When I was born, my mother gave me two French names with a Chinese name bitterly trailing behind. Chloe Emmanuelle Hui-Ling, a name that can mean tinkling jade or blossoming beautiful girl. But to me, it means that my mother tried her best to make these two opposing sides come together, even if this union was not an easy endeavour.
My mother; Anita Regulin Li-Ping Lee, grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and her parents, who I call Poh Poh and Gong Gong, wanted her to be the perfect Chinese daughter. She studied hard and always did what her mother asked of her, which entailed telling any boys who came to the house to get lost and stay away forever. Everything was just as my Poh Poh had wanted it to be, right up until my mother started to apply for university. Leaving Malaysia meant that my mother was free to date, and this sent my Poh Poh and Gong Gong into a frenzy, drilling into my mom’s head their most important rule: no white boys, only good Chinese boys allowed. So naturally my mother, understanding that she needed to put as much distance as she could between her and her parents if she were to have any life at all, left Malaysia to come to Vancouver to study business at Simon Fraser University. There, in her first year, she met my father Stuart, a half-Scottish, half-French student, through her cousin Nick, who coincidentally also chose to move away from Malaysia to study in Vancouver. However, even though my mother and father immediately hit it off with one another, their relationship was far from simple. In every letter that my mother sent home she had to lie about whom she was dating. Their story was verging on being something straight out of a Woody Allen film.
She lied to them for two years, and when her student visa was up and it was time to go home, she promised my father she would tell her parents the truth. However, upon telling them, my Poh Poh and Gong Gong were less than thrilled over the idea. According to them, she had not only betrayed their trust, but had disappointed them as a daughter by mixing with someone like my father. It was a very difficult time for her, but despite this she still woke up everyday at five a.m. in the morning so she could stop the postman and intercept any letters from my dad before her parents found them. But with her parents giving her the cold shoulder, my mother started to feel that the situation was hopeless. She has said that the hardest letter she’d ever written was the one she wrote that year to my father telling him she might not be able to make it back to Canada in a long time, and that even though she loved him very much he should just move on with his life. Things were so tense at home, that she honestly believed that this was the only way that she might get her parents to stop looking so angry and disappointed in her. However, my mother’s letter did not have its intended effect on my father because it only made him more determined to come to see her. He wrote back to tell her that he was not about to give up on her and would save up enough money to fly to Malaysia to convince her parents to let her date him. Half a year later, after working six jobs at once while juggling school, my father arrived in Kuala Lumpur with one suitcase and a tiny satin box in his right hand pocket. He had decided he was going to ask her to marry him, and that day when he stepped out of the taxi and walked up to my mother’s house, he had the awakening of a lifetime. My mother was not expecting him to arrive until tomorrow because my dad had decided to surprise her, but in doing so, he also surprised Poh Poh, which was unforgivable. She had not had any time to prepare any tea or snacks, so she was immediately in a bad mood, because my Poh Poh loves to play the perfect hostess.
So, after a lot of rushing around, my father was finally able to have a quiet moment with them in the living room. That is when he told them how much he loved my mom and wanted to marry her.
“Anita has told me your views about her having a relationship with someone of another culture, but I love her, and I know I can make her happy and I would like to marry her.”
It was not the most conventional of proposals, but my father’s sincerity won my Gong Gong over quicker than my mom had even thought possible.
“Happiness is not something one culture can claim to be better at giving than another, so if you say you can give our daughter happiness then I cannot argue with you. But if you do not make Anita happy, then we will have a great problem.”
My Poh Poh and Gong Gong admitted that they admired his determination and hard work in pursuing their daughter, and let them be together. However, my Poh Poh had one condition: they must have a traditional Chinese wedding.
My mother had met my father’s family only a few times when she was in Vancouver, but from just those few times, she said that they were not very nice to her. On one occasion, my uncle asked her whether she had running water in Malaysia and if she slept on the ground. My grandmother said more unimaginable things in front of my mom; her old-fashioned way of thinking created an even greater divide with her “us versus them” attitude. So when my father told his family that he and my mother were getting married his parents were apprehensive.
This certainly hurt my father, given how little his family wanted to do with my mother, but he was happy that he wouldn’t have to worry about his family making a scene over planning the wedding, especially since my Poh Poh wanted to do it all. However, on the day of the wedding things could not have gone worse. Their wedding was first held at St. Paul’s Church in Richmond, B.C., and then moved to my aunt’s house where there was a tea ceremony. A traditional Chinese tea ceremony involves the bride and groom kneeling on a cushion set up in front of two chairs, where the elders on my mother’s side will give them a red pocket full of money in exchange for a cup of tea. My father even learned a bit of Chinese for this very occasion, which made my mother’s parents very happy. However, after they had finished the tea exchange, my grandmother had some very unkind things to say to my mother and Poh Poh. She asked to see the wedding cake my Poh Poh made because she said she was sure the only way they got the money to fly over here was by hiding opium in the cake. My Poh Poh was furious and the wedding quickly spiraled into a stressful disaster.
