One of my students writes about his grandmother, “an illiterate Chinese farmer [who] nurtured three generations of intellectuals.” At 15, she had an arranged marriage with a boy who was then a toddler. It has emotional power, to me, but I was also struck by other students’ response while workshopping: ‘We all have grandmothers who helped raise us, and we don’t know their names.’ I realize this is common (I remember an Amy Tan essay about this very subject.) Still, I believe them when they said: This story of generational change is all of our story, of growing up in China today.
Excerpts from a memoir.
The writer uses the English name David.
…She silently cooked the dishes, did the laundry and fed the pigs. … My grandpa, who turned out to be a village teacher, treated her nicely, but it all didn’t matter. He died at the age of 39, leaving her a shattered family with two teenage boys to feed.
None of my relatives from the old countryside could recall a single complaint from her. Year after year, my grandmother labored with sweat in the field, bending down to reap the wheat and corn…. When my father hesitated whether or not he should stop trying after failing twice in the College Entrance Examination, my grandmother simply gave him a powerful slap in the face. Illiterate as she was, she understood that those tiny yet enchanted characters printed on the paper would shape his destiny. When my father finally got admitted to a college, granny sold a pig and treated everyone in the village for a feast.
… After my parents’ marriage she took care of me when my father was determined to make a decent living for our poor family. I remember two scenes: my grandmother in the kitchen opening the pot lid from time to time for fear that the cheap ribs might burn, and warmly comforting my mother, who came from a local urban family, as she complained in tears about why she chose to follow this man. Toward me, she showed kindness. She taught me patiently with a strong rural accent the country ballads about fairies and heroes, and clumsily made toys like wood pistols to give me joy.
…I moved out to an expensive boarding school, a rebellious adolescent. When I returned home, I tended to keep away from this old, shabby, short, humpbacked lady. The exciting flame in her eyes vanished after I apathetically answered her greetings several times. She became more and more silent and spent all days watching TV and gazing at the sky. But she never complained to anyone.
One day I returned home and learned she was in the ICU. All my arrogance and stupidity went away in an instant, and I bit hard on my lips to hold back my tears of remorse. Peering at a piece of paper gripped in my anxious father’s hand, tears flooded my face.
It read: ‘Patient’s name: Feng Qishi.’
Feng was my family name, Qi was her family name, shi refers to the status of being married. Like millions of women of her age, for 60 years of hardships she didn’t have a name.