NüStories MagazinePersonal Essay

Losing a Grandmother, Learning Her Language


The Chinese-American novelist Yu Lihua (於梨华), who died in April at the age of 90, is recognized as being one of the most influential writers of her day. To me, she was just Bobo, my grandmother. I am biracial—both of my maternal grandparents came to the US from China in the 1950s—but I resisted learning Chinese until I was a freshman in college. Since then, I’ve used the language for study, work, and travel. Most importantly, Chinese helped me understand my grandmother’s achievements and her struggles.

We were always close; I am her first grandchild, and when I was growing up in Vermont, she lived in Albany, just two hours away. My brother and I spent weeks at her house every year, and she and my grandfather took us on some of our first trips—to Saratoga, Niagara Falls, even Disney World. From under the blue patterned quilt on her bed, we would plan out the day’s adventures. She smelled like her favorite snacks; these smells bring her back in an instant—Trident chewing gum, dried Hawthorn fruit, Nips peanut candies. I remember her examining my palm as we lay side by side, proudly showing me how my lines matched hers. The head line and the life line on both diverge below the pointer finger, indicating that both of us are independent, in her assessment. I’ve noticed since that my daughter’s palm shows the same pattern.

For breakfast, Bobo sliced ripe honeydew, peeled a perfectly cooked soft-boiled egg, mixed it with soy sauce. As I got older, we would go for walks, where she had a way of drawing out whatever was weighing on my mind—my parents’ divorce, a friendship ending. I never perceived that doing all of this in her second (or third, as she spoke at least one dialect as well as Mandarin) language was a barrier for either of us.

But once we started communicating in Mandarin, I was able to access her personality, her sense of humor, and her history in a way that had been closed to me before. It made more sense that she was severe with herself and those she loved the most. Learning that “not bad” meant “excellent” in the eyes of my Chinese teachers, I tried not to feel stung when her praise was measured. When I told her about being accepted to a writer’s conference where an author workshopped a story, she simply asked, “did she say you have talent(cái才)or not?” To have been accepted wasn’t enough—because writing was how she defined her own success, she expected only excellence from her offspring. If there’s one thing Chinese teaches you, it’s to have a thick skin, because you’ll be corrected over and over for a wrong tone. The teachers who are toughest are likely the ones who care about you most, and Bobo was no exception.

When speaking Chinese with me, Bobo was surprisingly supportive and non-judgmental. I’m sure it would have been easier to let me practice in class instead of struggling through first-year grammar mistakes. But she wrote me simple letters and showed off my responses to her friends. I know this was not the experience of her own children, who she insisted would master Chinese. And I know this is one reason my mother did not teach us, as the associations were painful for her. I think this shared endeavour—of me trying to learn Bobo’s language, and of her seeking to understand my attempt—taught both of us to grow and to listen more deeply.

Understanding the hierarchy that Chinese reinforces helped me to understand the deference with which she expected to be treated. She was the oldest of seven children, and whenever there were arguments, she stubbornly awaited the olive branch. I sometimes teased her for commenting on her daughters’ and granddaughters’ weight, or posture, or choice of clothes when her sons and grandsons escaped scrutiny—and she’d even laugh at herself, if her mood was right. But I knew better than to ever expect an apology.

Being able to speak Chinese also helped me understand how isolating her life must have felt, despite the accolades and awards that she earned. Once when leafing through an astrology book, I learned that she was born on the Day of the Lone Wolf, which seems strangely accurate. Bobo documented her experiences in a language that nobody around her, including her children and grandchildren, could access—none of us read with anything near our spoken fluency. For the last 14 years of her life, few of the neighbors at her retirement community shared her background or language.

She fled Mainland China during the civil war, then was rejected from the English department at university in Taiwan. She came to California in 1953, when Americans were highly suspicious of Chinese people; one of her obituaries notes that her sponsor to the US “put her in secretarial classes and had her clean the family meat grinder”—before finally establishing herself as a writer, which had been her life dream. But by then, those who read and appreciated her life work were thousands of miles away.

Yu Lihua with Tara and her son Silas, Yu’s great-grandson. Photo provided by the author.

This desire to be read, and perceived, on her own terms translated into traits that could be off-putting. Bobo could be impatient, harsh, intractable. Once she told me that if I didn’t go to graduate school, she would die with her eyes open. I was discouraged to feel like I was letting her down. But perhaps it’s understandable that, after risking so much to create a comfortable life for us, she expected us to push ourselves just as hard. I don’t know that she would have been as direct with me had the conversation been in English—nor would the insight be as clear.

So when Bobo died, I thought those 18 years of shared language might bring the right words to my lips. I was in my house in Washington, DC and she was in her retirement community in Maryland. Because she had COVID, I could only see her over FaceTime as her caregiver held the phone. In recent years, English was harder for her; I knew there was a better chance of her understanding if I could speak in Mandarin. Yet I felt like an imposter trying to say goodbye in her mother tongue. What were the taboos in this language; what were the proper phrases to use? I wanted to tell her how much I loved her and how I would miss her, but also that I understood if she needed to go. Was that okay? Was I even using the right verb for “understand?” Her eyes were closed, her cheeks flushed with a slight fever. She didn’t respond.

