Leftover Woman – Part I

“Once upon a time there was a girl warrior called Lixian. Just like you, she was nine, but had already mastered the highest level of martial arts. She could perch on bamboo tree tips on one leg, and catapult from one snow-capped mountain peak to another. Courageous and compassionate, she roamed from village to village to aid the peasants in need.” My nanny’s stories of Lixian adventures lulled me to sleep. That the girl warrior shared my given Chinese name made her stories even more enchanting. I dreamt of ascending with the white cranes to the top floor of the apartment building where my family lived in Hong Kong. Six long bamboo laundry poles jutted horizontally out from the wall beneath my nanny’s bedroom window. Multi-color blouses, trousers, undergarments and bath towels hung from the poles, like the coats of arms of ancient Chinese kingdoms. Balanced on one leg on the far end of the poles, I somersaulted backwards across the length of the bamboo rods, propelled myself through the open window and landed on my nanny’s lap.

Her name was Qun Ho. She had wide-set eyes, squat nose, thick lips and crooked ivory-colored teeth. My friends nicknaming her “gorilla face” agitated me. A shapeless cotton jacket with traditional knotted buttons and loose pants covered her 4’11” frame. She owned only three outfits of identical style, in dark grey, light grey and navy blue.

My parents addressed my nanny’s first name as “Miss Qun,” out of respect for her longstanding service as the domestic for my grandparents, who lived in Macau, a Portuguese colony forty miles by ferry from Hong Kong. When my grandparents passed, she moved in with us. Mom worried that my father’s meager salary could not feed another mouth, but Dad argued, “Miss Qun has been loyal to my parents for twenty years. We cannot abandon her now.”

Dad worked as a film engineer by day and tinkered with his own film editing business by night. My parents, teenage older brother, Miss Qun and I crammed inside a fourth-floor walk-up flat about the size of a one-bedroom apartment in the U.S. Miss Qun was like the supreme goddess Guanyin with a thousand arms and thousand eyes. She cooked, cleaned, ironed, sewed, shopped, played shuttlecock games with me, and told stories. Every morning, Miss Qun shopped at the bustling fresh market for our family’s daily meals. Drenched in sweat, she lugged hefty bags of vegetables, fruit, meat, fish and other sundries for ten blocks and four flights of stairs back to our flat. Despite our family’s paltry food budget, Miss Qun somehow managed to prepare delectable dishes. There was an implicit contest in culinary prowess among the domestics of the neighboring families, and Miss Qun reigned supreme. My parents invited her to eat her meals with us, just like family.

Several nights a month, I woke up in a panic when I couldn’t find Mom in the bed adjacent to mine. She slipped out to play all night mahjong at our neighbors’ whenever Dad traveled on business. I searched my way in the dark to the tiny room by the kitchen. Miss Qun slept on the bottom tier of a narrow wooden bunk bed. A dilapidated suitcase held together by two stout hemp cords, and several large blue or grey cloth bundles like giant dumplings filled the top tier.  That was everything she owned.

“Don’t be afraid, Young Mistress,” she guided me back to the bedroom I shared with my parents. Snuggling next to me, she consoled me with girl warrior stories.

One night, I got bored, “Please read me a story from my favorite book.”

Silence. “I don’t know how to read.”

“How can you not know how to read?” I was perplexed.

“No, I’m sorry,” she whispered, tears flowing down her cheeks.

I eventually learned from Mom that Miss Qun came from Fengjian village in the South of China and was the eldest of a family of eight girls and two boys. Traditionally, in that part of China, the eldest daughter was not allowed to marry, but devoted her life working as a domestic servant to support her family, especially the male siblings. Education for her was out of the question.

Her parents sold fourteen-year-old Miss Qun to a wealthy family at the far end of the village. Before departing, to brand her as not marriage-worthy, her hair was cut from waist-length to chin-length. In China, a woman who was not married by age twenty-seven was scorned by society as sheng nu, a “leftover woman.” Miss Qun was a sheng nu since birth. For a send-off gift, her parents gave her a small gold hair pin embedded with a sliver of jade. Her dowry to life. 

After being sold to another family, she relocated with her employer to Macau. When the patriarch died, she ended up working for my grandparents.

