This is my grandmother.

This is my grandmother admiring a photograph of her wedding portrait on my iPhone.

“Hey! How do you have this? There’s only one copy! It’s hanging in Uncle James’ house in Canada.”

Ahmah is over 90 but boy is she sharp. I told her I visited Uncle James and Auntie Rachel when I was in Toronto this July.

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“You mean you took a plane? For over 20 hours? And you used your phone to take a photo of the photo? Wah you’re so clever.”

I told her I learn from the best. It was extremely precious watching her admire figments of history through a screen; her veiny, wrinkly, scrawny fingers tapping on her image over and over.

“I was only 20 when I got married. Yeye was 22. We were so young. I was very beautiful and fair and my hair was very long. We were so young.”

She points to a frame on her bedroom wall.

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“You see? That is Yeye. Yeye has gone home. One day I will join him. Some times he visits me at night.”

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This is my grandmother telling my sister off for wearing torn jeans.

“What happened to your pants? Why is it torn? You should sew it up. Take my sewing kit from the kitchen.”

My sister replies in jest that she is poor; hipster fashion requires validation.

“You have no money?”

Ahmah laughs and smacks my sister on the butt.

“You’re so naughty. Look at jiejie’s skirt, it is not torn.”

Just then, her helper comes in. Ahmah’s ad verbatim response?

“Ah fan, you see? It say it no money. It wear broken broken. It so naughty!”

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This is my grandmother fishing bills out of her handbag and forcing them onto my sister and I.

“You take lah, you take. Ahmah has money. All your uncles and aunties give me money. I don’t spend so much. So I give you loh.”

As usual, my sister and I turn her down while secretly anticipating the routine wrestle. Never have I seen my ahmah as aggressive and forceful as when she wants to give her grandchildren money.

Once, she stuffed a $50 dollar bill *into* my bra because I had refused her. Another time, she stuffed money into my sock. Yet another time, she pretended to have an asthma attack *and then* stuffed the money down my shirt.

Don’t mess with ahmah.

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This is my grandmother’s boss face in life.

Especially when she begins to nag me about marriage, love, and life…

“你结婚了没有?你几时请阿嬷喝酒?阿嬷等你等很久。你几时结婚?啊满很乖的,不抽烟、不赌钱、有打工。你要做朋友做久久。选一个就好,心好就好。不要选来选去,选这么多人,心很乱。你这样就好。啊满很好的,你不要放手,放手就给别人抢去。知道吗?”

“Are you married yet? When are you going to invite me to your wedding? I have been waiting for very long. When are you getting married? Sherman is very well behaved: he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t gamble, and he has a job. You must be friends for a long time. Just pick one partner, as long as your heart is happy. Don’t go picking around, dating so many people. Your heart will be a mess. You’re just fine like this. Sherman is very well behaved. Don’t let go of him. If you do, others will snatch him away. Do you understand?”

At least ahmah isn’t nagging me over pimples and beauty regimes this time.

See more of ahmah in Grandmotherly Folklore and Lessons from my grandmother.

Grandmotherly Folklore

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My grandmother is a woman of many stories. If you spend an afternoon with her negotiating Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, or Hakka, she might even go into what she was wearing the day she met my grandfather, and the mundane details of their first date. My grandmother is a closet romantic.

Ahmah can be quite a vain pot too. She never allows you to take photographs of her unless she has put her dentures on. She earnestly screens all the photos on my phone with a conscientious critique. In one, her eyes are “one big and one small”. In another, her “skin is crinkly”. In another, her teeth “cannot be seen”. My grandmother is a supermodel.

Some days, she tells me she is 88-years-old. Other days, she says she is 90. I once called out her inconsistencies in jest. She retorted that she never knew her own birthday, and that the date on her Identity Card was a loose estimate she came up with when the state decided to issue every citizen officious documents. “Haiyah I am 90 but my skin is still so nice. I always use Hazeline Snow. Why do you have so many pimples? No one is going to marry you. Do you want pimple cream?” My grandmother is a beauty expert.

I swung by Singapore for a bit this month and transcribed more haphazard wisdom from the lady. Let’s call this Grandmotherly Folklore.

On friendship

“Make sure your friends are honest people. You can tell by looking at their face. Don’t be friends with people who look like bad people. Don’t always hang out with people who smoke. Or people who always wear black.”

On safety 

“When I was younger I used to have tea with my suitors. My mother had this book where I was made to list where I went and who I was with. I never lied. I always wrote down every thing. I think you should also put a notebook by your telephone and record all these things to be safe.”

On dating

“On dates, if I left the table for a while, I would never drink or eat any thing that left my line of sight. You never know what your date might put in your drink or your food. You never know who might want to drug you or cheat you. Always bring your bag with you when you go to the bathroom. Don’t accept food from people on the way there and back.”

On health

“The doctor tells me to go for walks, but my legs are weak and I’m afraid to go out on my own, because I might slip and fall. At this age, if you fall, you’ll end up with many problems. Things break easily. You are still young, you can still fall as much as you want. Your body will just heal. Young bodies are good like that. Just make sure you don’t fall so often when you are older.”

On progress

“I want to go out, but I don’t know the routes. The roads are always changing. Every thing is always new. There are always new roads popping up. Every thing is moving too quickly. I’d rather stay at home. I know where every thing is at home.”

On pimples (seriously, my grandmother’s favourite topic of all time)

“You have so many pimples. It’s not pretty. You’re a girl. Your skin should be like tofu. I used to be very fair and pretty. I took very good care of my skin. I am very tanned now, but I used to be very fair, like snow. You should use pimple cream. I have pimple cream. You should use my pimple cream. Your pimples look like rice.”

Okay, ahmah. I will religiously adhere to your pimple cream regime from now on.

PS: An earlier edition here.

Lessons from my grandmother.

1) Stop calling me ahmah. You should be calling me popo.

2) Don’t cut your hair. Your body took a lot of effort to grow it this long.

3) You should use Olay on your face. You have so many pimples.

4) It is good to sit down with old people.

5) Don’t take photos of me until I have put on my dentures.

6) Sherman is a good boy. Don’t let go of him!