Monica L. Woo

Dowry To Life

“Once upon a time there was a girl warrior called Lixian. Just like you, she was ten, but she already mastered the hardest martial arts techniques. She could perch on one leg on the tips of bamboo trees, and catapult from one snow-capped mountain peak to another. Bold and compassionate, she roamed from village to village to help the common peasants in need.” My nanny’s night-time recounting of Lixian adventures was the antidote to my fear of the dark and lulled me to sleep. I dreamt of ascending with the white cranes to the fourth floor of the apartment building where my family lived in Hong Kong. Six long bamboo laundry poles jutted out from the wall beneath my nanny’s bedroom window. Colorful blouses, trousers, undergarments and bath towels hung from the poles, like the coats of arms of ancient Chinese kingdoms. Balanced with on leg on the far end of the laundry poles, I somersaulted backwards across the length of the bamboo rods, propelled myself through the open window and landed on my nanny’s lap. I was secretly delighted that the girl warrior shared my given Chinese name.

My nanny’s name was Qun Ho. She had the wide-set eyes, squat nose and thick lips of peasants from remote villages in the South of China. When she smiled, she exposed crooked ivory-colored teeth. A shapeless cotton jacket with traditional knotted buttons and loose pants covered her bony 4’10” frame. She seemed to own only three outfits: dark grey, dark blue and light grey. I was furious when my friends ridiculed her with the nickname “gorilla face”.

My parents called her Miss Qun, out of respect for decades of her caring for my grandparents who lived in Macau, a Portuguese colony forty miles by ferry boat from Hong Kong. When my grandparents passed, she moved in with us. I overheard Mom and Dad arguing.

“We can barely make ends meet. How can we afford to feed another mouth?” Mom was annoyed.

“Miss Qun has been loyal to the Woo family. She has nowhere else to go. We cannot kick her out now,” Dad decided. He worked as a film engineer by day and tinkered with his own film editing business by night. My parents, older brother, infant brother, Miss Qun and I crammed inside a fourth floor walk-up flat about the size of a one-bedroom apartment in the U.S. 

To me, Miss Qun was like the supreme goddess Guan Yin with a thousand arms and thousand eyes. She cooked, cleaned, laundered, shopped, played games, attended to all my needs and sewed every rip in my uniform. Every morning, Miss Qun took orders from Mom for the lunch and dinner menu and shopped at the bustling fresh market. Dripping with sweat from the scorching Hong Kong sun, Miss Qun lugged heavy bags filled with vegetables, fruit, meat, fish and other sundries the ten blocks back from the market and up four flight of stairs. Even though our food budget was meager, Miss Qun knew how to bargain and she cooked up elaborate dishes fit for wealthy households. There was an implicit contest in culinary prowess among the domestics of the neighboring families. Miss Qun gleamed whenever Mom’s friends praised her cooking. Unlike the nannies and domestics of other families, she ate her meals with us. My parents insisted.

Several times a month, I would wake up in the middle of night. Alone. In a panic. Mom was not in her bed adjacent to mine. She sometimes slipped out to play all night mahjong at our neighbors’ when Dad was traveling on business. I searched my way in the dark to the tiny room behind the kitchen where Miss Qun slept. Her room held only a narrow wooden bunk bed. She slept on the bottom tier. A dilapidated suitcase held together by two stout hemp cords and several large blue or grey cloth bundles like giant dumplings filled the top tier.  Everything she owned was on that top bunk.

“Don’t be afraid, Young Mistress,” she said as she guided me back to the bedroom I shared with Mom and Dad. Snuggling next to me in my small bed, she enchanted me with more Lixian stories.

One night, I got bored. “No more Lixian. Please read me a story from my favorite book,” I pleaded.

Silence. “I am so sorry, but I don’t know how to read.”

“Didn’t your parents send you to school?” I was baffled. Miss Qun looked as old as Dad, like wrinkly old.

“No,” she whispered, tears rolling down her cheeks.

Years later, I learned from Mom that Miss Qun came from a family of eight girls and one boy, from Fengjian village in the South of China. She was the eldest daughter. Traditionally, in that part of China, the eldest daughter could not marry, but devoted her life working as a domestic servant to support her family, especially the boys. Education was out of the question.

At age fourteen, her parents sold Miss Qun to a wealthy family at the far end of the village. Before leaving home, she went through a ritual of cutting her waist-length hair to chin-length, and her parents gave her a small gold hair pin embedded with a sliver of jade. That was her send-off gift – her dowry to life. 

One afternoon, after school, Mom was playing mahjong at her friend’s place several blocks away. Miss Qun was kneeling by our only bathtub, back bent, her bony, chafed hands vigorously hand-scrubbing a huge jumble of laundry. I invited my girlfriend Ping from across the way to play in our flat. She was a year younger.

