One of the few memories I have of my grandmother is during my first road trip, when I was four, to the Forbidden City. My mother drove us for two hours to get there. Even though the Beijing traffic made me sick, I sat full of anticipation and wonder in the car.
“What’s so forbidden about it?” I asked. My mother smiled at me through the rear-view mirror.
My grandmother replied, “When China was ruled by emperors, they built palaces as big as cities, and none other than royals, their advisers, and their servants were allowed inside. This one is said to have 9,999 rooms, just one room fewer than the heavenly palace.” My grandmother chuckled. “Emperors had an interesting sense of honour.”
I wondered how the emperor might react to seeing his home now. Would he be angry at the tourists? He had allowed servants, after all. I reminded myself not to litter.
As we neared the palace complex, I gawked at the scene bordered by my window. Nothing I’d seen on television had been remotely close. The palace was a tourist-pamphlet favourite, and I was struck by its sheer real-life size.
It was nothing like my hometown of Tianjin, where a murky grey sky peeked through slits between skyscrapers and clogged highway bridges. Sometimes, the sky wasn’t blue at all: Tianjin was a great metropolis with even greater quantities of dust. Layers of it formed on clothes, hair, and the leaves of unwatered plants.
I had a sudden urge to run as far as I could. The vast space surrounding the palaces looked magnificent. The sky was a stunning shade of blue, and the ground was made of perfectly even stone. There was not a single crack to be seen.
Seeing my energy, my mother suggested we go to Tiananmen Square, just across from the palace. The square had been expanded in the late 1950s, on the orders of Chairman Mao, and it appeared just as large and immaculate as the palaces it guarded. The square delighted me. It was open space everywhere I looked. There was a large framed portrait that hung on the palace gate.
“Look at that man!” I exclaimed. “He looks like Uncle Jing!”
“Go play,” my mother said. “See those flags? Run there and come back.” I clapped my hands happily and raced to the flags. They were farther away than they had appeared, and I was out of breath by the time I got there.
In front of me was a neat row of massive flagpoles. Each flag had five golden stars, one bigger than the rest. Off to the side, a handful of flowers wilted in the midday sun. I watched a security guard pick them off the ground and throw them into a nearby trash can. The flowers were pretty, but maybe he didn’t like the way they were drooping. After all, wilted flowers weren’t pretty anymore. He was just doing his job, I thought, maintaining the square.
Satisfied, I ran back to my mother and grandmother. In a haughty voice, I proclaimed that the flags had the correct number of stars and that the security guard was extremely vigilant in his duty.
My mother hummed and remarked offhandedly, “They weren’t always so particular about keeping the square nice and tidy.”
My grandmother sighed. “Let’s get something to eat.”
That was the last trip before my mother and I flew to Canada. My father had immigrated first, a few years earlier, and he moved us over as soon as he found a job. My parents wanted my grandmother to come too, but she wanted to stay in China. “Zhe shi wo men de zu guo,” she said. This is our ancestral home.
In Canada, my parents and I became a family again. Here, the sky seemed almost always blue, and there was always some wide-open space nearby to run around in.
For the next several years, we lived in an old townhouse in Scarborough, outside of downtown Toronto. In Tianjin, we’d had an apartment. Houses were for cartoon characters and had mushroom roofs. In Canada, we had two storeys all to ourselves.
By the time I grew into my teenage years, the excitement had worn off. Life became routine. I started making friends. We started playing Minecraft. My mother tried to teach me Chinese, but I couldn’t be bothered to remember the characters. Eventually, she gave up.
My mother and I started arguing. I was too scared to let the arguments erupt into real fights, but they were always about my attitude. My mother didn’t like the way I behaved. I should be working harder in school because, one day, I would need a paycheque to take care of myself.
“Money isn’t everything,” I would complain, and my mother would retort, “Dreams will get you nowhere. They dangle like carrots in front of a donkey’s face, leading you on until you’re lost, starving, and unable to take another step. Better to work hard so you’ll always have a bite to eat. You can still be yourself. Wai yuan nei fang.” Outside, circle; inside, square.
Being compared to a donkey by my own mother never sat well. Sometimes, I thought I’d rather be a donkey who goes somewhere than one shackled to a millstone, plodding around in circles all day.
A few years later, we received a call from my grandmother’s caretaker. My grandmother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. By then, I remembered very little of her. The news made me uncomfortable instead of sad. I didn’t know how my mother would react.
She booked the earliest flight to China and rushed back alone. She didn’t take me with her. Alzheimer’s patients can be difficult, she said. My mother wasn’t sure if I could handle it.
