By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Our cousin “Fortune Girl” died tragically in Hong Kong at the age of 66. What’s ironic is, there was nothing fortunate in her life except that she did have quite a bit of money when she died.
Her death got me thinking. What if I were still in Hong Kong? That could be my life in agony!
A woman’s life is hard if you were the oldest child and Asian, poor, and uneducated.
What’s in a name?
“Fortune Girl” was my husband’s uncle’s daughter. I am not kidding about her name. We called her by that nickname all her life. Many struggling Chinese and Asian families are inclined to give their children names symbolizing luck and wealth, with the hope that blessings can meander their way, and escape poverty. If the kid was able to bring the family luck, she would be adored. And she did. She bought condos for her parents and younger brother.
By no means was Fortune Girl’s life a good one. Her parents expected her to shoulder all the responsibilities, especially financially. No one ever taught me those unwritten rules, but I knew that had I stayed in Hong Kong, where I was raised, I would be stuck with those same responsibilities, being the oldest girl.
My Chinese name means quietness. Many Chinese women share the same name. However, no Chinese families would ever name their son to be quiet. Telling a woman to shut up, connotes suppression. Literally, it limits the woman’s choices. She is supposed to accept whatever fate is bestowed upon her, who she should marry, and what job she should take.
In poor Asian families, it’s not uncommon for women to marry an older man for financial security. Among immigrant families, I have seen young daughters who sacrifice for their families by marrying much older men (some older than their own parents), so that their brothers can get green cards (permanent residency) to America. Although many marriages appear OK on the surface, I wonder how many of the women were truly happy. None I have seen, and they didn’t have the courage to get out of misery.
At the age of 12, I was in charge of my youngest brother and grandmother during the summer, while my mother went to live with my stepfather working overseas. Boys never have to do anything at home. When it comes to the issue of who should go to college, girls were never considered. When you realize you don’t have a future, you lose the motivation to do well in school or try hard to get ahead. I was in that rut for a long time in high school until my senior year. Perhaps, I was one of the lucky few. I had the courage to fight a long battle until my parents finally said yes to college. It wasn’t easy, though. In retrospect, I still don’t know how I pulled through.
The sins of men
Our cousin ended up being so poor because of her father’s gambling habit. From a stable living, the father managed to turn the family’s fortune upside down through gambling. Some Asian men love to womanize and gamble. I hate to admit — so did my grandfather, father, and stepfather. I didn’t know if it was greed or the thrills involved in gambling, which made them addicted. Overnight, the grandfather and father lost their home and their relatives’ fortune. I share this with no joy and pride, but shame. It caused the family lots of pain and hardship. It had ruined many family members’ lives. I can never understand why many family members tolerated the despicable behavior of these men.
What if you were single?
Upon graduating from high school, Fortune Girl instantly went to work for the Hong Kong government’s immigration department, where there was job security, good benefits, and good pay if you worked long enough. She worked there for over four decades. Her hard work paid off. She was promoted to be a customs and border supervisor. Mild in personality, her job never allowed her to show her soft side.
Never married, she cast her undivided attention on her family, especially in financial support, including her parents and four younger siblings. That’s no small feat, considering properties in Hong Kong cost six to eight times more than Seattle. She managed to buy properties for her family members with the money she saved.
That means she sacrificed, constantly shortchanging herself.
To say Fortune Girl lived frugally is an understatement. Actually, she was mean to herself. Her retirement benefits were worth over thousands of U.S. dollars per month. She had never spent a dime for fun or even on her own basic necessities, even though she could afford it. No washing or drying machine, not even a refrigerator. No travel. No luxurious habits. Nothing. Yep, she washed her clothes by hand. She took her clothes to her parents’ condo nearby and dried them there.
Quietly, she lived by herself and her only entertainment was watching television. Can you imagine all the sitting around in your own home and not getting out? It would drive me insane. She lived a life of despair and depression, although she didn’t express it.
What surprised us was her awful health habits. Her favorite snacks were ice cream and chips, especially potato chips. Deep-fried food was her favorite.
And she never exercised. There was no incentive — no friends or loved ones to motivate her to take care of herself. She had no purpose in life after her siblings had grown. One by one, her beloved siblings and niece and nephew abandoned her. Clearly, she was being used. Retirement was tough if you have no social life or hobbies.
We visited Hong Kong once a year for the past 10 or 12 years, and met up for dim sum. Each time I saw her, her health got progressively worse. About five years ago, a stroke almost killed her. Afterwards, she lost her balance and her ability to walk steadily. Then another stroke hit her in the past few months. She ended up in a coma, moaning and groaning in immense pain.
During one visit, my sister-in-law in Hong Kong quietly whispered to her, “Fortune Girl, it’s time to go. You have nothing to worry about. You can let go, go peacefully.” Ten minutes later, she took her last breath.
Fortune Girl’s service was on Dec. 3. We didn’t attend.
“She had no friends at the funeral, right?” I asked my sister-in-law.
“How did you know?” she probed.
Everything I predicted was correct. Fortune Girl didn’t have any friends. Friendship takes time to develop, and sometimes, generosity and selflessness. Not a single friend attended her funeral, even though she met and worked with many, many colleagues at the immigration department. Only 11 people attended her service, and the majority were her immediate family members. Her family checked her cell phone and found only family members’ numbers listed. And yes, she left over $2 million (USD). Do you think she deserves credit for leaving so much money behind? Perhaps, that money will spoil her siblings or create bitter rivalries among them.
How to escape fate
It was admirable of Fortune Girl to work so hard to help her family. Beyond that, please don’t imitate her. Without purpose, she led an unhappy, boring, and empty life.
In her home, there were no books, newspapers, or magazines. Books nourish our soul, give us hope, wisdom, insights, and inspiration for learning and to live a happy life. I venture into the International District Library every week. Libraries should be our good friends. Newspapers challenge my brain and give me current and relevant information. Every day, they inspire me and provide tips to have a better life. Research has shown that if you know how to change your brain (way of thinking), you can change your life. So keep reading.
What Fortune Girl lacked were networks of friends and social connections. Her inability to develop self-awareness and seek improvement prohibited her from creating a more meaningful life. Family members said she was an introvert. Even introverts can have a glowing personality, with curiosity and warmth, and friends, too. You just have to seek them out. There are other introverts in the world waiting for you to connect.
Fortune Girl, may you find real fortune in heaven! May you find true friends in the next world! May you not be the oldest child in your next life!
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.