My Grandma Zhuang Jinmei

My grandma died of COVID-19 today. My uncle (her son, my mother’s brother) and his family are all COVID positive, so there won’t be any kind of gathering, neither funeral nor farewell before cremation.

When I read my mother’s message, I was in a rehearsal. I was not very surprised that she passed away. Just a few months ago, my mother and my uncle were planing about letting my grandma “sell” her apartment to them, in order to avoid the inheritance tax after she died. There were so many plans for the life after her death, it seemed like everyone was expecting she would pass away. She was almost 95, if she could leave peacefully, it should have been celebrated according to the Chinese tradition.

But the death was so different from what I imagined. I thought there would be the news saying she’s weak, and I would book a ticket back to Shanghai, then if I was lucky I would say goodbye to her, if not I would attend and help with the funeral. Because of the quarantine policy, I also imagined that I would be the only one who’s not able to attend the funeral. But the reality is even worse: there won’t be a funeral at all. It’s very likely that my mother will make much effort to get a place in the crematorium so that my grandma could be cremated in time.

I could do very little in this situation but memorise her.

Unlike many other grandmas, my grandma almost never cooked, made very few handcrafts, never dressed up like a family icon. She almost didn’t do anything more than needed, so it’s hard to tell what she liked and wanted. When I tired to recall her, the first thing came to my mind was her Chairman-Mao’s-quotes-like speech, other things must wait for very long to ring a bell.

Her name was Zhuang Jinmei, born in Yangzhou (Jiangsu province, about 3 hours by car from Shanghai). 莊金妹, these three Chinese characters were among very few words that she could write. She was from a very poor peasant family and came to Shanghai with her sister to work as a child labor in a fabric factory run by Japanese. In her teenage time she joined the communist party and participated the revolution. After the PRC established, she worked in a state-run fabric factory until she gave birth to my mother. The medicine that time could not help with the postpartum hypertension and it became chronic. The doctor said she was not able to work, so she got a long-term sick leave until she was retired.

She was not at work since her 30s. Except worked for the Neighbourhood Committee voluntarily, she stayed at home for more than 60 years.

Today when I saw some old ladies, I remembered my grandma. But it didn’t happen often. There were almost no similarity between an old German lady and my grandma. I haven’t even seen my grandma walking on a street. Once a German student asked me how to say “rollator (walker)” in Chinese, I googled it to get the answer, because I’ve never seen one in China. The portraits of my grandma in my mind have always the same backgrounds: her apartment, or sometimes my mother’s, maybe once or twice in a restaurant, but nothing else.

At her about 75, a relative who could drive a car offered her a ride though the city. She saw the Shanghai out of her neighbourhood for the first time on the car. She was very excited because she saw a totally different world than where she grew up. But she was like a tourist having sightseeing in her own city, in this brand-new world, she was not involved.

Her education stopped in the class for ending illiteracy, she could only write her name in traditional Chinese because she didn’t study after the Chinese characters were simplified. Her career stopped around her 30s. When I was small she still made Zongzi (rice dumplings) and other festival foods, but it stopped around her 80s as well.

Everyone said she was lucky to meet my grandpa: engineer, musician and chief cook all in one, marxist-feminist practitioner, cooked most of the meals in their life… For the gender equality, he let us grandchildren call both sides of grandparents Yeye and Nainai (爺爺奶奶) instead of using different Chinese words for different sides. They were together for their revolutionary passion since very long ago, before the PRC government signed marriage certificates. People said that if it was not the revolution, she wouldn’t have such a husband because she couldn’t do most of the housework well. But I think it is because that she didn’t believe that her value was just in the family, my grandpa found her truly a comrade. I also see very much strength to survive many disasters from the 1930s to my grandpa’s death, as well as the boredom in her late life.

Unfortunately the time I spent with her was after she stopped so many things. She had dementia since more than 10 years, I was a character from the 2000s for her as well. She always told me it’s a gloria to be a university student and I should become a useful person for the construction of the country. I felt very lucky to have a grandma never asked me to marry a good man, neither said anything I must do “like the other women”. Although I know if we discussed any topic deeper, there would be many disagreements, I wished our communication could go to a more personal level.

She often told my parents that life is just working and eating (過日子就是吃吃做做), that’s her philosophy in peaceful time. If there’s any part of me has this kind of contentment from embracing the family value and from remembering the worse days in the past, it’s inherited from her. If there’re any genderless and revolutionary essences in my characteristics, they were inherited from her. I will take these parts and go on my life. Rest in peace my grandma.

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