A series of memories juxtaposing family traditions of Chinese (Wong) and Southern (Fowler) roots. The purpose is to stimulate ideas and conversations about family memories and how they are constructed, modified, and passed on from one generation to another, within or across cultures.
Cheap white porcelain clanging at the table of the Chinese restaurant. Grandmother Wong leans back against her chair with a toothpick between her teeth – of course with one hand politely covering the front of her mouth.
“Grandmother Wong,” I begin to make conversation in Cantonese. “What did you like to do when you were young?”
“Oh, me?” she replied. “I would practice writing Chinese calligraphy. My teacher in elementary school was strict. She would hit us if we made one wrong stroke.”
“Oh yeah? You’re really good at calligraphy, Grandmother Wong. You really should teach me some time.”
“You’re crazy,” she’d retort, completely dismissing the compliment. “I just scribble. You know your Grandmother isn’t very smart. I only went to school until grade 6. I had to stay at home when the Japanese invaded China. I had to hide by the river when the soldiers came over. Remember to study hard. All my children and all my grandchildren studied hard. They’re all so smart.”
My Chinese grandmother is now 92 years old. She does morning exercises, walks faster than people 15 years her junior, and practices Chinese calligraphy in her spare time. Though she never progressed past an elementary school education, she raised her kids – like many Chinese parents – to study hard. Studying was a priority above all other activities. Though she couldn’t help my father with his school work, she often made one of his four older siblings help him. “Work hard,” she would say, “and you’ll be able to do whatever you want.” Her eldest daughter soon became one of the first women to earn a university degree in Hong Kong – and in mechanical engineering, at that. She then moved to the US to pursue a doctoral degree in chemistry. One by one, each of Grandmother Wong’s children moved to the US to earn degree after degree. For a woman of her generation and upbringing, she was relatively open-minded to send her children abroad.
Grandmother Wong was very talented in the kitchen. She cooked up feasts for the family, knowing which dishes each of her children loved best. She took great pride in her cooking and found a sense of purpose and contribution to the family through it. Though she always told her children (and eventual grandchildren) to study hard, she also understood that each of them had different talents and passions – like she did with her cooking. As such, she instilled a studious work ethic in her children in order to prepare them to pursue their passions. Her philosophy towards life and education have been intricately woven into the roots of our family tree, for which I am forever grateful.
“When you love what you do, you will do it well.” – Grandmother Wong
Grandma Fowler was born and raised in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Born to parents from Virginia, she was raised in a home where sofas were called “davenports” and vacuum cleaners were called “valcome cleaners”. People said that that was just the Virginian way of speaking.
When Grandma was a child, her mom sent her to a Girls Home where she was brought up and educated. Grandma absolutely loved learning and demonstrated a lot of potential according to the Head of School. Because of this, she was given a lot of responsibilities which taught her to value independence. Grandma breezed through elementary school and graduated from high school with excellent grades in 1955. She hoped to go to college one day to earn a Bachelor’s degree, though it was less common at the time for women to do so.
Grandma was married in 1956 and gave birth to her first daughter one year later. Education would have to sit on the back burner. She juggled many jobs through the first decade of marriage because Grandpa couldn’t keep a job. This added significant pressure on her and caused emotional stress. As a result, though she was an excellent student herself, she didn’t spend much time helping her kids with their homework.
Grandma believed in a different kind of education. Though it wasn’t entirely academic, she provided rich educational experiences for her daughters. Just like in the Girls Home, Grandma organized many hands on activities for her kids and the neighbors. She held knitting classes, taught piano, taught herself the guitar before teaching it to the neighbors…
“I vividly remember Mom taking us to peach orchards when the peaches were in season. Sometimes we’d go corn picking too and bring them all home. At home, we’d form this assembly line and can the corn. It was delicious,” my mom remembers.
“One time, when Mom needed a bookshelf but didn’t have the money to buy one, she sewed clothing for a woman and traded them in for a bookshelf. She taught herself to upholster furniture and make beautiful curtains which she did for pay. She learned to make lingerie just like you buy in a store. She even knows how to change the oiling in a car!”
My Grandma is a very smart and determined individual. Education didn’t have to come from the institution of school, it came from the family, the community and the rich learning experiences that were instilled in her daughters. Now in her late 70’s, Grandma continues to learn. She enrolls herself in community college classes and seems to always have her hand at something new. For my college graduation, she gave me a beautiful ceramic bowl that she had painted and made in a pottery class. How very grandma.
“Never stop learning because life never stops teaching.” — Unknown