Reflecting on this moment of dislocation, I think that my shame is related to a greater fear—that by choosing not to speak Chinese with my own kids, I disappointed her. I diminished a part of her that might have lived on more strongly in her descendants. But in truth, studying the language is what led me to claim my Chinese heritage, and I started the process too late. I just don’t speak it fluently enough for it to feel like a natural way of communicating with my children. Digging deeper, perhaps internalized xenophobia or just a lack of energy keeps me from claiming my ethnicities when talking with them. Looking at them, you wouldn’t know that they’re a quarter Chinese—and sometimes that’s simpler. At times, it feels like it was all for nothing—or that I’m fooling people when they praise me for carrying on Bobo’s legacy simply because I’m the grandchild who chose to study her language.

Like many who have lost someone during this pandemic, I did my best to cope alone. I set up a little altar on my porch, adding a candle, incense, her photograph, fresh fruit, a coral necklace she gave me, and one of her novels. It felt awkward to pray or do anything formal, so I just talked with her, out loud or silently—in English. She would have told me what to do and say, but of course I could no longer ask her.

As the season changes for the second time since her death, the shortening days humid and rainy, I realize how much I miss her. My kids will never run down the carpeted hallway to her door—my daughter was just tall enough to press the elevator buttons during that last visit. We won’t go out to lunch—for years it was Chinese at a restaurant in a strip mall, lately the routine was Panera—and return to watch her idol, Roger Federer, or play with dominoes at her glass-topped table. My son mentions her from time to time—he remembers the Korean sesame crackers she gave him—and he asks again what it means that “Atai” died.

One story I tell him is that in 2013, I traveled to China with her. We hiked the Great Wall—at 82, she refused the cable car. One rainy day, we returned to Zhejiang Ningbo No. 2 High School, where she is listed among their famous alumni—along with Su Qing, the Shanghai writer about whom I wrote my undergraduate thesis. A sign above the entrance gate announced our arrival, and flocks of students carried umbrellas to greet her. It amazed me to talk with people younger than me who still read her essays and novels—one was being turned into a TV series that year. Some of them hoped to go abroad to the US, or had already made the trip, and saw themselves in her characters. I was able to translate for my younger cousins, and to comprehend for the first time how much Bobo had left her mark on the world.

Later, when Bobo was near the end of her life, she found it harder and harder to communicate in English. She was easily confused and frustrated, lashing out at family and friends. I remember her defeated expression when she told me how hard it was to keep on writing by hand—she was forgetting even simple characters. But it was easier for her to speak in Chinese, and I felt like I could help her just a little bit by translating a menu or helping explain to her caretakers why she might be upset. It felt like the effort to learn Chinese, though I too am in the constant process of forgetting characters, was finally worth it.

Could it be, then, that the language is less important than the story itself? I know Bobo more deeply—her flaws, her complexity, and also her love—because I learned her language. In raising my children, I can pass on that knowledge, and try to emulate her courage and discipline. The adversity Bobo faced hasn’t changed for new Americans today; anti-Chinese sentiment is on the rise in the US. So, in her memory, I support pro-immigrant organizing and advocacy. Bobo was a working mother decades before this was an acceptable mode. Even when it feels impossible, I try to maintain my pursuits, my life outside of my family. I asked her to give my kids Chinese names, just as she gave my brother, cousins, and me Chinese names. It felt important, since they were her first great-grandchildren. Perhaps even if they won’t speak her language, or at least not until they come around to it themselves, it starts with reminding them of those names. It starts with keeping her photo on the altar, with making sure they recognize themselves in her.

About the author

Tara Sun Vanacore is a China Programs Manager at CET Academic Programs in Washington, DC. She has worked for the Global Fund for Children, the US-China Strong Foundation, the Shady Hill School, Putney Student Travel, and Portland Public Schools. She earned a Master’s in Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs at American University and a Bachelor’s in Chinese Language and Literature at Middlebury College. Read her writing for NüStories, Women’s Wire, The Atlantic, and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum. Find her on LinkedIn.

About the editor

Lijia Zhang is a factory-worker-turned writer, social commentator and public speaker. One of the few Chinese who write regularly in English for international publications, her articles have appeared in The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, Newsweek and The New York Times. She is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir “Socialism Is Great!” about her decade-long experience of working at a rocket factory in Nanjing and her debut novel Lotus, on prostitution in contemporary China, was published by Macmillan and was featured by BBC radio’s World Book Club. She is a recipient of the prestigious fellowship on the International Writer’s Program at the University of Iowa. Lijia has lectured at many conferences, institutions and universities around the world, including Asia EU Economic Forum, European Institute for Asian Studies, The University of Sydney, Harvard, Columbia, Stanford and Oxford. She is a regular speaker on the BBC, Channel 4, CNN and NPR. She divides her time between London and Beijing.