Musings of a Staunch Hakka

The inimitable Fei Chen, bitten by the writing bug has contributed a number of articles for my blog. Here she is again, unabashedly enthusiastic about her “Hakka-ness.”

A jewel in the Chen family

We are born social creatures. From the moment we arrive on this earth, we blink with tears of joy and turn on high octave voices to attract love and affection. Emma Lily Chen, my first grandniece, arrived into the Chen family on March 17th, 2015, which is also St Patrick’s Day. Baby Emma is our symbol of love, hope and joy. She is like a pearl engaging us with her beauty. She stirs our thoughts and brings the family together with joy, conversation and laughter.

If I were…

Imagine being in my shoes for a moment—I was excited to attend a reading by C Fong Hsiung, so I arrived at the reading an hour before the scheduled time. I toured my surroundings with curiosity, wonder and fascination. Two love birds sat on an aluminum bench in the empty University of Toronto stadium, shoulder to shoulder, sharing secrets in that open space, showing off their youth and their carefree spirits. They reminded me of my younger self decades ago.

Fifteen minutes before the scheduled reading time I hurried to the second floor of the OISE building feeling like an obedient goody-goody student. As I was about to enter the room, an orator with curly hair and bewildered eyes greeted me. She said “You must be Fong.” I replied: “How I wish I were Fong!”

If I were Fong, I would bury my head under the sand like an ostrich and simply write and write and write. I have earned my experiences and knowledge through life’s journey, be they good, okay, or yet to be discovered. Perhaps I will let my stories fan out like the beautiful feathers of a fanciful peacock.

Fanciful musings aside

We now have history in the making right in the midst of our Hakka family. We are an opinionated culture, critical among ourselves, and often indulge in gossip that gets us into trouble and emotional turmoil. At the same time, I realize that these very same spoken words, emotions, culture, traditions and our language help us to connect with one another and blossom. During this past Mother’s Day celebration, the Lee twin sisters and many other sponsors put together a special luncheon for the Hakka community. During that meeting, Shaun Chen identified himself as a Liberal Party candidate for the upcoming federal election. We wish Shaun great success in our great Canadian democracy.

Go Shaun Go!!!

A Piece of SKY…Food for Thought

Fei Chen has been featured in these blog posts several times. This one is her latest about the Hakka culture.

Sky“Everybody has a piece of Sky over their head. 每人頭上有一頂天.”? My sister said to me at times of uncertainty. I’m comforted that Sky or 天 protects and looks after all of us. Sky and I have formed a very special bond. With my head turned up to the blue Sky, I whisper my secrets and joys and deposit all my imaginary treasures in that heavenly space.

Not everyone is lucky to have a sister to look out for them or to impart words of wisdom. 每人頭上有一頂天. Many years ago when we ventured out to North America, we faced unknowns and other obstacles.? I was lucky that during such times, I had and still have my sister with whom I can share my inner-most thoughts, my joys and my doubts.

Now that the snow has melted away, at the crack of dawn I am once again able to venture outside in the open spaces in search of my hidden treasures and to reconnect with my piece of Sky 天.

Sky : In our Hakka culture we refer to Sky-天 as our supreme celestial power from which we draw our physical and mental well-being.? When I was young, I used to accompany my grandmother to climb four long flights of stairs to the pinnacle where our revered temple or 聖帝公公 is located in Pei-Mei High school, Calcutta, India.? Our rickshaw-wala carried our wicker baskets filled with food prepared by my mom. These we offered to our God. I watched my grandmother bow to the open Sky first, holding lighted incense sticks, before she commenced her prayers.

Chef Wong

Food for thought: Just as food forms the main part of our offerings to God, food brings us together at our Hakka community gatherings. The delicious flavor of food leaves us with more sweet thoughts about ourselves and the people we shared the feast with.? In our last Hakka social gathering we were privileged to have Chef Paul Wong 黃正傑 join us and demonstrate how to make Northern Chinese dumplings. Our very own Hakka Chef Paul! He was chatty and full of humour while he did a “show and tell” of this savory authentic Chinese cuisine which not only satisfied our appetite, but also stimulated our brains.

bon appétit !!!

Mighty Sun and Its Reflection

Mighty Sun

Fei Chen is the?guest blogger for this post.

Beauty from my backyard:

Sunrise is a natural phenomenon that occurs every 24 hours.? I watch its ascend over the water from the best seat on Earth,—the beach behind my house—a visual feast for the naked eye. It pleases my senses to see the red hot ball of fire spiral out of a huge body of shimmering water that is Lake Ontario. Gently and gracefully it lifts itself out of the water leaving me just enough time to glimpse its reflection, before going on to share its solar powers with the world.

