MATRIARCH
by Fern Lee
‘Kneel!’

I have never done this to her before. But better late than
never. I have to be strict now, and show her who is boss.
Otherwise, she will think I am getting soft in my old age. I do
not understand why she does not do as she is told! She never
believes me when I tell her
I know what is best for her.

‘Now!’

I can see that she is in shock. And no wonder! Now, she will
know—I am the head of this family and she will do as I say.
My lax attitude has been detrimental to her. It will be hard for
her now, but she will soon learn. She is too westernised: going
abroad to study and copying all those silly girl bands. Too
much TV! Too many books!

‘What is this nonsense about marrying a white man?’ I ask,
but it isn’t a question I want an answer for. I already know the
answer, and it will be a
no from me. I protect the traditions of
this family. She will not defy me.

SiMei, or Mei as they call her at school (Why must she
Anglicize her name?) starts explaining, but all I hear are words
like ‘love,’ ‘caring for each other,’ ‘soul mate.’ What do these
words mean but heartache and pain? No. In our Chinese
culture, it must be an auspicious union, a fortuitous marriage.
One that brings prosperity and longevity; I don’t understand
what love has got to do with marriage! We need a union to be
strong. All this talk about love does nothing. Love does not
endure. And marrying a white man too! What does this foreign
culture know about marriage? They are a weak race. They know
nothing about hard work, they care only about rights, and
themselves. They divorce too easily. They come and use our
race like tissue paper. He will discard her when he finds
another younger, prettier, more subservient version. Does he
think that it is still the colonial days? Marrying a local woman
when it pleases him? We no longer need their favours!

Ay! She keeps talking of ‘independence’ and ‘happiness’! I have
taught her nothing! She is a woman. What woman wants
independence? Happiness will come later if it does not come
now. She just has to endure and work hard for it. Make her
husband happy and happiness will come. A woman’s duty is to
serve the man and to make him happy. This is wilfulness I tell
you! If she is not careful, she will lose him even before she is
married. I am convinced that he will leave her before the year
is up. I need to stop this, protect her from this heartache. She
will not betray our race by fouling it with some Westerner.

I strike her hard across her face, and she falls to the ground
with the full blow of my palm. I do not know if she falls
because she is being overly dramatic or whether the blow I
administer is hard enough to knock her over. In any case, I do
not flinch. I have to show my strength.

‘If you marry him, or go live with him before you are married,
you will be dead to me. I will shut this house up, drape it in
black cloth, and throw myself off the roof of this house. I will
commit suicide in front of you and I will haunt you till your
dying day. See if you still want to marry him then! See if you
still love him after that!’

She is weeping but I have no choice. If I am unable to control
her, I will have to live with our sullied bloodline. Her children
will be mongrels, pariahs of our world. What will I tell my
ancestors when I see them? My own mother and my sisters? I
will have no face left after this. Not to mention that I will have
to live with this foreigner! Once she marries, she will no longer
be Chinese. It will be worse than that. She will be a pariah—
not Chinese, not a Westerner.

I should not have listened to Papa. He told me that letting her
go to university in London is the way forward, a good thing for
her future. A lawyer that will bring pride to the family name
and a glittering career for her! But she is a girl. What will she
need that for? A good marriage is what she needs, not a
career! It is not good for the family to have such a headstrong
girl. She will not be working for long. She will be married soon
enough. There is no need for a good education or a good job!
What she needs to be able to do is obey her husband, and
bring up her children, cook and clean! That she has not learnt.
Papa has spoilt her. She has never done any housework or
learnt how to cook in her life. Sure, she has tried. But tell me
which man will eat the food she cooks?

She has all these ideas inside her head. And now this! It is a
good thing I stopped her from getting her postgraduate
degree. If I had my way, she would have stayed here for
university (if she needed to go to university at all). Her brother
should have been given the money for school, not her. Her
education is not as important as his. He will be the
breadwinner for his family. She needs to be supporting her
brother, father and her husband of our choosing. Not spending
money like this on useless things like education. No! She
cannot move out until she gets married. Just because she has
graduated and lived abroad, she thinks she is a grownup now,
that she can make her own decisions. I will not allow it. She
will do as I say. And that is to marry well, marry someone that
we choose for her. That
I choose for her. What does she know
about the real world and life? No. She will have no say in this.

