My Grandfather’s Fateful Goodbye, Reimagined

Karissa Chen tries to reconstruct the moment her grandfather, at 19, left Shanghai for Taiwan on a supposed vacation—a decision that would alter his life forever.

Karissa Chen | Longreads | July 2017 | 23 minutes (5,772 words)

 

This is how I always imagine my grandfather’s departure from Shanghai: him, a lanky boy of 19, wearing khakis and a pressed shirt, standing near the docks with a small brown suitcase in hand. I imagine the shirt to be white with intersecting gray lines, a series of chess-sized squares on his body. Maybe he’s wearing a matching beige jacket too, or a hat of some sort. I assume that going overseas was probably a big deal at the time, an occasion you were supposed to dress up for.

For some reason, in this scene, I don’t see the man traveling with my grandfather—a friend of my great-grandparents he might have called Uncle. Instead, I see my great-grandmother, small and slightly bent over, her lined face rearranging its features as she struggles not to cry. I see her gazing up at her tall boy, adjusting his shirt, touching his lapel, fussing the way mothers do. I see her pressing a sack of oranges into his palms, worried he’ll be hungry on the boat. Now he’s brushing her fingers away, annoyed, impatient. He’ll only be gone for a few weeks, he reminds her, three months at the most. She tells him not to do anything rash out there. She tells him to listen to Uncle. I can see him barely registering her words. I can see his eyes lingering on the boat and the ocean and the tiny island of Taiwan he can’t yet make out. I can see that his mind is already gone from his childhood home and she can see it too. She takes a deep breath and smiles. She tries to be happy for him, to be proud of her youngest son. She tries to remember that boys his age are fighting wars in the north, and that she is lucky, so lucky, that all he wants is to explore the world. She tries to be happy that her boy will not only be well-educated, but also well-traveled, but he is her baby boy and she is his mother and he’s never traveled so far from home before.

In another few minutes, he will board the ship. I try to imagine this last moment: him waving from the side of the boat at the small sweet figure of his mother, she staring after the boat until it is just another gray wave upon the sea. I imagine my young grandfather turning his back on the skyline of his city, turning toward the adventure that awaits.

It is early 1949. In another few months, the Communists will win the civil war, and China will close its ports. Nearly four decades will pass before my grandfather steps back onto the soil of his hometown. He will never see his mother again.

***

But of course, my great-grandmother wouldn’t have seen my grandfather off. That’s what my own mother tells me when I ask her about it. I suppose it was more likely that she said her farewells in their home in Pudong, waving from behind the doors, emotions kept private. Maybe my grandfather walked to the docks alone or maybe he took a carriage or car or maybe Uncle met my grandfather at the home he shared with his parents and they went off together. I don’t know anything about how far my grandfather lived from the docks or what his home would have looked like or even where, exactly, his home would have been. I know Pudong is an area of Shanghai near the water, and research tells me it was mostly farmland at the time, but I still can’t picture it for myself. It’s easier to imagine the docks, so I do, even now, even after my mother has told me what I imagine is wrong. It’s the only way I know how to imagine this last goodbye.

I’ve known for awhile that my grandfather had been separated from his family because of an ill-timed vacation to Taiwan. I knew he’d been forced to stay on that island, that he met my grandmother at her parents’ store in Taipei, married into a family that thought of him as a waishengren—a foreigner—that after they had my mother and my aunt, he followed his enterprising wife to the US, they had a third daughter, and settled into a life in the States. I knew he began trying to reach his family after Nixon visited China and the country started opening up to the world again. I knew a phone call came in the middle of the night, an echoey connection with a niece or a nephew, bearing the news that his mother had passed only months earlier, that she had called her son’s name—my grandfather’s name—even as she died.

I’ve known for awhile that my grandfather had been separated from his family because of an ill-timed vacation to Taiwan. I knew he’d been forced to stay on that island, that he met my grandmother at her parents’ store in Taipei, married into a family that thought of him as a waishengren—a foreigner.