“Let’s play hairdresser. I’ll be the hairdresser and you’ll be my customer,” I directed with excitement.

“Since I am customer, I get to boss you around” she giggled, as she sat down on a dining room chair.

I wrapped a big towel around Ping’s shoulders and pinned her hair up on one side with a large metal clip. I took Miss Qun’s big kitchen shears and started snipping off Ping’s shiny shoulder-length hair. First one side, then the other. Meticulously. Just like the hairdressers in the beauty parlor. Then I washed her hair in the kitchen sink with sandalwood soap and infused the flat with a sweet and creamy fragrance.

Ping said, “Good job,” and pressed my palm with an imaginary tip. Then she went home.  Shortly after Mom returned home from the mahjong game, the doorbell rang. It was Ping’s mom, Mrs. Li. Ping was by her side, sobbing.

“Aiya! Look at what your wild daughter did. She butchered Ping’s hair. It’s so uneven and short that no hairdresser can fix the mess. Don’t you watch your daughter?” Mrs. Li screamed.

Mom apologized profusely and offered to buy Ping a wig. Mrs. Li left in a huff.

“You come with me, little rascal.” Mom dragged me into Miss Qun’s bathroom. “No play. No dinner,” she yelled locking the wooden door. The water closet was just large enough for an old-fashioned toilet with a pull chain on a tank high on the wall. There were no windows. It was pitch dark and smelled putrid. I could not find the switch for the single light bulb.

“Let me out, please. I didn’t do anything wrong. Ping loved my haircut. She even tipped me,” I wailed, kicking the door.

“If you don’t keep quiet, you’ll be locked up all night. Wait till your Dad comes home!” Mom threatened.

Then I heard Miss Qun begging my mom. “Mrs. Woo. It was my fault. I was laundering clothes and did not keep an eye on Young Mistress. Please Mrs. Woo, punish me instead.”

I was cold, tired and hungry. Eventually, I heard Miss Qun whispering outside the door. “Young Mistress, listen. Your mom agreed to let you out, if you apologize to Ping and give her any Barbie outfit she wants.” 

“No! Why should I give her a Barbie outfit? I did nothing wrong,” I protested.

“Please listen to me. You want to be locked up all night? Your father will be coming home soon,” Miss Qun pleaded. To this day, I still remember the sting of this punishment.

Once in a long while, Miss Qun received mail from her family in Mainland China. Mom or Dad read the letters to her, and then responded on her behalf. I couldn’t wait to become her scribe one day. On a spring morning, Miss Qun asked Mom to read a letter. After perusing the note, Mom took on a most bewildered expression.

“I am so sorry, Miss Qun. Your youngest sister passed away.”

Miss Qun looked down, clasping her hands tight. “How? Why?”

Mom enveloped Miss Qun’s hands inside hers, “Your sister killed herself. The man she was forced to marry was an alcoholic buffoon forty years older.” I knew I was not supposed to eavesdrop on this adult conversation, so I pretended to concentrate on my homework.

Miss Qun wept, “I should have sent more money home to save my sister.”

Gripping tightly to Miss Qun’s hands, Mom consoled, “Nonsense. You have done everything for your family. May your sister rest in peace. Please take the rest of the day off. I’ll make dinner tonight. And I’ll prepare your favorite chicken braised in soy sauce and a big plate of fresh pea shoots.”

After Mom left for the market, I checked on Miss Qun who had retreated to her bunk bed. Swollen red eyes peered from underneath a thick cotton blanket. “Miss Qun, I brought you Vitasoy and boiled peanuts,” I propped her up against the pillow. We shelled peanuts, embraced in each other’s silence.

It was the end of the school year. I came in first in my sixth-grade class and excelled in the Hong Kong public exam. This guaranteed a coveted spot at the prestigious Maryknoll Convent High School. Mom wanted to treat me something special for dinner.

I picked Dairy Lane, a posh Western-style supermarket patronized by the Brits, other westerners and wealthy Chinese. The Chinese staff all spoke English and snubbed customers who could not. Miss Qun insisted on waiting outside. “I don’t like shopping with foreign devils.”

It was clear that I did not belong, but I did not care. My eyes feasted on shelf after shelf of biscuits and sweets with English-only packaging. Mackintosh’s Toffee. Walker’s Shortbread Cookies. A wide array of Birds Eye frozen foods. I was particularly intrigued by a frozen round piece of dough covered with shreds of cheese and slices of sausage. “P-i-z-z-a,” I made out the pronunciation. I had tasted pizza once before at a rich classmate’s birthday party. Pizza! Perfect reward!

