiny steps without aid, putting many able-bodied and younger adolescents to shame.

She had not had much schooling, but was able to relate many old Chinese tales that extol the many heroics of ancient Chinese personalities such as filial piety, honor, and loyalty, to my wife and her siblings. For four years after her primary (elementary) school days, my wife commuted daily to my hometown for her secondary (middle) school. It was close to an hour’s drive and she had to leave home around five thirty in the morning in order to be at the school in time. Grandma was up every morning in the wee hours, preparing meals for her grand-daughter, without fail. Those days the cooking was done by charcoal, and the fire manually fanned. I could almost imagine a woman of small build with stooping posture, shuffling on her little feet and groping in semi darkness, and laboring in the cold kitchen, all for the love of her grand-children. (Of course I learned of this display of unconditional affection from my wife after I got to know her better.)

While I was dating my wife, Grandma had always treated me as one of her own. She could be from an era when it was taboo for boys and girls to come into physical contact, let alone any open display of affection, but she was nonchalant about us being together. In a way I think she trusted me implicitly that I would always take good care of her little grand-daughter. And I am glad that I did not betray her trust.

She passed away when I was going to grad school here in US, with my wife at my side. Because of logistic difficulties, my wife and I were not able to return home to pay our last respects. May both my Mom and Grandma rest in peace.

The last but not the least of the trio is none other than my wife. Well, what can I say, I’m more than lucky to find a lifelong partner to share life’s journey and to learn life’s lessons. Granted our journey together, like most couples, has not been plain sailing all the way. Misunderstanding surfaced, human foibles unraveled, and squabbles ensued. But through them all, we began to discover the strengths of each other, and learned to be complementary and mutually reinforcing.

During the earlier period of our marriage, I had only adjusted to the needs of a family life financially, but not necessarily in terms of responsibility. I have come to realize that my wife almost single-handedly raised the four kids that we were bestowed with. My assistance was token at best, leading pretty much a life of a married bachelor.

I feel blessed she has stayed long enough for me to realize my folly. While I cannot turn back the clock, I sure can become a family man in the truest sense of the word: a responsible husband and father, and hopefully soon, a grandfather.

Respect begets respect. Never take things for granted. Always tell the other half your pent-up frustrations so both of you can both heal together. And we are thankful that we can grow old together.

My life will never be this meaningful without the women in my life. On this day that holds special significance for more than half of the world’s population, I salute you for all you have contributed, are contributing and will continue to contribute to a better world for all.


Chen said...

Beekhoon sister is one of beautiful woman (inside and out) I ever encounter. Her heart is pure and compassion. I am very lucky to have this "speical woman" in my life too.

Say Lee said...

The feeling is mutual. We are glad to have known you too.

chen said...

thank you very much. It's a honor.

Kitty Girl said...

Hm, I hadn't come across this post earlier. I always like to find out our family's history, since there is still so much I don't know. I wish I could have gotten to know my other Grandma, and wish that I was closer with the only one I have left. I do remember Great-Grandma, but just barely, when she was bedridden. It is always nice to find out about little bits and pieces of the Lee family history (and of course, it's always fun to read about when you and Mom were dating. Heehee!).

Although perhaps you may have been less affectionate than Mom in bringing us up, I dare say that whatever virtues and lessons you wanted us to learn, you taught us well, directly and indirectly. One that stands out particularly in my mind, although you may not recall, is after we had moved back to PJ from Gainesville. I was showing May or Dee how to sing "Negaraku", and I didn't know the lyrics so I just sang, "And blah blah blah..." to a strict reprimand from you.

Although I didn't fully understand it at the time, I have come to learn that such things must be respected and not to be taken as a frivolity. During those weekly Monday assemblies at school (which I so dreaded), I would watch as other students fooled around or laughed while we were singing the national anthem, and think how disrespectful they were and how glad I was to have been taught to respect our song. Anyway, this is but a small example, but I now try to respect and honor/admire such things as best I can.

As for you being a grandfather, that will probably be in five years... Unless one unexpectedly decides to defy us!

Also, on the same note that you ended this entry with, remember to read the Five Love Languages book!!

Say Lee said...

No, I don't remember that incident. But I'm glad you remember.

And the book is momentarily misplaced during the moving. But I'm sure Mom knows where it is.