I was lucky enough to capture that precise moment with my iPad and it is my pleasure to share that picture with you.

Life is a journey:

Each sunrise marks a new day in our journey through life. When we reach the end of this trip, Buddhist conventions bring our family members, relatives and friends together. We congregate to support each other for the loss of our loved one and to pray for the departing soul’s smooth crossover.

Recently I had the privilege of sitting down in the memoriam hall of our Buddhist temple to pray for 姑丈 (Uncle), my 愛容姑’s husband who passed away.? The monks led us in solemn prayer service. The gong bell dinged at intervals accompanied by the occasional drum-beat during the monks’ rhythmic chanting. We burned incense to help the departing soul accelerate into the path of eternal peace.

During my meditation, I glimpsed my departed grandparents’ and my father’s plaques, which hung on the memoriam wall. I could not help but contemplate my own mortality. Memories of our unconditional family bonds crept into my mind to remind me of how lucky and privileged we were. These reflections of my extended family also left me with many bittersweet stories of days gone by. In that brief waking moment, I realized that life is simply a journey and we are the passengers.

Power of Yoga:

Just as my visit to the Buddhist temple to pray and meditate for departed loved ones can feed my spiritual soul, so does practicing Yoga. Yoga is a Sanskrit word meaning discipline in mind, body and spirit. There are many forms of Yoga practice, and the beauty of it is that you can do it on your own with your own purpose in mind. I love Yoga as it allows me to detach myself from everything and work with nothingness. I can sink into my inner self, to find my own solace, embrace my surroundings and connect with my cheerful side.


2015 – Year of the Goat

Year of the Goat

Fei Chen, the author of this post has been a guest here?a few times. If you enjoy reading this, you may like her other posts:?Why You Should Celebrate Your Life and In Memory of a Neighbor.

Goat, sheep, lamb—domestic livestock. They’ve provided us with food, clothing, symbolism, and even memories for centuries.

?Food and Religious Offerings:

My earliest memory of a goat came from my grand-mother who was the matriarch of the Chen family. Small in stature but big in ideologies, she believed in building a successful business and keeping her family comfortable. My grandmother owned a leather-tanning business that employed local natives. These spiritual locals believed in offering live goats as sacrifices (Puja) to please God in return for His blessing to all humankind.? Every year my grandmother obliged her employees with a live goat. They also got a day off to perform their ritual—a gesture that made everyone happy as it also provided meat for a tasty curry. ?This is something that I value most about communal living.

?Memories with My Children:

Ba Ba black sheep—life was a merry-go-round when I was raising my two kids. I learned with them, ate with them, and sang nursery rhymes with them. We learned how to count, do arithmetic, and memorize our times tables the old-fashioned way.? My children—full of fun—filled me with joy as they still do to this day.

?Passengers in Noah’s Ark:

The Book of Genesis says that Noah’s Ark drifted in the Flood when God sent heavy rainfall for forty days and forty nights. On board this vessel were pairs of every animal. So of course, goats would have been among the chosen ones—living undisturbed and happily in the Ark. Though there is no physical proof of Noah’s Ark, the story prevails. It continues to flourish and to entertain our imagination of a legendary Ark atop Mount Ararat in Lebanon.

?2015 Lunar Year of the Goat:

February 19, 2015 is our Lunar New Year and millions of people around the globe will be celebrating the New Year on that New-Moon day.? The traditions, beliefs, and culture pass on from generation to generation reminding us of who we are and where we come from.

Happy New Year! 恭喜癹財!

Why You Should Celebrate Your Life


This is a guest post written by Fei Chen. She writes thought-provoking pieces about life mainly for herself, and?now I’m honoured to have her share some of her thoughts here.

Celebration of Life: I recently attended the funeral of our neighbor, 敬元哥 who lived to be 98 years old, or 102 years according to the lunar calendar.?Instead of tears, his descendants greeted me with smiles. I was surprised, but pleased when one of his grandchildren explained that since her grandfather had passed on after 90, rather than mourn his death, our Indian Hakka community should celebrate his life.

In our conscious state we don’t spend enough time celebrating our lives. Instead we constantly plan, busily organize our calendars, and work like restless bees to acquire tangible assets. We do this to feed our physical needs, trying our best to achieve our set goals: this is what I call “a sequence of our life journey.” You see, our parents instilled in us these values of hard work and responsibility for ourselves. In turn I tell my children to follow the same mantra: go to university, earn degrees, find a good paying job, and settle down to a stable life just like the vast majority.

