Mary Wang | Longreads | September 2018 | 23 minutes (5,814 words)

1. Care /ker/ [verb], 保护o hù, the process of protecting someone or something.

In January 2018, Guo Zhen, my grandmother, was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. A month later, I arrived home for the first Chinese New Year that I’d spend in China since I had moved away 20 years earlier. I came home with my armor ready — my suitcase was packed with a library including Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s canonical book on the illness; Susan Sontag’s Illness and Its Metaphors, so that my analytical mind could help carry the weight of my emotional one; and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a manual for grief in the event of the worst-case scenario. I had rehearsed the serene facial expression I’d use when I’d see Guo Zhen in her hospital bed for the first time, and I had conscientiously visualized every IV drip and beeping machine to blunt any potential shock. Yet what I found in our family home was the rehearsal of a familiar routine: Her son, my uncle Fu Yuan, was still battling with his son to choose his homework over his iPad; Guo Zhen still sat on her children’s stool in the morning, washing clothes in a bucket of cold water, and grandfather, Pu Cheng, still bugged her to play their daily chess game, holding up a paper board fortified so many times over that the plastic tape covering it was far thicker than the board itself.

Guo Zhen didn’t know she had cancer, and my family had carefully devised a strategy to keep it that way. Doctors and nurses in the hospital had been instructed to never speak of her illness in her presence, and visitors to our home signed an invisible contract before entering, agreeing to act as if her recent hospitalization was due to a case of pneumonia. I never asked her to sit down when she’d get up after every few bites during lunch or dinner to restock the table with congee, buns, or pickles — I knew she did this out of habit rather than necessity. Fu Yuan and his wife never fought to take over her housework, though we worried about the strain of repetitive hunching on her weakening body. Any deviation from routine risked puncturing the facade of normalcy we all worked carefully to preserve, and, within a month, my family had become a theater troupe improvising their first performance, an intimate Truman Show designed to deceive its protagonist.

At 78, there was no point in performing surgery or chemotherapy on Guo Zhen anymore, and any new miracle drug that might land in the world would only arrive in China years after its introduction on the American market. Besides, the decidedly optimistic belief that cancer will soon become only a chronic illness rather than a fatal one is more of an American specialty — its arrogant nature evident when President Nixon declared a “War on Cancer.” The Chinese counterpart to that phrase illustrates a different approach. As one local newspaper put it, “One third of cancer patients die of fear, one third die of its treatment, and only one third die of the illness itself.”

Since there wasn’t much territory to be won in terms of Guo Zhen’s illness or its treatment, we shifted our efforts to shielding her from the first possibility. As soon as doctors saw the dark spots on Guo Zhen’s X-rays, Fu Yuan instructed them to follow our script. “Don’t let the lao ren” — the elderly — “know,” he said, emphasizing Guo Zhen’s status as a senior to make clear that she was no longer a caretaker but the one who was cared for.

“If a man die,” William Carlos Williams wrote, “it is because death / has first possessed his imagination.” Grandfather Pu Cheng, unaware of the American poet, has long touted his own version of this phrase. Boasting about how he’s never stepped foot in a hospital for himself, he’d say, “Nine out of ten people die from fear.” Even though Pu Cheng was also left in the dark about his wife’s disease — we didn’t trust him to keep a secret from his partner of 60 years — we abided by his logic that a doctor’s diagnosis could be a death sentence in itself. By shielding Guo Zhen from the weight of the doctor’s words, we took over the burden of her illness with our own shoulders.


2. Care /ker/ [noun], 谨慎,n shèn, serious attention, being extra cautious as to prevent unfortunate things from happening.

The word “cancer” was soon deleted from our vocabulary, replaced by euphemisms we learned instead. “How can you get better if you don’t eat more?” I asked while putting another bun on Guo Zhen’s plate, fully aware that there was no “better” in sight. “We’ll visit your lao jia — hometown — “as soon as the weather improves,” my mother, Mei Hua, proposed, knowing that even if Guo Zhen’s body were able to weather the trip from one corner of the country to another, it would still probably be her last one.

