My Very 'Ordinary' Shanghainese Grandma

No. 48

Greetings from Chinarrative:

In this issue, we feature Jinghua Qian, a writer and editor living in Melbourne on the land of the Kulin nations. Qian uses a moving Twitter thread they posted to celebrate the life of their extraordinary grandmother in Shanghai, who passed away in December last year.

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My Very 'Ordinary' Shanghainese Grandma

By Jinghua Qian

My grandma—my Ahbu 阿婆—passed away in December. I was disconsolate to lose her, my grief compounded by the agony of distance. I read a friend’s poem about mourning his mother and I felt jealous at their proximity, at the visceral intimacy of touching the corpse and carrying the ashes and washing the sheets.

Ahbu wouldn’t get that from us, flung out in diaspora, dislocated.

The last time we spoke was through a brief video call, two days before she died. I’d sent my friend and former Sixth Tone colleague Kevin to get some paperwork from Ahbu’s doctor so my mother could get an exemption from Australia’s coronavirus travel restrictions.

He held up his phone to Ahbu in her hospital bed in Shanghai while I waved from my flat in Melbourne. The last photo I have of her is a screenshot from this call. She’s bundled up for the winter in a purple down jacket and I’m smiling in a t-shirt, the summer sun streaking across my face.

The travel exemption came through but Mum still wasn’t able to make it in time because of the shortage of flights.

I posted a long Twitter thread remembering my grandma, and the extraordinary times she lived through. Her life (1929-2020) spanned nearly 100 years of immense upheaval in China and she survived it all with resilience, dignity and optimism.

When I hear the phrase “century of humiliation” and imagine its antonym, I think of my grandma, staunch, humble and enduring. I think of her ethic of care, her sureness that dignity is something you create and nurture and hold inside you.

I received a lot of lovely replies on Twitter, with many commenting on Ahbu’s remarkable life, and of course, I think she’s extraordinary. But I know she would describe herself as a very ordinary old woman.

There are countless old folks like her whose stories are often disregarded as sentimental nattering but it’s worth listening. There’s a whole untold history there.

Contributing Chinarrative Editor: Isabel Wang