There are so many versions of strong female role-models out there in the world – and I (as a man) am not the person to define any of them. That said, I think it’s about time I share a bit about the most direct influences on how and why I do what I do today: a couple of badass women that I was lucky enough to be descended from.
A few years before my grandmother died, I was visiting her at her apartment in Oakland Chinatown when I tried to make a play for her affection.
I told her, "Hey, Ah-bu, I’ve been thinking about learning Tai Chi."
The idea behind this was that my grandmother lived Tai Chi. (*1) She had been a practitioner for decades, she used to teach it, she knew some of the famous Chinese masters personally. So my thought was that learning Tai Chi myself would be a great way to really connect to her – and that she’d be really excited about that. I was conscious of her advanced age, so it seemed like it was now or never if I wanted to flatter her in this way.
So I laid it out there and eagerly watched her face to see her reaction.
Would she be moved, emotionally, or just excited for me?
I waited . . .
"Really? Why would you do that? Tai Chi is for old people."
And that, as they say, was that.
I suppose I was a little taken aback at the time, but that particular response shouldn’t have surprised me – because my grandma didn’t humor people. She spoke her truth when she felt it needed to be said. She walked it, always. And in doing so, she was a badass. Seriously. (*2)
I played football in high school, and my grandma loved that fact because, to her, it was an indication of my "toughness." More importantly, it provided her with a decent challenge: every time I came to visit, Ah-bu would greet me by standing in her horse-stance and telling me, "Try to push me over."
I’d hem and haw and try to get out of it, but she wouldn’t take "no" for an answer, and I’d have to go for it. I’d give her a little push, and she’d say, "No. Try to push me over." So I’d push a little bit harder. She wouldn’t budge, and she’d say again, "No. Try to push me over."
This would happen a few more times until I was thinking, "Fine. You want me to try to push you over? Well, be careful what you ask for," and I’d give her a two-handed shove not even slightly acceptable for a young man pushing an "old lady," and – needless to say – she never moved an inch. She was in her 80s at that point.
Into that "advanced" age, she also liked to travel. Wherever seemed interesting at the time. Totally on her own. No "tour groups" for her – she would just decide on some place she’d like to go see, figure it out, and go. With her less-than-perfect English, small stature, and "old age," she still had no fear in pursuing her interests independently. And she was so dynamic that, wherever she went, people just ended up wanting to get to know and share with her. (*3) There would be no quiet, slow, "retirement home" for her. She lived in her own apartment til the day she died (at 94).
But she was much more than just the spunky grandma that I remember from my youth. When I think about the era and place she grew up – early 20th century China – it blows my mind. .
Because, before she even came to the States from China (as the Communists took over), she was even fiercer (if that’s possible) than when I knew her. In a nation and era where women were seen to have only minimal value, she was no "submissive china-doll." No – instead, as a teacher, she saw the need for better schools (and, specifically, good schools for those in poverty) and chose to do something about it. In spite of being "just a woman" taking on a corrupt, man’s government, she subsequently drummed up support and funding (I’m sure she didn’t soften her words when she made her pitch) and founded two different schools in China. Both of them are still running today.
Had she been able to stay in China, I imagine she would have accomplished so much more. But my family had to flee (let’s just say my grandfather’s life was on the line), and my grandmother ended up in the States, trying to start all over.
I often think of her as a woman born outside of her place and time. If she grew up in the current China, I’m sure she would have been leading the charge towards the "Rise of the Dragon." I can’t imagine the amazing things she would have done if she had been born in the States, and/or was younger during the Civil Rights Era. I can easily imagine her standing opposite Yuri Kochiyama raising a fist with the Black Panthers.
But she lived when she did, and did so much with it.
And her strength definitely trickled down to my mother. During the 60s, when women were just getting a chance to fight for equal rights and adjusting the contemporary view of "femininity," my mom rode a motorcycle. (*4) A big one.
She was also a black-belt in Judo. She once told me how – when she was in her 20s – she was so happy to convince my dad’s girlfriend at the time to join her dojo . . . because then my mom got to throw her around and practice choke-holds on her. Because, you see, my mom thought the girl didn’t treat my dad right, and that seemed like a good way to handle those particular feelings. (*5)
My mom defined her own form of femininity, and she wasn’t about to "hold back" on account of the dominant culture’s messaging. Just like my grandmother, she found what interested her, and she pursued it – unafraid of societal judgments and definitely not looking for a man to "protect" her from anything. She would survive through her own strength, thank you very much.
