From the Eyes of Grandma

My first impression of my maternal grandma was a small, frail lady who was very quiet, but with pensive, penetrating eyes.  I first met her when I was almost seven years old and she was 71.  She lived to 100 years old, but I never interacted much with her, and never really knew her or tried to learn from her. Now that I am almost her age when I first met her, I regret very much that I never made use of the opportunity to get to know her better, because there were so many things I could have learned from her.

The first time I met my maternal grandma was around May or June 1949 when my whole family just moved from Canton[1] in Southern China to Hong Kong just before the Chinese Communists gained control of all of Southern China.  We moved into the apartment rented by my maternal uncle, my mom’s second older brother, where he and his large family as well as several other relatives including my grandma lived.

Since my paternal grandma died just shortly before I was born, my maternal grandma was the only grandma I knew.  My maternal grandma had bound feet and didn’t move around much and wasn’t involved in doing any housework; so usually I saw her just sitting in her chair.  At that time I was only a child, I of course never thought to ask myself what kind of person was my grandma, what was her life like, what did she see with those pensive, penetrating eyes, and what was she thinking in her head with respect to what she saw.  Although we lived in the same apartment in Hong Kong for three years before my family moved into our own apartment, I never really talked to my grandma and really didn’t know her.  Much later after I grew up and finished my undergraduate and graduate education in the U.S., I did return to Hong Kong twice, in 1971 and 1974, and paid short visits to her before she passed away in 1978 at the age of 100.  Besides shaking her small, wrinkled hands and giving her a hug or two, I never had any sort of real conversation with her, and did not gain any insight about her as a person.

Now that I am about the age she was when I first met her and being a grandfather myself, I regret that I never had a real conversation with her to try to understand her better and learn from her, especially when I went back as an adult in 1971 and 1974.  I can only try to vicariously put myself in her place and imagine what her thoughts might have been.

My maternal grandfather was born in San Francisco in 1881, but went to China (reverse immigration) in 1886.  He married grandma probably near the end of the 19th century.  They had their first child, a son, in 1901, then later a daughter, another son, and another daughter my mom.  As was the custom in those days for men who could afford to do so, he also had concubines, three of them, and had several children with his concubines.  What was it like to share your husband with three other women?  How much infighting between the different wives or between the various step brothers and sisters?  How much favoritism did a mother give to her own children over the step children?

Although my grandma was the matriarch of the household, the head of the household and the person making the decisions was most likely my grandfather, especially since he had lived in and seen other parts of the world.  That was probably one of the reasons why my grandma was always so quiet.  However, her pensive, penetrating eyes indicated to me that she was not a woman who knew little and was without feelings.  Inside her, depending on the situation, she was probably full of joy or sadness, but she just didn’t express it outwardly.  Her life definitely had its ups and downs.  The early death of her first-born son at the age of 19, after his engagement but before his marriage, must have torn her heart apart.  How long did it take and how did she overcome that sorrow?  She probably appreciated the loyalty and sacrifice of her son’s fiancée who committed herself to live as a widow in her fiancée’s family’s house for the rest of her life.  As a woman, did she feel that this Chinese tradition was really unfair to the young woman that basically robbed her future in terms of experiencing joy as a bride or mother?

Having bound feet but living in the 20th century when that tradition was fading must have generated mixed feelings in her.  On the one hand, she was happy that she came from a family that could afford to have their daughters bind their feet, meaning that they didn’t have to work to help support the family.  On the other hand, she must have felt sad because her life was so much restricted due to the bound feet.  For example, she couldn’t easily go out of the house to enjoy a walk on a beautiful spring day.  She couldn’t easily enjoy a stroll in the park while holding the tiny hand of one of her children or grandchildren or holding one of her children or grandchildren in her arms while rocking him/her to sleep, which are typical joys of motherhood or grandmother hood.  Furthermore, what excruciating pain she had to endure during the several years of the foot binding process that basically involved breaking the bones of the toes and the arch of the foot.

My maternal grandpa died in 1941 before I was born, and my grandma lived for another 37 years, including the difficult last few years of WWII when Hong Kong was occupied by Japan, and then the happy years when Hong Kong was liberated at the end of WWII.  What life was like for her when she lived in Japanese occupied-Hong Kong from 1941 to 1945?  Her bound feet also limited her escape options, which was the route my whole family took by leaving Hong Kong and moving/running away to a part of Free China.[2]  What joys of relief she must have felt when Japan was defeated to end WWII.  However, I imagine that in either situation, she never outwardly expressed her fear or joy.  Everything was kept inside her.

There was so much I could have learned from my grandma about how the Chinese, especially women, felt about some of the traditional Chinese customs.  But I missed a golden opportunity, and once you let an opportunity slipped by, it is gone forever.  Knowing that I have short temper and my feelings can easily show up in my face, I wish I have some of my grandma’s inner calm.

[1] Now called Guangzhou.

[2]  “Free China” refers to a part of China that was not occupied by Japan.  In our case, we went to our ancestral village, Taishan, about 80 miles southwest of Guangzhou in Southern China.

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4 Responses to “From the Eyes of Grandma”

  1. Lorinda Hom says:

    What a touching story…

    Don, you’re lucky because you got to see your maternal grandma.

    I’ve never seen neither paternal or maternal grandma of mine because they passed away before I was born.

    Lorinda Hom

  2. saiwong says:

    Good story and ones shared by many, which ought to be written, documented, and shared so to share and pass onto younger generations on our rich tradition and tragic history/circumstances.

    Thanks for posting onto your web, Don.

  3. Marjorie Collins says:

    Great reflection of your thought and family story; makes me also want to write about my memory.

  4. Qingyan Zhao says:

    Great writing! What a difference the life of our times contrasts the life of those days! Indeed, the connection and memories with our grandparents and even aunties and uncles are very precious!

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