Friday, September 28, 2012

In Memoriam: A Dumpling Eulogy

I've been trying to think of the best way to start this post, because there is just so much that I need to say, and I don't want to forget anything.

Perhaps that's just the point... not forgetting.

A week ago yesterday, someone who was very special to me passed away. Her name was Chunyu Chan, and she was my husband's grandmother. Some people may wonder how someone who grew up in a poor Chinese village a gazillion miles away, who spoke an entirely different language from myself, and who wasn't even my own grandmother, could mean so much to me. And though I am not second guessing my feelings for her, I did wonder a little about it, too. It got me thinking... why do we love who we love? What is it that makes them so special to us?

I found I could have honestly cared less about the Why of it all, because there was a hole in my heart that ached every time I thought of her. That was proof enough of love for me.

Plus, there is no such thing as not loving Chunyu. It's entirely impossible.

Back in 1998 when I was a teen and started working at the family's Chinese restaurant, I met her for the first time. I can't really remember the official introduction. She was just always there, putting away the dishes, tending the garden, skewering the teriyaki and getting after the rebels who weren't doing their jobs right. But I can tell you that she used her grandmotherly magic on me right away from the start. If my shirt was too short, or my pants cropped too low, or if I skipped dinner, she would be on me like white on rice to let me know this wasn't acceptable! Back then, I had found it annoying. Who was she to tell me what I could or could not do? But of course, this was my teenage brain doing the thinking. It didn't realize she did this all out of love. That's exactly what Chunyu did best... love others.

Chunyu and Fuk Wing Chan, circa 1940's
I had known this already about her, but it wasn't until just recently when the family was typing up notes for her eulogy that I found she truly lived her life loving others. I found out that when she lived in China, she helped out the less fortunate as much as she could. She gave them money, gave them food, bought them gifts. She did what she could so that others wouldn't have to do without. I learned that her husband moved from mainland China to Hong Kong, and worked there for twelve years apart from the family, before finally moving to the United States where he worked for an additional ten years, also without his family. Chunyu raised her family on her own so that her husband could establish a new life for everyone in America. I can't imagine how hard that was for them. I learned that she not only raised her own children, but she also raised her grandchildren so that their parents could get to work each day. And when the family was finally reunited twenty two years later, and established in Rhode Island, Chunyu began working in the local restaurants. I learned that she was loved by all her coworkers and employers because of her can-do attitude and her smile.

Chunyu with her children, and her mother.

The happy lady in the middle is Chunyu. :)
Years later, when her son established his own restaurant, despite her friends begging her to work for them, she chose to support her family and remained working for him until she retired. That's where I started my first job, how I came to know her, and how I met my future husband.

When my husband and I were dating, I got to know Chunyu as "Lai Lai," the name my husband called her in Cantonese. Traditionally it means "mother-in-law," but somehow it stuck as meaning Grandma in our family. Anyway, that was just the beginning of my getting to know her. We used to visit Lai Lai and her husband, grandfather Yeh Yeh, on a weekly basis. Lai Lai was the restaurant's official dumpling maker and we would often deliver the ingredients she needed to make them. Many times, we would stop by just so my husband (still boyfriend then) could help Yeh Yeh change the settings on his cable box when he got too pushy with his remote, or to wriggle the satellite dish so the Chinese channel would come back on. Or sometimes, we would visit, just to visit.

Lai Lai in her late working years.
I was eventually given the job of driving Lai Lai home from work, which wasn't a very far drive, but it sure became awkward. She'd speak to me in Cantonese all the way there, and I had no idea what she was saying! I knew there was no way she would start learning English just for me, so instead I decided to try to learn Cantonese. Our rides in the car soon became far more interesting. I pointed out colors and said the words in Cantonese, and Lai Lai would laugh and nod, and teach me new words. This bridge to our conversational gap became a pivotal point in our relationship. She could now tell me not to wear blue elastics in my hair, because that color was reserved for mourning. That my wet hair would cause "fung sup," (also known as rheumatism due to cold/wind/air), and that ginseng root soup was good for my skin, and how she preffered me in red. She could, to my horror, plop the roasted chicken's butt on my plate with a laugh and tell me it was the best part, though I never truly believed her. And she could ask when our "git fun" (wedding) would be one day, and tell me our kids would be beautiful.

One of our last complete family photos.

Then the unimaginable happened, and Lai Lai became a widow.

That was a very hard time for all of us. Just like it is now. Lai Lai wasn't the same after she lost her husband. She couldn't live on her own, so she had to move out of the apartment that she and her husband had shared for years. She had to give up her independence, and move in with us, and retire. Loss affects the loved ones left behind in hard ways. It was also hard on my husband (still boyfriend then) and I, who weren't used to having another person as a responsibility, and we weren't always the best at keeping a good eye on her. I always wonder how we could have handled it better. But we were younger, and we had work and plans and college to worry about.

