Thanks Grandma

Grandma Liu Xi-Rong

Grandma Liu Xi-Rong

Thanks Grandma

贾科一Kathy Keyi Jia-Jones

November 2008

When my grandmother Liu Xi-Rong passed away in 2000, my world was shattered. She raised me and had the most profound influence on me. I couldn’t go back to China to attend her funeral at the time. When I visited her tomb later it was overwhelming, yet I gained some inner peace from the trip. I believe that she is in a good place. She will always be with me in spirit.

I was born in the far north of China, Bei Da Huang–the Great Northern Wildness–or China’s version of Siberia. In the 50s, hundreds of thousands of young people were sent to the region when the government decided to cultivate the wildland. Many of them were from politically incorrect families; among them my mother and father. (More about my parents and Bei Da Huang: “Love in Bei Da Huang—Celebrating My Parents’ 60h Anniversary”)

In the 50s, a “politically incorrect” family background was viewed akin to a genetic disease; a person could be deemed to be “incorrect” from birth. In the years that followed, my parents’ family backgrounds would affect not only them but also us, the next generation.

Fate joined my father and mother in this wild land. They fell in love and got married. I was born, and they named me Keyi, meaning the first child of the newly founded Science and Research Institute.

My grandma came to look after me so my mother could continue her research work. For the next 20 years, she raised me and my brother. She was the pillar of the family during the hard times and the light for all of us during the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, one of the most violent and chaotic times in China’s history.

Divided into different classes by late Chairman Mao’s ideology, people fought with one another. Many were killed or killed themselves, among them, my best friend’s parents and my beloved daycare teacher. When doing chores, my grandma often prayed intensely for my parents’ safe return at the end of the day. Thank God we survived.

Despite the political turmoil outside, inside the home was a safe and warm haven thanks to grandma. I felt loved and cared for; she was always there for me and for my brother.

At night two of us shared the same “Kang”, a brick, heated bed used in Northern China. She would tell me stories and hum tunes of Henan local plays. She admired such legendary heroines such as Mu Gui-Ying, an army chief, and Hua Mu-Lan, who joined the army in place of her ill father. My grandma was an ordinary person; as a matter of fact, very few people even knew her name was Liu Xi Rong. But to me, she was, and will always be my hero.

Every day she worked from morning till night, cooked three meals from scratch, sewed our clothes, hand-washed them, fed chickens and ducks, among other things. On her bound feet, she gathered dried leaves and small branches that fell from the trees in the fall and carried them back in bundles to prepare for the winter. We needed them for cooking and heating the house; many basic supplies were scarce those days.

As a little girl, I loved singing and dancing. At the age of five, my solo singing of “A Little Sparrow” made me a star in the community. To this day Mom still talks proudly about how confident I was on stage and how much the audience loved my singing. When I started school I automatically became a key member of the School Performance Team. However, not long after, I was told I could no longer be with the Team due to my family background. I ran back home, hid behind the door, and cried and cried. When Dad came back from work I told him what happened. After a long silence he said, “Keyi, in your life, you must rely on yourself.” It must be very difficult for a father to say this to a 6-year-old. I grew up overnight.

I spent much of my school years receiving “reeducation”, working in the fields and on construction sites, digging trenches, and searching for Russian spies in the mountains– that was our favourite activity. We never found one.

After grade nine my high school years were over. When I told this to my son, he said: “Oh, you were a school drop-out!” I had never thought of that. No, I didn’t drop out of school, we—the whole generation of young people—were dropped out.

A “school drop-out”, I didn’t know what to do. There was no university at the time—all the universities had been closed down during the Cultural Revolution. I was sent to work at a railway station transporting construction materials. Machines were not available and everything—from 110-pound cement bags to steel and iron bars– was carried to and from the train by human labor. I was 16 years old and thin as a pencil. When the 120-pound cement bag was put on my shoulder the first time, I lost my footing and fell. I got up, asked to put it on my shoulder again. I fell again. I got up and tried the third time. I made my first step. A few months later, I became the head of the girls’ team. But I began to suffer from severe back pain.

God must have been watching because an opportunity came. The local radio station needed a host and announcer; having had the experience of a radio host at high school, I went for the interview and got the job. One day, I found a package in the mail. It was BBC Lingophone with records and textbooks. I hardly studied any English at school but I knew instantly that this would change my life and take me far away. Nobody could help me with English in the small place; I started to teach myself. I got up every morning at 4 o’clock, studied until I had to go to work. I studied at night until I could not keep my eyes open. I imitated the strange but pleasant sounds, followed the strong rhythms, and repeated the phrases and sentences of the time: “Workers of the world unite”!

