When Ahmma visited us in New Jersey, I had nothing but greed in my heart. She was a first-rate smuggler of agricultural contraband from Taipei to Anchorage to Newark: wax apples nested in the cups of her damask bras, wrinkled bean curd skins layered between blouses, and citrine star fruits she camouflaged inside her shoes. I was her oldest and tallest grandchild in America and I felt entitled to stand over that suitcase, bellowing to myself, “It’s mine, allll mine!”
She used to make us kids wait until after dinner, after the cut fruit, after the tea, for the red envelopes. They were perfumed with an aggressive floral scent emanating from her pockets across our mahogany table. She always enclosed a crisp one-hundred-dollar bill I spent immediately on janky jewelry and video games.
Her name was Ing Hua. Literal translation: Cherry Blossom. She was my father’s mother and my mom delighted in sneering at her name. I got the sense it was low-class—this fragile pink flower, whose blooming branches are featured on every calligraphy painting in every Chinese home. The Chinese name I was given, Yu Rou, means “Educated effortlessly.” Ahmma consulted a trusted family fortune teller and named me based on some magical formula derived from my astrological chart and the number of brushstrokes that was considered most auspicious. It has no obviously feminine qualities or elements of nature which are so common in Chinese girl names. I wonder if it was the kind of name she would have preferred for herself.
Since the pandemic started, I’ve been tracking the rise of Asian hate crimes, many of which occur in New York City, where I live. Liberals blame Trump for calling COVID-19 the China Flu, but long before he was president, I sat alone in the cafeteria eating my weird lunch as the white kids sang “ching chong” rhymes at me. Teenagers at the mall called my family “chinks” as we walked through Macy’s pretending not to notice. As an Asian American, I always knew a reckoning would come for us on a larger scale. What I tucked away as traumatic childhood memories now feels like a government-issued rubber stamp on my forehead. We’re disease carriers but we’re also docile and weak. It’s our fault but they still want us to love them long time
There is a violent current in the air and my face might be the trigger that suddenly unleashes a slur, if I’m lucky—or a punch, a bucket of sulfuric acid, a hammer, a bullet, if I’m not. It’s the randomness that is most terrifying. There are an infinite number of permutations of perpetrator, weapon, and setting.
What else is there to do in the absence of safety and justice then to seek allyship? Instead, I find my white friends are still talking about their banal, everyday concerns in front of me. Perhaps that’s why Asians are seen as white-adjacent; we are both skilled at pretending nothing is wrong. But right now, I want to punish them all.
Can you stop talking about your COVID weight gain? Right hook to the jaw!
How dare you all stand there debating which restaurants have the best outdoor dining set up. Roundhouse kick to the flank!
No one wants to hear about your doughy, boneless babies and how they haven’t had any “social interaction” all year. I was about to throw an uppercut but I rolled my eyes so hard I got dizzy.
Ahmma might be disappointed to know this is what being educated and cultured looks like. I stand amongst them smiling and nodding in mock solidarity to whatever they’re blabbing about. I hear myself ask, “Does anyone want a drink?”
Our summer vacations to visit Ahmma in Taiwan often coincided with typhoon season. My cousins, brother, and I loved playing outside in our swimsuits for the start of the torrential rains. I swirled my arms around in the small courtyard conjuring the elements to pirouette like magic around me. I was Ursula from The Little Mermaid, voluptuous with power.
One August, the city’s oppressive air lifted for the first time only to be laden down with the aerial detritus of city life. In the churn of striped night-market bags and deformed umbrellas, a black snake unearthed itself and spiraled towards me, lashing like a whip on my bare feet. I was ten and terrified of everything that wasn’t pastel and plastic. I couldn’t distinguish if the snake was upside down or right side up. How can something be slithering and flipping at the same time? The creepiest thing about it was, despite the chaos of its writhing body, the snake was completely silent.
Gone was my jowly, unremarkable Ahmma. She was no demure and delicate Cherry Blossom. She pierced the snake with the metal tip of her umbrella, with such inevitability that her essence was suddenly revealed to me: a scrappy country girl growing up amidst ancient volcanoes, accustomed to a life dealing with beasts and burden.
Except, I had it all wrong.
