Restricted in traveling this year, I have been focusing my time with research on my mother’s life. As today is Mother’s Day, it seems appropriate to pause and take stock of my discoveries and revelations.

As a Chinese immigrant, my mother, Oy Lum, was in many ways the typical story of a hard-working woman who managed to raise a family of five girls single-handed, on a factory worker’s intermittent wages. My father was institutionalized, and like many Chinese men in the early 20th Century in San Francisco, was unable to find sufficient work to maintain a living.

Sun Yat-sen

What surprised me was that my mother had attended the equivalent of a women’s junior college in her late teens. This girls’ school was founded in 1862 by one of her ancestors, when women were unable to become educated. Sun Yat Sen, China’s father of the democratic revolution in 1911, valued women’s education, and he would have supported the progressive school. The story “Butterfly Lovers”, was about a woman who played “Yentl” in order to go to school.

Unfortunately, most attendees were unable to apply their knowledge to any direct purpose. There were no jobs for women in those days. The school didn’t have the political and economic forces of a Radcliffe or Vassar College to help. Students were ahead of their times but for what my mother ended up doing in America, an education seemed hardly purposeful. Nevertheless, my mother quietly conveyed the importance of education. She was the opposite of a “helicopter” parent or “Tiger Mom” these days. Yes, she did encourage us, but her primary focus was on our well-being and not in micro-managing our lives. 

My quest for understanding my mother comes from the many stories she told me as a child about China. It was definitely perplexing. My cryptic training came from opera films she took me to see in San Francisco. When I asked her if she lived like the characters in the classic opera stories, she nodded emphatically. And yes, I took her literally. She and her family wore the costumes, moved in stilted fashion, and sang in screechy voices. Nevertheless, I loved them as they remind me of her.

Many years later, when I led my mother to visit her village for the first time in over 40 years, she was somewhat unmoved by its rural appearance. She simply surveilled the environment and agreed, yes, it hadn’t changed much. Outwardly, her life in the U.S. didn’t seem to have much effect on her either. Whether in limited English or in a dialect of Cantonese, she was a woman of few words.

In the end, my mother is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California. It’s a timeless, picture-perfect cemetery that once forbade Chinese and dogs from being interred there. Despite options to return to China or being buried next to my father at the Chinese cemetery in Colma, she plotted meticulously and chose her crypt location in Oakland. After 98 years, this was not only her final home, but it spoke volumes on where she saw herself in peace and tranquility.