Category Archives: Home & Family

Courage, caution: shaken, not stirred

My grandma was hardy and tough, bold enough to sneak out in the evenings to attend night classes in a time and place where girls were not granted education rights. Solid enough to blink back tears at the age of nine when her father hit her on the head for not cooking the porridge perfectly. Zany enough to catch a live cockroach in her hand and fling it out of the window while my grandpa and I looked on, glad it wasn’t us doing the disgusting deed. Plucky enough to stop live crabs from getting away from her in the kitchen sink, and to turn them into a delicious dinner for us all.

She was also sharp and full of common sense, forward-thinking and clever. She could taste a dish at a restaurant and quickly work out how to reproduce it at home; she had a solid memory; she was skilled in all aspects of homemaking; she wore bright red lipstick and modern outfits and travelled with ease; she once cooked for 80 people, to celebrate my grandpa’s birthday.

She was a woman with both charm and a startling temper which could descend on you without warning. She loved working with her hands – cooking for her family, always putting meals on the table no matter who was in or out that night; sewing pyjamas for us; smacking me when I got unruly; brushing my hair and braiding it. She made food to take to the temple as offerings for the gods. She loved to play mah-jong with friends and family. She rarely sat still, except in the afternoons when she sometimes took a short nap, or in the evenings when her favourite sitcoms were playing on TV.

Notions of what it meant to be a wife and mother drove her, work and duties were ingrained into her daily routine. Strongly anchored to that love was a sense of fear and needing to protect us from any harm. Growing up as a child under the roof of a father who loved boys but not girls, into a young woman living amidst the horrors of war during the Japanese Occupation, to a woman who had ambition but not the opportunity to do more beyond marry and have children … she was one of many women in her time who relied on marriage as a means of survival, as she had no education or way to make a living. Her children were her everything. Her love was both warm and assuring, and smothering.

Though she never said this to me, I eventually came to suspect that her world was an unsettling one, where the most we could do was control how things went at home and be morally upright so we might be spared punishment from the gods. She worked hard to do the right thing in every situation, to make all the right offerings at the temple, to pray to the gods for protection for our family.

With her lips she cautioned me against the many dangers of the world. Don’t walk outside alone at night. Don’t catch a cold in the rain. No jumping off that seat, it’s too high. Eat your rice, or each grain left on your plate will become a pimple on your husband’s face. Be careful, don’t mess with a man before you get married, or you may get pregnant and he will leave you. She told me stories of her past, she hoped I would have a better life and be able to help look after her when she got old.

From her I learned that it was good to be beautiful, but not to be too beautiful or a man might take advantage of you. It was important, as a girl, to marry not just for love, but for practicality. It was vital to always look after yourself, as no one else might. It was good to help others, but not too much in case your family was left with not enough.

Towards the end of her life illness and disappointment had worn her down; fear had come in the way of her once ringing laughter, and I was afraid of her bitterness and anger. I found myself feeling irrationally angry with a woman I once loved inviting over to our place to ‘sleepover’ in my room; whose tickles once made early mornings bearable; whose meals I always looked forward to with anticipation.

* * *

In the course of working on a book, I found myself tracing love’s story, love’s journey, love’s lessons … I found myself remembering my grandma. Early days. Late days. Times in the kitchen when she’d lovingly chase me out so she could fry food in hot oil for dinner. Times in the lounge when she’d talk and I’d wriggle out of her arms, tired of hearing a story *again*.

I found myself smiling and crying as I wrote the above … recalling moments in which it was easy to feel love for her, and moments when it was really tough to even like her.

But that is family, and love. So simple and yet sometimes so complex when you are that close to someone. Sometimes the love you share with someone brings you warm fuzzies. Sometimes it brings hurt and makes you mad. Sometimes it makes you question … makes you think about who you want to be. 

I love her so very much, and on many days I miss her. 

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A reason to love

This post was written as an assignment for a writing course I am currently doing (and enjoying): 15 Days of Writing True.