I’ve known all of this, learned it in bits and pieces over the years. Yet while he was alive, I never quite connected that vague tragedy to the warm, affectionate man who loved to make me laugh. It has only been since my grandfather’s passing in 2005 that the story has really seized me. Ever since we went through my grandparents’ things and found the pictures of my grandfather weeping in front of his mother’s grave once he’d finally returned home, his face crumpled, his slender shoulders hunched, his hands clutching incense-infused joss sticks, the sky startlingly bright and blue behind him. I don’t know who would take such a picture and why, but the image of my proud, strong grandfather in such obvious pain startles me. Hurts me. And since then, I cannot stop thinking about it. I cannot stop wondering about this woman who never knew if her baby was alive. I cannot stop wondering about the permanent longing my grandfather must have felt throughout his life. I cannot stop, and so I try, over and over again to imagine it. I try, over and over again to write about it, as if writing it will change history.

***

In my imagined film version of this story, there is a split screen. There is my grandfather, his strong brown hands lifting boxes from trucks to storage, working in the dynamite factory in Taiwan. Boxes are filled with dusty-red bundles of TNT, wires looping out and around like telephone cords. The other side of the screen shows his mother, my great-grandmother, back in Pudong, sweeping, her brow furrowed, one hand occasionally reaching down to press her aching back. She is in a dusty courtyard, the kind I’ve seen surrounding old Chinese homes in period dramas, and the sky is gray and overcast. Birds chirp around her but she doesn’t notice.

Meanwhile, my grandfather continues to work. He is alone in his duty and he is getting tired. He has been warned that he must be extremely careful in moving the boxes, that the explosives are unstable. But he is being paid well for his labor. And it hasn’t been easy for him to find work. The local Taiwanese hate him and his mainland accent. They hate the influx of the Kuomintang running from China, and group him into their league. Outsiders, oppressors, people who have seized their island and don’t belong.

And then it happens. Either his back gives or his hands tremble and lose their grip. He tries to regain balance, to grab the edge of the crate, but the box slips from his hands and falls onto the ground with a loud thud.

On the other side of the split screen, his mother takes a break from her sweeping. Looks at the trees, at the birds that have suddenly flown. She looks at the sky.

My grandfather braces himself. He stares at the box incredulously. He exhales. It hasn’t detonated. He is alive. He wipes his brow and backs away from the room. That is all, he thinks.

My great-grandmother goes back to her sweeping.

My grandfather goes to see his supervisor.

After a moment longer, my great-grandmother puts her broom away, retreats back into the house.

***

Two paragraphs into my first attempt at this essay, I realize I know few facts. I know little about Shanghai in 1949, and I know even less about the details of my grandfather’s departure. I decide that I must be historically accurate in order to tell this tale. I write my mother, who lives in Beijing, and my two aunts, to ask them what they know. I ask them about the nitty gritty—who was the man who accompanied my grandfather? Why did my grandfather decide to leave? What was my great-grandmother like?

From my mother I learn that they grew up knowing my grandfather’s travel companion, that they called him Lao Ya. She tells me this man was going to Taiwan for business reasons, and was kind enough to bring my grandfather along. I learn the particulars of my grandfather getting back in touch with his family in the early ’70s, the letter he wrote, the phone call that came too late, the money my grandfather continued to send his brother’s family even after his brother died, because he felt indebted to his sister-in-law for taking care of his mother when he could not. I learn about how the money helped elevate his family, who had been relatively poor and looked down upon, to a family that was given preferential treatment over time.

My mother also gives me a lesson about the importance of guangxi—connections, relationships—in China. She tells me that in the ’90s, my grandfather was invited to a dinner with the mayor of Shanghai, who was in the US to drum up financial support for his plan to develop Pudong into an economic and commercial hub. During the dinner, my grandfather took pictures with this mayor, who later became a premier, and sent the pictures back to his family in Pudong. When development of Pudong finally began, these pictures saved my great-grandmother’s remains from being cremated. While the graves of others were dug up by the government to make room, my great-grandmother’s grave was allowed to stay intact, because my grandfather’s relatives offered the pictures of my grandfather with the premier as proof that my grandfather was an important hua qiao—an emigrant—one who would be returning soon to visit his mother.