She never would have killed that snake if it weren’t for me. For thousands of years, our ancestors venerated snakes as diminutive dragons, a symbol of good fortune. My mom reprimanded me later on, “Ahmma killed a snake for you! She’s going to the temple tomorrow morning to send offerings. You go, too.” I wore a navy and white polka dot sundress, the closest thing I had to black. I stood behind Ahmma as she bowed three times, holding sticks of incense to her forehead. I mocked her, chanting silently with each jaunty bow, “Soooooo sorry snake! Don’t take revenge on us, snake! Don’t curse me forever, snake!”
This was my all-time favorite memory of Ahmma. I felt connected to her through the dramatic and violent image of love and sacrifice until adulthood, when I recounted it to my mom. “Do you remember how she killed a snake? She was fierce!” My mom replied in a dismissive tone, “She did that to show me up.”
Oh. So, I had it all wrong, again.
The power plays between them were of Chinese soap-operatic proportions. I remember once when my mom ran out of the house as Ahmma was leaving for the airport. She was chasing after money—it was always about money, an urgent loan or a long-standing debt. Instead of handing it to my mom in a fragrant envelope, Ahmma threw the bills out of the car window all over the driveway. My mom crawled after the money on her hands and knees before it could scatter away. I hated both of their guts in that moment.
If there is any legacy that Ahmma left me besides my bulbous nose and wide, manly feet, it is this: Asian women can be vicious.
I regressed to playing a lot of Double Dragon during the pandemic. A friend gifted a nostalgic Nintendo to my kids when we first entered lockdown. I’d sit cross-legged on the living room floor, sneaking in games after my kids had gone to bed.
In Double Dragon, a player embodies the persona of Jimmy or Billy Lee, two beefy twin brothers clothed in red and blue unitards. You battle oncoming gang members through the streets of post-nuclear-war New York City in order to rescue Billy’s girlfriend, Marian. The original Nintendo only employs 8-bit graphics, so the visuals are murky. The vicarious agency I seek appeals mainly to my aural pleasure. There’s a hair grab/knee-to-the-face combo that produces a satisfying crunching sound, like pressing the heel of your shoe on an already poisoned, deceased cockroach. It’s as cathartic as it is ultimately useless.
Reality requires more thoughtfulness. I am a mother to a ten-year-old daughter and eight- and six-year-old sons. They caught me sobbing after I watched the sickening footage of sixty-five-year-old Vilma Kari, a Filipino woman, getting kicked and stomped on the head on her way to church. My husband’s office is only a few blocks away from where it happened. I wasn’t ready to package the racist attack into a narrative that would make my kids aware without being scared but I was forced to try in that moment.
“We’re half-Irish so no one is going to hurt us, right?” my middle son asked.
“It doesn’t matter; we look more Chinese,” my daughter responded.
“Don’t cry, Mommy. It won’t happen to you because you kind of dress like a witch,” the little one said, patting me on the head.
I follow up with them again a week later. I have noticed my daughter is nervous and jumpy when we go out in the city. If I have any skills with which to soothe them and make them feel powerful, it is storytelling. I tell them the myth of Ahmma, whom they have never met. I want them to feel they are descended from a fierce warrior, on a legendary continuum that is not so easily fragmented by current events.
I tell them her name was Cherry Blossom and that she was the daughter of peanut farmers. Because she was a girl, Cherry Blossom never even went to high school. She went right to work weaving colorful silk threads into obis which she sold to Japanese merchants. She raised seven children who then had children of their own. One day, in the middle of a scary typhoon, a snake flew through the air and attacked one of these children. Cherry Blossom grabbed a silver spike and stabbed the snake right through its belly.
“What kind of snake was it? King cobra, Viper, Black mamba?” my middle son asked.
“Was there blood?” My daughter looked disgusted.
“What did she do with the snake after she killed it?” the little one wondered.
I don’t know. I don’t remember. Just like fantasizing about beating up my friends or playing a violent video game, this story is not the answer. The promise of solidarity and safety eludes me, and Ahmma won’t be flattened into a fable.
Ahmma died seven years ago. She was in her seventies and far away in Taiwan and I hadn’t seen her in years. I took the news as if someone else’s grandmother had died. Mostly, I felt sad for her daughters, my four aunts who visited with her every day, helping her shop and cook meals.
I was surprised when I had my first dream about Ahmma. In Chinese culture, there’s a sense of honor when a deceased relative appears to you and not another person. I viewed myself as low on the priority list. In the dream, I was back at Ahmma’s house in Taiwan and she was standing in the galley kitchen washing something in the sink. It was an utterly ordinary scene except I am the age I am now, not a little girl. I walked by her. I did not slow down and offer to help. She was almost invisible. The image of an old woman laboring in the kitchen is so familiar, like a worn kitchen appliance on the counter still whirring on command.
