towel swans.

by Rachel Cheung

My po po would always serve the most bitter soup. She said the more bitter the soup, the longer you would live. As she stirred the concoction, we dragged our fingers through the carpet, making deep indents that resembled flowers and smiley-faces. And when it was time to finally eat, Po Po served the soup in Ming blue porcelain with little seashell pasta floating on the top. Excited to try the traditional soup, my cousins were deeply appalled by the bitterness overwhelming their mouths. They stuck out their tongue in relief but the bitterness of my po po’s soup always comforted me; it reminded me of the eternal protection she gave us. She would spoon-feed my gung gung, clueless with the effect of Alzheimer’s, but he would rarely swallow the soup and instead, the liquid would just run down his mouth and leave a stain on the collar of his shirt. But that never stopped her from attempting to aid my gung gung’s health.

In the beginning, though, their love wasn’t all that absolute. Their marriage, rooted from an arranged plan, was faulted by the numerous complaints my po po would give. Living in Hong Kong in the 70’s, the air conditioner was only turned on during special occasions and my mom, a young child at the time, would lay on the cold floor in hope for relief during the most humid conditions. Their 1000 square foot loft was never enough for five family members and my po po complained about the tightness of the room and the humidity seeping through the pores of the walls. She was never satisfied and always found a way to crush even the happiness moments because before, her life consisted of life’s finest luxuries.

And as she used to bathe in her father’s monstrous tub of money, the maids were there to scrub the floor so her heels would stay as polished as the coating of a freshly sealed vase. She often danced in the sun’s radiating warmth and jumped through miles of crisp grass, the endless land she owned. Her laughter echoed throughout Hong Kong's towering mountains and was able to wake a sleeping city. But as World War II approached, her livelihood was stolen and her once so luxurious home was demolished to the ground. Only grains of memories were left shattered on the land her family no longer owned, and there, decades of work laid disheveled in front of them. Only tiny picture frames and pockets of cash were left in their hands; it was just enough to start from scratch. But even with a handful of hope, my po po was left mopping the floors of a collapsing restaurant to earn enough cash to hold the ceiling of their new little home. And she resented her role. She was supposed to be playing pretend and stuffing her little cheeks with as many dumplings as possible, without a care in the world. But the massacre of the war killed her dream and she was left kneeling on the ground with her destroyed stuffed animals held tightly to her chest, in tears from her demolished childhood.

She met my gung gung years later. It wasn’t a marriage out of love but instead out of distant family connections. My gung gung gave my po po his life. But of course, it wasn’t enough to appease her. And after ten years of work and three daughters, my gung gung raised enough cash to afford to immigrate in hopes for a better future for their children; so they could pursue the American dream that he always wished he could live. And with a few duffle bags that carried their tiny cell apartment at the tip of Hong Kong, they flew to a new home, a new dream. They settled in a mediocre sized home with the luxury of air conditioners and rooms for all family members to rest. And my gung gung bought couches larger than my po po’s old bed, so she could feel more pleased with their livelihoods and redeemed from her stolen childhood ecstasies. But instead, my po po chose to spend her time washing glass dishes whilst staring at the thin pane windows, finding a new flaw in their backyard’s garden each time. She washed the clothes in the comfort of her own home, but she complained about the way the wet clothes made her fingers ache and wrinkled her delicate skin. And my po po and gung gung never showed much affection. Maybe a small kiss in the light of a birthday or a laugh once the kids were dreaming beneath their blankets, but never enough for Po Po to ever show her appreciation for gong gong.

And years later, when I was born, I watched the last moments of my gong gong’s life. I watched my po po dress him in a new and brightly colored polo each day and held his hand when walking down shallow steps. I watched my po po’s slight frown each time my gong gong would forget her name or even the existence of his own kids. And as my gung gung chewed on ceramic dominos, my po po watched from afar, and even the McDonald bobble head toys weren't enough to make her smile like they used to. She fed him the healthiest yet most bitter soups in hopes the concoction would one day magically fulfill his spirit. But it never did.

Gung Gung passed months later. And every few days, my po po would take a trip to the market and handpick vibrant flowers to form into a vivid bouquet. Po Po placed fresh flowers that resembled the colors of his once so colorful polos in a glass vase on his grave. On her knees above the grave, she would shed a few tears and tell Gung Gung how much she missed his company and kissed her fingertips to place them on his gravestone. And it was always hard for her to leave his grave. It was like she was there to make up for the times she wasn’t.

We tried to cheer her spirit by taking her on a lavish cruise. And it wasn’t the bright lights of the arcade or the symphonic voices of the orchestra’s instruments that caught her eye. When we first arrived at our room, she spotted a towel. A towel folded in a way that resembled a cobra. And when she saw the towel animal, she picked it up, placed it on her table side, and told no one to unfold what she called “the cute towel.” At the time, I never understood why she took so much interest in a tiny towel animal that was only used to welcome children aboard the cruise; it was ready to be disheveled with a nightly bath but she kept it like it was meant to be intact.

And as we left the ship, we waited for Po Po in the car, sweating due to the immense heat of a summer’s day. When she did return, she carried a towel in her hands. Towel doves in a basket with their necks twisted in a heart shape. She handed me the towel doves and as I turned the basket around, wondering how a small towel can turn into such a complex shape, a wide smile beamed off her aging face. She pointed at the dove on the left and explained

“This one is me.” She pointed to the dove on the right, “this one is Gong Gong.”

As I handed the two towel doves back to her, she held them closely to her chest on the ride back home, falling asleep with the gentle rock of the car.

Po Po passed away six months later. Some say she had “heartbreak disorder.” I sometimes visit her old room and look over at the desk next to her bed and I still see the towel doves, both Gung Gung and Po Po, eternally kissing in the light of a lamp. And I used to find it strange that a towel animal that was meant to be unfolded was always kept in its complex shape. But Po Po never wanted to unfold the most beautiful things. She never wanted to unfold and forget about the moments with Gung Gung because even though their love was never flawless, she learned to be grateful for every single memory. Because her love for Gung Gung was a towel dove, meant to be broken apart but never lost its beautiful shape.


behind the story

This story is about my grandma's "po po" (Rosa Cheung's) hardships and joys through her immigration to the United States. In memory of her, I created a story to showcase the ups and downs of her eventful life. My po po can teach us that even the most devastating events in life can lead to positive outcomes, however, patience is immensely important throughout the process.


about the author

Rachel Cheung - co-founder/director

Rachel Cheung is a Hong Kong American who has lived in 5 countries since she was born. Being a third-culture child, she struggled with her identity but found the importance of embracing her Chinese culture. She started the Asian Hispanic Empowerment Organization, alongside Alessandro Iaia, to empower the youth to feel proud of their heritage or learn about the beauty of new cultures. Through spreading her love for culture, she hopes to get others passionate with learning about the world around them.