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I begin to research the Chinese civil war, the conflict between the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communist Party of China (CPC) after the defeat of the Japanese. I watch a Chinese-government-made film about the Chinese civil war that ends in 1949, a movie that, of course, paints the Communist Party as the heroes. I read excerpts, translated into English by a friend, from a bestselling Taiwanese book that recounts the experiences of those who fled to Taiwan in 1949. Somehow I think this will contextualize what I know about my grandfather. Somehow I think this will help me understand enough about what that time was like to write a story about it, or maybe even a novel. Instead, I feel overwhelmed. I begin to realize that I cannot write this as historical fiction or even as a period essay. There are too many factors I do not know. There are too many smells, sights, and memories I have not lived through.

I long to ask my grandfather about all of this, to hear this part of his history in his own words. I regret I did not do so while he was alive.

***

“I was a writer too,” my grandfather once told me.

We were seated in his tan Mercedes-Benz, waiting for my grandmother outside of the development property they owned in Flushing, New York, a mass of construction they hoped to transform into a shopping center for the many Chinese and Taiwanese that lived in the neighborhood. It was early spring. I was around 11 or 12. My grandfather told me he had been a journalist in Taiwan for a short period of time. I was interested, because I already knew I liked to write, and I’d been trying to figure out how I could write for a living when I grew up. I asked my grandfather what stories he wrote, but what he told me was too sophisticated, and now I no longer remember. I asked him how he’d decided to work for the newspaper. He backtracked and told me the story of working in a dynamite factory. He told me how he dropped a crate—BOOM, he said, the sound of the box echoing on the concrete floor—and how that was the moment he decided he did not want to work there anymore. He told me being a journalist was safer, better. But I was no longer listening to his stories about writing anymore. My favorite show at the time was Sliders, a sci-fi series about alternate universes, so suddenly I was fixated by the horrific realization that my grandfather could have died, and that I would not be alive if he had. I turned that moment over and over again in my head. I tried to imagine it. The explosives falling. My grandfather’s panic and relief. I tried to imagine him young. I tried to imagine an alternate world in which he did not live, did not meet my grandmother, did not have my mother. I didn’t register the rest of what he was saying. He was talking about life as a journalist, life in Taiwan, but I was still hearing BOOM and seeing alternate universes without me in them and learning nothing about my grandfather as a writer.

***

The first attempt of this essay starts, Imagine this.

As with later incarnations, I start with the dock. Except in this draft I am fixated on her. Imagine her lined brown face, I instruct my reader. Imagine her streaked gray hair in a swept-up bun. Imagine she looks older than her thirty-something years. Imagine the brave face she puts on, because she detects uncertainty behind the bravado of her little boy. Imagine the tears she holds in. Imagine the handkerchief she wrings, or the sack of oranges she brings him. Imagine this. I say it over and over again: Imagine her holding back her urge to kiss his face. Imagine her waving. Imagine her watching his back grow small as the boat pushes away. Imagine her holding on to the tiny speck she can still see waving. Imagine, imagine, imagine.

 

Imagine she never sees her son again.

***

A few days after my initial email inquiries to my aunts and mother, I receive an email from my aunt’s husband, an uncle who is Caucasian but knows more facts about Chinese history than I do. He’s lived years in China, he speaks Mandarin. During family get-togethers, while the women busied themselves in the kitchen, my uncle was often found on the living room sofa having a can of Budweiser with my grandfather, talking to him about his life. My uncle has a big personality, and he tells stories with a flourish, so I don’t always know when he is exaggerating but he is almost always entertaining.