We’d both realize later this was a mistake, as though she were erasing my grandmother. It was as if my life had started after we had joined my father in Canada. But I didn’t tell my mother that. Instead, I watched as my father drove her off to the airport alone.
My mother stayed for two weeks, the longest her boss would let her have off work. We exchanged a few brief calls, never more than a few minutes, and I never tried to make them longer. My grandmother wanted to speak to me, but I wanted to go to bed.
After my mother flew back, life continued as if nothing had happened. Here and there, I would hear her whisper to my father, but she seemed to have given up on including me in this side of her life. She did get increasingly agitated by my indifference toward school, but I chalked it up to her usual anxiety over my future.
Then two things happened: Wuhan went into lockdown, and my grandmother was hospitalized after a fall down the stairs. Her dementia had worsened. My mother immediately tried to book another flight to China.
“Are you crazy?” I scoffed. “There’s a pandemic. You’ll have to quarantine for weeks, and by then, you might be too late. Plus, it’s not like she’ll remember you.”
She slammed her hands on the table. “Do you realize you’re talking about your grandmother?” she yelled. “I don’t think you do!”
Startled, I snapped back, “Of course I do—I just don’t see why you have to take that risk. Let it blow over, and then you could stay as long as you want.” It seemed perfectly logical to me, but my mother was determined to go. And she wanted to take me.
This time, it seemed I couldn’t play the child. I accompanied her across the Pacific. The airplane was filled with rows and rows of masked passengers, all tense and deathly silent. Testing was required on arrival, and uniformed nurses waited in tidy stations. All the passengers lined up. When it was my turn, a nurse shoved a cotton swab down my throat, and tears pricked my eyes. Distantly, I heard a child crying.
Getting to the hospital was its own struggle. It became obvious that China had changed. Before we emigrated, flip phones had been popular, but now people were using oversize touch screens as wallets. We seemed to be the only ones fumbling for coins on the bus.
The hospital was sterile and vaguely apocalyptic. In each room, white sheets gave way to white walls. Nurses in white checked on patients in white. White knuckles clutched the backs of white chairs.
My mother marched into my grandmother’s room. I followed mutely. My grandmother lay awake on the bed. She had thinned into a scarecrow, and I had grown taller and tanner. Neither of us recognized the other. I felt uncomfortable, as if I were meeting a stranger.
“Wa, kan kan shei lai le,” my grandmother exclaimed. Look who’s here. Her high-pitched voice didn’t match the blank stare in her eyes.
“Yes,” my mother replied with a strained smile. “Your daughter and granddaughter.” My grandmother frowned. “My daughter? No, you left me here alone. Where is my daughter?” I looked at my mother. She wasn’t smiling anymore. My grandmother kept talking. “I want to leave,” she mumbled.
It occurred to me that my grandmother was completely senile. I wanted to go home. My mother had other plans. I expected her to humour my grandmother for a few more minutes, but instead she squared her jaw and asked for a wheelchair.
“What are you doing?” I asked. I thought the last thing we should do was take my grandmother outside. I thought my mother had gone crazy.
“We’re going to Tiananmen,” she insisted. “It’s time I tell you about my sister.” I paused. Sister? My mother was already lifting my grandmother out of bed.
We took the subway. I was full of questions and holding back a scream, but we rode in silence until we reached the square. Once again, I was awestruck by its size, but this time, Chairman Mao did not look like my uncle.
“My sister was very smart,” my mother began. “She was in university—she saw the effects of the Cultural Revolution and decided to join a protest. Then the protest became a massacre. Her maimed friends carried her home.”
My grandmother had stopped murmuring. “Liu si,” she added softly. June 4, 1989.
I was stunned. I knew nothing about the events of Tiananmen Square then, but I remembered once, at home in Canada, looking over my mother’s shoulder as she browsed a web forum. At the top of the screen, the page had been titled “May 35.” When I’d asked, my mother had just told me it meant June 4. I hadn’t thought much of it, though I had been confused. Wasn’t July 4 the special one?
In Tiananmen, my mother explained that June 4 was the day soldiers had fired on the crowd of protesters. On her sister, my grandmother’s daughter, my aunt. In the silence that followed, I thought about the square’s name. Tian is sky, an is peace, and men is a door. Together, they form “the Gate of Heavenly Peace.” The name now seemed ironic. I hoped my aunt had found peace, even if the revolution hadn’t.
Later that day, my grandmother died in her sleep. She had never liked funerals, so there wasn’t one. Instead, we scattered her ashes in the Hai River, just like she had once done with her eldest daughter. I wondered if my mother would make a speech. “Let’s go home,” she said.