I am duplicating here an article I wrote for a Unifem magazine in 2009 for Mother’s Day. In memory of Ah Ma.
I come from a family of strong, working women. Neither of my grandmothers were stay-at-home wives – they couldn’t afford that luxury in post-war Singapore. Nor could my mother, who remained her family’s sole breadwinner even after she was married. I come from a family of women, who broke with old traditions, who never gave up in adversity, and this is a story about the legacy that I’ve received from them.
To tell you about the gift my mother gave to me, I must first tell you about what my grandmother gave to her.
No, actually, let’s start in 1916, in Fujian, China, where my grandmother was born. The Qing Dynasty had fallen by then, but women still lived in extreme states of oppression and subjugation. The new Republic of China had banned the ancient custom of foot-binding, but it was still widespread, especially in the rural provinces. My grandmother belonged to the final generation of young female children who would have their feet bound in the belief that this made them desirable and marriageable brides.
Except that my grandmother was, even from a young age, in possession of an indomitable temperament. She fought against her fate; cried and screamed and scratched and struggled.
Her mother, my great-grandmother, pleaded with my great-grandfather to forgo the tradition. “The world is changing,” she said to him. “Things will be different.”
My great-grandfather was moved to agree, and convinced his family to relent. And so my grandmother kept the use of her own two feet.
In freeing my grandmother from the shackles of harsh traditions, my great-grandmother had given her a powerful gift. Did she know then that the gift of mobility would one day keep my grandmother alive as a pioneer immigrant in Singapore during World War II, constantly on the run from the Japanese? And that those two broad, sturdy feet, pounding the street everyday as an itinerant street hawker would put food on the table to support an entire family and other poor relatives?
Growing up as a young girl in Fujian, my grandmother witnessed the fates of many young girls who were sold off in marriage to other families as child brides, and who were abused and tortured by their mother-in-laws until they hung themselves in desperation. Then their families would come in rage, to attack the homes of the abusive in-laws, hurling stones and wielding fire.
My grandmother, watching all this, reflected to herself, “Why do that when the girl is dead, when you never visited her when she was alive?” She knew she would never force her own children into such situations, no matter how poor she became.
The answer to poverty, she thought, was education. And that became my grandmother’s gift to my mother.
My grandmother’s biggest regret is that she never went to school because she was a girl. Fiercely intelligent, she was a shrewd business woman, who bought and leased out property despite not being able to read and write. But lacking book-keeping skills also meant that she found it difficult to balance her accounts and to save for the future.
She made sure that her three daughters and two sons went to English-medium schools, checking their tests and report books to track their progress. She couldn’t make out what the subjects or classes were in, and she didn’t understand what the teachers wrote, but one thing she understood was red markings, which meant failure.
My mother tells me how she used to dread the inspections. Once my grandmother spied the red marks, out came the cane for the ferocious beating.
She was disappointed when each of her children dropped out from school, one by one, from lack of interest. My mother was the one who went the furthest, in doing her A-levels. Although she wanted to keep studying, she didn’t qualify for university, and had to start working to support her family. But my mother never gave up her dream of getting a degree, and with my father’s encouragement and support, she fulfilled that goal almost thirty years later when she graduated with a part-time degree in Business Management in 2003. At her graduation ceremony, my 87-year-old grandmother was my mother’s special guest.
My mother understood what her mother had given her. It was freedom from a lifetime of ignorance and illiteracy. It was the ability to learn how to help yourself. Until now, my mother manages the finances, insurance and investment portfolios for my family.
I have benefited from the gifts of all the women in my family, and more broadly, the gifts of women in generations past, who fought for their rights and liberation. Women today are standing on the shoulders of giants.
This brings me to my mother’s gift to me.
I have had a privileged upbringing, growing up in a warm, close and solidly middle-class family that has through hard work and determination, broken out of the cycle of poverty. I made my way through the best schools on merit, and I was awarded a scholarship to study overseas. These are all things that have made my family proud. When I returned, I served my bond out and gave it my best. I have a stable and promising career, and have learned from capable and far-sighted female mentors. Ahead of me are many opportunities to serve the community, to become a leader among women, to reach the pinnacle of possible achievements. I am the lucky one.
And I’m about to throw it all away.
You see, I have a dream. And I’m going to pursue it. In the midst of a recession, I am quitting a job with a bright future, to plunge into dim uncertainty in a new environment.
I know, it doesn’t sound like much progress. But true progress for women is to enable women to truly be able to choose for themselves what they want to do and who they want to be, unencumbered by the pressure of cultural and societal expectations and structures.
True progress is for women to decide, clear-eyed, what their contract with destiny is. The women in my family didn’t have many choices when it came to life and work, which was why they did as best as they could for themselves.
My mother wanted me to have many opportunities and choices, and now that I have exercised my right to choose, she understands and accepts my decision.
Her gift to me is the blessing to choose the life I want to live, whatever the consequences may be, and it means the world to me.
Thank you and Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!