I knew he began trying to reach his family after Nixon visited China and the country started opening up to the world again. I knew a phone call came in the middle of the night bearing the news that his mother had passed only months earlier, that she had called her son’s name even as she died.

The email I receive is written with a rambling grandiosity in keeping with his oral storytelling.

“This is a very, very interesting story,” my uncle starts off.

I have a hard time following what comes next. Partially it’s because of the way my uncle writes, with convoluted sentences and meandering syntax, but part of it is that I simply don’t know enough about anything that would put his email in context. His sentences are dense, each phrase packed with historical and political references I don’t have yet, and I find myself overwhelmed while trying to digest a narrative that covers everything from Chinese politics and Japanese occupation to my great-grandmother’s cooking and my grandparents’ marriage. But then one paragraph jumps out at me. My uncle tells me to think carefully about the state of the world at the time my grandfather left home. “The country was going to hell, inflation was running at 800% a month,” he says. “No one was ‘taking a vacation.’” And suddenly I understand what he is implying: The vacation was a cover story. My grandfather was working undercover for the KMT. He knew there was a high likelihood he would not return home.

***

In the wake of the Japanese defeat, China descended rapidly into instability. According to my uncle, by 1948, my grandfather was an elite member of the KMT Youth League, being groomed for initiation into higher political circles, namely, that of President Chiang Kai-shek. And yet, for a party threatened in their own country, these matters were kept secret. From late 1948 through early 1949, as cities continued to fall into Communist hands and KMT members were routinely assassinated, my grandfather accompanied his mentor to Taiwan to gather information related to the temporary relocation of lower-level KMT elite. The defeat of the KMT made it dangerous and impossible for my grandfather to return. Instead, Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT took over Taiwan, and life under Chiang, including its media, became tightly controlled. The fact that my grandfather was allowed into the print world, my uncle says, suggests that he was incredibly trusted.

“He truly believed that these events would prove transitory—not permanent,” my uncle writes. Like many KMT and Chinese who had fled to Taiwan, my grandfather believed for years that he would eventually return to China, that the KMT and Chiang Kai-shek would regain power. This sentiment, at least, is one I know was true of the Chinese who fled: My mother has reminisced to me about a song she and other children would sometimes sing. A song about one day triumphantly returning to the mainland, their homeland, though if it is a battle song or a children’s song, I can’t quite tell.

***

Goodbye, reimagined: My grandfather, still lanky, still young, standing at the dock with his mother. He stares at her, tries to memorize her face. He holds her small, lined hands in his large tan ones, and reassures her, lies to her: I’ll be home soon, so soon you won’t even remember I was ever gone. He promises her he’ll bring her souvenirs, maybe a bolt of cloth, or a ceramic bowl. A trinket of some sort. His mother waves away the offer, tells him the extravagance is a waste. All she wants, she says, is for him to return safely. He bows his head. He grips her arms. Of course, he tells her. He laughs dismissively. It’s just a vacation.

When he gets on that boat, the sack of oranges in hand, he does not turn toward the horizon. He stands on the bow and captures every last detail of the city skyline. He looks at the roads, at the buildings that loom tall and austere, at the merchants with their carts selling skewers of meat, heads of cabbages, barrels of rice, at the people making their way through the busy streets, and commits them to heart. He imagines every one of those people, oblivious to his departure, as someone intimate and special, extended family that he never knew. He looks toward the farmlands, in the direction of his house, and imagines he can see his relatives, his neighborhood, his whole village going about their day. He says goodbye to all of them, blesses them in his mind. Finally, almost unbearably, he settles back on his mother, her figure furiously waving, and he apologizes to her in his thoughts. I am sorry, he tells her, for deceiving you. I am sorry, he tells her, for not being a more filial son. I am sorry, for I will not be there to care for you in these coming months. I am sorry because I know you will worry. I am sorry for abandoning you. I am a bad son. I am the worst son. It was your misfortune to have a son like me.