But we don’t have to follow the masses. I once watched a prominent actress on TV say, “What if a turtle has wings…” She made me put on my thinking cap, and I realized that humans have multidimensional brains. We think, react, and perform sequentially, but we can also step out of our comfort zone and think virtually and dream in the abstract.

Life is a Process:? I believe every one of us is born with a unique gift to prepare and equip us for our survival, challenges, and expectations.? Often we lose our faith when we battle opposing strong currents; then we are forced to take refuge to reassess our priorities. ?Once we recognize and discover that sparkle and joy of life, however long it may take, we say, “OH WOW!!!”

Two Hakka Matriarchs Remembered: I immensely enjoyed reading C Fong Hsiung’s book Picture Bride recently. I appreciated the stories and the characters in the book that carried me back 35 years ago. In the scene where the Fong described Jillian’s grand-mother’s big 70th birthday bash, I couldn’t help but picture the author’s own grand-mother 亜球伯姆 and my grand-mother who were best friends while I was growing up in Tangra, Calcutta. 亜球伯姆 and my grand-mother were two matriarchs, close associates, and just like “two peas in a pod.”? When I was a teenager, I used to accompany these two old ladies during their Tuesday matinees at the cinemas. I’d overhear their conversations, and found their friendship and sisterhood truly remarkable.

Full Circle: As I stood in front of the lifeless body of 敬元哥 to pay my last respect, despite the smiling faces around me, emotionally I felt sad, and physically I felt empty and hollow. But then I wondered, “What if 敬元哥’s soul has crossed over, and my grand-mother and my dad greeted him on the other side?” Is there actually life after death?? What if there is a subconscious state where our souls fly to eternity when they depart from our physical bodies, and so on and on…

In Memory of a Neighbor


Guest Post by Fei Chen

The neighbors from my childhood home have great bonds with my mother and love for her. We lived in communal surroundings in Calcutta, India where we cared, joked, and had fun together after long and sweaty work days. We respected the elders, loved the children, looked out for one another and often shared our food together. I have come to the conclusion that it is that sharing of food that glues our human feelings, bonds our emotions, and feeds our spiritual needs. In retrospect, in the old days we did not have a typical social structure; instead each family was like a cloister, compelled to cobweb ourselves in a tight and close-knit environment, and ultimately that kinship and social behavior became the cradle for our norm.

Last summer 月雲姊 and 緆芳哥 came from the United States to visit their friends and families in Toronto. My sister was with us at that time and I had the privilege of sitting down with them for lunch. 緆芳哥 wittily said to me with a mischievous smile, “Munchu said hello to you!” At that moment his tone of voice and his facial expression resonated with my childhood memories of Munchu. He was a street vendor who sold me numerous helpings of junk food in our old neighborhood of Tangra, also called Dhappa. This was a place where all Hakka people knew each other’s affairs and family histories. In that place we created our live comedies, laughing at other’s visible disabilities and immaturities without malice. We laughed out loud and then instantly shook off the scene and moved on to the next stage of life. We carried no menace, threats or physical harm to others.

Our ancestors like many others, left China and settled in Calcutta, India around the time when communism was in its incubation. Also we Hakka are adventurous and free-spirited people. I have witnessed my parents overcome ups and downs in different venture capital businesses. Yet they came out of their hardships, cheerful and triumphant, and always learned from their mistakes while they moved on.

緆芳哥 and his family were our family friends, and they were living in our compound long before I was born. To this day they still communicate with my mother. A short time ago while I was at my mom’s place for lunch, the phone rang, and it was 月雲姊 and 緆芳哥 saying hello. Then a few weeks later we were notified that 緆芳哥 had passed away. We are sad to lose one of our true friends from our inner circle.

Life is fragile. Everybody measures, values and loves life differently. I like to quote from our spiritual leader Dalai Lama and how he sees life: “Love and Compassion.”

The Homecoming

The Homecoming


Sanjula Sharma

First published in a collection of stories, The Cameo Sheaves, by the same author.
Publisher: Ambience Publishing, New Delhi, India

What reinforcement we may gain from hope,
If not, what resolution from despair.

— Milton

Evening Scene(blog)I

It was one of those rare summer evenings that generously lent a soft breeze to cool the nerves and check the oppressive heat. Nothing was depressingly still, yet there was a calm quiet that was soothing. Mother Nature was at her kindest best, delving deep into her generous bounty to placate sweaty brows and frayed nerves. And wipe off the brows of slumberous languor. In short, this was an atypical July evening with no heat.