* * *

She has gone from the house. Packed up her clothes, even
taken her favourite stuffed animals. She is just a child. She
does not know what she is doing. How will she survive? I know
she will go to him. She will be at the mercy of a
guai loh, a
foreigner I know nothing about. And her reputation will be in
tatters! Shacking up with a man before she marries! How can
she rely on him to keep her safe?

That is my job. I keep her safe. Not him. Not yet. Until she is
married, she is mine. After she is married, she is her husband’s
and belongs to her husband’s family. I will have no say then.
But until then, she is mine to keep safe. Until then, she is still
a child. She does not understand the sacrifice we have made
for her. How much I have given up for our family. How much
Grandma has given up for us, to leave our home in China to
come here for a better life. How much each generation has
given up for
her. It is our duty to defend our culture now, our
heritage. We had nothing when we came here. Can she not
see this? This new world does not mean abandoning our old
one. In fact it’s even more important that we protect our way
of life now.

I do not know what to do. I do not know how I can protect her
now she is out there alone. I cannot let her go just like that
but I don’t know where to find her. She will not hear me out, or
listen to me. She will not take my calls or answer my texts.

I call her best friends from school. They have not heard from
her. Her friends from university will be the ones she will turn
to. But I don’t know who they are. I don’t even know if there
were any locals in her university in London. I have never met
them. I go through her things but she has taken everything of
value away. Her diaries that she loves to write in all the time,
some books, her notes. All gone. Anything of value to her is
gone. They drove me mad, her writing, her scribbling, her
books with her head in them all the time, but now I miss
them. I miss her.

We wait. There is nothing to do. The police say that not
enough time has passed. And that she has run away after a
quarrel and does not want to be found. Wait a few days, they
say. She will come back when she calms down. There are no
reports of dead or injured young women. We check the
hospitals, she is not there. None of our cars is missing. Her
credit card and her bank accounts have not been touched.
Luckily I made her open a joint account with me, so I could
track her every move. She could have opened one in her own
name of course, but at the moment, I know she has not used
her bank account that we share.

I wonder where I went wrong with her. Her brother is not
headstrong like this – not wilful, not obstinate. He listens to
my every word like a good son should. I did everything right
with her. Gave her everything I thought she needed. Maybe too
much. She has no idea. No idea how cruel life can be, how
much Papa and I protect her from the outside world. She does
not know what it means to be starving, to be poor, so poor you
cannot afford shoes or food or to go to school because you
have to work to help your family out. So poor you have to go
to work at age thirteen because your father is a drunk and a
gambler and has taken every penny from your mother for his
sins. So poor we have no money for her brother’s birth
registration. So poor we have no money for milk powder. So
poor we have to beg my mother-in-law for help, and how she
made me kneel and kow-tow to her; how the brothers-in-law
sniped at us because I was a pig farmer’s daughter with no
money to my name. She has no idea and I protect her from all
that. And she repays me by running away instead of obeying
me? She would forsake her parents for her independence?

A phone call! I hear Papa talking. It sounds like he is talking
to her. Thank goodness she is okay! Is she going to come
home now and stop this nonsense? Then we can get back to
our lives. Surely she realises now that she has done wrong and
she has to come home? If we get her home soon enough, we
can pretend this never happened. Our family name will not be
disgraced if we can keep this under wraps but she has to come
home now.

What? She is not coming home until we agree to the marriage?
I have not even met this man. How can I agree to this? She is
holding us hostage.

‘Tell her Papa, that we will talk about this further when she
comes home.
But only if she comes home!’ I shout out to him.
I refuse to go to her, even if she is just on the phone. I shout
out from my seat. I know she can hear me.

I will not be held hostage by my own daughter. When she
comes home, she will know what it means to defy me. I am
the matriarch. I will be listened to. I will find her a good
match. If she does not agree, she can remain a spinster. She
cannot decide to marry just anyone she chooses.

I hear Papa ring off. He comes in, looking lost and in shock.
‘She heard you,’ Papa says, ‘and she said she will not be
coming home. She wants us to agree to the marriage first
before she will come home.’ Papa has given her our word. It
feels like betrayal from my own skin. I want to tear it off me
but I realise that I cannot. My own skin is burning right
through me.

