Generational Savagery

May 1, 2022 / Wenting Du

We are three generations of strong women — one Chen, one Wang, and one Du — each with a story that’s profoundly unique, yet deeply intertwined.

At birth, we are all the same — innocent in a way that only those unmarked by the world’s evils can be, joyous in a way that our future selves envy. When are those carefree smiles wiped off our faces?

Chen Fong Lan, born 1932
For my grandma, it was the day she turned seven years old.

For six years and 364 days, she enjoyed a comfortable childhood in the rolling hills of Gou Chen Jia in China’s countryside. She would spend her afternoons exploring acres of vibrant greenery and concocting medicinal “potions” using the foliage, brandishing the bug bites she accumulated as battle scars. She treated every day as a new quest to discover the beauties nature had to offer, and every night she returned home to a warm meal, eager to share her stories.

One of her favorite games to play was “Ribbon Search,” a game in which she tried  to find a hair ribbon that her father had sneakily tied around a tree branch. She enjoyed the mystery of it all, but what she loved most was the way the wind would whip and bite her arms as she tore through the trees, arms outstretched like she was a bird ready to take flight.

It was a birthday tradition for her parents to gift her a beautiful new ribbon to later use in a game of “Ribbon Search.” It was something she had come to look forward to, but as the sun rose on her seventh birthday, that tradition was exchanged for a more barbaric, painful one. Ribbons turned into rope and cloth strips, used to tightly bind her feet until only the big toe faced forward, the other four bent oddly underneath.

She screamed and cried like a newborn baby, begging to be released from her bounds until her voice was hoarse and she could only occasionally whimper in pain. She had never been a religious girl, but that day she prayed to all the gods who would listen. Apparently, none of them did.

Gone were the days of adventures in the woods, of running, of freedom, of childhood innocence. For years, her bound feet kept her home-ridden, but it didn’t matter, since her duties as a housewife-in-training didn’t require her to go outdoors.

She was taught to tame her wild side and shape herself into something a little more palatable, a little more subservient, for her future husband. While it was surprisingly easy to fake this persona for her parents and peers, my grandma struggled to reconcile her arranged future with her thirst for independence. She felt powerless and disheartened, forced to stand by as her identity was stripped from her and replaced with a more docile stranger.

For 11 years, my grandma dealt with endless misogyny, all the while feeling emotionally and mentally drained. She was never roped into the housewife role that was preached to her, but she had lost the tenacious spark that defined her childhood.

That was until her 18th birthday, when her sister gifted her a ribbon after an 11-year hiatus. With that ribbon in hand, my grandma felt again the careless spontaneity of her youth, the unadulterated happiness that filled her up when she would play “Ribbon Search.” She remembered why she loved the outdoors so much and why she longed to leave Gou Chen Jia in search of bigger, better things.

She realized that without the legal shackles binding her to home, all of that was possible, as long as she had the courage to leave familiarity behind and venture forward into the unknown. After having spent her whole life shackled to societal expectations, my grandma decided to defy the odds and pursue a higher education, becoming the first woman in my family to go to college while juggling multiple jobs.

Then, at 25, she chased the allure of adventure all the way to Shanghai, partly afraid that she was making a terrible mistake. But she needn’t have worried, because there, in the heart of a city teeming with life and lust, my grandma found paradise. 

Ling Ling Wang, born 1965
For my mom, it was a regular old Tuesday at the American post office.

She was simply speaking to a desk worker when an old man stepped out of line and began harassing her, calling her a slur and demanding she “go back to her own country.” He spat and cursed at her with words she hadn’t even added to her English vocabulary yet, and my mom could do nothing but stare, hands shaking and heart pounding. This “Land of Opportunity” was nothing like what she imagined it would be.

When my mom was 25, she left Shanghai and set sail for America, fueled by the prospect of building a better home and future for her family. She was prepared to give her blood, sweat, and tears to this country, to work and earn her spot amongst the middle-class citizens. Hard work was no stranger to her, but in return she expected to be rewarded for her due diligence.

After all, that’s what the American dream was about, right?

Wrong. She soon realized that as an immigrant and woman of color, the American dream didn’t apply to her. She could pay taxes and contribute to society, yet still be treated with the utmost disrespect.

As much as my mom hated to admit it, that day at the post office took a heavy emotional toll on her. America was supposed to be her home, a place of comfort and freedom that she could proudly call her own. But even after several years, she felt like a foreigner and an alien, accused of being an intruder in her own home.

It was a truly traumatic experience, and a sort of resigned hopelessness soon overtook her, forcing her to look inwards and question why she was staying somewhere she was clearly unwanted. Everyone and everything she knew, including her mom, were thousands of miles away.

She recalled all the times in her youth when she yearned to be alone. Growing up in Shanghai with two older brothers, there was rarely a moment of peace in her household, so she grabbed any opportunity she could to escape and explore the bustling streets. She would run or bike, forging a path through the city on her own, completely content to observe the world around her.

She made some of her worst memories during these expeditions, but she also came alive with passion and excitement. Once, she saved a stray dog from oncoming traffic, another time, a generous saleswoman gave her fresh flowers for free, and another time, she saw the most beautiful sunset from the rooftop of her apartment complex.

She couldn’t let the bad overshadow the good, not when there was so much good in the world she had seen, and so much more she had yet to see. For that reason, my mom chose to stay in America.

Sure, the streets were a little too dirty, the food was a little too oily, and the people were a little too mean. But America was also magnificently beautiful, brimming with culture and innovation and love.

Even when the racism continued with the white PTA moms at my elementary school and the comments about the smell of my mom’s food, she never let their harsh words pierce her skin. Instead, she took those words and smothered them underneath the mountain of wondrous experiences she’d made, ultimately grateful that those moments of hatred made her appreciate life that much more.

Wenting Du, born 2002
At birth, we are all the same - naked, vulnerable, pure, and blissfully unaware of the challenges we are soon to face. Our values and spirit have yet to be shaped, but we are like clay being molded in the hands of one potter to the next.

Whether we know it or not, everyone we meet leaves a mark on us. Some leave just light scratches on the surface, while others leave much deeper impressions, strong enough for us to feel their lasting impact throughout time.

When I’m surrounded by open fields, I feel it - that impulse to run, to abandon my worries, to let the wind fill my heart with euphoria.

When I see a particularly stunning sunrise or butterfly, I feel it - that reminder that beauty exists in every corner of the universe.

In everything I do, I feel it - that gentle tugging of my grandma and quiet whisper of my mom, both urging me to defy expectations and take charge of my life.

We are three generations of strong women - one Chen, one Wang, and one Du - linked by blood because the patriarchy deemed it unsavory that we keep our own last names. Each of our stories are profoundly unique, yet so deeply intertwined that they resemble one big tapestry - one that speaks of intense pain and even more of intense happiness.■

By: Wenting Du

Layout: Juleanna Culilap

Photographer: Shreya Ayelasomayajula

Stylists: Rachael Aquino & Alex Cao

Hmua: Katherine Tang

Models: Noura Abdi & Mmeso Onucha

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 18 here.

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