Ved stood at the window, quiet as the falling dusk itself, an earnest expression on his aging but striking face. He had turned forty-five that day. Not that it mattered, for what was a birthday but just another milestone in man’s humdrum life? At least, that’s what Ved Mehta thought. Or rather, would have liked to believe.

Sober, unassuming and suave, Ved was content with reasonable wealth that had always been ubiquitous in his pampered life. He craved little for a slice of the material consumerism that had become an integral part of urban India in the nineties. Fortunately, his faithful and lovely wife shared his altruistic vision of a slow-paced, comfortable life. Happy with a beautiful house in the quiet town of Dehradun, an exceptionally well-planned front garden and a close circle of like-minded friends, Nina let life drift by, quite indifferent to its uneventfulness. But today, as she sat in the large living room, chatting quietly with their new neighbor, she glanced towards her husband with an uneasy expression on her face. She sensed a familiar restlessness in him and instinctively understood why…


She will be here soon, he thought, eyes fixed on the gravelled path lined with the season’s late gerberas. They were changing colour now as the sun dipped lower into the horizon, gracefully and splendidly retiring for the night. Evening time was always beautiful in this Valley town at the foothills of the majestic Himalayas—slow-paced, sombre and soft. But strangely Nature’s charisma failed to rejuvenate Ved as he stood still at the window. Insensitive to the natural panorama unfolding before him, Ved had eyes only for the front gate, knowing it would open soon…

He could feel a familiar excitement rise up within him, pervade his senses with fervent longing. He could barely contain the mounting happiness that was flooding his being, could barely stand still with the impatience of feeling so alive….He had waited so long for this special moment. Dreamt of it since months! The homecoming of his beloved daughter.

“Papa!” Her clear, sweet voice floated across the manicured stretch of lush green lawn. Untidy hair blowing in the balmy breeze, light-footed as a hare, she raced towards the house, uncaring for her disheveled appearance, or her bag flung carelessly near the front gate. She rushed into the drawing room with a characteristic clatter, bringing in with her all the excitement and natural liveliness of a seventeen-year old.

“Papa! Mummy! I’m home!” Anamika announced, breathless and flushed. She kissed her mother lovingly and then ran towards Ved, “Papa! Happy birthday, my dearest Papa!” She hugged him tight with the natural spontaneity of youth and produced a bouquet of red roses from behind her back—the stems broken, leaves crushed and soft petals torn asunder—but to Ved’s partial eyes, simply perfect!

“Gosh! It’s so good to be home! Did you miss me as much as I did?” Anamika demanded, prancing around the room in high excitement, peering out at the falling darkness. Soon, tired and restless, she almost tumbled onto the newly upholstered sofa, launching into an incessant chatter. Of course, she had plenty to say, coming home after almost eight months from her university hostel in Delhi. Her mother sat smiling, indulging in her child’s vivacious chatter and admiring her husband’s equanimity in the face of this verbal onslaught.

“It’s such a lovely evening! Let’s have the birthday dinner on the lawn, please Mummy!” Anamika pleaded, as she rushed upstairs to her room for a quick wash. By the time an elaborate dinner was laid out under the gently swaying jacaranda trees Anamika had met everybody in the house, including Frisky, the newest addition to the family kennel.

“He’s so sweet!” she declared, hugging the little ball of Pomeranian fur. She had changed into her favourite pair of old jeans and a comfortable blue shirt. Plain, ordinary clothes that still made her look extraordinary…for they could not take away the brightness of her large, expressive eyes or the endearing sweetness of her youthful face. Nor the unsullied purity of her loving heart.

“Papa, that chair is not comfortable enough. Sit on this one,” she insisted, willingly vacating the lounge chair for him. Her mother laughed, knowing this gesture was setting the note for the entire summer break. Adoring daughter would pamper her devoted father with unceasing attention and undisputed zest. Anamika served Ved his food now, just the way he liked it—a little of one dish, a dash of that. No heaped plateful for him. Tonight he could hardly eat, so full was he with the presence of his beloved daughter. His wife chided him gently for just pecking at the Kheer, the special milk and rice dessert that was an eternal favourite of the Mehta family.

“Papa! You’re looking much too thin, you know!” Anamika pronounced suddenly, her beautiful eyes filled with anxious concern. “Hasn’t he lost weight, Mummy?”

“I haven’t lost even a kilo!” Ved protested indignantly, yet secretly revelling in the sweet ministrations of his only child. Of course, she was not satisfied till Babu, their old helper, brought out the ancient weighing machine and Ved reluctantly agreed to perch precariously on it.

