My paternal grandmother (whom I refer as Nai Nai, paternal grandmother in Mandarin) grew up in Keelung, Taiwan. When she was born, her mother (whom I referred to as Ah Zoh, great grandparent in Hokkien) celebrated exuberantly by announcing a feast complete with a slaughtered pig. This was highly unusual, counter-cultural and was seen as extravagant, as Chinese tradition in the 1930s did not particularly value the birth of a daughter, and certainly not with the life of precious livestock, which during those modest economic times, meat would be reserved only for seasonal festivals and other significant milestone celebrations.
But my Ah Zoh had very good reason to celebrate with what others would perceive as excess.
Ah Zoh gave birth to a healthy boy as her firstborn. Soon after, she gave birth to a daughter. This girl (my grandmother’s biological sister) was born in the year of the Tiger, during the night, an especially ominous sign for any traditional Han Taiwanese family at that time. Within the Chinese Zodiac, particularly in its traditional interpretation, a female born in the evening within the year of the Tiger would grow to be uncouth, rebellious, irreverent, zealous, daring, ill-tempered, reckless, and headstrong. In other words, nothing a female “should be”.
For this reason, the age-old Chinese folklore has named these qualities as the “Tiger curse”, suggesting that girls born in the year of the Tiger, particularly at night (the realm of the demons and the unseen – shadow Yin energy) are born with a set of undesirable energetics, leaving them destined to bring bad luck and devastation to their families.
With pressure from her husband’s family, as well as from her own upbringing of subscribing to the Chinese folktale, she gave away her daughter to a peasant family, who welcomed the addition of any child as they would grow to become extra hands who can labour on farms. This practise of giving away “Tiger girls” was not uncommon during those times.
This decision haunted my Ah Zoh. And just as the ancestral Chinese folktale foretold, the Tiger Curse descended upon her body and spirit, not in the way that she expected, but with a sinking guilt and unspeakable betrayal of both her child and herself.
My Ah Zoh conceived again, and gave birth to a stillborn. Another child after that, and he died from a fever before the age of one. Ah Zoh, then upon a visit to her neighbourhood temple, pleaded with her ancestors that the loss of these two boys was sufficient atonement for her personal contributions towards sexism and spiritual distortions.
Then my Nai Nai was born. And hence the slaughtering of the pig as a celebration. By then, my Ah Zoh, had realized that no amount of spiritual bypassing could separate her love from her children, regardless of gender, regardless of how wild and liberated they grow to be, regardless of regardlessnesses.
Ah Zoh raised Nai Nai differently than how many girls were raised during that time. While many families devoted more attention to their sons, Nai Nai experienced equality in her home. One simple example was that Nai Nai attended school without the additional demands of domestic chores (girls helping out at home was a common expectation in Chinese homes from that era, though it was never expected for boys).
All this was told to me only a few years ago. I have no living memory of my Ah Zoh, but feel her presence from time to time; she also appears in my dreams. Nai Nai always wanted a daughter of her own, and said the wait was worth it when I was born (Nai Nai has three sons, my father being her firstborn). Everyone in my family says I resemble her, which I take as a supreme compliment. Though Nai Nai did not play favourites, she did take extra care to invest me in ways that she did not feel necessary to invest in a boy because the system already serves males. To Nai Nai, there are significant injustices a female faces in a patriarchal system, including patriarchal spiritual systems. She gave me the attention in ways that she could and knew how. She taught me how to knit and embroider, how to cook a few of my favourite dishes, sharply advised me how to bargain at open markets in Taipei when I went to visit, passed down her love of plants to me, taught me that a good cry is good medicine, showed me what ancestral reverence means, and she even taught me the most important thing in sex ed when I was in junior high school – a very bold thing for a Chinese grandma to do (a woman of efficiency, Nai Nai summed it all in a single sentence: “Never let a boy touch you unless you absolutely want him to”).
We were having lunch at White Spot (a diner-style chain in western Canada) a few years ago, before she relocated back to Taiwan permanently (too frail to travel overseas). Over fish and chips, she shared the story of her lost sister.
My own eyes teared up as she told it all, along with her aching questions: Has she ever crossed paths with her own sister unknowingly while growing up? Did her sister’s fate turn out for the better in the end? Letting the mixture of sorrow and gratitude in her own personal story tangibly be felt as I listened intently, half shocked, half saddened, yet fully hopeful. Hopeful because of the realization of how a tragic decision led her own mother to not only face her personal shadows and demons, but her entire culture’s.
At the end of our lunch, Nai Nai said in her usual manner of sparseness, “You’re rebellious and counter-cultural in your own way. And it’s not a curse at all.”
Who said that old ladies don’t know anything? 🙂
founder, spirit communicator + shamanic intuitive
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Photo was taken by my Yeh Yeh (paternal grandfather) of me as a toddler with my very chic Nai Nai. Traditional Chinese calligraphy image owned by 王 渡 ; used with permission via 123rf.com