Periodically, Miss Qun received mail from her family in China. Mom read the letters to her and then responded on her behalf. One day, after perusing a new letter to Miss Qun, Mom appeared bewildered and said, “Your youngest sister passed away. Our deepest condolences.”

Miss Qun’s face turned red as she bit her lower lip and looked down. Wringing her wrist, she asked, “How did she die?”

 “The man she was forced to marry was an abusive, alcoholic buffoon thirty years older. She ended her own life the night before the wedding.”

Her murmurs were muffled by gut-wrenching sobs from her core. “It’s my fault. I could have saved my sister if I had sent more money home.” Wrapping her scrawny arms marked by veins and spots, she rocked back and forth. I tried to hide my tears behind a book held close to my face. Mom took Miss Qun’s hands, “You’ve sacrificed everything for your family. Rest. I’ll cook today.”

After Mom left for the market, Miss Qun retreated to her bunk bed and wept under the thick cotton blanket. I sat by her bed, “Miss Qun, I’ll tell you stories.” I propped her up against the pillow and read abridged narratives of the adventures of the Buddhist monk and his disciple, the Monkey King, in search of the sutra.

One May afternoon, Mom was playing mahjong at a friend’s home. Miss Qun knelt by our only bathtub, back bent, her bony, chafed hands vigorously scrubbing a huge jumble of laundry. I invited my neighbor Ping to play hairdresser. I wrapped a big towel around Ping’s shoulders and pinned her hair up on one side with a large metal clip. I took Miss Qun’s kitchen shears and started to trim off Ping’s shiny shoulder-length hair. First one side, then the other. Meticulously. Just like the hairdressers in the beauty parlor. Then I washed her hair in the kitchen sink with sandalwood soap and infused the flat with a sweet and creamy fragrance. Before leaving, Ping rewarded me with an imaginary tip. Shortly after Mom returned home from mahjong in the evening, the doorbell rang. It was Ping and her mother, who screamed, “Aiya! Look how your wild daughter butchered Ping’s hair.” Apologizing profusely, Mom offered to buy Ping a wig.

Mom dragged me into Miss Qun’s bathroom after our angry guests had left. “No play. No dinner,” she yelled locking the wooden door. The windowless water closet was just large enough for an old-fashioned toilet with a pull chain on a tank high on the wall. It was pitch dark and smelled putrid. I was scared, tired and famished.

Then I heard Miss Qun begging Mom. “It was my fault. I neglected to keep an eye on Young Mistress. Please punish me instead.” Eventually, Miss Qun whispered outside the toilet door. “Your mom agreed to let you out, but you must apologize and give Ping any Barbie outfit she wants.” To this day, I still remember the sting of that punishment.

At the end of the school year, I came in first at Fourth Grade and Mom rewarded me with choosing my own dinner. Miss Qun and I ventured to Dairy Lane, a posh Western-style supermarket patronized by the expatriates and wealthy Chinese. As we entered the store, Miss Qun held firmly to my hand and complained about the snobbish staff and the lo fan, the “foreign barbarians.” My eyes feasted on shelf after shelf Cadbury’s chocolates and Walker’s crisps, and the wide array of frozen food. I was particularly intrigued by a frozen round piece of dough covered with shredded cheese and pepperoni slices. “P-i-z-z-a.” I remembered tasting pizza for the first time at a rich classmate’s birthday party. I found crowning trophy!

Back in the flat, Miss Miss Qun examined the pizza from all angels, and sighed, “This barbarian food needs to be baked in an oven.” My heart sank. Only rich families in modern apartments had ovens. We cooked in two woks on top of stoves.

“Don’t worry,” she said, while firing up our carbon-steel wok with peanut oil. She unwrapped the pizza from its plastic wrapping, sliced the dough into strips with an oversized Chinese cleaver. Strip by strip, she placed the pizza into the boiling oil. The cheese melted over the golden-brown dough, the pepperoni sizzled. With chopsticks, I picked up a strip of pizza from the wok, relishing each bit, licking clean the gooey cheese on the wooden sticks.

To this day, no pizza tastes as good as Miss Qun’s wok-fried wonder.