“There!” Anamika shouted triumphantly. “Two whole kilos and you don’t even know! I can never be wrong about you, dearest Papa.” She got up suddenly to give him an affectionate hug. He hugged her back, bleary-eyed and smiling at his wife.

It was past midnight when they decided to go into the house. They rose slowly, reluctant to leave the sylvan darkness, the warm dregs of shared tea and their sweet intimacy behind…Theirs was a magical family bond that always came alive with Anamika’s sweet presence. Her coming home was the highlight of the Mehtas’ existence. She filled the house with so much laughter and bubbling spirits, it was impossible not to feel animated when she was around. She was life’s greatest blessing to them and like always, Ved realised this more than ever on his birthday.

Like an angel treading softly on earthly ground, Anamika tiptoed into her parents’ bedroom that night and customarily left their gifts quietly on the side-table. She did this always; had done so ever since she was a child and went away, even if for a day.

In keeping with the ritual, Ved pretended to be asleep, not wanting to spoil her childish pleasure at the planned surprise. She had a right on all their feelings, even one of pretended delight!

Anamika had barely left the room, having done her angel act when Ved switched on the lamp and quietly unwrapped his birthday gift, not wanting to disturb his sleeping wife. Elegantly framed in nonreflecting glass and beautifully painted was a striking imitation of Monet’s celebrated work—the Water Lilies. His darling child had painted this herself, knowing this was his favourite piece of art; he could never afford the original or be satisfied with its reprint. The soft lamp-light fell on the pristine white flowers enhanced by the background of blue water and splendid verdure…Ved’s aesthetic eye could see much beyond the bold strokes, and their amateurism and he realised at once how much toil and sweet labour had gone into creating this beautiful painting. Only for him.

Eyes moist, he turned the painting over, instinctively knowing she would explain her loving act. “Dear Papa, I took almost three months to complete this! Each stroke is a reflection not of art or beauty, but something beyond that—my unfailing regard for you.” She had done it again. Performed her coup de love. Expressed her affection for him in a manner that could only be unique, for it came straight from her generous, unspoilt heart. He held the painting aloft, against the light, and it was as if the inanimate lilies came alive and spoke to him. Not of their own beauty or the supreme inspiration of their original artist, but the unmatchable quintessence of his beloved child.

Holding the painting lovingly in his hands, he went downstairs and made his way to his favourite nook in the living room. There, near the armchair, hung an English landscape on the wall—pretty but now worthless in comparison to what he was holding in his hands. “This is mere art, not life,” he muttered, as he quickly removed the reprint of Turner to replace with his precious gift. Then, sighing deeply with contentment, he stood back to admire it. This priceless masterpiece from her loving hands…


He couldn’t see it. Couldn’t see the Water Lilies at all. Startled, he rubbed his eyes in disbelief and looked again. Moments passed, as he stood there, unmoving, just gazing helplessly at the blank wall. Its harsh emptiness mocked him; its silent, characterless whitewash shook him out of his stunned stupor. Slowly a look of sad understanding dawned on his wan face. The excited glow left his eyes and in its stead remained two dark pools of unfathomable pain.

From her sofa, Nina anxiously watched her husband and saw his sudden change of expression. Tears filled her eyes and she explained sadly to her companion, “It has always been this way with him. He’s never stopped pining for the daughter we never had.”

She excused herself and the guest left, knowing the couple needed their privacy. Nina walked up to her silent husband, gently took his limp hand in hers and whispered softly, “She’ll never come, you know. There’s to be no homecoming.”

She was familiar with her husband’s recurring birthday dream, understood it and even felt it. Long into the quiet evening, they stood together at the window, watching the sun go down on their hopes, knowing no light-hearted step would ever resound on their gravelled path. No sweet voice ever fill the emptiness of their large house or the silent corners of their sad hearts…like always, she was the first to move but not away. Self-consciously but fervently, she hugged him tight and for the first time said what she had always wanted, all those long, barren years, “Anamika can never be. But let’s find a rainbow…just you and me.”

Ved gave her a long, thoughtful look and then smilingly, pointed silently towards the cloudless sky. There, shining like a king among the eternal beacons of the night, was the full moon. Nina gazed at it and then at Ved in amazement. Never on all his previous birthdays had he looked at anything but his own heavy heart, always comforting himself in the solitude of their room and the darkness of his gloomy thoughts. Letting a total eclipse shroud the intimacy they otherwise shared…

But now, he led her gently towards his favourite corner, pointed to the blank wall and said, “I think I could paint the Water Lilies sometime…maybe tomorrow.”

