I am spending the holiday break in Shanghai with my grandmother. She lives on the second floor of an apartment building in the former French Concession on a street called Xin Le Lu, which translated means “new happiness road.” The building is small and aged, like many of the inhabitants inside, and each apartment is shared by two or more families, as many of the older styled apartments in Shanghai are. My grandmother shares with the Wu’s, who have lived there for as long as I can remember and have a boy in the family a few years older than me whom I used to chase around the apartment and bully (so I’m told) back when I was still living there with my parents. They own the two rooms near the front of the apartment, my grandmother owns the two rooms near the back, and the kitchen is shared, as is the hallway in between.
This is the apartment that my grandfather fell in love with and insisted on moving into when he and my grandmother were young and just starting their family, and after my grandfather was gone, this is where my grandmother raised her three young children on her own, my mother the oldest of the three. The walls are cracked and discolored with age now, the rooms cluttered with a lifetime of possessions tucked away in dusty drawers, cabinets, and shelves, but whatever may be lacking in space on the inside, the neighborhood more than makes up for, and I think that Xin Le Lu is still one of the prettiest streets in Shanghai, although I admit I am not an objective judge. The street is quiet and narrow, lined on both sides with the tall stately old French sycamore trees that line so many of the streets in the French Concession. The trees are bare and knobby now, but in summertime the branches are so heavy with leaves that they bend and meet with the other side in the middle of the sky, creating a tunnel of green over the sidewalk speckled with dots of sunlight peeking through from the gaps and holes above, and I remember walking underneath that dense greenery in summers past, listening to the cicadas that would fill the humid air with their sounds and make me think of my grandfather and how he would catch the cicadas with traps, fry them up, and give to my uncle to eat as a treat.
In America, it is and has always been just my parents and me, and when I’m there I often forget that anything else came before, but when I’m in Shanghai, my concept of time widens, and I am reminded that the three of us are not simply some lone detached unit whose history only began when I came into this world and was taken to America at the age of four by parents who’d decided to forge new lives in a new land where they knew almost no one, owned almost nothing, and worked long days and even longer nights like so many immigrants do. Sitting here in the room where my mother grew up, I’m reminded that we are in fact tied to a longer family history of parents and daughters and grandparents and great grandparents and everyone who came before, all of whom gave birth and lived and died in this place that is now foreign to me, and that in this place, my mother and my father were born and were young and grew up and fell in love and got married and had me. >> Continue reading..