In 1968, Dad left Hong Kong for Anchorage, Alaska, to restart life after bankruptcy. With the discovery of oil, Alaska enjoyed an economic boom. After saving up enough money to buy a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant, he sent for the rest of the family.

“I will not go to Alaska, unless Miss Qun also comes with us,” I hollered. When Mom ignored me, I refused to talk and eat. On day four of my protest, she conceded to send for Miss Qun, once our family had settled in Alaska.

In July 1972, a village of friends and neighbors saw our family off at Kai Tak Airport. Jokes, feigned laughter and endless picture-taking on Dad’s Leica camera. I was too distraught to cry. I worried that my first plane ride would end up in a crash and dreaded even more that I would never see Mis Qun and my friends again. Finally, when Dad shepherded us across the boarding gate. Miss Qun rushed up, “Please take good care, Young Mistress.” She clasped my hands tight, turned and walked away.

In Alaska, I learned from Mom that Miss Qun shared an apartment in Macau with a retired schoolteacher, who wrote to my parents monthly. Distance, time and the burden of living atrophied my good intentions of writing to Miss Qun. It was not until 1986 when I returned to Hong Kong. I tagged on to my business trip an excursion to Macau to visit Miss Qun and my grandparents’ graves. The minute I got off the hydrofoil in Macau, I spotted her. Silver chin-length cropped hair bordering a parched, bony face. Shapeless body in a bluish-grey jacket and loose black pants.

“Welcome home! Look at you, so grown up and beautiful.” Her yellow crooked teeth gleamed. During the taxi ride to the cemetery, she asked questions non-stop. “How are your parents? Are you married? If you don’t mind my suggestion. Men don’t like clever women, so hide your smartness. Life is very challenging for a sheng nu.”

When we arrived at the burial sites, she took out a small brush from a big plastic bag and swept the tombstones and pedestals. In front of each, she placed a small plate of fruit and Chinese buns. She took out a pile of joss paper money, colored in copper, silver and gold. “I pay respect to your grandparents every Qingming Festival and sweep their tombs. The Woos are my adopted family.”

She crouched down and burned the ghost money in a small urn. She held my hand and we both knelt down, bowed deeply three times with our foreheads touching the dark brown soil. “May Grandfather and Grandmother Woo have a comfortable afterlife.” Tiny flickers of flame glistened on her face, lined with memories.

Before I boarded the hydrofoil back to Hong Kong, Miss Qun retrieved from her pocket a small object wrapped in brown paper and pressed it into my palm. “A humble gift for you. I’ve waited a long time to see you again. Now, whatever may come, I’m ready.”

Inside the brown paper was Miss Qun’s gold hair pin with a sliver of jade. That was the last time I saw my nanny. Two years later, I heard that she passed away peacefully in her sleep in Macau.

The moment my nanny was born, she was deprived of family, roots, possessions, self-determination, marriage and intimacy. She grafted her fate onto the lives of three generations of Woos. She celebrated our triumphs and lamented our defeats.

Every Qingming Festival, I polish Miss Qun’s gold pin with a sliver of jade. Cupping the pin in my hand, I kneel, bow deeply three times and offer a prayer of gratitude to my nanny who witnessed my life without any expectation of reciprocity. My nanny who had so little but gave so much.

Leftover Woman – Part II

On the first day of the Shakespeare I class at Mills College, I hurried to the amphitheater-style classroom to claim a seat. Even though I considered the seventeenth century literature extraneous to my life, I had to excel in Shakespeare I to make Dean’s List as a sophomore majoring in English. I also needed to maintain the full, four-year scholarship Mills had awarded me.

Ten minutes before bell time, a short, plump woman with a pug nose, double chin, cherubic cheeks and a crown of silver curls appeared at the entrance. She was leaning heavily on a metal walker. A steel brace framed her left leg. At Dr. Elizabeth Marie Pope’s arrival, the entire class stood to attention. She was head of the English Department and a renowned scholar of Shakespeare and Milton. Escorting our professor was Marion, a tall and robust Junior dressed in lumberjack flannel, jeans and sneakers. Marion was editor of the college paper and Dr. Pope’s assistant since her sophomore year. She chain-smoked, drank, cursed and intimidated with her acerbic wit. I avoided Marion except to review articles I wrote for the college paper.

