Julia Sy 


She still dances


My great grandmother is a hundred and one. I call her taima, father’s grandmother in hokkien. 


My tribute to Taima was supposed to be an art project: I had a theme, coming of age, but no actual ideas. 

By the time I started my first piece, I realised that I hadn’t thought about the deeper implications of someone “coming of age”. All coming of age movies were the same to me- teenage boys waiting to find themselves, girls being socially awkward at parties. I forgot that there was a realm outside white, ultra skinny, pretty girls in middle class families who didn’t know how to navigate their social lives. 


Then an idea came to me a week after trying to figure out what I wanted to paint. My grandmother was in love with Taima’s story. Every Sunday lunch she would ask me to interview her, saying “her life is so interesting, just ask her about it. She’s a hundred and one!” She was right. I wanted to make something different, and Taima’s coming of age story was different. 


My taima grew up in poverty. She was seven when both her parents died. With no one who could afford to take all of them in at the same time, her siblings were divided between several distant cousins and family members (however, 94 years later, she’s reunited with some of them and still sees them from time to time, especially during Christmas). She says that “life was very difficult” living with her aunt: they treated her like a maid, never a family member. Now, she “knows how to do every single chore you can think of because (she) was forced to become a maid at such a young age”. In fact, her aunt cried the day my taima got married- not because she was losing a niece, but because she was losing a helper: she had no more “katulong” (Filipino for maid) to help her with the chores. 


My taima met my great grandfather while she was working as a delivery girl to rich families around the province. One day, she was assigned to deliver a package to his house.  Despite him “being bald” (which during that time was a big no-no), she says that she fell in love with him because he was one of the only people who was kind to her; “love is blind” she says, “what can I say”. Four months later, they were married.  


She was only in school for four years, grades one to four, and was taught how to read and write. Everything else she’s learned from experience. She was forced to move to Shanghai, China when she was 20- because of her husband’s business, a year after having her first daughter Anna. She “didn’t know the language,” she says but she “learned how to speak both Shanghainese and Fokkien from playing mahjong with the friendly shanghai ladies”. 


She had the time of her life in china. She had a maid for the first time in her life. She became a donya for the first time in her life. They had a good house, a comfortable life- but it didn’t last very long. Communism forced her and her family (who had grown to a family of 5 children) out of China. 


In 1949, her husband married his second wife. To put it bluntly, Taima “hated her”; she even went so far as to throw a glass of water at her face as she walked down their grand shanghainese staircase. The house was a tense arena for a long time, with the two women not speaking to each other unless completely necessary. It wasn’t until much later that Taima realised that she “couldn’t do anything about it” and she “didn’t want to fight anymore. It took too much energy.” This was one of the life lessons she says she learned the hard way: “many things are out of your control. It is your choice to stay mad because of the unexpected changes life gives you or let go and be happy.” Eventually, the two women became friends and her former enemy’s family is still close to ours and comes to several Sunday dinners. 


My taima is a hundred and one, and she still dances. She cooks and reads and cleans and plays mahjong. She doesn’t have any illnesses like the friends she’s had who have all passed away before her. She proves that age is just a number and that the only formula to staying alive is being happy. When asked what lesson she wanted to pass on to the next generations, she replied, very simply, in fookien: “be happy- if you keep thinking about your problems and ruminating over the little things, life will be so difficult. Plus, you’ll get wrinkles.” 


You’d probably think that her story was unique- and it is, in some way. But in reality, so many people her age have gone through the same thing. We have come a long way from the traditions that set us back, but we must always remember that they should keep us rooted. To this day, my Taima doesn’t like posh people. She doesn’t want “to live high class, in a big lonely house with no one”: she’s happy with the way her life turned out. Now that her husband of 60 years has passed away, her only wish is to be happy and comfortable- with her friends and her loved ones. She doesn’t need a big house or a nice car to be happy, she says. She just needs company and sunday night dinners. And mahjong. 


She was eighteen when she got married, nineteen when she had her first child, and twenty when she was forced to leave everything she knew and loved to move to a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language. In stark contrast, I’m turning 18 this year, far from marriage and hopefully, no pregnancies in the next two years. She portrayed resilience in every aspect of her life and now, the trials and tribulations she endured are now the base to which we build the rest of her legacy on. 


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