As my visits and phone calls increased, I felt like a swindler hiding an ulterior motive, the reason for my increased attention was not simply an outpouring of love but also a fear of nearing death. A good con man knows not to come across too eager, so I found a swarm of pragmatic excuses — long-awaited green cards, prestigious work assignments, much-anticipated anniversaries — to justify my growing presence in her life. A recent wave of violent arguments between Guo Zhen and Pu Cheng became a bittersweet opportunity — though their fights had never succeeded to break their marriage, they were serious enough to provide me with an alibi for my growing call volume.

My grandmother didn’t know she had cancer, and my family had carefully devised a strategy to keep it that way. Doctors and nurses in the hospital had been instructed to never speak of her illness in her presence, and visitors to our home signed an invisible contract before entering.

We made sure to never show any signs of distress, finally putting our lifelong habits of emotional suppression to good use. When Mei Hua left the living room as a man on TV started discussing his mother’s battles with cancer, I told Guo Zhen and Pu Cheng that my mother ran to the bathroom because her stomach was unwell. When Guo Zhen and Pu Cheng sang along together to Teresa Teng’s “The Moon Represents My Heart,” one of the first tooth-achingly sweet pop ballads that slid through the cracks of 1970s Communist China, I pushed my teary eyes into the sofa cushion, pretending to fall asleep.

Our emotional self-censorship wasn’t just to benefit Guo Zhen — each person’s solemnity was also there to support the other members’ performance, to prevent any of us from accidentally slipping out of our roles. Even outside the reach of Guo Zhen and Pu Cheng, we only spoke of “your (grand)mother’s illness,” as if the word “cancer” was a carcinogen itself. I never shed a tear near any of my family members, afraid that my expression would provoke an emotional domino effect, causing our sadness to suddenly break through the dam we had constructed. When Fu Yuan hugged me goodbye at the end of my first visit, his arms held me for what seemed like hours. As his warm tears dripped on my shoulders, I realized he needed my body to shield his grief from my family’s eyes. He had broken our pact, and made me complicit.


3. To care too much /ker/ [verb], 舍不得,shě bù dé, to care too much to do away with or part with something, to be unwilling to let go of something.

It might be a stretch to say that Guo Zhen cared more about money than she cared about her life. Yet we knew that as soon as Guo Zhen would find out about her illness — and more importantly, the costs we made to keep her alive — she would refuse any treatment. There were better things to spend the money on than extending her old life: What about my cousin’s education, or the periods that Fu Yuan and his wife wouldn’t be able to find enough children to fill their day care business, or whatever needs I would have in America, where I was living on my own, without family around me? She wouldn’t know that the cost of a month’s worth of cancer treatments in China wouldn’t even be able to cover the average rent in New York, but it wasn’t about numbers. The monthly salary she used to make in the noodle factory would barely be able to buy her a pair of shoes now, and she understood how quickly numbers could become relative.

In a way, her life has been defined by what one cared too much about to let go of — what was 舍不得 (shě bù dé). As the fourth child in a farmer’s family of five, she was taken out of school around age 12 because her brothers’ education took priority, and her parents cared too much to let the girl go. When she was matched for marriage to Pu Cheng by her aunt, her parents cared so much they only unwillingly let her leave the house: A daughter married off was one that would belong to someone else now. When Mei Hua’s grades qualified her for a position in the city’s best secondary school, Pu Cheng and Guo Zhen cared too much to let her go to the other side of town — Jinan was still so small back then that a 20-minute bus ride was enough to take her off of city grounds. In the 15 years that Fu Yuan spent locked up in prison outside the city’s perimeters, Guo Zhen and Pu Cheng cycled four hours back and forth every other week to bring him food and cigarettes — there was no public transport to the prison and they cared too much to spend money on a taxi ride. When Mei Hua moved with my father and me to the South of China to make money, she asked her parents to accompany us so that they could take care of me, though it was really because she cared too much to let them stay and continue their biweekly bike rides. Once we had arrived in the South and Mei Hua asked her parents to help us pack our things for Europe, our next stop, Guo Zhen cared too much to let us go, but ironed and folded our shirts and trousers anyway. After we left China in a taxi in the night, and Guo Zhen ran after the taxi with tears in her eyes, she and Pu Cheng stayed behind in our house in the South for a few months before returning to Jinan, caring too much about the electricity and gas bills we had already paid to leave straight away.