Dr. Pope pushed the walker forward, heaved her braced leg into the metal frame, and then stepped her good leg forward. Since polio afflicted her for most of her life, the brace had been her protector and prisoner. After two strides, she rested on the walker before repeating the process. Finally, Dr. Pope reached the desk, propped herself up on the edge and slowly settled into the chair. She pulled out a handkerchief from the sleeve of her dark grey suit jacket, and wiped the perspiration from her face. Completely self-assured, she smiled and greeted her students. Marion set down on the desk several books a black leather handbag modeled after Queen Elizabeth’s Launer.

After earning a PhD at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Pope started teaching at Mills in 1944 and eventually became head of the English department. Founded in the mid-nineteenth century as a liberal arts women’s college, Mills offered the same rigorous academic standards and collegial community as Bryn Mawr, her undergrad alma mater. She lived in Faculty Village, an enclave of charming, detached cottages perched on a low hill above the campus. Mills was Dr. Pope’s workplace, community and family.

On the first day, Dr. Pope lectured on the overbearing paternal figure, Egeus, in our pre-assigned reading, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and prompted us to reflect on our own fathers.

”…To you your father should be as a god,
…To whom you are but as a form in wax,
…To leave the figure or disfigure it.”

Unlike Egeus and the patriarchs of traditional Chinese families, my father emboldened me to pursue education, career and even the Nobel Prize. Unlike my mother, he couldn’t care less whether I would marry James, or any other man. James was a Hong Kong Chinese in his final year of medical school in Canada. A coveted catch. Dad counseled, “Achieve financial independence and never be beholden to a man.”

During each class, with fervor, humor and clarity, Dr. Pope chipped away the aged and yellowed varnish of archaic language to reveal the luminance of Shakespeare’s words. Her face glowed with enthrallment when quoting from “Twelfth Night.” Tears flowed down her cheeks when she recounted how Romeo drank the poison, kissed Juliet and died in “Romeo and Juliet.” With animated expressions, dramatic movements of arms and torso, and riveting delivery, she exuded wicked sensuality and profound emotions. I wondered if her method acting was inspired by actual life experiences. Did she ever give into erotic rapture and uninhibited passion? Did the words on the page give agency to her life? My professor fascinated me more than Shakespeare’s characters.

In the beginning of my Junior year, I succeeded Marion as editor of the Mills paper. One late night, alone in the cubby-hole office, while I was frantically working on the upcoming edition, Marion showed up.

“Dr. Pope needs a new assistant to replace me when I graduate in January. The job is yours if you want it.”

I was stunned. Assisting Dr. Pope was the plum job on campus.

Marion pressed on, “It’s easy. During the week, drive her around campus in her Plymouth Barracuda and set her up in the classrooms. On Saturday mornings, take her to the neighborhood beauty parlor in her Jaguar. She wants to go there in style! Every evening, prepare dinner. She is not a picky eater. After dinner, serve her a nip of sherry. Shop for groceries and run simple errands. Oh, and she takes a full bath every other day. You don’t need to bathe her. Just help her get in and out of the tub. The old bird is bloody independent. The pay is fair. The best thing is that you can use her “Cuda”, as long as you pay for gas and take good care of it. She pays for insurance and maintenance. You have a driver’s license, right?”

I already had two part-time jobs, the college paper and a full course load. And I didn’t know how to cook. “When should I start?” I knew that rejecting Mills’ most influential department head would be foolhardy for future grad school applications.

I called my father for recipes of the bestsellers at his hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant in Anchorage, Alaska. Instead of sharing recipes, he expounded on “wok energy.”

 “Wok hei is most important, so make sure the wok is really hot…swiftly stir-fry the julienne of napa cabbage, carrots and celery with the beef cubes…add a pinch of white pepper…”

When I pressed him for the precise ingredients and measurements, he quipped, “Chinese cuisine is all about feel and imagination! Only western barbarians need instructions.”

At Dr. Pope’s, I secretly resorted to warming up take-out entrees, accompanied with fresh vegetables, which I stir-fried in a small carbon steel wok purchased with my own money. After dinner, she smacked her lips and beamed, “The most scrumptious meal I’ve had in a long time! You know, Shakespeare crafted wonderful food metaphors inspired by the workings of the Tudor and Stuart kitchens. Now, give me a yummy Shakespeare food quote.”