The next day, my Poh Poh sat my mother and father down for a serious talk. She told them that she wanted nothing to do with my father’s side of the family and he had to choose to either support her and my mother or choose his family, have nothing to do with her daughter anymore, and get a divorce. My father pleaded with his mother to apologize to Poh Poh and my mom, but she refused. So just a day after they were married, he severed ties with his mother and father completely.
My grandparents did not even get to meet my older brother Tristan when he was born a few years later after that incident. They received pictures through my dad’s sister Kathy, but other than that there was no contact between them. There is a difference of four years between my brother and I, and when I was born, a letter came from my grandmother to my mom after hearing the news. She wrote a harshly worded letter to mother and even included a small voodoo doll with it. This tore an even greater hole in my family and my father felt that it was impossible to ever have a good relationship with his mother ever again.
However, on my ninth birthday, something happened that would bring my grandparents back into my life. I had to move from my private school in Richmond because I was being bullied and my parents wanted to get me into Maple Grove Elementary in Vancouver. We needed an address in the catchment area in order to make that happen and my grandparents lived only ten minutes away from the school, so my father called them for the first time in over ten years.
At first, when we got to the White Spot in Kerrisdale I thought I was meeting the principal and vice principal of the school. But when my father introduced them as my grandparents, I was very confused. When I used to ask about my dad’s parents when I was young, before I knew the whole story, my mom used to tell me that they were alive but did not want to be a part of our family. I was angry that they were smiling at me and I was angry that they were there. I can still remember the hurt look of my grandfather’s face when I avoided his questions or did not look up at my grandmother when she spoke to me. In my eyes they were nothing more than strangers to me. Yet, for my mom and dad the experience was even more absurd. They talked with them in a business-like tone, telling them about Tristan as if he were a political figurehead and not their son, and asking them for a copy of their gas bill to verify the address with the school as if they were their clients. At the end of the meal though, my mother and father told me my grandparents asked to have a word with me without them, but that they would be just a few steps away. I said I did not want to, but my father insisted. So I sat down, arms crossed, and listened to what they had to say.
“We’ve seen photos, but you are even more beautiful in person, Chloe.” My grandmother said, sliding her hand across the table. It shook a lot, and I noticed then that it was leathery and very wrinkled. When I looked up at her, I could see tears in her eyes.
“How come you never ever came to my house?” I asked.
“Because, for good reasons, we were not welcome,” my grandfather said, sniffling back tears. “We made mistakes. It was our fault, not your father’s or mother’s.”
It was hard for me, at the time, to understand what he meant and how I should feel about him.
“It’s true dear,” my grandmother said, collapsing her head into her hands.” I didn’t know what to say to her at that moment to make her feel better because I hardly knew her. Luckily for me, however, not even a second after, my parents hurried back to the table and told them they could see me another day. However, that was the last time I ever saw my grandmother cry, because after that, Tristan and I were allowed to go over as much as we wanted and she was always happy around us. A lot of years had gone by and she had missed out on a lot, and sometimes it was hard to talk about my childhood with them or show them baby photos, because either they were not in them or they were mostly with my Poh Poh and Gong Gong. Tristan and I avoided speaking Chinese around them at first, but as time passed even that we could start to do. We even taught them a few Chinese phrases here and there, and in exchange for teaching her Chinese, my grandmother taught me a lot about France and we spoke French together a lot whenever I came over after school.
I lost out on many years with my grandparents, but even when I found out the truth about what had happened between them and my parents years before I was born, I decided I could not be angry at either of them for something they did not directly do to me. My father and mother’s story is of course intrinsically a part of my own, but it has taught me a lot about unconditional love and forgiveness. Sadly, my grandfather passed away in 2011 and my grandmother passed away in 2015, but in a short amount of time they became two of the most amazing people I have ever met, and I will always secretly wish I had had the chance to know them sooner. But I know there is no point in looking back. I choose to live in the present, and because of that I am able to see that the past helped my grandparents try to better understand my brother and I and our love for not only our mother’s culture, but our father’s as well. My parents’ story, and now mine, is one of love and the desire to find happiness, move forward, and make something beautiful out of something tragic. I love my name because in it I see my grandmother and grandfather, my Poh Poh and Gong Gong, and I am reminded that we can all let go of the past in order to turn a tragedy into something positive, making good with the time we have with the people who matter.
Chloe Kerr is an English Literature major who loves to dabble in the art world whenever she isn’t burrowing her face in a novel or writing a paper. Chloe, who recently completed her undergraduate Bachelor of Arts degree, has taken many creative writing courses, and credits her biracial background (her mother is Chinese and her father is Scottish) for her curiosity and passion for studying and exploring all to do with multiculturalism and immigrant culture.