4. Care /ker/ [noun], 医疗护理 yī liáo hù lǐ, healthcare.

Part of the reason we were able to keep up our elaborate performance was the infrastructure that was already in place — lying to ailing patients remains a common practice in China, despite an increasingly individualistic society. The hospital’s nurses had rehearsed similar consolations many times over, telling aging grandmothers and curious children that they had nothing more than the flu. Doctors used a well-worn thesaurus of medical exonerations: They’d look at her charts, ask her a few questions, and conclude with, “a yi” — auntie — “be careful not to catch another cold.” When Guo Zhen arrived at the oncology department to receive radiation treatment, the sign announcing the ward had been taped over. Instead, new characters now described it as the “general treatment room.” Guo Zhen’s doctors could all agree that the stress of knowing about one’s pending death could have an immeasurable impact on a patient’s health — despite the decades they’d spent in the Western scientific model, they still abided by the belief in traditional Chinese medicine that a person’s emotions are directly tied to their organs. Maybe it’s telling enough that the traditional Chinese character for medicine — 醫 — contains the symbol used for alcohol. The doctor’s role was both to operate on bodies and to provide adequate anesthesia: A doctor was defined as much by how he much could improve health as how much he could reduce pain.


5. Care /ker/ [noun], 处理 chǔ lǐ, to deal with something, to take care of something.

If Western-style hospitals are designed to be places where one can transfer the responsibility of care to medical professionals, hospitals in China, whether Western-style or traditional Chinese medicine–based, are places where family members work as shadow employees among its overburdened staff. As Guo Zhen laid in her general treatment room, Fu Yuan worked as an untrained nurse, traversing the hospital’s offices and screening rooms to arrange her tests, lining up at different cashiers to pay for each individual bill. In between, he returned home in the afternoons to prepare a warm lunch for Guo Zhen — the bland food in the hospital canteen was seen as almost as deadly as the burden of the diagnosis. Backstage, Mei Hua took care of more pragmatic arrangements. She had purchased plots at the local cemetery a year earlier, as the increasing scarcity of burial grounds was leading to unbridled inflation and speculation. (She once compared the process to buying a condo in the heart of Beijing.) The deed of their house was transferred from Guo Zhen’s name to Fu Yuan’s — Mei Hua, who lived in Europe, wouldn’t have much use for it anyway — in anticipation of the complex layers of bureaucracy that would be involved if the owner was no longer alive. “We’d have to do this sooner or later,” Mei Hua told her mother, leaving out that such an occasion might be even sooner.

Illness might numb the senses, but its urgency also sharpened the decision-making process, forcing a family to get in formation. In China, the ill were seen to be exempt from societal duties and incapable of making informed decisions, and in the country’s painfully commercial health-care system, it was those who footed the bill — or whichever kids or family members who pooled together their savings — who got the last say. Fu Yuan called Mei Hua at every step, his younger sister being the one with higher education history, a bigger bank account, and better connections. After all, he hadn’t gone to university like Mei Hua had, let alone studied medicine like his sister, and he could barely remember the names of the tests Guo Zhen had to undergo. “I’m not as cultured,” he’d say, never questioning why he would need a degree to understand the care his mother received. He could follow the doctor’s instructions to bring a form to this department, or to line up at that window to pay, and he knew what foods to cook to strengthen Guo Zhen’s immune system, but what would he answer if they asked him how to proceed? To treat or not to treat? Domestic pills or imported ones? Fu Yuan didn’t feel he had enough knowledge to make the decisions — the perspective that comes with a college degree, the ability to speak a few words of English, the speech that had lost its Jinan accent.


