My grandmother or 姥姥 (lao lao – the northern term for one’s maternal grandmother), passed away earlier this month. She was the last of my living grandparents and the biological grandparent to whom I felt closest.
The suddenness of her passing, and the physical distance between us meant that I could not be there to say goodbye and see her off. After the initial intense sadness, I was able to come to some kind of closure, with the loving help and support of my wonderful partner, by carrying out a simple farewell ritual for her in our local park. I would also like to remember her in my writing.
My laolao’s name was 桂兰 (gui lan), meaning “osmanthus” and “orchid”, not an unapt name, as from the few black and white photographs I saw of her youthful personage, she was once very beautiful, with deep set large eyes and a well defined profile, slightly unusual for a Chinese girl. They say girls from around Da Lian are all beautiful and enticing, at least until they open their mouths. My grandmother worked like the devil and swore like a trooper. The Dalian dialect, has similar connotations to broad Black Country or Welsh in the UK, and is not the most lady-like or most refined form of speech. Having been brought up on ‘received Mandarin’, even in my adulthood, I had trouble understanding her heavy accent, but this did not get in the way of the close bond that formed between us during my childhood. The first part of my Chinese name, 雪 (xue meaning “snow”), commemorates my lao lao’s hometown, one of the few places where it snows in October, as it did there on the day I was born. Having been born in the subtropical climes of Guang Zhou, I did not actually see snow, until I was six.
My maternal grandparents had settled in Chang Chun during the 1950s. They lived on the ground floor of an old building of several stories. Although technically a flat, it felt to me like a country house, as immediately past the front gate, was a wide expanse of earth and natural greenery. At the back, beyond my 姥爷 （lao ye） or grandfather’s patch of homegrown tomatoes, were wild woodlands where my cousins and I played hide and seek, tickled each other with 毛毛狗(mao mao gou or “furry dog”) bristlegrass, and plucked bindweed flowers to suck the sweet nectar off their petals. I was an outsider at first, a Cantonese single child from a big city who hardly spoke a word of Mandarin , I found it all quite daunting at first, and was nicknamed 小老广(xiao lao guang） or “The Little Cantonese”by my mother’s 东北 (Dong Bei, the region in north eastern China) relatives. I soon picked up Mandarin, and was fascinated by my grandparents’ 炕 (kang, a raised bed with a space underneath for a fire to be lit), lao lao’s cavernous basement to which she would disappear down the ladder from time to time and return with fresh vegetables, and the shed next to her kitchen, which served as both dining room and storehouse for all manner of mysterious boxes and packages.
I always picture my lao lao in her grey trousers, flowery shirt, apron and the wide gappy smile with which she always greeted me. Many mornings, lao ye would take me to the park to climb the hill, before we returned home to delicious and wholesome dishes lao lao had prepared, such as 豆角猪肉炖粉条(dou jiao zhu rou dun fen tiao) or belly pork stew with pumpkin noodles, and green beans from the back garden. She also made the best steamed buns in the entire world, which consisted mostly of pork, pak choi, Chinese celery, eggs, chives and a little of soft fluffy dough. Sometimes we would eat them cold with 糖蒜 (tang suan) or pickled sweet garlic, which she would make by preserving only the most tender of garlic bulbs when they were still green. After the first few summers in Changchun, the skinny little Cantonese girl balanced on stick thin limbs gained strength, and I shot up to be one of the tallest in my class at primary school. As I grew older, visits to Dongbei became less frequent, though if I couldn’t make it to lao lao, lao lao made sure that her pickles and buns still made their way across China, from Chang Chun to Guang Zhou from time to time.
I grew up listening to stories of lao lao in her youth, so my memories of her will always be associated with her earlier life. Born in the 1920s, lao lao worked on a farm in the small village near Dalian where her family lived. At 16, her parents arranged a marriage for her with a wealthy local family, but my lao lao was not about to let anyone else decide her future. In the middle of the night, she sneaked out of the house and made her way to the house of her, as yet still unseen, betrothed to take a peak at him. Having seen that he was several years her junior and handicapped, she realized she was being promised to the family as a life long servant and carer for their disabled heir. She ran away from home and joined the People’s Liberation Army as a worker, where she met a young soldier from Hubei, and married for love. Had she not fought for her freedom, I would not be here.
To his dying day, my lao ye always wanted a son, but was instead “gifted” with five daughters. He never set foot inside the kitchen or got his hands dirty in the laundry. Pretty much single-handedly, lao lao brought up her children, whilst working in the day to produce supplies for the army. By the time I was born, her fiery temper had mellowed due to the trauma of the Cultural Revolution, but my mother’s stories of her and her sisters trying to escape lao lao’s wrath when they got in trouble, were enough to paint a vivid picture. Were it not for her fierceness and protectiveness though, one of my aunties may have been swapped for a boy from a related family, if my lao ye had his way.
Lao lao loved seafood, and during the last decades of her life, as her eyes deteriorated, she loved listening to the radio, and would often enliven conversations with guests and family with her commentary on current affairs. So her fish meals and what she called 半导体 (ban dao ti) or transistor set, were amongst her most treasured comforts. We made a paper radio and some paper roast fish, which we burned to send them on to her in her next life.
My connection with my lao lao was deeper than just the bond between grandchild and grandparent, it also brought me closer to a whole period of very important modern Chinese history, bridged the gap between China’s northern and southern cultures, provided me with a very strong female role model, and gave me a taste of the growing up with the warmth of a big family. Zai jian, lao lao, you will always be in my heart as the runaway bride who joined the army and who made the best steamed buns in the whole world.
First published on Xanga, May 2013
Posted in Blog and tagged Chang Chun, china, Chinese, Chong Yang, cultural revolution, culture, Double 9, grandmother