credit: Zhang YiMou – To Live

“You can never come back again.” An opera singer once told me in a dream.  This was a dream I had the week before I boarded a flight to U.S. permanently.

To provide some context, my grandpa was a devout Daoist and he used to host Chinese opera events for our local theater.  So it wasn’t unusual that there are random opera performers in my subconscious mind.  However, I’ve always had an awkward relationship with religion.  At the time, my grandpa had arranged for an entire floor in our building to be set aside as an altar for Daoist practices.  It was like his personal man cave … except festooned with demonic buddhist figures and year-round burning incense.

The year before I arrived in New York, he planned this elaborate Daoist ceremony to bless me and my cousins for this upcoming trip.  We were on our knees, bowing over a busy table, awaiting instructions from everyone.  Over the course of the next few hours, we stayed there as the priests chanted and danced around us which punctuated with him projectile spitting on the backs of our necks.

“Don’t clean it off!” My grandma screamed at us.  “It’ll bring you good luck!”  I just remembered thinking maybe this whole religion business isn’t for me…

While religion dominated his life, my grandpa was also an incredibly loving man.  Being the eldest grandson I was easily spoiled.  He always had candy in his chest pocket, ready to reward us whenever he saw us.  We made regular trips to the local theater, which I’ve always seen as an opportunity to score free confections and to take a long nap.  At closing, he’d carry me back home on his shoulders with one hand directing the route with a flashlight.  Street lighting was not a priority in a country still struggling with its identity.

An Unusually Common Story

My grandpa became of age during the cultural revolution.  According to family stories, his father was a wealthy financier, a successful entrepreneur, who squandered his money on gambling and women.  This was an unusually common trait of wealthy Chinese men at the time.  When Mao’s Red Army swept through the south, his assets were seized by the government.  His fortunes were not only squandered but also confiscated and left with a tiny parcel of land to farm on.  Stigmatized by everyone and foreign to menial labour, my great-grandfather soon passed away, leaving my grandpa to carry the family forward.

Over the course of the next twenty years, a sequence of global events led to the mass migration of Chinese to the U.S. It’s difficult to pinpoint what sparked this cascade of events.  A few decades before, Deng XiaoPing (former Premier of China) had implemented sweeping economic reform which opened up the Chinese labor market to the world.  It could also be Bush Senior’s foreign policy to recognize the 1-child policy as a human right’s violation which sparked an influx of Chinese asylum seekers.  Whatever that may be, hundreds of thousands of Fujianese migrated to the U.S. during this period, including my parents.  This left my grandparents with an empty nest and a long yearning to reunite with the whole family, which wouldn’t happen for almost another 10 years.

Moving One Last Time

It was a difficult decision that he has put off for decades: to maintain his roots in HouYu or be closer to his family in the United States?  After a string of health issues, my grandpa finally moved to the U.S. at the tender age of 70.

Greeted by all his children and grandchildren, he was frail but still carried candy in his breast pocket.  This man, once full of energy, needed our help to walk up the steps to his apartment in Chinatown.  His entire Daoist temple had now been reduced to a tiny diorama on an overhead shelf.  Truth be hold – this tiny apartment in downtown NYC was probably worth more than his entire house in HouYu.

During his last few months with us, his memories faded quickly.  He hallucinated about being back by the countryside. He forgot our names.  And as everyone was there to console my grandma, I couldn’t help but marvel at the life that this man had lived through.  The truth is, we all have grandparents who have lived incredible lives filled with unimaginable stories. These are the stories that led to the becoming of us.  These are the same stories that will take us back to them again.



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