Chinese New Year was always a rather boring time for me, except the part where I receive ang pows (red packets containing gifts of money that the older generation gives to the younger generation). But oh what we all had to go through to ‘earn’ them! To have to endure hours of visiting relatives, of smiling for them despite my sleepiness (travelling in a car always makes me sleepy), and to have to answer the same questions that I’m asked every year. However, what got my goat most often was having to re-memorize the names of my relatives.
Despite having visited some relatives for over two decades, I still do not know where they live or how to get there on my own, because I’m usually asleep on the back seat of the car on the way there with my parents. And when we reach, my parents would make small talk with our relatives while the elderly relatives would feed me tidbits to keep me quiet.
Every year, it was the same old topics – Where are you working now? What are you doing? How are your children (or grandchildren) doing? And, in recent years, how is your health doing?
As the years passed, the number of relatives to visit grew smaller as families grew smaller through death and migration, and the remaining families grew more distant from one another.
Out of all my relatives, there is always one particular woman who always caught my attention. Every time I saw her, she would be wearing either white or grey, and her hair hidden behind a hood. Whenever I asked my mother, “Who is that woman?” my mother would tell me, “That is your Ah Cheng-ee.” And I would be content with that until the next year when I would have forgotten her name and ask my mother again, “Who is that woman?” and she would say, “That is your Ah Cheng-ee.”
I also have an Ah Eng-ee, an Ah Heng-ee, Ah Keng-ee, and maybe an Ah Meng-ee… or is that the orangutan in the zoo?
I never spoke more than a few words to my Ah Cheng-ee, but I would sometimes see her when visiting relatives with my grandfather outside of the Chinese New Year period. She would always have a kind word for me, but I never really spoke intelligently with her. In my eyes, she was just another elderly relative of mine… until at one point of my life, when I felt a calling to the priesthood.
In the early phases of my discernment journey, I was unsure and filled with many doubts about the priesthood and religious life. It was my mother who one day suggested, “Why don’t you give your Ah Cheng-ee a call and have a chat with her?”
I did, and for the first time in my life, I had an intelligent conversation with my Ah Cheng-ee about the religious life. I don’t remember what we talked about, but for the first time in my life, I could connect my Ah Cheng-ee to the religious life, to the Canossian Sisters. For the first time, we had something in common to talk about.
She must have prayed for my vocation when she heard that I was discerning to become a priest. Even though I never did join the seminary, I did end up working for the church.
This year, Ah Cheng-ee celebrates her 50th year as a Canossian Sister. On Jan 1, I had a familiar sense of deja vu, reminiscent of the many Chinese New Year gatherings I’ve attended, as I sat in a church full of people, surrounded by relatives – Catholic and non-Catholic. More importantly, they were family, and we had come to celebrate the anniversary of one of our own.
For old times’ sake, I asked my mother, “Who is Sister Mary Tan?” and she replied, “That is your Ah Cheng-ee.”
Since the time of writing this sharing, I’ve sat down to have a two-hour long conversation with my Ah Cheng-Ee where I learnt much more about her early days as a Canossian sister.