[Interesting Adventure series] Mother braved the oceans to look for her parents

Author: Ancy Lee
Translator: Pius Lee

My mother’s name is Thuong Hong-Lai. She was born in Teoryang Prefecture, Teochew, China. Nonetheless, my mother’s grandfather was among the few Chinese southerners who emigrated to Vietnam during the late 19th century, as a result my grandfather was a second generation immigrant with 50% Chinese and 50% Vietnamese blood running in his veins. In his teenage years, my great grandfather worried that his mixed-blood son (my grandfather) might lose his Chinese heritage. He sent him back to his Chinese home-town to learn the language, poetry, piety and culture. Some years later, my great grandfather remotely orchestrated his son’s marriage with a Teochew girl as his legally wedded spouse. This young couple (my grandparents) soon had two daughters — my mother is the younger of the two. It is mystifying to me to this day as to why my grandfather left China abruptly for Vietnam alone leaving his wife and the girls —– it happened just before my mother’s birth. This commenced a long separation between the husband and wife across the oceans for many years.

Grandma gave birth to mom and gave her away as a new-born to a friend as her daughter. Grandma was perhaps succumbing to the pressure of livelihood in a husband-less home and the stigma of continually giving births to daughters in a son-privileged chauvinistic society. Girls were surplus merchandise readily be deserted and given away. Shortly after grandpa returned to Vietnam, his parents arranged for him to establish another family with another young bride. It must have been burdensome for my young grandfather to provide for 2 households separated by vast oceans. A common default was to neglect the overseas legal wife and the two young daughters there. Grandma became a de-facto single mom and experienced hardships daily to make ends meet. Grandma decided to brave the oceans to take the long voyage to Vietnam with the oldest daughter to look for her husband. It was a tearful trail with a comforting ending that after many twists and turns of weeks of travel, finally grandpa and grandma were re-united. However, grandma was heart-broken to know grandpa had already married another woman with other children.

 My grandpa’s name is Lian-Ci Zhang. In my impression he was always well-dressed in a silky long dress and wearing on his face a pair of shiny glasses tugged in golden frames. He was a gasoline wholesaler merchant, abundantly rich with servants and houses. Grandpa lacked nothing, yet the two wives under the same roof had caused much rift and quarrel. It illustrated the old Chinese saying that: “There is no room for two tigers in one mountain.”  Instead of the coziness of a home, there were undercurrents of animosity. On one occasion, grandpa beat up grandma cruelly in a wild field.  Grandma fell and fainted. The nearby villagers came for grandma’s rescue and scolded grandpa for his cruelty and called for emergency paramedic help for grandma. The unending torment of cruelty and being deserted at home was unbearable. Grandma summoned her courage and left her husband’s home with three young children —- one daughter and two sons. Grandma braved into an unfriendly and unknown world with two bare hands and four mouths to feed.

As I mentioned, my mother’s name is “Hong-Lai” meaning “red pear”. It was named so because the new-born was pinkish and fat. Soon after the baby was born, grandma gave her over to a neighborhood friend. That family’s surname is Yu, and they were not well-off. A couple years later, my mother’s oldest sister bumped into my mother in the village and recognized her sister, now a toddler, was then skinny and ugly. She complained to Yu’s family that they did not raise her sister well.  The Yu’s had only sons and yearned for a daughter. That was the reason they adopted my mother. Mom’s stepmother loved my mother as if her own full daughter. However, in Yu’s household the grandmother also lived under the same roof and she did not love my mother. In my mother’s memory she was often corporally abused by grandma and mom developed a fear against coming near her. The big brothers in Yu’s household were much older than my mother, and their wives treated my mother as a maid servant. They often commanded mom to go to the hill tops to collect sticks and hay as firewood and cow-dung as fuel. Mom’s big brothers were sugar cane farmers, and they would reward mom with sugar residuals after the errands. The sugar reward was harmful to mom’s teeth and she had many cavities and dental problems when she grew up.

Mom’s stepmother had chronic gynecological hemorrhage and feared that her remaining days were numbered. With a heavy heart she worried about my mother’s future knowing that with her passing my mother’s future would be even bleaker and subjected to unconstrained abuse and bullying in the home. The Bible says: “(God is) A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows….” (Psalm 68:5). God always shows mercy to man. Man can plan, but God accomplishes. My mother was  thirteen or fourteen years of age when her stepmother asked one of her relatives to bring mom to travel to Vietnam to look for her birth mother. The voyage was a success and true and behold mom now lived with her mother for the first time in her life. She also started to learn from grandma, who now was a famous textile broker in town, the vocation to  become a cloth and textile retailer dealer. Grandma was an amazing giant who was lowly educated, but with her fortitude and diligence rose from destitute and being deserted to become a single mother provided a loving home for six children —- four of her own, and two adopted.

 Being one of his granddaughters (the author) I had only met grandpa twice. The first occasion happened when my amazing grandma was on her deathbed (1977). Mom’s second younger brother traveled to grandpa’s province to invite him to no avail. At long last, grandpa came to grandma’s funeral. That was the first encounter. The second encounter happened in the autumn of 1981 when grandpa was fatally ill and was receiving treatment in a hospital in our province. I accompanied mom to visit him. Grandpa only knew the Teochew dialect and my Teochew was poor. With grandpa’s permission, I asked my mother to translate for me, as I felt the urge to pray to God to heal grandpa. I prayed in Cantonese and mom translated for me. Later, I heard that grandpa was healed and released from the hospital. However, through the mouths of relatives I heard the rumor about grandpa commenting on the occasion about my praying for him. He was displeased to have me kneeling and paying homage “to him” as if he was already dead. Certainly that was a grievous misunderstanding as I only knelt to God and prayed to God. No one should annex the glory of God! Recently from one of my cousins I found out that grandpa lived to his nineties. No wonder the Bible confirms God’s kindness and goodness to all man: “what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:4).

The next article will elaborate on how my parents met…..

Mrs. Thuyen-Anh (Ancy) Lee was born in Vietnam. She immigrated and was educated in Sweden as a teenager. Her profession was social work until she married Pius in 1994. The couple responded to the calling to be ministers and realocated to NY in 2023.

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