“Well-behaved women seldom make history.”
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
A story for International Women’s Day – as told by my Grandmother, Irene Cheng.
Hainan Island, China, 1995
My Granddad’s home on the tiny island of Hainan was festive and loud. After leaving many years ago during Mao’s regime for Singapore, he was back with son and Grandson in tow; three generations back on familiar soil.
I, a mere baby of barely 12 months sat wide eyed as my exuberant extended family fussed around me in the dining room. I was of course the first-born son. And in Chinese culture, sons are precious, we carry the bloodline; as daughters marry out of the family, sons remain to look after those that have come before.
As my granddad, uncles and cousins all sat, engrossed in animated conversation, the women of the house – my grandmother, aunts and female cousins were in the kitchen preparing dinner for the night to come.
On the stove were a wide array of pots and pans, steaming and sizzling, frying and boiling. My grandmother patiently tended to the food, wiping the occasional drop of sweat that formed across her brow. Others prepared the cutlery, synchronously washing and drying the endless lines of plates and chopsticks. The kitchen come dinner time was a living organism, a well oiled machine churning out only the finest home made cuisine.
“I’m hungry,” one of my uncles yelled out.
My Aunt – the head chef without a doubt – hearing this, would move even faster and kick up her apron in a flurry.
“Dinner is served,” my Aunt proudly exclaimed.
The ladies would then set the table, as the men sat around it. Plates, cutlery and dishes were all placed in unison. The men would then proceed to dig in while the women went back into the kitchen from whence they slaved, and ate what was set aside for them, squatting on the now greasy floor.
In China, patriarchy existed in tradition, in fact it was far entrenched in the national psyche.
However, this delicate social balance was about to come crashing down.
When my Grandmother walks back into the dining room for what she expects to be a communal, familial dinner – the segregation that is present rocks her to the core. Now, it is important to note that my grandmother is not an imposing figure, she’s super tiny and has a soft face. But when she has to, boy, can my Grandmother be fierce.
This was one of those moments.
“What is happening here?” she quizzes the room full of men.
“Why are we not eating together?” she challenges.
The room, previously full of chatter falls deathly quiet. Her eyes dart between individuals, each averting her gaze like dominos falling one after the other.
“We are a family.”
She marches over to the kitchen and motions for the women to join them in the dining room. The men sheepishly pull up some chairs, and my aunts, cousins and Grandmother sit down, pick up their chopsticks and begin eating.
Every time something shatters, immediately following the piercing crash is a silence, that rings – filling the air momentarily. At the dining table that night in 1995, the soft chews of my female family members would’ve rung out for what seemed like an eternity.
I visited my Granddads hometown again in early 2017, and the lessons from that night still ring true. Everybody sits together at the dinner table, the chores shared, conversation and social standing equal. Everyone remembers that fateful night in 1995, not for the anger or awkwardness it caused but for the change it brought within that home on some island off the coast of mainland China.
I hate it when people can only feel a sense of control in their lives when celebrities or people of note take a stand for certain human issues. Like when Leo Di Caprio made that movie about climate change, or when Emma Watson tattooed the phrase ‘times up’ on her arm for the Oscars – people everywhere revelled in their bravery and used them as mirrors for their own inaction.
“If only I was like him/her, then I could truly do something.”
But for every celebrity good deed, there are stories like Rosa Parks not sitting at the back of the bus, the protestors at Tiananmen Square and my Grandmother, who made sure everyone – man or woman – had a seat at the dinner table.
Now that’s real change.