6. Care /ker/ [verb], 照顾 zhào gù, to show consideration, to look after, to treat preferentially.

My parents and I have long had the tradition of doing our annual physical exams in China, with my mother sometimes even delaying more urgent medical procedures to coincide with her return home. “Look how convenient it is in China,” she’d say, though, of course, it was only convenient for us because we didn’t have to arrive before dawn to wait in line. She’d complain that to see a doctor in Europe she’d have to make an appointment weeks, if not months, in advance. But we both knew that this would have been the case for us in China too, if my parents’ former classmates from medical school had not settled comfortably into their leadership positions at local hospitals. We would have wondered whether it was worth the extra lines to go to the hospital with the better reputation, even just for a physical exam, while now, their doors opened up to us as if we were children of toy store owners, left to peruse the aisles after hours.

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It was Mei Hua who called her former dorm mate at medical school — now the department manager at one of Jinan’s biggest hospitals — when Guo Zhen came down with what we first believed to be a stubborn cold. It was their relationship that led the manager to arrange a bed for Guo Zhen even though the respiratory department was filled to the brink amid one of the worst flu epidemics in recent history. Visiting the hospital with Mei Hua was like being guided through the Pentagon by the CIA, the secret corridors and hidden exits suddenly opening up, the hospital’s backstage becoming accessible. To acquire Guo Zhen’s X-rays, a process that even money wouldn’t otherwise be able to guarantee, the head of the imaging department — another former classmate she’d see a few days later at a school reunion — sped us through the hospital’s corridors, where patients and their families squatted on the floors waiting to see their preferred doctor. We landed in a back room, where interns examined X-rays and CT scans on desks littered with newspapers, lunch boxes, and hot water bottles. One of them was charged with finding Guo Zhen’s files as we stood there and chatted about the education of the department head’s daughter.

Even before the diagnosis, Mei Hua’s manager dorm mate had instructed the oncology department’s nurses and doctors to take care of — 照顾 (zhào gù)— our family, an instruction for preferential treatment whose definition was built into the word itself. The phrase’s literal translation is “to shine a light on attending to,” and we all bathed in the light of the doctors’ and nurses’ extra care. Mei Hua soon had Guo Zhen’s doctor on WeChat, and they exchanged texts and voice messages as if they were old friends. (Of course, the regular red envelopes with cash helped the matter, too.) When Pu Cheng paced around in Guo Zhen’s hospital room with his habitual bottle of rice liquor in his hand, it was like he was shielded by a protective aura, the nurses unable to ask him to put his drink down. The staff was distinctively kind to Guo Zhen too, taking the time to ask about her day even though their heavy workload routinely prevented them from speaking a word to other patients.


7. Care /ker/ [verb], 忧虑, yōu lǜ, to worry, the feeling of anxiety (about something).

In A Very Easy Death, Simone de Beauvoir recounts how a fall and a broken thigh lands her mother in the hospital, where the doctors discover late-stage intestinal cancer. An operation was decided upon without Maman’s knowledge, and when she woke up from anesthesia, her daughters and doctors informed her that she had suffered from an acute instance of peritonitis, a leaking of the intestines. The French doctors performed a similar script as Guo Zhen’s specialists, one that was equally well-rehearsed. When friends outside China reacted with astonishment to our lie, I often held up this book as example. “If even Simone de Beauvoir did it,” I’d say, “then surely we’re on the right side of history?”

Yet de Beauvoir increasingly saw her lies as a betrayal. Maman is put through painful treatments which are neither palliative nor curative, since her particularly aggressive type of cancer left no doubt about any potential prognosis. The doctors insist that it’s their medical duty to continue her treatments, and without Maman being able to choose her form of care, it’s unclear whether the extension of her life actually serves to improve her own well-being or just to soothe the doctors’ egos. The daughters watch with agony and despair, unable to defy the doctors’ directions nor willful enough to break their lie. And when Maman’s worsening illness drives her to momentarily realize her life might be ending, de Beauvoir admonishes her by threatening to leave. “At the time the truth was crushing her and when she needed to escape from it by talking,” de Beauvoir writes, “we were condemning her to silence.”