After a year of study and preparation while working, I passed the national university entrance exam and was accepted by a teachers’ university to study English as my major. Universities had just resumed at the end of the Cultural Revolution.

I became a university teacher after I graduated. Then I wanted to further my study in an English speaking country after a few years of teaching. My dream came true when a Canadian university offered me a scholarship for a Master’s degree. With the Tiananmen massacre, I decided to stay in Canada after I completed the program.

I started my new life as an immigrant and gained some very valuable experiences over the years. At the same time, I missed my family and worried about my aging grandma. I knew she was worried about me for being alone in a foreign land. I felt guilty of not being able to look after her and feared that she would leave me one day when I was in Canada.

Grandma never had the opportunity to learn to read and write despite the fact that she was from a well-to-do family and was married to a rich man. Women in her generation, with very few exceptions, did not go to school. She, however, managed to send her three children to school including her daughter. As she began to lose hearing it became increasingly difficult for me to communicate with her, but grandma knew my heart. She asked a relative to write the Chinese words: “科一你好” (Hello Keyi), copied them stroke by stroke on a piece of paper, and mailed it to me. It was her way to let me know she was doing well.

My grandma was my role model, my angel. Despite the political turmoil outside, inside the home was a safe and warm haven thanks to grandma. I always felt loved and cared for; she was always there for me and for my brother. During the day, we did many chores together after I came back from school; at night two of us shared the same “Kang”, a brick, heated bed used in Northern China. She would tell me stories and hum tunes of Henan local plays. She admired such legendary heroes such as Mu Gui-Ying, an army chief, and Mu Lan, who joined the army in place of her ill father. My grandma was an ordinary person; as a matter of fact, very few people even knew her name was Liu Xi Rong. But to me, she was, and will always be my hero.

Every day she worked from morning till night, cooked three meals from scratch, sewed our clothes, hand-washed them, fed chickens and ducks, among other things. On her bound feet, she gathered dried leaves and small branches that fell from the trees in the fall and carried them back in bundles to prepare for the winter. We needed them for cooking and heating the house; many basic supplies were scarce those days.

Grandma was one of the most humble and kind people that I have known. She never raised her voice or quarreled with anyone. She often gave food to the crippled neighbor and those who had even less than us. She was also very strong. When I was very sick, with a high fever that continued for two weeks, the doctor suspected I had leukemia. It was the first time I saw my father cry. I needed to be transferred to another hospital. Before we left, my grandma came to see me. She brought me a plant bloomed with beautiful red flowers. With a smile, she said to me, “Keyi, you don’t have cancer; you will get through this”. Miraculously, my fever dropped on the way to another hospital. Grandma must have been praying for me.

It was Chinese New Year of 2000, I phoned her to Bai Nian (wish her happy Chinese New Year). She sounded well; as a matter of fact, she heard everything I said right away unlike before when I had to repeat a few times.

The next day, I got a phone call from my dad “You grandma passed away in her sleep last night!”

That night I had a dream of her. She was flying up…up….I had never seen her so free!

“Many people came to visit her on the Chinese New Year,” Dad told me. Grandma had moved back to her hometown Yu Lin after we grew up. As the oldest person in the village, she was loved and respected. “The whole village people came to her funeral, the local church choir came, too,” Dad said. Grandma is in a good place.

I got married later that year, and two beautiful children were born in the next few years. My daughter was born the day before Mother’s day and my son was born the same day as Grandma’s birthday!

In the spring of 2005, I went to visit her tomb in her hometown. As the firecrackers were lit to celebrate her life, page by page I burned all the letters that I had written to her after she passed away. After the firecrackers stopped and the ash from the papers settled, I saw in front of me a clear and soft-blue colored circle in the air, moving slowly and slowly toward the top of her tomb. I pointed it out to my father. It was a peaceful and sunny May day without a breeze. Butterflies fluttered about. As the blue airy circle landed and dispersed on grandma’s tomb, I knew my heart was understood.

It is time to celebrate her life and honor what she stood for: her faith and strength, her forbearing, kindness, and compassion. Today’s aggressive world needs more people like her. I have begun to feel centered and grounded again. I have come a long way. It is time to regain strength from the past and to look forward to the future. God has his plan for me; grandma is illuminating my way; I will forge on.

Thanks Grandma!

The artwork Grandma made for me

Artwork by Grandma

Flowers and Butterflies – Papercuts Made by Grandma

 

Butterfies and Girls, Papercut artwork by Grandma Liu Xi-Rong

Butterflies and Girls, Papercuts by Grandma Liu Xi-Rong

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in English Blog

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