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.
As difficult as it is for parents to understand that their children are not just their children but real people, it may be equally as difficult for children to understand the same about their parents – that they too were once small and frightened and delighted by things that seem trivial to adults. It’s easier for me to see that in my parents when I am here. Enough of the past have remained in the streets and neighborhoods where my parents grew up that when I walk through Xin Le Lu and Shaan Xi Lu and Chang Le Lu, I can picture what it might’ve been like to live there fifty years ago, racing through the long narrow corridors between buildings and calling out to friends through open windows. My mother, I am told, was quiet. She always wore an expression on her face that looked as though something was on her mind, which gave her an air of mystery and contemplation. There was a calmness about her that drew people to her. She was stubborn. She loved to read, and would spend hours at her friend’s home slowly going through their library, her friend’s family being one of the few households around her who owned Western books. My father was a more social creature. Like my mother, he was also raised in a single-parent home, but unlike my mother, he was the only child, and left to his own devices far too often at far too young an age. Home was not a happy place for my father, and consequently he spent much of his childhood in other people’s homes, observing other people’s lives. He was a passionate child, and loved all things scholarly and difficult and erudite, and sought these things out with the kind of dedication one only hears about in stories told by immigrant parents. In school, he was a part of the “intellectual” group, and being the most outspoken one in his tight knit circle of friends, would spend hours spiritedly debating matters of philosophy and history and politics, as he still does today whenever he has friends over.
Different as they were in temperament, my parents shared the same hunger for education during a time when such things were vilified, and when the institutions around them broke and fell into chaos and ruin, they took it upon themselves to keep up with their studies, my father spending hours every night memorizing hundreds of English vocabulary words that he would find and record down into his notebooks, and my mother poring over worn outdated textbooks for so long that her legs would begin to blister and her skin would start to bleed from the discomfort of the chair and the heat. When I look at old photographs of them from that time, it always surprises me to see how young they are, and looking at their faces that look not much older than mine, I wonder how they might’ve been different if they hadn’t grown up in the place that forced them to be adults before they were ready to be adults and to bear the things that came to pass before they could understand that the world is only as good as the people who surround you.
When I was younger, I would ask my grandmother questions about China in the 60’s and 70’s, and what it was like to raise my mother, my aunt, and my uncle during the Cultural Revolution, but I have long since stopped asking her these kinds of questions, in part because once she started remembering, she couldn’t seem to stop and then she would almost always become profoundly sad afterward, and I would leave these conversations feeling like I had done something wrong, although I would brush the feeling aside, because after all, didn’t I have the right to ask and to hear these stories that were also a part of my history? I held onto this belief for a long time, until one day, while talking with a friend’s Chinese grandmother about the Cultural Revolution, my friend’s grandmother asked me why I wanted to know about such things. I said to her without much thought, “Because it was an interesting time,” and she looked at me then with this look that I can still see now, smiled a little, and repeated, “Because it was interesting.” I remember how embarrassed I felt then, how I had blushed under her gaze and looked away. Yet still, I would not have been able to explain why exactly I had felt shamed by her look – only that it was the same kind of shame I’d felt when I was with my grandmother. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I finally realized what it was I’d been asking of them, and how unequal all those exchanges had been in terms of everything that was important, and that just because I was born in China and just because I am Chinese doesn’t mean that I can’t still view Chinese history and even my own family’s history from a lens of unexamined privilege and ignorance – and in my ignorance, ask questions that cost nothing to ask, but a great deal to answer. I’d shown neither sensitivity nor appreciation of this fact. Instead, I’d been callous, extracting memories the way a journalist on a deadline might step all over someone’s grief to get the perfect quote, and treating my grandmother’s life as little more than a mine for fascinating anecdotes to satisfy a voyeuristic curiosity, much in the same way people gawk and point at zoo animals, or discuss cultures they don’t understand, know almost nothing about, have no real emotional or intellectual investment, but find “interesting.” And ultimately, while it is true that my parent’s and my grandparents’ lives are a part of my history, I am not my parents’ struggles and successes, nor they their parents sorrows and joys – no one can really know what it’s like to live another life without having lived it, and I am simply me, entitled to not much else but my own story, this life I’m living here in this moment.
Anyway, I’ve had a lot of time to myself this holiday, as you can probably tell, which isn’t bad, but is sometimes lonely. Living here has been quiet, and very simple: I accompany my grandmother on her walks in the mornings, eat dinner with her in the evenings, and keep her company most nights, and while I can’t say that it’s been fun exactly, I can say that it’s been nice, and really, those things are beside the point, because being here is just something I feel like I need to do right now. But I will be glad when it’s time to leave and go back to the school, as it’s felt a little like I’ve stepped out of time and put life on hold, but I am also glad to be able to spend some time with my grandmother, who is now 85 and has bad hearing and looks so much older and frailer than my memories of her when I was small and she was living in America and would walk me home from school and make bird shadows against the wall of the bedroom we shared when we couldn’t fall asleep at nights.