If our lies served to absorb the burden intended for Guo Zhen, its reverse impact was becoming increasingly clear. I started to become bothered by (American? Western? modern?) platitudes: Isn’t honesty always the best policy? Isn’t trust the foundation of every relationship? Even though the rest of the family seemed less burdened by such questions — “We can respect her human rights,” Fu Yuan said, “but does that involve scaring her to death?” — I started to feel a sting every time I dangled the prospect of visiting Guo Zhen’s birth village. Using this nonexistent future to conceal an increasingly slippery present was perhaps the most painful form of self-harm: With every attempt to instill cheer in the recipient, I confronted myself with the realization that there would be no future at all.

I started looking for more justifications of deception in different illness chronicles (fiction contains more truths than reality?). I read in Brian Lerner’s The Good Doctor: A Father, A Son, and The Evolution of Medical Ethics that his father, an American physician practicing in the 1970s, worked under such a strong paternalistic conviction that he kept even his own wife in the dark about the extent of her cancer. When Susan Sontag was diagnosed with cancer for the third time, her response, according to her son, the author David Rieff, was to gather as much information as possible. But in his memoir of her last days, Swimming in a Sea of Death, Rieff acknowledges that even he agreed to participate in a script of his own: The optimism that Sontag required of those around her — that with enough research and willpower, a solution will be found — meant that her son had to put a positive spin on a decidedly hopeless situation. “The operative cliché is ‘keeping a calm face on things.’ Keeping a Noh mask on them is more like it,” he writes. If one of the most fiercely knowledgeable and analytical minds of her generation required her son to wear a Noh mask, then surely my own grandmother could benefit from the consolations of fiction?


8. Care /ker/ [verb], 心血, xīn xuè, meticulous care, expenditure, literally: heart’s blood.

My partner, Christian, stepped into our performance on the cusp of Chinese New Year. We had passed the try-out phase of our play, and its lines were rolling off our tongues. He fell sick immediately, catching the same ominous flu that had filled up the city’s hospitals. This plunged our operation into the next phase, testing the boundaries of our ability. While I had never seen Christian that sick, our biggest concern was Guo Zhen, who now shared her three-bedroom apartment with one flu patient and seven potentially contaminated family members. We quickly quarantined Christian in one of the rooms and transformed our home into a makeshift clinic, with part of the staff dedicated to nursing Christian and the rest working to isolate the virus from our most vulnerable patient.

Part of the reason we were able to keep up our elaborate performance was the infrastructure that was already in place — lying to ailing patients remains a common practice in China, despite an increasingly individualistic society.

As in an undercover operation, we pretended our priority was in one room while our real target was on the loose, open to virulent assault. Our portable electric stove was turned into a humidifier, the steam from bubbling pots of vinegar meant to detoxify the air. We passed around a bottle of hand sanitizer like we were sharing bread, and anything Christian had touched was thrown into boiling water. We bought surgical masks, and the sight of our covered faces complemented our new roles as doctors improvising in the field. When the medicines from the one pharmacy still open the day before New Year failed to work, Mei Hua scrolled through her contacts list on WeChat and got hold of a lung specialist who was visiting his family’s ancestral grave in the countryside.

Our game plan had worked seamlessly during our rehearsals, but now we started showing cracks under growing pressure. Pu Cheng, still kept in the dark, refused to wear the mask I handed him. “Nine out of ten people die from fear!” he repeated, while I held his wrist with one hand and rubbed him with sanitizer using my other. Fu Yuan had entered Christian’s room to check on him, and I saw him leaving without a mask. “It’s nothing!” he said. “Your uncle hasn’t caught anything this whole time, and I spend whole days with dirty kids at the day care,” he continued. Instead of speaking in the first person, he addressed himself through his familial relationship to me instead, a common form of speech that emphasized how we related by blood instead of as individual beings.

“But it’s not about you, is it?” I retorted, indignant.

“It’s not that easy to get infected. You don’t understand how dirty China is,” he replied, with the resigned yet resilient tone he often used when talking about the country’s pollution. But I wouldn’t budge, having acquired the ideological purity of a soldier who had just arrived at the battlefield. Even though I didn’t know whether a surgical mask would do anything at all, wearing them felt like raising a flag indicating we were in battle — a ritual that felt just as urgent as any medical wisdom.