Two paragraphs into my first attempt at this essay, I realize I know few facts. I know little about Shanghai in 1949, and I know even less about the details of my grandfather’s departure. I write my mother, who lives in Beijing, and my two aunts, to ask them what they know.

He tries not to weep. He tells himself he is doing his duty as a patriot. He tells himself he will come home one day, that in a year or two, the war will be won, and he will return. He tells himself this is not forever.

Later, he will smooth out the peels of the oranges, dry them out in the harsh sea sun. He will keep the leathery skins pressed in a journal. The smell of oranges will remind him of home.

***

“This changes everything,” I respond to my aunt and uncle. “This changes everything I thought I knew.”

“Sorry,” my aunt responds. “Just forget about this. Go back to your original idea.”

But my aunt doesn’t understand. There is no recovering something that has been uncovered. My grandfather a political spy, a subversive. My grandfather, not a boy caught in an unfortunate circumstance, but a man who chose self-exile.

My mother is skeptical. She thinks maybe my uncle is inferring and exaggerating. “Your grandfather always stuck by the vacation story,” she tells me. “Even to your grandmother. Why wouldn’t he just tell us? There was no danger once he was in Taiwan. Why would he continue to lie?”

There is what we’re taught to know, and there is the truth, and I no longer know which is what.

My grandfather was a man of principles. I can imagine him as an idealistic youth, one who believed in the KMT cause, willing to leave all he’d ever known behind for a greater good. Yet I can’t imagine that that same idealistic man would not want to tell his wife and daughters this story, this story of principles and patriotism, if it was something he believed in. Wouldn’t he point to it with pride? Wouldn’t he want them to understand the sacrifices he made?

I do not know my grandfather at all, I realize. I have no understanding of him. I have no idea who he was as a youth in China, or a young man in Taiwan, or a father and immigrant in America. My own memories of him even differ from those my mother has. She experienced a severe, traditional father, one who loved her but was hard on her, who expected her to stay close to home to take care of her sister even when she went to college. I remember his stubbornness, his occasional temper, but I also remember the man who joked with us, who gave us a banana to eat every time we saw him, who watched Jack Lalane’s exercise programs with my baby sister. I remember his graciousness, his friendliness, how tall and graceful and proud he always seemed to me, even toward the end of his life, even as Parkinson’s slowly took his deftness away. But I do not know what his story was, his hidden grief, his regrets. Perhaps the reason he never told my mother and her sisters about the sacrifice he made was because he regretted leaving home. Maybe he felt guilty for leaving his mother, or maybe he saw the viciousness of the KMT rule in Taiwan and felt ashamed. Or perhaps he wanted to protect his children. Perhaps he feared they would get ideas, that they, too, would leave home, never to return.

Then again, maybe all of this a lie, a misunderstanding, a fiction my uncle has dreamt up. It is impossible to say. It is impossible to ever know.

***

Try as I might, I cannot imagine the 007 version of my grandfather (even that label is a ridiculous exaggeration that I use, tongue-in-cheek, because it’s the only thing I think of when I think of the word “spy”). I wonder, for instance, if he owned a gun, or if he was taught to fight. Or was he just an intellectual spy, collecting intel for his leaders? I don’t understand the mechanics of war. I don’t know enough about the nitty-gritty of how battles are waged upon your enemy to even begin to imagine what his job duties were, and how they might have related to the KMT’s hopes to win. I don’t know, for instance, how he could be collecting information for the KMT when he was no longer in China. Was he perhaps communicating with the mainland through special channels? Did it make him ache that he could not relay messages back to his family? Or were his duties more local? I wonder, with horror, if my grandfather was part of a propaganda wheel, part of a brutal regime that was fighting to dominate a new Taiwan. If he might have used his words for untruths, for hyperbole, for well-spun messaging dictated to him by his leaders. As a woman trying to write about the truth, this unsettles me.

I try again to imagine my grandfather, this time as a journalist, and I come up with a young Asian Jimmy Olsen, à la Lois and Clark, slipping into dangerous territory with a notepad in hand. I see him lurking behind boxes, listening in on Communist meetings in a dark warehouse, running back to headquarters before he is discovered.