Back in the flat, Miss Qun took the pizza out of the shopping bag. She hesitated, “Young Mistress, this thing is frozen and needs to be baked in an oven.”

My heart sank. Only rich families in modern apartments had ovens.

“Now, don’t you worry,” she said, while heating up our carbon-steel wok with peanut oil.

She unwrapped the pizza from its plastic wrapping, sliced the dough into strips about 4-inches long and 1-inch wide with her big Chinese cleaver. Strip by strip, she placed the frozen pizza into the boiling oil. The gooey cheese melted over the dough and the pepperoni sizzled. I picked up a strip with chopsticks straight from the wok. To this day, no pizza has tasted as good as Miss Qun’s wok-fried wonder.

In 1969, when I was thirteen, Dad went bankrupt after an employee embezzled funds from his film editing business. To restart life, Dad left Hong Kong to find work in Alaska. He toiled for three years working two jobs and finally saved up enough money to relocate the rest of our family to the northern frontier. “Why can’t Miss Qun come with us?” I demanded, when Miss Qun shared that she would move back to Macau. Mom just gazed away in silence.

On the day of our departure, a village of classmates, friends and neighbors saw us off at Kai Tak Airport. Jokes. Photos. Tears. I was too distraught to cry. I had never been on a plane. What if it crashed? Would I ever see my friends again? I wished my nanny would calm me with Lixian tales. Finally, Dad shepherded us across the boarding gate. Miss Qun rushed up to me, “Please take good care, Young Mistress.” She squeezed my hands tight, then turned and walked away.

After returning to Macau, Miss Qun shared an apartment with a retired schoolteacher who sent tidbits of news to my parents. In 1986, I returned to Hong Kong for the first time since emigrating. I was already climbing the corporate ladder with a global corporation. I included a special side trip to Macau on my itinerary to visit Miss Qun and my grandparents’ graves. When I got off the hydrofoil in Macau, I immediately spotted her. Chin-length cropped hair. Wrinkled face. Bony body in a formless jacket and pants. She seemed unchanged except that her hair was silver rather than gray.

“Young Mistress. Welcome home!” Her crooked teeth gleamed. During the taxi ride to the cemetery, Miss Qun asked questions non-stop. “How are your parents? Are you married? Make sure you marry a respectable Chinese man…”

When we arrived at the gravesites, she bowed, “I pay respect to your grandparents every Qingming Festival and sweep their tombs. The Woo’s are my family.” She took out a small brush from the big plastic bag she was carrying and swept the tombstones and pedestals. In front of each, she placed a small plate of fruit and Chinese buns. She took out a pile of joss paper money, colored in copper, silver and gold.

“May Grandfather and Grandmother Woo have a comfortable afterlife,” she crouched down and burned the ghost money in a small urn. She held my hand and we both knelt down. We bowed deeply three times with our foreheads touching the dark brown soil. Tiny flickers of flame lit her face, lined with memories.

Before boarding the hydrofoil for my return to Hong Kong, Miss Qun retrieved from her pocket a small object wrapped in brown paper. She took my hand and pressed it into my palm. “Young Mistress, I want you to have this. For so many years, I have waited for this day, to see you again. Look at you, all grown up, so beautiful and strong. Whatever may come, I am ready.” When I unwrapped the brown paper, I found Miss Qun’s gold hair pin with a sliver of jade. That was the last time I saw my nanny. A few years later, I heard that she passed away peacefully in her sleep. I did not know where she was buried.

My nanny was born to a life of social insignificance. With no home nor possessions, she devoted herself as the invisible keeper of my family’s property, belongings and ancestral gravesites. Her imagination was not shaped by prescribed education but fueled by innate wisdom. From the improvised adventures of Lixian the girl warrior, I learned fortitude, compassion and loyalty. Miss Qun would protect me unconditionally. She bore witness to my life, yet I knew so little about hers.

Every Qingming Festival, I take out my nanny’s gold pin with a sliver of jade and polish it. With the gold pin cupped in my hands, I kneel, bow deeply three times and offer a prayer of gratitude.

Monica L. Woo is a first-generation Chinese immigrant from Hong Kong who relocated as a teenager to Anchorage, Alaska, where she had to learn English and assimilate to the American culture. With determination and hard work, she went from waiting tables at her father’s hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Alaska to the executive suites of major global corporations. With her stories, she hopes to inspire all people that life is not about survival of the fittest, but evolution to better versions of ourselves. Her creative nonfiction piece, “The Escort Nun” was featured in Rigorous, Vol. 5, Issue 1. A flash nonfiction was published by in June 2017.