“ba bai, gampa”
I remember the hallways of my grandparents’ place. My earliest memories of the place are the early 90s. Gam-ma was how we referred to my grandmother, even in Cantonese. My sister and I never used the Chinese words, and I remember thinking it odd my cousins would call her pau pau. For my grandfather, it was gam-pa. In retrospect, it might have been because they couldn’t prounce the “r” or “nd” sounds in “grandma” and “grandpa”.
Throughout their lives, they never learned more than a little English. I can only remember them every speaking to English people with the quick and effective words, like “hello”, “bye bye”, “yes”, “no” and “thank you.”
Grandma passed away while I was in my final year of law school.
Grandpa passed about an hour or two from the time that I started first writing this post. It is still new in everyone’s minds. I am in Australia, and I received the message from my sister at about 2AM Sydney time. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but he was in hospital, and he’d been sick for months with advanced lung cancer. The morphine was probably it. I mean, I hope so anyway.
I am glad he’s at rest.
I’ve been crying on and off for the past hour or so.
I keep feeling this need to think about my life decisions– to come to Australia, for example, and to not have been there with Grandma or Grandpa when they passed. I can’t have that back. But do those moments… matter? I don’t know.
It’s cheap of me, but in some ways,I know that I’m actually kind of cheating by only remembering them in the select ways, the best good and bad ways so that I can remember them in this particular way.
It’s ironic that a seminal part of my growing up was working in hospitals and really struggling to deal with people being sick and dying, and eventually getting pretty comfortable with it (maybe)… but not ever really having to ever have dealt with it in person next to anyone in my own family.
Legend has it that when I was in elementary school, I was struggling with language a bit. In school, we were supposed to speak English and French only, though my elementary school was probably two thirds italian. At home, I spoke English with my parents and uncles and aunts and my sister. When my grandparents were in the room, my dad and his siblings all spoke a mix of Cantonese and English. My grandparents always spoke Toysanese. I’m not sure what I spoke,. and neither did people at my school apparently.
The principle apparently called in my family to discuss my language learning issues, because I was falling behind others, and the suggestion of the principle was that I not be spoken to in Chinese at home, because it was confusing my ability to pick up languages.
The legend was that when this concept was translated to my grandfather, he burst into a rage and threatened to kill the principal.
I’m sure bits of the story are exaggerated and that this isn’t actually how it went down, but grandma and grandpa have always been my impression of what it meant to be Chinese. I don’t know if I’d characterise them as stoics– they were tough, and this is coming from me, I’ve seen tough– but they also had the biggest smiles. They could also be in so much pain sometimes, even before the last years of their lives. They were normal human beings who did life they way they knew how.
My ability to identify with “being Chinese” has changed a lot over the years. My core values though, that is, what I think it means to be Chinese, has always naturally come from family.
For the earliest years, my parents were constantly working. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. On school days, in the morning, I’d go to school. The schoolbus would take me to my grandparents for lunch– my grandfather would be waiting at the bustop, sitting on a wooden stool which he had made himself. There were several different versions of this stool over the years– grandpa was the original handyman in the family. Even though my dad and uncle would eventually become great amateur handymen and be able to do some pretty fantastic things with home renovations, until his final years grandpa was still hammering and duct taping innovations into his home.
I remember being upset one day in winter to find out that my navy blue and red jacket had a couple of small cigarette burns in it– that was because grandpa used to smoke. Smoking was just so common in the kitchen culture, and it was probably why my dad, and I in turn, grew up with asthma. I don’t know how my jacket got burned– it probably happened from a loose ember when he was walking me home from the bus stop.
During lunch, almost every day, they’d cook me some sorta instant noodles. I never really remember grandma and grandpa cooking me anything but Chinese food until I was in my teens. I had never even tried maccaroni and cheese until I got to high school.
While I ate lunch, I remember that there were a dozen VHS videos that we had copied from somewhere– I watched them daily. Over and over. Disney’s Peter Pan. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Once Upon a Time in China.
I’d get walked to the bus stop to go back for afternoon classes.
When my sister was born, same deal– Grandpa would be there to pick us up until I was old enough to walk us both home ourselves from the bus stop. The bus driver’s name was Marsell, or something– my grandfather would exchange hellos and goodbyes with him.
After school, it was back to the grandparents. They had a TV with rabbit ear antennas, and at the time, I remember that in their area, they could reach an american station– WVNY ABC-22. I don’t know if that station even exists anymore, but I think it broadcast out of vermont. After school, although I know I was suppsoed to be doing homework, I most likely was watching the GI Joes, because channel 22 had all the good afternoon afterschool cartoons.