That evening, as we gathered for our New Year’s Eve dinner, we used the customary toasts we were supposed to offer our elders as an opportunity to dish out more camouflaged medical guidance. “Wishing my mother good health and longevity in 2018!” Fu Yuan said, raising a mug of rice wine in Guo Zhen’s direction. Turning to Pu Cheng, he continued, “A toast to my father, wishing that we’ll all bathe in money in 2018!”

“Our family is already bathing in money! But of course, health is the most important!” I replied as I toasted my glass to the sky.

“If you can live until one hundred, I’ll be back every year!” Mei Hua said in her father’s direction. “And don’t always think of saving money,” Mei Hua continued. “You can save all you want, but what use is the money if people aren’t there anymore to spend it?”

I then said, “And don’t forget to take the Omega-3 pills I carried all the way back from America!” Meanwhile, Guo Zhen had already moved on to clear the table, as CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala was about to start. She wasn’t wearing her surgical mask, but she had covered her head in a wool hood she knitted herself, a fuzzy helmet she wore like a self-crowned warrior.


9. To protect someone from caring too much /ker/ [verb], 不让人担心 bù ràng rén dān xīn, to protect someone from the pain of worrying about you.

“Why do we have to do all these treatments?” Pu Cheng asked his son one day, while Guo Zhen was sitting in the same room. “It’s only cancer!” In the weeks before, nine-out-of-ten-die-of-fear Pu Cheng had become increasingly temperamental, refusing to let Guo Zhen go to the hospital, and calling her 20, 30 times once she was there. We thought that Pu Cheng would reverse his stance once he knew about the seriousness of her illness, but whether it was his growing senility or his own coping mechanism, he still refused to let her go after we told him. Fu Yuan pretended not to have heard Pu Cheng’s babble, hoping that Guo Zhen might have missed it too.

If Guo Zhen had heard, she didn’t let it on. In fact, as the holes in our mission inevitably grew with its length, Guo Zhen remained the same as the first time Pu Cheng misspoke, devoid of any visible response. Guo Zhen’s hospital visits increased as the cancer metastasized to her bones. If not for the taped-over sign in front of her treatment room, she must have at least seen a guide in the elevator indicating that those two floors were occupied by oncology only? For her radiation therapy, she shared a room with two elderly women who, even though they were receiving cancer treatments too, believed they had heart problems. Surely they must compare notes? Besides, no matter how much we shielded Guo Zhen from the immediate burden of her diagnosis, she was still the one who had to suffer through unmistakable physical torments. Within a few months, she went from someone who looked the old side of middle-aged to a patient with limbs whose flesh had been wasted away, leaving only bone. The cancer in those bones was making it difficult for her to walk, and she no longer did her daily rounds at the market or washed her own clothes. She didn’t have the strength, and most of her time had been taken up by hospital visits anyway.

If, unbeknownst to us, Guo Zhen had become the latest member to join our performance, who was now the performer and who was the audience? Once, she said that if it wasn’t for Mei Hua’s contacts, she would have stopped her treatments. Did she mean that she wouldn’t have wanted to spend even more money, or did she mean that she was going along with Mei Hua to please her? Another time, she prohibited Fu Yuan from telling Mei Hua about an additional round of radiation therapy the doctor had ordered. She said she didn’t want Mei Hua to worry — what else was she protecting us from? Was she simply in denial, or was she carrying part of our burden too, granting us some sense of the normalcy we seemed to want to preserve? I still stuck to the same script every time I spoke to her — we’ll go back to your lao jia soon! — and she’d still reply — yes, yes, we will — but was her yes an anticipatory or a knowing one? How long ago did our roles reverse, and had she started comforting me instead?


