It’s International Working Women’s Day today, which means my grandmother would’ve turned 92 next week. She died in December. Her life (1929-2020) spanned nearly 100 years of immense upheaval in China and she survived it all with resilience, dignity and optimism. I wrote a thread remembering her – first on Twitter, and then republished in Chinarrative. Read below.
I want to tell you about my grandma. She died last week in Shanghai. It’s devastating that none of her kids or grandkids could be with her at the end. Mum had just got an exemption to travel the day before but there were no flights + she would’ve been stuck in hotel quarantine.
Migrants are sorta used to this: the only kind of grief I’ve known is the kind that smashes through you while you’re waiting in line at the visa office. But this wretched year adds another layer to it. All year I’d been promising I’d see her soon.
Ahbu was 91. She’d lived through the wildest times. She was a staunch feminist, a meticulous doctor, frugal, ethical, tenacious, strict with herself, widely respected, and the sweetest, softest person. She was easy to love.
She didn’t always get me and I’m sure I didn’t always get her, but I learned so much from her. How to take your work seriously but do it humbly. How to find delight in whatever circumstances throw your way. I’m not that good at that one, but maybe I’ll get there.
Ahbu didn’t know her birthday – with 11 kids, her family didn’t celebrate them, plus they used the Chinese farming calendar then – so when she was asked for a date of birth, she decided on X days after International Working Women’s Day.
Her mother (my great-grandmother) was illiterate and fought hard for her daughters to be educated. She’d seen her father lose the family farm to his opium addiction and now she was a servant in her husband’s household. She wanted her daughters to be independent.
Ahbu’s dad didn’t see the point of educating girls so her mum invested her dowry (buying grain at harvest then reselling it in the winter) so she could pay their school fees herself. It’s astonishing to me that this was even possible, and that she dared to be this defiant.
So Ahbu managed to finish school and go to college. During the Japanese occupation, her high school moved to a monastery in the mountains. She decided she wanted to study medicine after being sick with malaria.
She joined the PLA, working and training in military-run hospitals around the country and then ending up in the obstetrics department of a civilian hospital in Shanghai. She did her undergraduate degree in the late 1950s, after my mum was born.
(Incidentally, my grandparents all graduated uni in Shanghai, the other three at Fudan University and Ahbu at First Medical, which is now part of Fudan too. That puts them in an extraordinarily privileged minority for their generation, anywhere in the world.)
(Like I’m impressed and enchanted by my great-gran’s obstinance but it was just not possible for most women born in the 1920s to go to university. Both my grandmothers’ opportunities are as much the result of wealth, luck and geography as anything else.)
Ahbu married late and my Ahgong wasn’t her first love. She’d had a romance that ended for political reasons – not a good look for a naval officer and Party member to marry a woman from a bad family whose grandfather had been executed.
Ahbu and Ahgong had a really incredible relationship. In 1950s China, they were lucky to choose each other, but I think they also consciously chose to have a different kind of partnership from the patriarchal families they’d grown up in.
I mean my grandpa was still the head of the family, but their marriage was much more equal and respectful than most (even in China now, I’d say) and certainly more than anything they would have seen modelled. They worked things out together, they let their kids have a say.
When the kids were young, my grandma volunteered for a work assignment on a collective farm near the Siberian border. She was there for years and Ahgong stepped up as the primary parent.
That shouldn’t be so remarkable but he’d barely met his own father, who basically absconded after conception, took a second wife and pretended for decades that Ahgong and his mum had never existed.
When I stayed over at my grandparents' place as an adult, I’d hear them whispering to each other in the morning so as not to wake me up. They always had so much to tell each other, even after nearly 60 years.
I remember once Ahbu was mad cuz Ahgong wanted her to stay home with him instead of going to some meeting. (This was recently, decades after they’d both retired.) She was furious that he wasn’t taking her commitments seriously. It was really nice to see them argue?
Ahbu was absolutely devoted to her work. She always had horrifyingly graphic obstetrics stories to share. Her colleagues loved her, as did the sent-down youth she’d looked after on the farm.
At the collective farm, she trained barefoot doctors. She put together a makeshift surgery, sterilising instruments in a steamer, so she could perform Caesareans for the local villagers who needed them.
People came from many miles away on horse-drawn carts to see her. Sometimes people would even ask her to look at their sheep and cows as there was no vet around, so she just did what she could with birthing calves.
My grandparents’ flat was often full of visitors they’d taught and mentored, who called them Doctor X and Teacher X. (Keeping names and dates vague here for privacy. Also I only ever called them Ahbu and Ahgong anyway.)
As well as being an obstetrician trained in medical science, Ahbu also studied traditional Chinese medicine and was forever trying to feed me some disgusting muddy herbal stew that would be good for me.
I was pretty stubborn about not drinking muck but her acupressure guidance has helped my sinus issues and I swear by her Chinkiang vinegar cure for sore throats.
As attentive and painstaking as she was as a doctor, Ahbu was a really sloppy cook. I loved her for that. She just did not care about food and would make one large soggy stirfry and reheat it for days. She loved premade meals. First person in line for discount frozen dumplings.
One delicious thing she did make was pork zongzi. And being incredibly frugal, she would wash, dry and reuse both the leaves (if they weren’t torn) and the string. Yes, there would be bits of string dangling from a sock hanger in the staircase.
She loved to read. One of my favourite photos is of us both curled up on the sofa with our paperbacks. Often I’d visit my grandparents and we wouldn’t really talk, we’d just read side by side.
I’m really grateful that I got to spend so much time with her in the last few years, after Ahgong passed away and I moved to Shanghai. Even if a good chunk of the time we spent together involved me troubleshooting something on her tablet.
Usually it would be that she accidentally turned her camera from selfie to rear-facing, or changed text input from handwriting to Pinyin.
Ahbu didn’t know Pinyin, it wasn’t created until the 1950s. Her Mandarin was also heavily accented and very idiosyncratic: my grandparents are part of that last generation of mainland Chinese people who were tertiary educated without sounding all Beijing.
She didn’t know how to get online until a few years ago but she picked it up pretty quickly. Another fave photo is of her showing off her high score in that Tiao Yi Tiao game. She also started playing mahjong fairly recently, after her sister and brother-in-law moved in.
We disagreed on a lot of political issues. I would try to get Ahbu to be more aware of misinformation and propaganda, but it was hard to argue with her, because she just fundamentally believed that people were good, that bad things only happened by accident.
In her mind, she’d survived all the bad times – the Japanese occupation, the Cultural Revolution – and now things were better. The government provided for her in her old age. Hardly anyone was starving. Girls went to school. No war, no famine.
I didn’t want to disabuse her of her late-life optimism; what purpose would that serve? And she was born in an entirely different world, nearly a century ago. Her life gave me hope that things would transform just as radically in my lifetime.
Her life would have been unimaginable to her parents. She showed me that you can invent your own pattern for anything, make it real, make it home. And also that it comes with its own pain: a family spread thin over three continents, out of reach.
Years ago I interviewed her about her memories and she told me, ‘The important work is exactly the things that are frightening and mysterious and unfamiliar.’ She also said, ‘There’s nothing bad about dying when you’re old.’
Anyhow, I could go on forever. I’m so glad that a lot of my friends have been able to meet her. It’s been nice telling you all about her. She’s real special and I’m going to miss her so much.