* * *

I am defeated. I sit in stony silence as they serve me tea at
their traditional wedding tea ceremony. They kneel and serve
me in respect of my old age, my senior position in the family. I
drink the poison they offer me and I do not smile. I will not be
happy for them. My displeasure will be known. I am the
matriarch. I will be obeyed.

The past six months have been difficult. SiMei came home in
the end but refused to speak to me. She treated me like I was
the devil, when it is her boyfriend that is the devil. A
guai loh
a foreign devil. In the end, I did not throw myself off the roof
of the house or drape the house in black cloth like I said I
would. I showed great restraint and accepted her decision
graciously. She was the one being stubborn, not me. There
were many more discussions after that phone call and in the
end I gave in to
all her demands. She almost did not come
home and I had to avert the crisis that would shame our family
amongst the relatives. Thank our gods that we did not have to
tell any of our relatives that she had run away! The
embarrassment would have been catastrophic. We already had
to tell everyone that she is going to marry this foreign devil!
One disaster would have been enough. If they knew she had
gone, I would have been a pariah too. All of us would have
been if I did not make this sacrifice and accept him.

I had hoped that she would change her mind during those six
months. Once or twice, I tried to talk to her about it. All I
wanted was a civilised conversation! But it would somehow
escalate to a shouting match and it became better not to
speak at all. It pains my heart to know that she is making the
biggest mistake of our lives, and making all of us suffer for it.
She is so selfish to only think of herself. When she gets
divorced, when he leaves her, she will know then that I am
right. But for the moment, I will stay silent, safe in the
knowledge that I will be there when he leaves her. I will tell
her I was right, and I will be there to save her.

For now, I just have to endure the pain in my heart. That my
daughter is not filial, not obedient. It makes me sad to know
that I have not raised my daughter well and that she has
failed our family in so many ways. Failed me. I will not easily
forget but I will be quiet for the sake of our family.

* * *

Oh she is so clever, my SiMei! She has fulfilled her duty to her
husband and his lineage! She has pleased him I am sure by
producing an heir to his name! I might not have approved of
her husband, that
red head monster, but she has at least done
her duty. I must go pray to the gods for blessing my SiMei with
a healthy baby son. A boy! She has redeemed herself, and our
ancestors will forgive her transgressions now that she has
produced a male heir. He is healthy and big! With such a big
head too! A big head signifies a clever child, you know. Chubby
as well! A good eater I can see. He must be very smart being
such a big boy with such a big brain! I will be Number 1
grandmother and I will teach him everything about our culture.
I know that he will very cheeky and very clever!

I have waited two years for this. They certainly took their time
and I did not know if I would ever see a grandson. Sure, I have
two granddaughters from my son, but they are only girls. They
will marry out of the family, they are not as clever. A grandson
on the other hand, is precious. He is the only one and he will
carry on the family name. What’s that? Not our name? Sure, it
might not be our family name. But it is only right that SiMei
fulfils her duty as a woman to produce an heir for her husband
and her husband’s family. She is no longer our daughter. She
now belongs to his family. She now serves her in-laws and her
husband. And her duty is complete. She has produced an heir
for them. My job as Mother is now done. I have taught her
well. All that business about being a lawyer and having a
career! What good is a career now, I tell you? What good is it?
I told Papa that we should have saved the money.

But all is forgiven! All is forgotten too! She has brought pride
on the family by having a son! I cannot wait to see him! Of
course he must have a Chinese name. But he is not Chinese.
He is English! So if he does not have a Chinese name, it will
not be her fault. I understand.

I can sleep easy now. I know what is important and I have
passed it down to my daughter. You see, we are the gate
keepers of our tradition and our heritage. We cannot ever lose
it. We women are the ones that teach our young our tradition.
The men? The men are useless! They do not know about this,
what our roles are! They are good for going to work and
making the money. They might be head of the house that way,
but we know better. Our children and grandchildren will keep
our heritage in check. And we will keep the fires burning. She
will teach her son to be the head of the household, but she
will never forget that she is the gatekeeper.


Fern Lee was born in Singapore and lived in London for 16
years before recently moving to California. She is a lawyer who
has practiced in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys writing
about the different cultures she has experienced in the
countries she has lived in.
JULY 2017