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A Memorial Day Post: Lee Choy-Wan

I don’t have any members of my family in the military ranks, but Memorial Day holds another meaning for me. It is the one-year anniversary of the passing of my grandmother, Lee Choy-Wan.   She was the third wife of my grandfather from my mother’s side of the family. I believe she was married at the age of 16, which was quite common and acceptable back in the day. She was a very strong and independent woman. She had to be.  She ran for her dear life when the Japanese invaded and occupied China in the early part of the 20th century. She only had a sixth grade education, but she stood on her own. Being a concubine certainly did not suit her. Not only she refused to have her feet bound, she packed up and left the clan on her own. This was something unheard of for Chinese women back then.

She took odd jobs, mostly being a nanny. The job she loved the most was working at a photography studio in Hong Kong.  It may not be much to you, but I can recall it meant the world to her. She delighted greeting costumers at the counter, working with old fashion wooden cameras.  She was a great photographer too. One of her specialties was coloring black and white photos and photo plates with a brush and special paint. Her hands were rough, as she had often suffered from skin allergies. She often told me that she dipped her bare hands into photographic chemicals while she was developing photos in the dark room.  It didn’t matter to her. It was a job she loved. I took great pride in taking up photography when I was in high school. She was beaming with joy when I told her I had taken up photo painting.

She and my mother did not get along. It was a painful relationship.  She abandoned my mother because she had always wanted a son. She decided become a nanny to families with sons to fill the void.

I can understand where grandma was coming from. She was subjected to the rules for Chinese women in society. However, she had a talent in which she had flourished for a short period of time and then it was taken away from her.  For an elderly woman, she thrived on her independence. I saw my grandmother for the last time several years ago. She was living in an apartment complex for seniors in the Chinatown section of Seattle. She did not like her neighbors at all. She always accused them for being too nosy. I used to call my grandmother often, but we talked less and less towards the end. She became paranoid and anti-social.  She lived in a very dark one-bedroom apartment cluttered with papers, clothes, etc. Yeah, she became a hoarder too.

That independence came to an end when she broke her hip. She had spent her last several months at a nursing home. She was given not only medication, but anti-depressants as well.  Since she lost her independence, she just gave up.

While she was staying at the nursing home, the doctors revealed that my grandmother was bi-polar/manic depressive.  When my mother told me this, I told her that explained a lot of the things she had done in the past. She had gone through traumas of war, to the domestic traumas of being a concubine. Still, she had done things her way. There is no right or wrong about what she had done. She did it out of survival. Photography was the one moment of joy in her life. When that was taken away from her, she became resentful and withdrawn.

It made me think about how many Asian parents had gone through the traumas of war without being treated. Forget about going to see a shrink. It was often said, “Chinese people don’t need psychologists! They’re for those stupid American white folks who can’t take care of themselves!”

Well, I have news for the naysayer: you’re not as strong as you think.

What’s worse is the fact then problems go untreated, it affects the children of the next generation within a family.

I said to my mother, “Well, this may not be a consolation, but whatever grandma had done to you in the past, she didn’t intend any ill will. She couldn’t help herself. If she had been treated, things may turn out differently. Heck, if she took some Prozac, things would had been much nicer for all of us!”

My mother replied,” Don’t be so cynical!”

My grandmother took care of me for the first eight years of my life.  Things were not rosy back then. My father wasn’t exactly the greatest person, which makes things complicated. My grandmother could had gone to another family and looked after a son, but she chose to stay and take care of me. I am grateful for that.

There are times I felt I became a recluse like my grandmother. Yeah, I lived like a hermit for a while. Even my mother regretted that I was in my grandmother’s care, thus I had taken after her in some ways.

Whatever it is, I’d like to think I’ve taken after my grandmother for two things: a love of photography and being an all around BADASS. My grandmother may have had her share of problems and faults, but she didn’t take bullshit from anyone. She can smell bullshit from a mile away. She had survived world wars, defiant against being a concubine, had a great eye for photography and stood on her own.

Here’s to you, 奶奶.

My grandmother, Lee Choy-Wan

My grandmother, Lee Choy-Wan



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