None of it is right, I know. I am ashamed by the limits of my imagination, at the easy Western stereotypes that my mind reaches for. But there is nothing else. There are no pictures, there are no stories. There is no grandfather to ask, to verify, to confirm, to reassure, to deny. There are only my own memories of him: His deft, slender fingers showing me how to fold wontons; his bright smile and slicked black hair as he danced with surprising grace to golden oldies; his teasing jokes of “Excuse you!” when my brother and I asked him to say “Excuse me” when he burped; his laughing voice singing The Spice Girls or “Guantanamera” in the car, his cashmere sweaters, his fedora, his shiny leather shoes.

And so my mind oscillates between speculative extremes: a naïve son torn from his family too early, a patriotic man trying to play a hero.

***

I am nearly there, am on a draft of this essay that I feel is close. It’s been years since I started this process, and my family has forgotten I am writing this. But my mother knows of my fascination with my grandfather’s story; she draws parallels whenever she hears other stories like his, these “homebound” stories. There are so many—of soldiers, KMT sympathizers, beloved children—numerous individual heartbreaks of people separated from their families during the war, people waiting to go home.

Like many KMT and Chinese who had fled to Taiwan, my grandfather believed for years that he would eventually return to China, that the KMT and Chiang Kai-shek would regain power.

Over dinner one night, my mother tells me about an article she’d read just that day, about a Chinese village boy who, at the age of 12, during the height of the war, was sent south by his widowed mother. Alone in Taiwan on that first Lunar New Year away from home, he climbed up the mountains, faced the direction he imagined the mainland to be, and shouted “Niang!”—mother—to the wind.

My mother is telling me this on one of the four or five trips she makes every year back to the United States. The marvel of the life I have, I often think, that my mother lives across the world and yet I still see, hear, and touch her so often.

The boy, she tells me, grew up to be a judge who one day found himself, to his great reluctance and sorrow, sentencing a KMT deserter to death, as was the punishment. The deserter had been caught trying to swim across the channel, back to his hometown, which he could see from where he was stationed. The judge understood. He too wanted to go home. He too would have jumped in that ocean. He promised to take the soldier’s remains home one day, and then made it his life’s mission to do so for as many of the displaced veterans as possible.

What about him, I want to know. Did he go home? Did he see his mother again?

My mother shakes her head. She tells me how, decades later, the letter he had smuggled to his mother through a Chinese colleague arrived on the day of her funeral. How he managed to visit his village thirteen months after her death. How he learned from his family that she laid out a bowl of rice topped with fish and meat for him at every meal, that she lit two candles at the window every evening to guide him home, that she slept with a pair of his shorts folded beneath her pillow every single night until she died.

Tears spring to my eyes. I bow my head and stuff my mouth with rice so my mother won’t see me crying. But I look over and see—her eyes are glassy too.

All my life, I have feared losing my mother to death or freak separation. In the wake of 9/11, I worried about a war that might cut me off from her; I’ve lain awake next to her on the nights before she boarded her plane back to Asia, terrified I might never again listen to her sleeping. I have feared being adrift and alone, the way I’m certain my grandfather felt in Taiwan, but I’ve rarely considered what it is to be my mother. Yet in this moment, as I glance at my mother, I am no longer the child. Through her eyes, I become the judge’s mother, my grandfather’s mother, the mother I might be one day. What is it like to wonder every night if your child is warm, if your child is fed, if your child sleeps dreamlessly? What is it like to never learn the answer?

I become a woman trying to imagine the unimaginable.

***

In Shanghai, there is a district called Lujiazui—literally, the Lu Family Mouth. Lu is my grandfather’s family name, my mother’s maiden name. Up until the 1990s, the district was relatively quiet, filled with a few warehouses and residences. Now it is one of the financial hubs of Shanghai, overrun with glamorous high-rises. I am told there is a plaque somewhere with the district name. I’ve only been to Shanghai twice, each time briefly, and I’ve never seen it.