I froze.

Dr. Pope rubbed her belly and recited, “He hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his.” She took a sip of sherry and carried on, “I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit.”

 While I had the dinner task under control, it took a while to nail Dr. Pope’s bath routine. She sat on the toilet seat to remove the leg brace, while I ran the hot bath at the right temperature. With my petite physique, I had difficulty lifting her into the bathtub, and was frazzled by the naked body of the professor who determined my GPA. When I finally mastered the technique, I spiced up the bath for fun. I added Epsom salts one time. Arnica soaks another time. Then eucalyptus bath salts. Dr. Pope rubbed her palms and exclaimed, “Thou mak’st me merry. I am full of pleasure. Whee!” Her eyes twinkled and a radiant smile ran across her pudgy cheeks. After settling her in the tub, I always left Dr. Pope to luxuriate in private. Intermittently, I could hear water splashing and wondered if she was pretending to swim.

I missed swimming in the open water and the summer excursions to beaches in Hong Kong as a child. My father taught me how to swim buoyed by the waves and currents of the South China Sea. Breaststroke, backstroke, front crawl. I bent my knees, drew them to my buttocks, thrust my legs backwards, toes pointed, and glided my body through the liquid cool. When I raised my chest to breathe, I could see the sunlight waltzing across the ocean surface. I floated on my back, alternating arms pulled through the water from overhead to hip, my legs fluttered, body rolling slightly side to side to my inner rhythm. Clouds of various shapes and sizes floated across the azure sky. When I moved to Alaska as a young teen, the swimming ended, just like the heat, sunlight and vibrancy of Hong Kong. During my first summer at Mills, I couldn’t wait to swim laps in the college’s outdoor poor. I couldn’t wait to reclaim the vigor, serenity and creativity flowing through me when I swam. It saddened me to think that Dr. Pope might not have ever swum.

While cooking and the bath were mundane chores, I loved the other responsibility: shuttling Dr. Pope around campus in her Barracuda. I adored the golden-tan Cuda with its menacing mouth-like grille framed by the two eyes of the headlights. The roar of the pre-emissions control engine and the patches of rust on the fenders signaled “don’t mess with me.” Only a handful of students who lived on campus had cars; mostly trust fund babies who drove daddy’s Porsches or BMWs. With the muscle car, I no longer needed to transfer on multiple buses just to shop in San Francisco. I could cruise to the Big Sur and along California coastline. And unlike other Mills women, who depended on guys with cars to explore the world, I could make my own world.

On the other hand, I dreaded driving Dr. Pope’s hunter-green Jaguar XJ6, her prized chariot to and from the neighborhood beauty parlor. Whereas the Cuda roared, the Jag purred. Each time after it was washed, Dr. Pope examined the Jag for nicks and scratches. Running her palm over its aristocratic body, she seemed to be lost in longing. I dared not ask her the story behind the Jaguar. Why did she need such a posh vehicle? Did she purchase with her own money, or was it a gift? Did she ever try driving at all? Was owning the Jag an act of defiance against her disability?

During Christmas of my junior year, my parents visited me from Alaska and insisted on taking Dr. Pope to an authentic Chinese restaurant in Oakland’s Chinatown. It was her first outing in two years. As she navigated the walker through the restaurant’s narrow entryway, curious patrons gawked.

Dad and Dr. Pope established an instant bond. They drank Tsingtao beer throughout the feast, and toasted each other with Tio Pepe Palomino Fino Sherry and Courvoisier XO.

Ganbei! Ganbei!” Dr. Pope cheered, then fired off, “Good wine is a good familiar creature, if it be well use’d.”

Dad recited in Chinese from Li Bai, the greatest Chinese poet from eighth century Tang Dynasty. A famous imbiber, Li Bai celebrated the joy of drinking with his poems. “Bring in the wine! The cups must not stop!”

Dr. Pope countered, “Thou’rt a scholar; let us therefore eat and drink. Ganbei!”

“Since ancient times, sages have all been solitary; only a drinker can leave his name behind!” my father rejoined in Chinese.