Eventually we realized Lai Lai needed a home care assistant, which was out of the question here where we live. There is no such thing as a Cantonese speaking home care medical professional within budget in our state. So Lai Lai moved in with her daughter and two grandchildren in New York. This turned out to be a blessing in some ways for their family, because they got a chance to have some really good years with her that they wouldn't otherwise have shared.

It was great when we had the opportunity to spend a solid three weeks with her and the family in China. I learned a lot about the Chinese culture, where she and Yeh Yeh met, and about the little village many of them grew up in. It was an experience I'll never forget.

Celebrating my 24th birthday in China.
And we got to visit her every time we went to New York, which turned out to be quite a bit when we started planning our Chinese American wedding!

My new hubby and I doing the traditional Chinese Tea Ceremony,
serving Lai Lai her tea.

These more recent years were the times I could almost have an entire conversation with her without anyone's help. (I've been told I even sound Chinese when I speak!) I could tell her about school, and my art, and ask her how she's doing. I also learned Lai Lai had a HUGE sense of humor! She loved playing tricks on us kids, like spitting in our hands if/when we asked for money (which we did jokingly), passing gas in front of friends then blaming it on one of us, or simply just teasing one of the Chinese-born grand kids about their poor Cantonese skills. One of her favorite hobbies was popping bubble wrap. BUBBLE WRAP! We all saved sheets of the stuff for her. She was hilarious. When my husband and I visited New York, she'd tell us funny stories, complain about how weird her home care assistant was, and kept us awake with the noise of her late night Mahjong games. Though I always managed to find an extra blanket on me when I woke up the next morning, because she had worried I was cold.

In Autumn of last year, I wrote a story for her. It's the picture book, "Dumpling Day," that I've mentioned here on my blog before. It's about family love, and loss, and the Chinese culture. Oh, and how to make dumplings, just the way she used to make them. I had wanted to translate the story into Chinese for her, so I could read it to her. And I wanted to include her real dumpling recipe in the back of the book. I feared I wouldn't be able to share it with her before it was too late. It's been waiting for an entire year, and I never found that time. I never even submitted it to a publisher yet, because I didn't want to rush it. It wasn't ready. I was waiting for a sign, of some sorts, for when I should send it out.

It was the first Monday of this month that Lai Lai fell ill. August had just barely ended- we hadn't even flipped the calendar over to September yet. I won't get into details; it's for the family to know and there is no need to broadcast our suffering. But it was definitely a long month, a hard road to travel for all of us. And while all of this was happening, the family was staying in Boston, including my in-laws who run the restaurant. So it was up to my husband and myself to step in and keep the place running. This, of course, was the reason why I haven't been able to draw or paint or post for a while. It's no matter, really. I would do it all over again, if it would have helped her. But, my point is, it was during this time that I got thinking about the signs I asked for, because after we learned Lai Lai was ill, I turned the page of my illustration calendar to find the art I painted just for Lai Lai's story. And I knew. I got that dreaded, icy feeling in my gut. She was going to leave us.

So here I am, wondering how I should end this post. I truly never want to. The end of this post means the end of my goodbyes, the end of a life well-lived...the end of a relationship that helped to create the person I am today. The end of an amazing story.

I've made a few promises to myself, to honor Lai Lai. I've renewed my quest to learn as much Cantonese as possible, so if we have children one day, I'll be able to teach it to them. I can tell them all about Lai Lai and Yeh Yeh, and how special they were. I even have some new grammar books and cd's to listen to so I might really understand the language better.

I'm going to prepare "Dumpling Day" for submission to the agent I've had my eyes on for some time. It still isn't in Book Dummy form, but I'm not going to let that hold me back. It's a good story, and I've got some great art to go with it. I'm not going to wait another year. I'm going to submit it now.

My husband and I will continue the Chinese tradition of the Spring cleaning of the graves, and we'll not only visit his uncle and grandfather like we've done before, but now we'll also visit Lai Lai there, too. I will burn paper (fake) money and incense, and bow three times for her. And I won't miss a single Spring. (With the exception of the rule that expecting mothers cannot attend, should that ever happen.)

Lai Lai and Yeh Yeh, I'm not going to say goodbye. Instead, I'm saying THANK YOU. Thank you for choosing the hard roads in life that eventually led to intersecting my own. Thank you for giving me the husband I had always wanted, and for teaching me everything you could, given the time we had together. Thank you for loving me, even though I'm not what you might have expected for a granddaughter.

And Thank You, Lai Lai, for putting all those chicken butts on my plate. I recently learned that actually was your favorite part of the bird. And now it will always be mine.