Nina heard the quiet resolve in his strong voice and for the first time in many years, felt a flicker of hope. His dream of a homecoming had finally ended.


Image URI:?

30-Day Book Marketing Challenge: What an Experience

A Free Course, Reblog-hop-150x150ally

Is anything really free these days? The only thing I can think of is the air that we breathe. But wait, let me tell you about D’vorah Lansky’s 30-Day Book Marketing Challenge. Not only was it free, it DELIVERED…day after day during the thirty days. And the best part of it all…you don’t need to spend a cent if you don’t want to and still get the full benefit of the course. Did I get your attention yet?

Converting a Skeptic

I started out as a skeptic. How much can I really learn from a free course? You heard the saying before: “You get what you pay for.” Well, not this time. D’vorah packed so much content into the 30-Day Challenge that I could barely keep up. I stayed up late at night listening to the webinars and constantly reading the great variety of materials provided. The posts teased and pushed my brain to its limit. How do I get the best out of all these marketing tips? So many to choose from, and I still have a day job to do.

My Ah-ha Moment

On Day 18 of the Challenge, I listened to Kristen Eckstein speak about serializing books on Kindle. I knew right there and then that I’d found a strategy that would suit me perfectly. My fiction, Picture Bride, will be published by a traditional publisher during fall 2014. I don’t have a book out yet, but I have many short stories that I’m still editing. Why not release some of these stories as a series on Kindle? And for my free giveaway for anyone signing up on my website, I started to write an ebook called How to Stir the Writing Fire in Your Belly.

I was on fire. I signed up for Kristen’s Kindle in 30 Challenge for the discounted rate of $97. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, you don’t have to pay for anything if you don’t want to. I’ve just started this course and hoping to self-publish my first ebook soon.

About My Novel

Picture Bride is about a young Hakka Chinese girl from India who marries a cold and aloof stranger in Canada. Bound by tradition and culture, she stays in the marriage despite his uncaring ways and even after she discovers his secret. Then when she is forced to flee, she is spurned by her father who cares only about his honor and reputation.

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My Namesake…My Challenge

How convoluted can your name get? If you have a couple of minutes, I’ll tell you my story.

When I was born, my parents promptly named me and registered my birth just like any law-abiding citizens. What’s so unusual about that? It’s a big deal—given that we’re talking about living in India during a time when many Chinese births were not registered until years later.

Owning an accurate birth certificate was quite an accomplishment…it was, until my parents decided to change part of my name before I enrolled for kindergarten at the local Chinese school. Apparently my generational name—the one that was common to all my sisters, unborn at the time—was in conflict with one of our ancestors in China. My parents didn’t think it was necessary to update my birth certificate though.

The curve ball came when I went to an English school at eight—earlier than most other Hakka Chinese kids my age. Rather than use my birth name, I was enrolled with my revised name spelled phonetically. One could argue that my high school certificate is not mine.

Another twist came about when we were allowed to become legal Indian citizens. The birth certificate became an important document. Only problem was that the person preparing my application added an alias. Now here was the perfect opportunity to right all that was wrong, but no…that would have made too much sense. I’ll spare you the details—fodder for another blog perhaps—of how a butchered sound-alike of my name was included into my citizenship documents.

When I immigrated to Canada, I reverted back to my legal given name registered at birth…until I got married and adopted my husband’s surname…but that’s the least convoluted part of this story.

The Hakka Moral Police

The Hakka self-righteousness was in its full glory, bestowed upon an unlikely victim—one of my sisters, a university professor.

An anonymous self-appointed moral police—obviously the cowardly kind—sent a letter to my sister via her mother-in-law. The writer admonished my sister for displaying inappropriate behaviour in public—the reason, she shakes her leg sometimes when she’s seated. Now I don’t know about anybody, but I often shake my leg unconsciously too. It’s not a jerky movement. Okay really, do I even need to justify it?

Another sister, the one who hopes to write an expose′ on humour in everyday stuff that bugs her, thinks the motions may actually benefit the body if one considers any physical activity better than being inert. Ah… pity…the writer implied that such movements are vulgar and only fit for women who worked in tea and beer houses in the old days in China.

Is there a lesson to be learned here? Apart from giving us a good laugh, the anonymous writer has wasted precious time and energy, especially if he or she is an old…insert whatever you want here. Clearly these people have too much time on their hands. In the writer’s own words, they’ve taken it upon themselves to call out behaviour that is unbecoming, e.g. smoking, drinking, and of course, bouncing legs. Who gave these gossip-mongers the right to sit on the high moral pedestal?