Of course, she might have made that a little too clear: in the span of one decade, my mom had to have brain surgery after a brutal motorcycle accident; she was hospitalized after receiving hundreds of stings all over her body after swimming through a swarm of jellyfish; and she nearly drowned when her houseboat capsized in a typhoon in Deepwater Bay (HK).
But she powered through it all – getting back up stronger each time and never letting any of that keep her from doing what she wanted to do. (*6) And, in spite of all these "setbacks," my mother didn’t let fear keep her from going for what she wanted; if near-death wasn’t going to stop her, other people’s perspectives on what "she should be like" certainly weren’t going to, either. (*7)
Clearly, she wasn’t the stereotypical "ideal," quiet, submissive, Asian woman. Not at all. But, maybe, judging from my grandmother and all these other badass women I’ve met and observed here in China (as well as in the States), she is "just" another representative of real Chinese (and other Asian) women.
And when I look back at all this, it changes my insecurities about my parents’ relationship, as well. It makes me feel stupid and guilty for ever thinking (and even intimating) that it could have been based on any form of "ism." Because my dad loved my mom for her fire. For her guts and boldness. For her strength and independent nature. If he had been looking to fulfill some sort of "Asian fetish," he would have steered clear of my mom – because she would have had no problem kicking his ass when she caught on.
And it speaks to the kind of man my father was (and is, of course). He never had any insecurities about who would "wear the pants." (*8) He was masculine enough to happily marry and give his life to a badass, strong woman, with no desire to change any of that. (*9)
And maybe his mother had an influence on that one. In fact, I’m sure she did. My paternal grandmother had no patience for "frivolous" people and behavior, so she happily welcomed another powerful female into the family. This resulted in me being able to proudly claim the roots of my own fire: the strong, badass women on both sides of my bloodline. The males gave me a lot, as well – but I wouldn’t have the passion and fury I do (that which moves me to do what I do) without the coursing, hot blood of these women in my DNA. And that’s straight fact.
So here’s to the badass women of my family and the rest of the world. Wherever you go, you bring the heat. You don’t cater to the crowd or a media opinion, and you sure as Hell aren’t "submissive." In so many ways, you are inspirations and role-models for your own gender – but you also can teach we men (who are smart enough to pay attention) about real strength and power and how to use it. (*10)
I say it most sincerely: Thank You. And keep doing everything it is that you’re doing, because this world needs it.
You’re all so damn beautiful.
For more female-focused love, check this out: Girl Power
(*1) When I visited her on her literal death-bed, she couldn’t open her eyes or respond in any way, but her hands were carrying out Tai Chi movements all the while . . .
(*2) In this case, my mother’s mother. However, my Russian grandmother, on my dad’s side, was equally badass, in her way. Unfortunately, I never got a chance to know her too well, as she died when I was still a kid (which is why I don’t reference her as much in this post).
(*3) My favorite picture of her is of her standing in the bright sun somewhere in Central America, a massive, live iguana in her arms, and a big old smile on her face. She was around 82 at the time, I think.
(*4) My favorite picture of her has her clad in black leather, sunglasses on, on a big, badass motorcycle (not a Harley, but reminiscent thereof), in somebody’s living room. Apparently, it had had some problems, so that’s where she fixed it.
(*5) Obviously, I’m not the first in the family to have a bit of a violent streak.
(*6) Fortunately, she also learned from those experiences, so there were no repeats.
(*7) One of those pursuits was author – she wrote mystery novels based around a strong Chinese female detective. Sadly, that was one area where society was able to stop her dreams; "they" weren’t "ready for that kind of story."
(*8) Incidentally, I don’t really remember my mom wearing dresses or skirts too often, and she certainly was never anything other than gorgeous.
(*9) It still cracks me up when I visit my parents during football season, and I hear my mom watching a game on tv, screaming and yelling and cheering – while my dad avoids it by heading outside to care for his roses (he absolutely hates football). I often wonder if it’s these little bits of gender (and stereotype) role-reversals in my immediate family that have enabled me to see these types of things a bit differently in my own life.
(*10) Does this mean that a "stay-at-home" mom who doesn’t ride a motorcycle can’t be a "badass" woman? Hell no. My mom turned to attempted authorship around the time I was born because she wanted to be around to raise me and my brother – and I’d like to think she did a great job of it. It’s not the way of dressing, the literal muscle-strength, etc. that makes a woman "badass" – it’s just doing what you do without giving a sh– (one way or the other) for what "they" (of which I am included, of course) think about it.
(*11) The photo is actually Yuri Kochiyama, not my grandmother or mother . . . but she looks eerily similar, in this picture, to those I’ve seen of my grandmother when she was around the same age.