I was surprised by Dad’s spontaneous gaiety, as he was typically serious and irascible. WWII interrupted his PhD study in Engineering at the University of Michigan. His passions were science, literature and poetry.

Not speaking English, my mother could not partake in the conversations, but as always, she followed Dad’s cues, laughed when he laughed, raised her glass when he toasted. Mom never went beyond fifth grade because of the Japanese invasion of China and WWII. Before marrying Dad, she worked at Hong Kong’s most popular dance hall. Her passions were dancing, fashion and mahjong.

For many years, I resented Dad for bullying and humiliating Mom for her ignorance. Watching how joyful and content Dad was in the company of a scholar, I understood, for the first time, his anguish of enduring a marriage with an incompatible spouse.

In the spring semester of my senior year in 1978, I was thrilled to be admitted to The Wharton Graduate School at University of Pennsylvania, with a scholarship and financial aid. I immediately called my boyfriend James in Canada, but was surprised by his feigned enthusiasm. After several weeks of silence, he finally called one night, “You’re going to Wharton, but my medical residency will be thousands of miles away in Canada. This long-distance relationship is just not going to work. I’m so sorry.” That was the last time I heard from him.

I locked myself in my dorm room, wept incessantly and skipped most classes. My friends left sympathy notes and food outside the door, but I refused to answer. I was enraged and distressed why I couldn’t pursue both love and education. I dreaded being a sheng nu, and missed out a woman’s prescribed life program to happiness: go to school, land a good job, save money, get married, have kids. I dragged myself to cook dinner for Dr. Pope, but barely spoke. One evening, Dr. Pope beckoned me to sit next to her on a tan love seat.

“Come, my child, give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o’er wrought heart and bids it break.”

Shakespeare sounded strangely comforting. Between sobs, I poured out my heartbreak. “Perhaps I should have given up Wharton.”

She looked straight at me with bright oval eyes, “Nonsense. A woman needs to be educated, so she can earn the right to make her own choices. You can be a CEO, poet or a homemaker. It’s your decision. I was once in love with a classmate at Johns Hopkins, who would be willing to care for me. But we parted because I loathed to burden him. Being dependent would not allow me to love him wholly,” she reminisced tenderly.

I wondered whether my professor had given herself to sweet Romeo before parting.

The following evening, Dr. Pope handed me an envelope. Inside was the title to the Cuda.

“Child, now you can drive to Wharton in style!” 

When I protested the excessive generosity, she sold it to me for $250.

After completing my final exams and senior thesis, I took Dr. Pope for a celebration. In our revved-up Cuda, we crossed over San Francisco Bay by Richmond-

San Rafael Bridge, raced down Highway 101 to Sausalito. It was a beautiful outpost of bohemian privilege, with homes tumbling down the wooded hillsides overlooking the Bay, the Golden Gate, Angel Island and the Berkeley Hills.

After lunch at the Trident Restaurant with its psychedelic murals, we strolled along the shorefront path. Weighing heavily of her walker, she dragged the braced leg to meet the frame. Then picked up her good leg. While stopping to recoup her breath, she surveyed the Bay, pelicans flying overhead in formation.

“I always wonder what it’d be like to swim,” she pondered. The sunlight glistened on the tears in her eyes. She extended one arm up and forward, while lifting her braced leg slightly behind her. Then, extended the other arm forward and lifted her good leg off the ground. Then repeated the alternating movements.

“Let’s swim!” I shouted and imitated Dr. Pope’s moves. We air-swam, laughed hysterically and ignored the passersby.

Photo by Laya Clode on Unsplash

Monica Woo

Monica L. Woo is a Chinese American emerging writer whose works have been published in GRIFFEL, J.New Books, The Dillydoun Review, The Plentitudes and Rigorous. A creative nonfiction piece was rewarded second place by The League of Utah Writers Olive Woolley Burt Awards. Another piece was a finalist of Narrative Magazine’s short story contest. In 2023, she was a featured storyteller at The Moth Mainstage Events global season premiere, as well as other The Moth Mainstage Events.

She and her family were early Chinese pioneers to relocate from Hong Kong to Anchorage, Alaska, at the start of the oil boom in 1968.