10. Care /ker/ [verb], 付出, fù chū, to pay, to sacrifice, expenditure.

In Illness and Its Metaphors, Susan Sontag argues against the use of metaphor to understand illnesses such as cancer. “The most truthful way of regarding illness — and the healthiest way of being ill,” she writes, “is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.” In brief, Sontag, who has “fought” cancer multiple times in her life, believed that it would be easier for the patient to bear the illness if it didn’t come with the morality tales that surrounded it. Guo Zhen’s illness was certainly steeped in metaphor. She had to swallow a lifetime’s anger to endure Pu Cheng’s drinking and arguing, according to Mei Hua, who had grown up defending her mother against her father’s bullying. In my interpretation, Guo Zhen was one of the many victims of China’s unbridled economic growth — a classic metaphor for cancer — and it was the pollution she had spent the second half of her life in that had caused the cancer cells to multiply.

We told ourselves stories about our care too. For Mei Hua — who would bring a suitcase full of old clothes back to China every year, even if the price she would have to pay for the overweight luggage might be more than what it would cost to buy the equivalent amount of clothes in Jinan — the act of carrying the weight was as important as the results it would produce. I heard Mei Hua reverse the aphorisms she used on me when I was growing up — We sacrificed our life for you! We spent all our money on your education! — now going up the family tree instead of down. She was no longer just the daughter who moved continents away 20 years ago. She was now also the daughter acting according to her filial duty, repaying her mother for the sacrifices she’d made in raising her. Paying for Guo Zhen’s medical bills was a reparation for the years she’d spent abroad, and calling Guo Zhen daily was a way to transport extra weight. Fu Yuan pictured his debt more viscerally: the four-hour bike rides, the containers of food, the cigarettes. “Every phase of life comes with its own debts” he’d say. “And now is the time for me to repay mine.” China might lack proper health insurance, but Guo Zhen had long paid her premiums in the lunches she prepared and the clothes she washed.

Stories about cancer end in two ways. Either the protagonist emerges victorious — the patient has “beaten” cancer — and they’ve learned something about themselves, like wanting to be a better person or finally deciding to learn Italian. Or, the protagonist passes away.

Stories about cancer end in two ways. Either the protagonist emerges victorious — the patient has “beaten” cancer — and they’ve learned something about themselves, like wanting to be a better person or finally deciding to learn Italian. Or, the protagonist passes away, often after a long and heroic battle, but imparts a lesson for those who have remained. In stories, illness always leaves a dent: It never remains meaningless, it always grows into a metaphor. Our performance was a way to create that meaning, an extracurricular exertion to survive grief. I don’t want this story to end — it would feel presumptuous, foreboding. Guo Zhen is still “battling” her illness, and we’re still “fighting” to perform, trying to steer Guo Zhen’s narrative away from the end.

I keep thinking about when Guo Zhen left China for the first time in her life, two years before her diagnosis. Together with my aunt and cousin, she traveled to Beijing by train, got on a flight that landed her in Amsterdam, and was driven back to Rotterdam, where I grew up and where Mei Hua still lived. Arriving in the Netherlands, she finally saw the place where her daughter had been living all those years, where her granddaughter continued her life after she waved goodbye to her in the taxi at night. “Luckily I got your grandmother to Europe that year,” Mei Hua would later say, as if she was a stock broker who pulled out of an investment right before a financial crisis, proud of her foresight.

In the month or so Guo Zhen spent in Europe, Mei Hua took her family on a bus tour to Paris, Vienna, Brussels, and other European capitals. I wonder what Guo Zhen thought when she saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time, the metal bars that used to represent progress but looked antiquated and quaint in the present. Or when she saw the cobblestoned alleys in Amsterdam, almost resembling the backstreets that led to the first house that Guo Zhen owned in Jinan, one that Pu Cheng built with some cement and metal roof tiles. Strolling along the canals, they must have tried to direct my young cousin away from the red-lit windows where women in lingerie stood, and sat, then stood up again. “Your grandmother was never tired,” Mei Hua boasted afterward. “Some people said she was like my sister!”

When I joined them in the Netherlands after their trips, I asked Guo Zhen, “Did you like it here?”

She replied, “The air here is very fresh.” I imagined her breathing in the clean Dutch air while exhaling the smog that had filled her lungs in China, leaving a thin layer of dust behind wherever she went.

* * *

Mary Wang is a Chinese-Dutch writer living in New York. She mostly writes about art, fashion, identity, and China, often at the intersection of all of the above.

Editor: Sari Botton