I called my mom and asked, “Is it a good omen?”
“She needs help,” my mom said. “She needs something in the afterlife. How did she look? Was she hungry or cold?”
I was ashamed to say I didn’t notice.
At a traditional Chinese funeral, mourners burn paper money in outrageous denominations—ten thousand dollars! One million dollars!—so the deceased can live comfortably in the afterlife. They even sell pre-packaged paper mâché replicas of opulent houses, luxury sedans, iPhones, and clothing. Many families keep a small altar in their home where there is always fresh fruit and incense. They chant daily for their blessings and protection. I remember the phrase: bao you wo men. Protect us.
What did she need? A ghostly pomelo moving through the space-time continuum? I’m skeptical of the whole offering bit; it’s the kind of juvenile transaction I see between my kids. The trades seem laughably unfair: “I’ll give you this bowl of rice for a lifetime of prosperity and happiness!” Even still, I called my dad who lives in Taiwan and told him to visit her tomb.
“Remember that story I was telling you about Ahmma?” I asked my daughter.
“The one with the creepy snake?”
“Yeah, I had a dream about her.”
I expected my daughter to say, “So?” as it was, admittedly, an anti-climactic dream. Instead, she asked, “How do you know it was her?”
My daughter had a point. I never saw a face in the dream. The woman at the sink had an average build topped off with the same permed hairdo a lot of elderly Asian women wear. I don’t remember her clothing, only that it was my Ahmma’s house in Taiwan. She could have been another old Asian woman. Maybe I was even seeing myself in forty years.
Perhaps Ahmma wasn’t trying to be enigmatic. She was in the kitchen doing a normal, everyday chore. Maybe washing the wax apples and star fruits she used to bring me. How many small expressions of love do we miss? They are so plentiful and constant they are almost rendered invisible.
If it seems like I’m forcing this dream to mean something, it’s because I am. I used to think if something was truly meaningful, it would be obvious. But as I’m searching and trying to remember, I feel this yearning is an act of love. I want it to connect me not only to Ahmma but also to Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Yong Ae Yue, Hyun Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, Suncha Kim, Xiao Zhen Xie, and Vilma Kari. My initial instinct is to view them as a huddled mass. When I do, I am struck by a profound sense of loss that we didn’t come to know them through their moments in the light, but only in a state of emergency. What would we realize if we saw them doing the normal, everyday human things? Maybe the boundary disappears. Showing up at work to be able to send money to your parents thousands of miles away. Walking to church, your chosen community. Pulling a shopping cart full of groceries to cook a family meal.
“Most people are good,” I told my kids after they caught me crying.
I am wrong to think of these women as a huddled mass. I have watched the video of Xiao Zhen Xie, the seventy-five-year-old grandma who beat her attacker with a wooden plank in San Francisco, so many times. I hope Ahmma would have reacted like her. I could see her screaming with venom spewing from her mouth, not giving a damn how wild she looked. Like she did when she confronted my grandfather in front of the whole family about his extramarital affairs. Xiao Zhen Xie’s attacker was already on a gurney in the video. My Ahmma would have slipped in a few more egregious shots while he was strapped down.
In the aftermath of the attack, Xiao Zhen Xie’s family raised one million dollars for her medical expenses, but she insisted on donating it back to fight Asian racism. Would Ahmma have done the same? I think she would have kept the money and made all of her descendants wait. She’d see who doted on her best in her old age and give that child or grandchild the bounty.
I laugh going over this dream again. My conniving, petty, beastly Ahmma. Haunting me in some ambiguous way for forgetting about her. She’s making me work for it.
Watch me, Ahmma! I’m middle-aged but I’ve got the wisdom of a ten-year-old girl who thinks she deserves the world and all its fruits, pleasures, and protection. I’m middle-aged but I’ve got the heart of proud, hardened elder who insists on triumphing. They want to hate us, but I’ll make them hate themselves first. I have all the one-hundred-dollar bills you ever gave me and if they come for us, I’ll fling the money at them.
Throw your head back and laugh as they crawl after it like dogs, the paper twirling and floating down like cherry blossoms who have had enough of being sweet and pretty.
Rumpus original art by Susan Ito.