Shengliver’s Note: She embodies kindness, tolerance and generosity.


Who is this woman? Is it Marie Curie? Is it Liu Hulan? Or is it Madame Sun Yat-sen?


No. The woman with the biggest heart is my maternal grandma. She passed away in the winter of 2003–2004, a few days before the Spring Festival.


Grandma was not beautiful by today’s standards. She was not sexy, either. She couldn’t read or write. She could not speak perfect Mandarin, but she was an excellent communicator. She even didn’t have a proper name. Her maiden name (her father’s family name) was forgotten by her neighbours, and she was simply addressed by her husband’s family name. Her name, Fengshi, when translated into English, was Mrs Feng. I remember asking her what her given name was many a time when I was a kid. She once told me that it was juhuar, or chrysanthemum.


Born in a village in Hubei, she was married to my granddad, who was a Henanese. Cross-border marriages are common in my hometown, where three Chinese provinces meet. On the wedding day, she was carried in a sedan chair from her parents’ home to the groom’s. When she was telling me of the journey by sedan chair, her face glowed.


Altogether Grandma has six daughters and no son. My mom is the third of the six. Raising the six was no easy job. To make matters considerably worse, my granddad left her quite early on. In my memory there is little of Granddad. One image pops up when I think of him. He was hobbling on crutches to and fro on the walk leading to the yard gate, groaning with pain. A disease caused pain all over his body. No doctor was able to cure him. He died leaving Grandma taking care of their three younger daughters. The three older ones had been married by then.


Grandma could not walk fast. First of all, she could not go up straight, her back bent with age. And like most women of her generation, her feet had been deformed by her parents before she grew up. Bound female feet were a practice which was started in feudal China and persisted well into the early 20th century. Her feet were wrapped up by a long stretch of cloth. Sometimes when I accompanied her on a trip to the veg garden, I had to slow down or simply walked behind her.


Grandma embodies kindness, tolerance and generosity. As a kid, I was shy, timid and insecure. Part of my character is probably written in the genes. In retrospect, however, I think my misery had a lot to do with my father. A very traditional Chinese dad, he was strict and over-disciplining. He was always finding fault with me. Brought up in his way, I came to believe that it was safe to say little and to try to cover up whatever I was doing. I was not happy in school either, for I did not have the courage to speak up in class. Naturally enough, my teachers did not like me very much. But as guys believe, when one door is dead shut, another is ajar. My grandma was the open door.


Throughout my childhood I paid a weekly visit to her. On such visits, she and I chatted about anything and everything. She asked me about my mom, dad and brothers. I asked her various questions I had on my mind, the answers to which I couldn’t get from my dad back home. I was open when I was with her because she was not critical. She was ready to praise whatever good qualities she found in me. She was the exact opposite of my father. With my father, I was all wrong. With her, I was all right. No wonder my father was incredulous when Grandma one day told him that Shengliver was not shy at all.


Talking with an elder you trust is absolutely a right way to grow up. Humans need to talk to others and to be talked to. If a child stays in a corner and sulks, that is a sure sign of withdrawal. I can’t imagine how I would have been getting along without my grandma there lending a sympathetic ear over those years.


Hunger was no longer a big problem in my childhood. My parents had suffered far worse when they were children. But still on my weekly visits to Grandma, she treated me to something special. It could be a snack she had reserved for me. Or before she cooked for the whole family, she would do a nice little meal only for me. It might be a pancake or fried egg. In those days little cooking oil was used in meals because it was scarce and expensive. The little meals done exclusively for me by Grandma had no lack of oil. My aunts were not allowed to touch them.


When I was a fourth grader, my class director got furious with me for making noises with some of my pals. He tied the three or four noise-makers up in a circle by a rope. We were forbidden to step out of the circle. I think I was hurt. And I ran away from school all the way to my grandma. It was a drizzling day in spring. To get to her home, I had to cross the river Danjiang on a ferry. The small boat was manipulated by a ferryman. There was no engine at all on the boat. The rain was so fine that it was all soaked by my clothes when it fell on me. By the time I got to Grandma’s, I was drenched.


I pleaded to attend the primary school close to her home. But it was impossible for we were in two provinces. Besides, what would my parents have thought? It was Grandma, an illiterate Chinese woman but a good communicator, who consoled me and put me back on my feet. In her eyes, Shengliver was a good lad. And I was indeed. On the afternoon of the same day, Mother came over and found me with Grandma. She took me back home, and school was resumed.


After primary school, the idea of giving up on education came to my mind many times. Poor meals at my middle school, horrible hygiene in the dorm, lousy instruction done by the teachers, and loads of teenage stuff from time to time became too much for me. I could have dropped out using any of the above as an excuse. Each time I found myself dwelling upon the thought, a voice from within was there telling me to hold on. That voice told me I had to live up to my grandma’s expectations. Under no circumstances should Shengliver let her down.


At the end of high school, when I told her I had passed the exams and that I would attend college, she beamed. When I finished college and found my teaching position, she was bursting with pride. "Shengliver is to be a xiansheng (meaning teacher)!” she exclaimed. Her excitement echoes in my mind even today.


When my daughter was two years old, my family of three visited Grandma during the Spring Festival. It was the first time she had met my daughter. She was seated on the sofa, holding my daughter’s hands and smiling. A wrinkled hand holding a soft baby hand makes a perfect picture.


When word came that she had passed on, it was towards the end of a term, around which time all kinds of affairs fully engaged me. Coupled with that, I happened to be teaching some graduating students then. My father (he passed away several months later in 2004)) ordered me to go and attend her funeral, but I failed to make it there. Although I was not at the burial service, I prayed for Grandma. She will have a special place in my heart for ever. In times of confusion, she comes to my dreams and gives me inspiration. This entry is done in her memory because last night I met her in a dream once again.


Thank you, Grandma. Shengliver owes you a lot.


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