Growing Up In Gentler Times

Photo by P. Maitra
I grew up in Tangra, a suburb of Calcutta now called Kolkata. Throughout my childhood, I don’t think I received more than one toy a year—and that’s likely overstating it. Yet, I’ve never felt like I had a deprived childhood. We entertained ourselves playing with other kids and got creative with anything we could lay our hands on, turning them into make-believe toys. Like the times we pretended to fly with towels tied around the neck in lieu of capes, or sailing paper boats made from newspapers and notebooks—often to my mom’s chagrin.

In those days, my mom always took an afternoon nap. Much like “siesta” time in Spain and Italy, midday during the Calcutta summer is hot and humid, and induced the same heat related inertia in adults, but produced the opposite effect on the kids. During those lazy afternoons, our craziest adventures were to goad each other to perform stupid and risky feats like jumping from the rooftop—albeit a low roof—to a pile of leather shavings on the ground. Of course, we made sure that our parents never found out. Yes, there was hell to pay if we were ever caught.

Those were also gentler times. The community was close-knit. As kids we wandered off from our house everyday in search of playmates. If that bothered my mom, she certainly didn’t force us to stay put. If we didn’t show up at meal times—the whole family always dined together three times daily—she’d walk over to the neighbours’ houses and enquire. Everyone, and I mean everyone, directly or indirectly knew each other. Someone inevitably would have seen us playing somewhere and pass the word on.

If I had allowed my kids to run around the way I did as a child, I would have been considered negligent. Yet my mother was not negligent. We were safe because the entire community took care of us. Now isn’t that saying something about the world we live in today?

On Being Hakka

Why do we Hakka people have this need to have a conference? I don’t know of any other ethnic group that does this type of naval gazing.

A week ago, I attended the Toronto Hakka Conference. 270 people of Hakka origin were at York University for two days of sharing and exploring.

Most of our ancestors left China about a hundred years ago, and scattered all over the world. Now many have converged in Canada and have adopted this country as home. Hakka from India, Jamaica, Malaysia, Mauritius, etc. swapped stories about growing up in our respective countries, and how we continue to pass on our culture and traditions to the next generation.?

But why get in touch with my Hakka Chinese roots now? These last couple of years, as I focus on my writing, I find myself digging deep into my roots. Doing this has forced me to examine my identity and what being Hakka means to me. I’m bursting with stories—the challenge is how to get them out.

So naval gazing or not, the conference certainly reinforced my Hakka pride and reminded me how fortunate we are to be living in this wonderful country where multiculturalism is in the air we breathe.

Ancestor veneration

When I was a kid, ancestor veneration meant treats…candies, cookies, pastries…choice treats.

On special occasions, as a dutiful Hakka Chinese woman, my mother honoured our ancestors with offerings of cooked meats—chicken, pork and fish, fruits and the above-mentioned treats. As far as I was concerned, the tradition was a good excuse for stuffing our faces. The hardest part was resisting the goodies during the days leading up to the appointed date. They looked too irresistible to stay in the deep recesses of my mother’s hiding places. We weren’t allowed to eat them until the ancestors had been properly appeased.

Now that was a contentious point for an outspoken uncle who often said that if the ancestors actually ate the food, this tradition would probably stop. My mother’s response to her brother was if such a thing were to happen, it would reinforce her belief. What is this belief anyway? In my youth I was pretty nebulous about ancestor veneration—just another incense / candle burning ceremony. It wasn’t until it became my turn to carry on the tradition that I started to dig a little deeper inside me to see how I actually felt about it.

Earlier this week, we engaged in some ceremonial veneration acts of our own for my husband’s deceased parents. The occasion—our first granddaughter’s birth a couple of months ago. I tried to explain to our non-Chinese daughter-in-law the significance of the ceremony from my point of view. I believe that the tradition is meant to remind us of our roots, and to help keep the memories of our loved ones alive. For me that’s enough reason to continue the ritual.

Sunday Dim Sum with My Characters

My first novel is gaining some traction as I become more disciplined about my writing. In fact, I’m now over the halfway mark.

When I sit down to write, it’s like there’s never enough time. That’s because I become immersed in my fantasy world, laughing or crying with my characters, tasting their food, feeling their pain, and all that goes on in that sphere. Then before I know it, my train ride comes to an end or it’s time for bed.

