My grandfather passed away at the age of 96. Five months have passed and I think of him often. Little things remind me of him and my eyes water and my heart aches a bit. It is the end of an era.
As author Joan Didion once wrote, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down”. So here I am, writing down the story of my grandfather – who he was to me, what I learned from him, and all the immeasurable ways he has influenced my life.
My story begins in 1990 – the year we moved from Beijing, China to Edmonton, Canada. I am six years old. On the plane flying over the Pacific, my mom teaches me simple English phrases on cue cards with little cartoon drawings. I learn ‘where is the bathroom?’ and sport vocabulary like ‘shuttlecock’. I’m hot under my thick sweater and long-johns but keep them on, because Canada will be “very, very cold” (or so my mom says). I sense something exciting is happening, but am unsure what. I vaguely remember saying goodbye to my family in China, but mostly I dream about all the fluffy dogs I’ll get to pet in Canada (a promise my aunt made me before we left Beijing). Hours later, my dad greets us at the airport. After one year apart, our little family is reunited again.
And so, our new life begins. Like all immigrant families, my parents work hard to put food on the table. As my dad pursues graduate studies, my parents work multiple labour jobs – cleaning hotel rooms, washing dishes, waiting tables – making minimum wage. My parents gave up the comforts of their prestigious careers in Beijing, daring to venture to a new country where they did not speak the language and did not understand the culture.
While my parents experience daily struggles and hardships, I – enveloped in the warm bubble of their protection and love – enjoy carefree summers running wild in parks and memorable winters building snow forts. I attend birthday parties and come home with “doggy-bags”. I eat spaghetti and cheddar cheese, peanut butter on celery sticks – exotic foods I’d never seen in China. Within the timespan of a single summer, I pick up English, effortlessly, while playing with fellow classmates.
Three years later, I am nine years old. One night, my parents come into my room and ask if I want to take piano lessons. They urge me to consider carefully – that if I say “yes”, I would have to commit fully. I close my eyes and ponder – not knowing what “committing fully” means. I nod an enthusiastic “Yes!!!”. Soon after, I perform on a beautiful hardwood stage, playing a “Canon in D” duet, alongside Teacher Zhang who inspires and challenges me. I delight in the feel of those keys and lose myself in a wonderful world of melodies and rhythms. Piano becomes a part of my soul.
Around that time, I also start drawing lessons. I first learn traditional Chinese painting from an older gentleman – how to hold brushes and mix black ink. We paint Rocky Mountain landscapes from photos. I learn to dry my brush and split it, so that it will look like pine trees when pressed on paper. Later, I study with Teacher Yuan, a professional artist who teaches me the foundations and techniques of sketching. Every lesson, he pours me a big glass of delicious pulpy orange juice, while he sets up the fruit/egg/vegetable scene we would draw that day. Eggs are the toughest. They’re round and smooth and difficult to get the shading just right. (To this day, I get a bit nervous when someone sets a single white egg in front of me).
For a long time, I never realized what a privileged childhood I led. I was safe, happy, and loved. I had hobbies that fed my soul (hobbies that I turn to – to this day – for relaxing, re-energizing, to slow down from life’s hectic pace). Later, in my twenties, my parents told me that in their darkest times during those early years in Canada – it was my grandfather who said that a child’s potential should not be wasted. That no matter how difficult their financial circumstances, they must invest in and develop my talents now, because later, it would be too late. And so my grandparents supported my parents – emotionally, financially (if/when my parents accepted it), and in all the other intangible ways parents love their children and their children’s children.
I am now 33 years old. I think about my grandfather and all the ways he has shaped who I have become. The little details of his presence.
The bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils on his desk. The way he would cut out newspaper articles, paste them and annotate them in his notebooks. He was always reading, thinking, learning. His accomplishments at work, he never boasted about or even mentioned at home. As a young adult visiting Beijing, I’d accompany him to events, sitting beside him in marvel as a never-ending stream of people (10-30 years his junior) approached him with a warm handshake and a “thank you for all the ways you changed my life”.
His white hair and long bushy eyebrows. Swimming with him at 北戴河, waking up at dawn to catch little crabs at the seashore. Lotus flowers and lazy dragonflies at 頤和園 (Summer Palace). His little gimped pinky that he sprained while playing basketball at 18, but never healed. How he knows the names of all the trees and flowers on our walks. How he always walked a few steps faster than my grandmother, but held her hand when going down stairs. The way he frantically brought me to the hospital the day I fell on my chin at four years old, blood dripping down my face and wailing for my mom. How he loves children, but didn’t get to spend much time with his own during his working years.
I’ve never heard him raise his voice.
It is a fact of life that seasons come and go. This season ends and another begins. I’m grateful for all the moments I got to spend with him.
I’ll leave you with one final story about my grandfather: For as long as his shaking hands would allow, my grandfather wrote in his journal every single day. I once asked him “What if nothing much happened that day?” To which he shrugged, lifting his open hands in that matter-of-fact, playful way of his, and said: “Well – then I write ‘nothing much happened today’.”