Category: A reason to love

This photo of my husband and I was a ‘selfie’ snapped on a recent trip to Thailand, on a khlong boat en route to Pratunam in Bangkok.

I hadn’t wanted to travel by boat. It was hot, muggy, and I wished my husband would just hop into a cab with me. I resented our different views around money and convenience in that moment.

We were in Bangkok, where I’d spent some time in previously. It was my husband’s first visit to the city. I hadn’t seen *everything*, but I thought I knew something about getting around.

On this day we had just checked in to this apartment, with a few hours to go before we were due to go for dinner on a boat. I had made a reservation online and was anxious that we get there on time. At the apartment, I realised the BTS (train) station was further away than I’d thought it would be. I sent a message to the guy who owned the Airbnb apartment we were staying at to ask him what the best way to get to our destination was. He made a few suggestions, including catching a ‘ferry’ behind our condo.

I’d never heard of any other boat service which operated outside of the ones on the Chao Phraya River, and looking around it seemed unlikely to me that there would be boats of any sort around where we were.

But we walked out to find it, and we found it quicker than I expected us to. It was a little dirty and confusing. I saw no clear signs, certainly not for English speakers. No staff. No foreigners. No ticketing system. I looked online for answers which I did not find. A boat arrived, and then another … from the opposite direction. The boats were so speedy, the people who got on and off so nimble. A lady we approached told us in halting English the direction that we should take and that it would take roughly 40 minutes to get to where we wanted to go (after which we would still have to transit to other mediums of transport).

It felt too hard and unnecessary – so I suggested trying out the boat another time. (Secretly, I didn’t mind if we didn’t).

We took a taxi to the BTS station that night.

The next day, my husband suggested a walk by the water. So after breakfast we walked back there, passing a live fire drill (complete with real fire and extinguishers) on the way. This time we crossed the bridge to the other side and kept walking alongside the canal.

My ears felt strange. Then I realised it was quiet and peaceful. Just across the road were tall skyscrapers, luxurious condos, the sound of traffic … here, life by the river followed an entirely different rhythm. We walked past a few street hawkers, who didn’t interact with us as hawkers in more touristy areas do – they simply stood by their stalls without trying to sell us anything. We saw men working with electrical equipment, efficiently but seemingly totally relaxed – some had no safety goggles on. Every few steps we experienced something else. A plant garden which took me by surprise. Beautiful graffiti. Rubbish floating in the canal. Little eateries, with delicious aromas. Makeshift homes.

I think now of the best word to describe it all, and unexpectedly the word that emerges is ‘harmony’, which is not to say that I don’t think people there struggle or face challenges. But somehow, the air carried no feeling of tension or strife.

I saw people who lived and worked peacefully, quietly, hidden away in a corner of this huge metropolis. I wondered about them, and I wondered about what I’d do, how I’d live, in their shoes. I gazed at the lovely bunches of pink bougainvillea which someone had thought to line the sides of the smelly canal with.

Beauty in the midst of imperfection.

I walked on, next to my husband. I was enjoying the walk by this stage, but I knew that if I’d come alone, I wouldn’t have had the courage to keep walking on.

Eventually, we got to the next jetty, diagonally across the road from the one we’d walked to the day before. When our boat arrived, it was surprisingly easy to get on. It was entirely fuss-free, despite the clear fact that no one here spoke fluent English, and neither of us spoke Thai beyond a few very basic phrases. The boat was fast, yet calming. Most on the boat appeared to be locals, and accepting of us as foreigners. Whenever the water level got high, people at the sides pulled on ropes to raise plastic sheets on both sides of the boat up, keeping us all dry. I marvelled yet again at the resourcefulness and simplicity in this city. We got to the central area in 15 minutes. The ride had cost us, in our local currency, 50 cents.

My husband grinned quite a lot. He loved it. And I realised what we had almost missed out on when I was focusing on convenience, what I thought was best, pride, etc. I realised I had enjoyed the boat experience too … a little adventure I would never have discovered and experienced without him.