Updated: Apr 14, 2022
Today is women's day! For some reason, this year, it gets me all emotional. I think it is because my mom just turned 95 years old. It makes you reflect on life, its blessings, and its sadness, its joys, the good times, and good people that you meet along the way. It also gets you to reflect on the tremendous gift you have in this 95 year old wonderful mother, who lived through WWII, saw so many changes in society, experienced tremendous hardship and trauma and still enjoyed life every minute of every day, laughed all the time, and was such a joy to be around. Before we get into this blog, I need to point out, some of the subject matter I will be chatting about is a bit sensitive for those need a content/trigger warning. It is going to get a bit real today, just letting you know in advance.
I recently discovered Hong Kong Oh Yea, an artist that sells Cantonese and Hong Kong culture through her creative designs. Today, she shared this post to celebrate women's day:
I love her work and the tie in to Hong Kong culture and the Cantonese language. I was already working on featuring her on our blog. However, her post today really hit home for so many reasons. It actually hit on the very reason I created the Mahjong Party blog, business, and website. I needed to preserve my culture and language, and the way I knew how was through mahjong. I grew up in Canada, mahjong is really tied in with my cultural identity.
For those that are not familiar with my story, I am a disability artist, a multiple brain injury survivor, and the founder of Mahjong Party. This is my way of trying to create a new career for myself after being seriously disabled for a decade. Part of my background and childhood involved a lot of trauma from pretty extreme racism and targeted bullying. It got to a point where my parents were scared for me and that was before it really got out of control. Prior to my school experiences, I felt comfortable around all of my languages. I grew up with Cantonese, Macanese Patua, some Spanish, and English. Later in school, French for more than a decade. After that, some more Spanish and some Mandarin. I love languages, all languages. They hold such beauty.
My parents were scared for me if I spoke Cantonese due to the amount of racism and the severity of what we were facing. Back then, we faced an environment very similar to what Asians are facing today during Covid, in an environment which created the Stop Asian Hate movement. So as a survival tactic, back then, I stopped speaking all of my languages and stuck with English only. I lost most of my ability to speak or remember any of them. I tried learning them again, however multiple brain injuries makes it near impossible.
It has been really difficult to relearn my languages. I hired people as tutors, took lessons, and worked on it a lot, for decades. Mom would rarely speak with me in our languages, in particular, Cantonese. It wasn't until she turned 91 years old and forgot her protective nature towards me and keeping our culture hidden, that she began to joke with me publicly in Cantonese. Now, we can speak some of our language freely around others. We were at a restaurant when I told her 九十五 gau2 sap6 ng5, which is the number 95. This is something so absolutely simple, yet we would not even speak even these words to each other before when others were around. We would only say it when we were alone together. I believe it would have been okay to speak Cantonese for at least part of those years, but the memories of having to hide your culture for a while stay with you. You forget how to be free to speak simple words without fear or apprehension. I was telling her the number 95, as we were telling her to look forward to her big birthday almost a year ago. Time flies by, she just turned 95 years old this week! I am glad that we can speak our language in public together while she is still with us. We got caught being little kids about it in her senior home a while back. We were walking down the hallways, reading any number on doorways or elevators, and saying them to each other in Cantonese and then giggling. It was just fun to pronounce numbers in Cantonese, you know, like what you do when you are 5 years old. One of the nurses caught us being silly like this, and we all laughed together about it. It is hard to imagine there was a time we would not have done that at all.
My parents loved to play mahjong. They began playing every weekend with their friends in their early 20's in Hong Kong. When they moved to Canada, their friends followed, and continued to play every weekend. When they moved from one province to another, some of their friends followed, and continued to play mahjong every weekend. It ended up being 63 years in a row that those friends played mahjong together, every weekend! Mom continued to play after Dad passed. She played every weekend for roughly 70 years straight. One of the last games we played, before Covid hit, I was playing with her when she was 92, and her two best friends were playing with us, ages 91 and 93.
Those mahjong weekends were our cultural refuge. It was such a sigh of relief to have the mahjong parties at our house once a month. Cantonese was spoken all day long. Dishes from Macau and Hong Kong were everywhere. I helped prepare the food for days in advance. We spent hours to make my favourite black sesame soup, 芝麻糊 zi1 maa4 wu4, soaking the rice for hours, and grinding the sesame. Experiences like that created such beautiful memories for me.
When I began to lose function severely due to my brain injuries, mahjong actually brought me back. I had to relearn how to walk, talk, and function. Mahjong was pretty well the only thing I could still remember and somewhat do. I could still remember the tiles, how to play, but had no stamina to play. I could not socialize for years, or sit in a chair for longer than 20 minutes. It took ages to build everything back. I began slowly. Remembering the Cantonese names for all the tiles, speaking them out loud, brought back so many memories and some functioning. I built up my functioning by adding in some more super basic Cantonese words. I watched elementary school level Cantonese videos on YouTube, and could not keep up. I still can't! I watched Ip Man 1 through 3 about 30 times each, even if I can't understand some of the words, hearing Cantonese around me helped my brain remember how it used to function. The familiarity with the words spoken, hearing them, it started to jog my memory. Eventually, I was able to play mahjong a little bit, and then a bit more, until I could play a normal game, several years later. I can not tell you how amazing a feeling it was, to sit at a mahjong table with my parents and their friends, to speak even a few Cantonese words, after not being able to function, struggling to speak any language. The poster below brings back so many memories.
It translates to I speak Cantonese. Those last 3 characters, 廣東話 gwong2 dung1 waa6, I used to repeat them over and over again during those years of health recovery. Saying them, over and over again, was so comforting. It wasn't just about Cantonese, it was about remembering my Asian heritage, the strength and resilience we had over so many decades. The efforts we took to preserve our culture and language in the background were enormous but so worthwhile. Most people might celebrate Christmas once or even twice, or get together once for any birthday or holiday celebration. We always added in extra days to celebrate Asian style. We always had 3 or 4 Christmas get togethers every year, one year we had 7 because we decided we needed to play a lot of mahjong and eat a lot of Chinese goodies that year.
I love all languages, words, speaking them, writing them. I celebrate those that make efforts to preserve any language. The beauty and importance of preserving a language, celebrating it, and capturing its essence, it is a work of art and takes a lot of patience to map out what we take for granted everyday. Both Cantonese and Macanese Patua are my heritage languages and both have many people around the world putting in efforts to preserve. So thank you, Hong Kong Oh Yea, for doing just that with Cantonese. I really love how you grab the phrases from Cantonese language that people may not be familiar with and make it into art. I see you, and appreciate what you do. I also want to say I appreciate you to all the ladies out there on Women's Day. I especially want to thank the mothers, daughters, and sisters, who like mine, go to extraordinary lengths to preserve their culture and language, and who make sure we retain memories like folding won tons or grinding sesame for soup to have a mahjong party. Thank you for all that you do, we appreciate you.
For those interested in following Hong Kong Oh Yea, her info is here:
Her shop is here, on Etsy:
Lastly, for our readers who are passionate about preserving language, culture, recipes or cooking videos from their heritage, or wish to promote their art, books or online courses, feel free to reach out. We work with people to provide free space, ad / promotional space, and have a revenue sharing model for online course platform space. There are certain topics we are looking for, and we have multiple sites that may be able to feature your content.