This past Sunday afternoon I spent a few hours in the library on an unusually warm and sunny day for March. It seemed too nice outside to be sitting indoors, but I was determined to write. So I picked a window seat that gave me a great view of the park and the entire goings on beyond the glass panes before me. Funny thing was once I started to write, I barely noticed what was happening in the real world. I became the invisible person inside a restaurant watching my heroine and her friends eat dim sum (small servings of Chinese food carted around by servers for patrons to choose) while they discussed their relationships.

Two and a half hours flew by. When I stopped writing, I felt a sense of accomplishment. The thing was, mentally I could have kept going, but for the fact that the library was closing soon and dinner couldn’t be put off. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about taking off like this before to focus on my novel. I highly recommend it and will do it again whenever I can.

Hakka Women Didn’t Bind Their Feet

Hakka women didn’t bind their feet.

I make that statement with pride. Traditionally, up until the early twentieth century, Chinese girls had their feet bound when they were very young. It was a status symbol to have small feet. It was also desirable to walk with a swaying gait. The practice was mainly prevalent amongst the rich whose daughters were assured of marrying into wealthy families where they wouldn’t be expected to work. The disfigured feet made normal walking a challenge.

Hakka women worked side by side with their men. They were warriors as well. I am convinced that a large number of us have inherited our ancestors’ independence and entrepreneurship. Some of the world’s best known Chinese are Hakka. Deng Xiaoping, the leader who opened China to the world was a Hakka, as is Lee Kuan Yew, the longest serving Prime Minister of Singapore. In Canada, the best known daughter of Hakka ancestry is Adrienne Clarkson, the 26th Governor General of Canada.

A Hakka conference occurs every four years in Toronto. 2012 will see another such conference at the end of June. Today there are many Hakka Canadians. While we have assimilated very nicely, nevertheless we are fiercely proud of our heritage.

I Am

I am Canadian. I am Chinese. I am Hakka.

Let’s add another twist. I was born in India, which makes me Indian as well. Confusing? Not really if you’re in my shoes. Looking for diversity and multiculturalism? You’ve found them–right here. The reality is that this is not something that is in my consciousness. These are facts that add to who I am.

Beyond the happy convergence of the physical and environmental circumstances of my being, I consider myself Canadian above all else. I have lived in Canada almost twice as long as I have in my birth country. My only connection to China was a two-week trip in 2010 as a tourist, although I have roots in the Canton province, relatives who are complete strangers to me.

Growing up in India, my first language was Hakka, a Chinese dialect. I went to English schools from the time I was eight. That threw a wrench in my Chinese education and outlook. I think in English, but for some bizarre reason, I count in Hakka as long as I’m doing that in my head. Although all the schools that I attended insisted on teaching Hindi as a second language, my tongue trips without discrimination over every word—and oh, forget about being grammatically correct.

There you have it…my foray into multiculturalism on this beautiful Monday afternoon.

Picture by Jeremy Hsiung

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Happy Lunar New Year’s Day

Happy New Year to all the people who follow the lunar calendar!

Growing up in Calcutta, now renamed Kolkata, India, the Chinese New Year celebrations meant a great deal to me. Like Christmas is to the Western culture, this is the one annual bash that all the Chinese kids look forward to all year long. What makes this event so unique in Kolkata is how the Hakka Chinese has kept the tradition alive despite living away from their homeland in China for over a hundred years.

We were a close-knit community. We lived in a suburb called Tangra in Kolkata. There are still some of our folks left in Tangra. Most of us are now dispersed all over the world, predominantly in North America. Tangra was in its heydays when I was child.

I remember the excitement for the Chinese New Year festivities would start to build weeks before the actual day. Many boys, teens and even adults formed bands for the lion’s dance. Each group made or bought a colourful paper mache lion’s head with a flowing mane and tail. One person held the head while another, the tail. They pranced and danced to drumbeats and cymbals clinking and clanking. The teams practiced for the big day when they would go from house to house showing off their prowess. The procession of the lions would begin sometime after midnight on New Year’s Day.

The big incentive for this night-long celebration was the red lucky pockets of cash doled out to the lion’s dance teams at every house. In addition to being allowed to stay up all night, the kids came away richer. Their pockets were already full from the lucky money their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles handed out to them. New Year’s was a lucrative time for the children.

When I recall those memories, I’m filled with nostalgia. I long to recapture that childish enthusiasm for this wonderful occasion. But as an adult, the wonder is long gone. Caught in the mundane living and doing, I try to keep some of the traditions alive for our kids here in Canada. They will never truly experience Chinese New Year celebrations, Tangra style, but Christmas is a good substitute.