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home : commentary : columns November 12, 2018

A woman rich beyond things

By Carolyn Woo | Catholic News Service

International Women's Day on March 8 recalls that many girls and women in developing countries still face huge barriers to an education, are denied rights to ownership of the land they labor on, have no access to health care, suffer regular beatings from their husbands, and are placed in early child marriages resulting in horrendous feminine problems when they give birth.

In my deliberations whether to join Catholic Relief Services, I felt the tug to address these issues. These women's plight was not just intellectual to me nor compelling from simply a humanistic standpoint. I felt that I held the memories of these women.

You see I was cared for and formed by a woman who came from a similarly impoverished background. This month's column tells her story.

Before Lady Gaga gained great fame, my family had our own Gaga. On Feb. 9, 2018, we celebrated the funeral mass of Fung Yau, who passed away at age 99.

Fung joined our family in 1947 and became a part of our clan ever since. When my sister Maureen hadn't quite mastered proper words yet, she somehow referred to Fung as "Gaga." The nickname stuck. 

Gaga was born in China to a rural couple who depended on a small plot of land for their living. Upon her father's untimely death, Gaga was sold as a servant girl at age 9 to support her widowed mother and three younger siblings.

Standing outside the school room to which she carried the books of her employer's children, she learned how to read. Eventually, Gaga could make sense of a Chinese newspaper even though she never went to school. 

As a young woman, Gaga was phenomenally beautiful, with a sweet face and dignified composure that caught the breath of everyone who saw her picture. Yet she refused marriage proposals for one major reason: She recognized that her salary would have to go to her husband and she would no longer be able to forward all of her earnings to her mother.

From the beginning, Gaga was much more than a nanny to us. She became the compass and model for how we should live and treat others. For me, Gaga set the examples and standards on five commitments: dedication to family, compassion for those in need, speaking the truth, delivering our best and knowing our blessings.

From the time her father died, Gaga's overriding priority was to support her mother. She kept little for herself and sent everything to China. Her generosity was extended to others as well. A person in the hospital or a child needing tuition were always more important than her needs.

"Never lie" was another common refrain. Even as a servant, Gaga held her truth, which was not bent by power or wealth.

She demanded the highest quality in her work -- and actually in mine too -- as excellence was a way to honor others and oneself. No condemnation was more shaming than work that was characterized in Gaga's words, as "ma ma fu fu": Cantonese for "sloppy."

From a person who had so little, you would expect complaints. Yet, Gaga operated in and from deep gratitude. Every morning, her first act was to light a stick of incense, face the window in the kitchen, kneel and bow deeply to thank the heaven and the earth.

Even before she became a Catholic in her 80s, though she had nothing, she had God. Her highest priority was to love well. For me, Gaga will always be an example of what it means to trust God and what real wealth is all about. 

Woo is distinguished president's fellow for global development at Purdue University and served as the CEO and president of Catholic Relief Services from 2012 to 2016.

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