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Lions Roar : November 2013
them attired in French shoes and custom-tailored silk cheongsam dresses with thigh-high slits on one side. Then came World War II. The British woefully underes- timated both the resourcefulness of the invading Japanese troops, who nimbly commandeered bicycles to carry out recon- naissance missions in the jungle, and the quantity of heavy artillery and tanks that the Japanese had brought with them. Within seven weeks of landing on the coast, the Japanese mili- tary advanced into Kuala Lumpur, beginning an occupation of the country that would last almost four years. Of the country’s three major ethnic groups—the Malays, Indians, and Chi- nese—the Japanese persecuted the Chinese most cruelly, due to longstanding enmity between their two countries. Around fifty thou- sand Malay Chinese were massacred during the occupation. Suddenly, Mom’s family was plunged into insecurity and scar- city, having to subsist on vegetables that they grew in their backyard. Her father built a platform hidden in a dense rubber plantation where the women could hide to avoid being raped when Japanese soldiers marched through town. One night, Mom was huddled there with her female relatives and house staff when she saw tiny lights coming down the hill. “They’ve found us!” she shuddered, only to realize with profound relief that she was look- ing at fireflies. At the time, my grandfather owned a row of shops with liv- ing quarters above. The Japanese, coveting the building materials, told him that he had twenty-four hours to tear down the building or be beheaded. This forced him to throw his tenants and their possessions into the street with no advance notice. Mom loathed having to kowtow to the Japanese and learn their language. Her school was among the many that were dis- banded. Just before the war started, Mom’s college entrance exam papers had been sent by ship to Great Britain for grading. For the duration of the war, she did not know the fate of those papers or whether she’d ever be able go to college. At long last, she received the good news that she had not only passed but had also been awarded a scholarship. When asked if she’d like to go to England to study, she sniffed, “Not to the country that abandoned us to the Japanese!” Instead, she boarded a ship for San Francisco, where she knew no one, and set out to build a life for herself. As the years went by, her war stories were recounted less frequently, with less acrimony. Mom had no prejudice toward Japanese people in general. But clearly, her wartime experience was the pivotal force that determined her trajectory in life and her dominant personality characteristics: her drive, ambition, and blunt, confrontational nature, as well as the fiercely protec- tive energy she focused on her family. Although there was always an altar with a diminutive ivory Kwan Yin statue in our home, I didn’t think my mother was a particularly observant Buddhist when I was young. It turns out I was wrong. Going through her papers after she died, I found decades of receipts for offerings made to the various Buddhist temples that she encountered during her well-traveled life. Eventually, she became a long-term member of the Hsi Fang Temple in San Diego, and when she talked about the nuns who calmly and capably conducted the weekly services and charitable work of this temple, I detected a note of pride and admiration in her voice—Mom always did get a kick out of seeing strong women in charge. Their dharma talks and meditation guidance were of great comfort to her both when my father became terminally ill and when her own health began to falter. Last fall, Mom became confined to a wheelchair and was unable to speak above a whisper due to metastatic breast cancer. Did it slow her down? Barely. Every day that she could physi- cally manage it, she and one of her caregivers were out and about playing dominoes at the senior center, going for a drive by the ocean, getting a mas- sage, or visiting restaurants, movie theaters, casinos, orchid shows, or her hair salon. She refused to miss one minute of her life, and in the company of others her smile could still light up a room. The last movie she and I saw together was Gone with the Wind. Even though she was somewhat confused by that time, I could see her intently watching the TV. It occurred to me then that the tale of Scarlett O’Hara was a fitting metaphor for Mom’s life, minus Scarlett’s ruthless conniving and cruelty. There’s a scene after Scarlett returns to find Tara destitute and her father insane. She’s digging through the earth with her bare hands, looking for some roots to eat, when she stands up, silhouetted against the sky, and raises a clod of dirt in her fist. “As God is my witness,” she exclaims, “I’ll never be hungry again!” Yep, that’s Mom, I thought. Two days before she died, Mom asked her young caregiver, Angie, to take her to a sushi restaurant, even though she’d never SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2013 14