I dedicate this article to my grandfather, who I’ve missed greatly ever since he departed to reunite with his ancestors.
By Ana Siu (Confidencial-Niu)
HAVANA TIMES – I grew up in Jinotepe, a small city some 45 minutes from Managua. I lived in a very large house with my maternal grandmother, my Dad, my Mom, four siblings, two cats a parrot and four dogs. A house where silence didn’t exist. However, I remember spending my early childhood afternoons in the home of my other grandmother, Mamaru, and my grandfather Papa Armando.
They owned a hardware store (Ferreteria Armando Siu) where from the time I was about five years old, my grandfather would put me to work and paid me for every job I did. He’d always repeat (in his Chinese-accented Spanish): “Never do a job in exchange for nothing, because your brain has value.” Later, when the clock struck five pm and those enormous green doors closed, we’d go drink tea.
My Mamaru used to buy “Parrot cake”, the favorite food of her pet parrot Princess, who’s now about 40 years old. We’d sit at the table: my mother, my Papa Armando, Mamaru, Marja, my little sister, and me.
The tea was always jasmine, my grandfather’s favorite. While they talked about “adult things”, Marja and I would play at being Chinese princesses serving the tea as it was shown in the Asian films. There was a moment in the afternoon when my grandfather would begin to tell his stories about China. That’s when Marja and I would stop playing and begin listening.
He’d always tell us about the time when he illegally boarded a boat to America, they discovered him, and he had to travel for months to get back to China. Later, he saved up for a ticket by “selling love letters”, since only a few people in his country could write in those years (around the thirties). He, on the other hand, had mastered to perfection the writing of Cantonese characters.
He’d tell us how his mother Luisa was the first woman in his village to receive a unique name of her own, since girls were previously just “the daughter of so and so”. However, both of them changed their names when they arrived in Latin America, since no one could pronounce them. The original name of my grandfather was Mankuey and that of my great-grandmother, Chifull.
He’d also tell us about his daughter Arlen, who despite having died at 19, was the child who had been most interested in Chinese culture. My grandfather refused to teach his children this language. My father says that my grandfather would say, “They were very lazy and never learned,” but my great-grandmother taught Arlen the little she learned. And, yes, my grandfather taught all of them to practice Kung Fu, and of course, he gave them a love for the kitchen, especially his wife and my mother, his daughter-in-law.
That’s how we began to talk about Arlen, my aunt the guerrilla, who fled home and sacrificed her life to save Nicaragua from a dictatorship. I always remember reading what she wrote to her parents before leaving, listening to the famous song by Carlos Mejia Godoy, “A mockingbird asks about Arlen”, and seeing thousands of places that bear her name.
She was and is a female symbol of heroism in my life, a symbol I grew up with and my family nurtured, because none of them wanted her to be forgotten.
The first time I saw the film “Mulan”
Thousands of articles have been written about this film. They range from how it redefined the Disney narrative, to the appropriation of Chinese culture. They’ve also spoken of how feminist this film continues to be right up until today, even though it came out in 1998. Or, for example, how it presents the sexual ambiguity of its characters and more.
But probably none of these articles were written by a little girl who settled into her theater seat with her popcorn and finally saw her aunt on the big screen. In truth, I don’t remember if it was a Sunday, or if all my brothers and sisters were with me, or not, but I can still feel the shivers up my spine when at my five years of age I saw the facial features of my family reflected in the Disney characters.
The entire first scene, so colorful and peaceful, where Mulan is presented as a young rebel who very definitely didn’t want to follow the feminine stereotype imposed by her culture. Then, tender characters begin to appear like the grandmother, the dedicated and traditional Chinese mother, and of course the wise and warm father. Mulan is expelled from the “young ladies’ club”, and after the whole disaster, they all end up drinking tea together at home. Just like in my grandfather’s house.
Then they arrive at the turning point: the Army appears to recruit her father for the war, since he only has a daughter who’s unworthy of holding a military position. The father is already a veteran with physical scars, and Mulan knows that if he goes, he won’t come back alive.
So, in an intense moment of introspection, Mulan asks herself who the woman she sees in the mirror is, and what she’s destined to do in life. She decides to cut off one of the most important feminine symbols – her long hair – then takes her Dad’s sword and uniform and flees on Fa, the family’s horse.
When her family finds out, her father runs out limping under the rain with nothing more than Mulan’s comb in his hand, and he collapses, together with his wife. You can see the worry on his face, knowing that Mulan is running a huge risk.
While I was watching this scene, I wondered – Is this how my grandparents felt when they read the farewell note from my Aunt Arlen? Did my aunt leave with as many doubts and conflicts in her head as Mulan had? After all, she was only 19. But the question that ricocheted most intensely in my head was: Will Mulan never return, like Aunt Arlen?
In addition to the humor, feminism, and cultural and historic errors that this film has, for me it was the first time that I saw myself represented by a “Disney princess”. Also, I could see more about a culture that was 25% of me, and, above all, come close to what my family felt when they found out that Arlen wouldn’t be returning.
When Mulan comes back, a bit ashamed of having disobeyed her father, she hands him the sword and medal that she received in gratitude for what she did for her country. With this gesture, she seems to be asking for some sign of pride from her father. Fa Zhou, her father says to her: “The greatest gift and honor is to have you as a daughter.”
Just like my grandfather. Although he never saw her return, he always felt proud of Arlen, his Mulan. But since my Papa Armando couldn’t tell her in person, he wrote it in a poem. Just like when he sold love letters in China to survive, he now wrote a love letter in Chinese – which he later translated into Spanish – for his daughter killed by the Somoza dictatorship.
“Arlen’s Great Day”
When you were born, your grandmother Demetria told me…
“Today is a great day: July 16, day of the Virgin of Carmen.”
I didn’t understand then.
When you were growing up, yes, you brought me joy,
with your sweet smile. You sang, you danced,
pretty pictures and played the guitar.
When you studied at the Girl’s Teacher Training school
You wanted to be a good teacher and teach the
poor rural residents from La Pila Grande.
When you wrote the song “Maria Rural”
to express your solidarity with rural mothers
on May 30th.
When you departed for the great destiny,
you left me your guitar, your unfinished painting, your prophetic poem,
and the book, “Jonathan Livingstone Seagull.”
So I could feel your love, beyond the heavens and the earth
after nearly 20 years since your birth…
When on one summer night,
I, on an airplane in flight, crossing the sky
over the North Pole,
heading to the Far East,
In a dream I saw you…
Your body stained with blood!!!
And your beautiful long black hair, cut off!!
Sitting on a Lotus Flower, rising to heaven,
Like the Buddhist Virgin “Kwun Yum”.
When I awoke, in full fight over the North Pole,
I looked out the window at the pale sun
on one side of the sky.
I looked at my watch, showing 3 AM, between July 31 and August 1st,
and I said: “Today will be a great day”.
-Armando Siu Lau, 1975