What My Grandmother Taught Me

Reflecting back on simple conversations that turned profound during an unprecedented year

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I didn’t meet my grandmother until I was about 8 years old.  She lived in the United States, and I lived in Shanghai with my parents.  It was only after Nixon visited China that she and others like her were allowed to visit China.  Back then China had been entirely closed to the world for nearly 30 years, like today’s North Korea.

My grandma’s visits were a big deal.  Each time she visited Shanghai, she’d stay for a month.  Boy, I loved her.  She was so different from other kids’ grandmas.  She stood tall and always dressed impeccably, with stylish and well-cut clothes.  She smiled and joked a lot.  That itself was so foreign.  Life was hard in those days, to the point that it robbed the smiles from everyone.  So it was a joy to be around her.  

She just happened like me, too.  She took time to answer my curious questions no matter how stupid they were.  I wanted to spend as much time with her as possible. 

It was my grandma who gave me my first lesson about race and racism. 

While she was with us, she’d take me out for ice cream or shopping.  I loved to shop with her.  My favorite was to go every weekend to the Friendship Store.  China at that time didn’t have stores like we do in the US, and the Friendship Store was a special store for foreigners and people from Hong Kong and Macau.  It sold mostly cheesy Chinese touristy arts and crafts, but also imported food, like Nutella and Swiss chocolates.  For an 8-year old, it was an experience to just share in that special status of browsing in a store full of colorful goods.  It was such a contrast to the empty stores for the local people.  I felt so special when I’d see locals peeking in through the glass door and glare at me with envy.   

My lesson occurred on one of such shopping trip.  Grandma was frugal and usually we wouldn’t buy anything.  But on that day she promised to buy me a jar of Nutella.  I was so happy that I had skipped all the way from home to the bus stop.  It seemed luck was with us that day.   We didn’t have to fight to get onto a crowded bus.  We even found a bench seat for the two of us.  I took my grandma’s hand and proudly held my head high as the other passengers looked at us curiously.  I noticed two black young men seated one row ahead of us.  At that time, China had very few foreigners from America or Europe, but it was not uncommon to see young people from Africa who were studying in China.

China was an incredibly homogenous society.  Everyone looked same even down to the same drab gray or blue Mao uniforms.  But still in Shanghai, we looked down on other Chinese from outside Shanghai.  As for foreigners, we looked up to the fair skinned Americans and Europeans, but looked down on dark skinned people.  I learned rumors about black Africans, like they were smelly, and they were not clean.  I bought into all of this nonsense as a child.  So sitting on that bus, I pinched my nose and said “pew.”  

My grandma violently pulled my hand from my nose.  She stared sternly at me.  I was startled because I had never see her angry.  I put my hands down in my lap and sat quietly.  When the bus reached at the nearest stop, my grandma stood up abruptly and yanked me from our seat.  We hurried off the bus.  I was puzzled.  We had another 3 stops to go.  I looked up at her.  She didn’t say anything and pulled me away from the bus stop.  Eventually, she stopped at a quiet street corner.  She squatted down to my level, looked into my eyes and said, “I was very disappointed in you.” I almost cried at these words.  She continued: “Black people are people too, just like us.  You will never, ever do what you just did again.”  

“But they smell,” I argued back.

“No, these two boys didn’t smell.  And what if they did.  Everyone smells.  You smell when you don’t clean yourself.  We are all the same.” She said.  And with that she stood up, grabbed my hand and walked back home. 

What she said to me that day left a profound impact on me.  To this day, I still can see the bus, the sky and my grandma’s upset face.  I often wonder if my grandma didn’t tell me that being racist is a bad thing, would I know the difference growing up in China?  She didn’t tell me any sophisticated philosophy about race or racism.  She simply told me that we were all the same, regardless of skin color or where we are from.   She taught me to see beyond the obvious difference but the commonality within.  

My grandma wasn’t an educated woman, but she sure had a big heart.

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