My China Away from China


A couple weeks ago, I went to Chicago to file in my visa request to study abroad at the embassy. I visited my grandma after.

She lives in a senior-community apartment complex on the boarder of Chinatown. She was reorganizing old photos. It was a mess. The photos slipped off every surface they were placed upon. My grandma was shuffling through the mini photo avalanches for an album filled with her photos from 1960’s China.

Then the doorbell rang.

At the door was a familiar face in a familiar unsaturated blue silk vest. He’s Old Zhang (sounds like John), one of Grandma’s friends. He’s about 80 years old, slim, but sturdy posture. His neatly groomed hair was white as snow and his eyes sunk into his face as he sheepishly smiled and greeted my grandma.

“Hey, Zhang! Door’s open. Come in, come in! You’re finally here,” she said.

Grandma set down the photos in her hand as she raised herself onto her feet. She confidently wobbled her way to greet Old Zhang at the door. About half way there she stopped.

“Yo, what chu doin’ standin’ there like a young fella’? Get in. Get in! Your legs are wobblin. Sit. Sit! I’ll get the door,” she said. “She’s my granddaughter.”

My grandma is a mouth with a sharp tongue and an even sharper brain. If you do something that doesn’t seem right to her, she’ll scold you, question you, lecture you — no matter what age, no matter what location — and no one will dare question her because she is always right (I think the proper word for today is the neighborhood Bish*, though she’d probably scold me for being so improper). I can’t imagine that she would agree to get married, twice actually.

“Hi, Hello, Grandpa Zhang. You’re doing well today. The rice dumplings you made for us last time were really delicious,” I said.

(Note: I have taken liberties in translating to get the correct cultural contextualization. Swears, in the wonderful South of China are commonplace, and my grandma has a thick country accent).

Old Zhang smiled and nodded his head.

“Oh, you know Rose? Where she been? She needs to work on her high notes. I need to tell her. She’s been really off key at singing practice, is she okay?” Grandma said.

“Is that so? I saw her walking around. She looked fine to me,” Old Zhang replied.

They proceeded to small talk as I shuffled through the photos. Most of the photos were from the last 90s. My cousins and I were all little kids. We wore Mickey Mouse Red T-shirts and Space Jam purple shorts. I was taken back to our old world: 9 kids, one house, not enough video games, bootlegged movies, Chucky, and grandma.

Everything that occurred outside that condo was white noise.

Switching to the next pile of photos, a little black photo album caught my eye. In it were pristine black and white photos. As I flipped through the pages history flashed back 60 years. I smiled. That is when Grandma scooted Old Zhang out the door.

“Hey, what are you smiling about?”

“Grandpa. He’s handsome,” I say.

That’s the only fact I know about him.

I was looking at a photo my Grandma and Grandpa took together. I have never met my Grandfather. He passed away when my father was around the age 16. It was heart disease. I always wonder what kind of person he was. Looking around at the photos I deduce that he was a romantic.

He served in the Communist army from the capitol of china all the way in the cold North. My grandma was an educated daughter of a Nationalist bourgeoisie family in the ritzy South. Yes, their families were in different political parties. And the aftermath of China’s Civil War period was still in pungent.

They met taking vocational courses as elected visiting scholars sent to Tsinghua University. In those days, China’s higher education institutions were just setting up, except for the ones set up by foreigners like Tsinghua University.

According to my Grandmother, if you were in a university in the sense we understand it in the U.S., you were a very well connected person at the time. Most other people, like my grandparents, were sent up from their provincial government to study a specialized trade. Grandma and Grandpa were in some sort of civil engineering program.

At the time my grandmother in her mid-twenties, was already married and had a child. Her husband at the time had finished his extended study in engineering and was sent to the Soviet Union for scholarly exchange. This was around the late 1950’s (China-Soviet relations were just starting to get shaky). He was sent back home, ill, and died soon after.

What happened after is a bit fuzzy still. My grandma tends to skip over the details of what happened. Apparently, my grandpa was good friends with her late husband and found my grandma well. He wanted to take care of her. It was as simple as that.

They got married.

But, I say my grandfather was a romantic because was willing to follow my grandma all the way to Southern China, away from his family, surrounded by a (arguably different) language, in an unfamiliar place and start their family there, in Guangzhou.

I still wonder if I got the story right.

After all, grandma’s getting old, and every story needs at least three sides to be true. In a month, I plan on visiting my Beijing relatives. I admit, I am scared. I haven’t seen them in seven years. I am not sure how I should act. I am surprised my family stayed in touch simply because we share the last name Tian.

Soon, I’ll have to opportunity to ask my distant family in Beijing. I have at least one year’s time to catch up on where our family left off.

“Hey, stop smiling like that. You’re makin’ me curious. I gotta fix some milk tea for you.”

“Okay, but you’ll have to tell me more about your school days!”