Somewhere, in a nearby cemetery, is my great-grandmother’s grave. It is the one in that picture of my grandfather weeping. My mother and her sisters don’t know where it is, and they’ve lost contact with their cousins in Shanghai. And yet, we often talk about finding both—the plaque and the grave. We dream of touching them. This tangible connection to my grandfather’s lao jia, his old home, and ours, this place that is in our DNA.

I dream too, of walking along the newly paved streets and imagining the cobblestones in the layers beneath my feet. Of looking through the shiny new towers and having sepia dreams of what the buildings must have looked like when my grandfather left it behind.

I tried, once, to imagine another world, one in which my grandfather makes it back to Shanghai before his mother’s death. A happy, if bittersweet reunion.

The piece I’d wanted to write about my grandfather was one about verisimilitude. I’d hoped to nail down the facts of my grandfather’s departure and then render these facts into something whole, complete. With enough research and the right imagination, I thought I could recreate his life, scene by scene, motion by motion. And perhaps, in the process of writing, I would discover something, a truth I missed for myself, about love and family, about the boy I grieved for and his long-suffering mother. Maybe, I thought, I’d find a way to make sense and beauty out of something that felt to me impossible to fix.

I tried, once, to imagine another world, one in which my grandfather makes it back to Shanghai before his mother’s death. A happy, if bittersweet reunion. But again, my imagination stuttered. It could not have happened. There was no other choice, no way for events to have unfolded other than they did. The moment my grandfather stepped upon that ship, their story was fated to end this way.

I am in Taiwan on a Fulbright now, researching the stories of those like my grandfather, the veterans and students who didn’t know they would never return home. The stories are each singular if similarly heartbreaking, full of missed opportunities and regret, drenched in the loneliness of homelessness. Facts have become muddled with time, and emotions have been complicated by history. And yet, the more stories I hear, the more I understand that the only incontrovertible truth is the most obvious one—these individuals were loved and never forgotten; they loved and never forgot.

I still want to go to Shanghai, to visit my great-grandmother’s grave. I want to stand before her headstone and try to imagine what it was like for my grandfather to stand in that same spot on that clear blue day. To try to imagine the anguish he must have felt as he announced, voice breaking: “Mother, I have finally come home.”

***

In an alternate universe, my grandfather changes his mind. He holds his mother’s hands, and decides last-minute not to get on that boat. He will not go on vacation. He will not work for the government. He will walk her back to Lujiazui, back to their house. He will make her tea, he will unpack his bags, he will live on. He will live through the end of the war. He will watch the rise of Communism. He will grow older, he will eat his mother’s cooking, he will follow and ignore her advice with equal measure. He will find her irritating on some days, endearing on others. He will marry a nice Shanghainese girl. He will have two children. He will watch his country rise and fall, undulating with the blood and terror of ideals. Sometimes he will feel guilty for not fighting harder for his party to win. He will live through the Cultural Revolution. He will find work, he will support his family. He will not be rich, times will be rough, and sometimes he will wonder if he should have left, if a better life was elsewhere. But he will watch his mother bounce his children on her knee, reveling in being a grandmother, and realize he could not possibly imagine himself anywhere else. He will watch his city change. He will watch his country open up. He will watch his mother grow frailer, he will buy his mother’s medicine when she is sick, he will feed her rice porridge in bed. He will let her lean on his arm when they walk. He will listen to her stories, enjoy her laughter. When she finally passes away, he will be by her side, he will weep, he will shovel dirt on her grave, he will bow three times. He will thank her. Then he will wipe away his tears and return home.

* * *

Karissa Chen’s fiction and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Gulf CoastPEN AmericaGuernica, and Catapult. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to Taiwan in 2015-16, and is a Kundiman and VONA/Voices Fellow. She is currently Editor in Chief at Hyphen magazine and is working on a novel.

Editor: Sari Botton