Every second weekend, my sister and I would stay over at my grandparents’ too. More cartoons.
Grandpa could not really speak any functional English. It was a bit easier perhaps, because nobody really expected an old chinese guy to be able to in those days. He used to take me to a McDonalds which was a walk through a park. It probably took over half an hour to go to that McDonalds because I was so small. I remember liking chicken nuggets. I have no idea how we managed to order them, but we always did.
When I was older, I would walk my gandma and grandpa to Place Newman, which is the closest mall in area. They were the slow ones then, and I was trying to be helpful. By the time I was in my late teens and early twenties, I was going with them to do groceries and to translate at the bank.
Grandpa used to love fishing. The first floor dining room had a wall unit and a bookshelf, and you could find, on most days, probably 2-3 fishing rods and reels, tackle boxes, and spare fishing line.
We used to go on boating trips. I later came to be very bored with fishing as I grew older and stopped doing it, but I remember that grandpa was always there when I was first learning to fish. He would always get very excited about it.
I remember one time he was so excited that I’d got a bite, that he took the rod from me and caught my fish for me. I was a bit upset, but he cooked that fish for me later.
I also remember that once, when we’d gone as a family to the Lachine canal to fish, grandpa had slipped a bit on the rocky wharf and gashed his leg pretty bad. He didn’t even care– he was bleeding from somewhere below his knee with a pretty substantial wound, but all he wanted to do was keep fishing.
Grandpa used to maintain a garden. It was awaful in the front– a huge mess of all sorts of bright and beautiful things, without any sense of arrangement. He just wanted to grow things, and in that respect, he was remarkably succcessful.
Like many of the Chinese on the street, he grew chinese vegetables in the backyard. I remember getting splinters on some of the melon vines. I remember that every year, I helped him cut down the vines and clear away the dead leaves and vines in preparation for winter.
I remember he used to keep rows upon rows of styrofoam cups near the windows. They had soil and seedlings in them.
He and grandma used to set a broostick across two chairs and dry fish near one of the other windows.
We had jars full of tangerine skins, also self dried.
Grandma and grandpa were never easy on my dad or his siblings. But they were always ultra nice to my sister and I.
Grandpa used to always overdo it at christmas. He never shopped for individual gifts because he didn’t know what to get people– he wasn’t really involved in peoples’ lives like that. Nonetheless, despite that we weren’t rich, every family unit got a box of cookies, and all kids got money — both on Christmas, on New Years, as well as on Chinese New Years.
It was a yearly tradition to pose for family photos, and have every aunt and uncle with a camera take another picture. This tradition persists even to this day, even now that pictures are digital and easily shared, as recently as [CM] and my wedding in October of this year.
Grandma and grandpa would always do their best to smile for photos. They were always surrounded by tons of people.
Grandpa came to the wedding reception of our Montreal wedding in October 2016. big smiles as always. I remember helping him down the stairs afterwards, thinking to myself… I wish I could do this more often. This was what I used to do all the time. I missed being able to take care of him. There were many things I didn’t miss about family and Montreal, but I missed hanging out with my grandparents in their home.
I thought to myself that night that this might very well be the last time I get to really go to a reastaurant with Grandpa. There were so many that he liked to eat at that had come and gone, closed up shop, over the years. He always loved to eat and it was a point of pride for me to be the one in our generation who would be opening doors for him or making sure children didn’t run into him. I liked being a bodygaurd to my grandparents, because these are important people.
When we left Montreal, grandpa said to do well in Australia with my new wife. He just said it like any other day, and that was the last time I saw him.
Grandpa… I’m in tears. CM is asleep because it’s 4AM now. The two cats are keeping me company because they know I’m upset– they circle me with concern and anxiety.
I can’t even see the screen sometimes and i have to stop every now and then just so i can breathe. It hurts so much. This isn’t your fault though– it’s not a fault thing, it’s a compliment. It just means that you were important. You and grandma, you raised me like your own children, and I will never forget that.
I know I’ve been overseas for the last few years… I’m sorry I wasn’t there to take care of you or grandma in the end. You were both two of the toughest people I knew, and you told me to have a good life when I moved. You told me I should learn to drive, to get married to a good woman. You told me I was smart and that I’d done well… you always said nice things even when really, you were just giving me the benefit of the doubt, and sometimes, I was just trash.
I’m happy you are at peace now. Thank you for everything, from someone who is still making use of all the gifts you’ve given. If you see granma, please don’t argue too much– and if there’s nothing else out there, well, you’re still here in a way in me.
ba bai, gampa!