What Pro Wrestling Taught Me and My Immigrant Grandmother

“Your grandmother would’ve loved The Rock,” said my husband, Brendan, as he turned on “The Titan Games,” and I sank into our living room couch.

During the coronavirus lockdown, the reality show, hosted and produced by The Rock, was my comfort because it reminded me of what I loved about professional wrestling: the showmanship, bravado and clear-cut winners.

After Brendan mentioned my grandmother — my ahma — I was transported to another couch: a white wicker sofa with green floral print. The TV is a massive brown piece of furniture — the thick screen the size of a love seat and black buttons for on/off and volume. My petite Taiwanese ahma paces. I ditch my sixth-grade homework and join.

She knows the schedule by heart, even though her English is limited. Today’s match: Randy “Macho Man” Savage against some random guy. We cheer when Macho Man appears onscreen. He struts along the aisle in wraparound sunglasses, a silky bandanna around his forehead and a black satin cape with “Savage” embossed on the back with red sequins.

My 72-year-old grandmother, normally quiet, claps with a teenage boy’s energy. We boo when his sequin-less opponent attempts to pin the “Savage” to the mat. When Macho Man inevitably wins, we shout as if we are in the front row of the blue wrestling ring, not in our living room in suburban New Jersey.

We adored Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, and Rowdy Roddy Piper. When I was 12, the highlight of my weekend was renting WrestleMania VHS tapes from our local video store. My grandmother and I watched those tapes on repeat, delighting in three commercial-free hours of glorious matches, culminating in a final battle where one man was awarded a magnificent gold belt he lorded over other wrestlers. I scored tickets to a live pro-wrestling event at my high school, and my white-haired ahma hollered like a wrestling coach, fists in the air.

Gradually, I watched it less. When I left for college at New York University, I stopped altogether. On school breaks I saw that ahma still watched with religious fervor. I joined occasionally, but it seemed childish to clap for what I now saw as a misogynist soap opera.

As my grandmother’s health and cognitive abilities declined in her 90s — she called me by my cousin’s name and thought her six-foot-tall caregiver was stealing her petite clothes — I saw her feisty spirit slip away. Wrestling matches faded into background noise. She watched with a blank stare. Before long my mother was calling to warn me that “today might be the day,” until it finally was.

In August 2013, I wrote her eulogy. I bore witness to her life because my childhood bedroom was next to hers. I spoke about her love of professional wrestling, and how I never got to tell her that Brendan had spotted Hulk Hogan in a yellow Volkswagen beetle in Los Angeles. My cousins chuckled. It was a known fact that if ahma came over, you had to watch wrestling.

When I saw her body in the coffin at the funeral, she was unnaturally still, like a statue.

She had not been still in life. She was a woman who walked two miles every day to the grocery store and refused rides, even when I got my driver’s license. A mother who raised six children and lost two sons, one to a plane crash and one to cancer. On the anniversaries of her sons’ deaths, I sat with her and listened to her loud wails as she clutched their black-and-white photos. The statue in the funeral home was not my ahma.

Three years passed. The next time I saw her, my belly was round with two girls who loved to kick at night. I cried one day, high on hormones, over the fact that ahma would never press her lips to my daughters’ cheeks and suck in their round baby cheeks like she could swallow their cuteness, which she did with her grandchildren no matter how old we were. That night, she appeared in a dream, taking a bath. I told her about my pregnancy and she smiled. The next morning, I felt like she knew I was becoming a mother.

This past winter, Brendan and I took our twins, by then 3, to a kid-friendly New Year’s Eve party. I sheepishly told the hostess I was departing early.

“I am doing the most L.A. thing ever: A ‘sound bath journey’ in Eagle Rock,” I said. I kissed my daughters and husband goodbye and hopped into a Lyft. Fifteen minutes later, I arrived at a yoga studio/cafe that sold tarot cards, superfood shakes and glass jars filled with manifestation tea. Years earlier, I would’ve mocked modern me, but now, at 40, I fully accepted the woo-woo lifestyle common here.

I joined 54 other people who had signed up for the sound journey, which promised to connect us with “ancestors and spiritual guides,” banish what was no longer serving us and “prepare for new seeds of manifestation and birth.” After working nonstop through the holidays to hit an impossible deadline, I desperately wanted to sow new seeds.

What I carried into the room: a book I was ghostwriting that was haunting me, my postpartum body, and a crippling thought: “You are not good enough.” My own professional wrestler, Self-Doubt Savage, took over as I lay on my pink yoga mat. Tibetan chakra bowls played. A drummer beat out a steady rhythm.

We were squished together so closely that a man’s feet were hovering over my head, but I slipped into a calm state. I felt an overwhelming presence of my ahma. An internal voice said, “Your grandmother lives inside of you.” The tears came hot and instant.

In my mind’s eye, I saw ahma: Four-foot-10-inches of her, in a satin dress she wore at 19, newly married in Taiwan. Jet black hair. Short like she always wore it. Slips of white paper on which she practiced writing English. Shaky blue penmanship, like a child learning the alphabet, even though she was in her late 70s. When I got home from high school, I wrote words for her, which she studiously copied.

I had forgotten her resilience. “Your grandmother lives inside of you,” repeated like a mantra as the chakra sound bowls washed over me.

I felt love. The kind of love doting Asian grandmas showered on their grandchildren as if we were golden. Love in the form of small bowls with white rice and sweet potato slivers because it was my favorite. “So smart,” she said when I fixed her gold watch.

The kind of love that Self-Doubt Savage hated. Hollered against. He, a true showman, shook the rafters with his brazenness. He stood at the top of the ring, beating his chest. He was used to winning.

But in that moment, my grandmother grabbed hold of my Savage. She swung him against the elastic red ropes of the ring Macho Man-style and body slammed him to the blue mat. He attempted to get up like any worthy opponent. I couldn’t deny any longer that if I came from a woman who arrived in America from Taiwan with six children and no formal education, and who walked every single day until her 90s, then I could kick Self-Doubt Savage out of my mental arena. In that Los Angeles yoga studio, surrounded by strangers, my ahma and I pinned him into submission.