Toddler Years in Changchun – Grandparents

I dreamed of my grandparents this morning. It is high time that I pick up where I left off 2.5 years ago, to continue to write about my childhood in Changchun. To refresh our memories, here are the two previous posts: Overview and Neighborhood.

My father’s parents had the same age. They were originally from Laoting, a small town about 150 miles southeast of Beijing, not far from the sea. I don’t know when their families migrated to the Northeast part of China, but I remember them telling me stories of that difficult journey.

Grandpa was a super nice person, easy-going and warmhearted. He worked at China’s first automotive manufacturer that is still around today (First Automotive Works (FAW) Group). He usually left home around 4 am in the morning and came back early afternoon. Then his job became taking me to a particular park for my daily carousel ride and buying me candies and snacks.

Grandma was illiterate but very smart and capable. She was in charge of a workshop at our street corner, making small carton boxes. A dozen people worked there, most of them handicapped. They cherished the opportunity to earn some money and contribute to the society. Sometimes I ‘worked’ there as well, for fun of course. I was most impressed with a heavy duty paper trimmer (big cutting knife) but I was strictly forbidden to get anywhere near. I waddled and talked and tried to help, I’d like to think I brought much excitement and laughter to that workplace.

Grandpa had a green thumb and our home was filled with plants and bonsai, all prospered under his care. There was a time when Clivia (君子兰) was very hot in Changchun, when people were willing to exchange a TV for a ‘pure’ breed specimen. Grandpa had some very nice ones and was always willing to give others precious pollen or seeds, which made him quite popular among neighbors. Grandma cooked meals, washed clothes, did other household chores, and complained often about not getting help from her hobbyist husband.

Time flew by. I was fortunate to be in their lives for two decades. They witnessed my growing up and accomplishments and life events. We alternated a few times between living together and apart due to circumstances, but I was never far. I visited them at least once a week and enjoyed meals together, until the last few months of their lives.

They both passed away in 1997, five months apart, when they were 76. I was in Beijing at that time and wasn’t around for either of them. I always felt sad and guilty about it, but what remains in my memory is always their smiling faces and abundant unconditional love. I wouldn’t have been who I am today without them.


Where Is Home?

The first trip of my life came to an end. After spending a few months in Beijing, my mom had to bring me back to the Northeast region where many challenges were waiting.

While my maternal grandparents in Beijing lived in a quite comfortable 3-bedroom apartment due to my grandpa’s earlier accomplishments, my paternal grandparents’ place in Changchun was not as accommodating. It was a small 2-bedroom flat without indoor toilet. And they had to make a fire in the stove everyday for cooking and heating. Additionally, both my grandparents were working, and they had to take care of their son, my older uncle, who was paralyzed from the waist down. Naturally, my mom didn’t want to add me to their burden.

So my parents brought me to Siping, where the living conditions were even worse. Their place was a shed at best with neither kitchen nor toilet, and there was an open ditch in the front taking in the whole neighborhood’s sewage. Parents often warned their kids not to fall into it when playing outside.

My parents didn’t need to worry though, as I was not even 1 year old. Both of them worked at a semi-conductor factory (need to ask my mom what exactly their jobs involved). The factory had a “daycare” for infants, where the moms could take breaks during the day to feed them. I spent my day there and went home with my parents after the work day was over.

After we got home, I would sit on a bed to play and my parents would cook, which involved going in and out of the front door (the little diesel stove was outside, and dirty water needed to go into the ditch). Every time they came back inside, I would tilt my head to check what the noise was about, and smiled when I saw it was them. My mom said this was her fondest memory from that time.

All was good for a few months, until one day my mom’s friend asked her “aren’t you worried about your daughter in the daycare?” My mom immediately went to check why she should be worried. It turned out the woman who was watching over the little kids brought her own son, who was big and jumping around all the time. It was no small chance that he would land on my little head or do other damages. After seeing this, my mom could not bring me back there again.

There were no other options to keep me in Siping. My mom couldn’t be a stay-home mom even if she chose to, as “the country/party assigned this job to you after investing on your education, how dare you give it up when it is time to contribute?”

With great reluctance, my parents brought me back to Changchun and left me to my grandparents’ care, who gladly accepted the task even with all the foreseeable hardships. Fortunately Changchun and Siping were only a couple of hours apart by train, so I still got to see my parents more than my sister did.

The First Trip of My Life

I mentioned in my last post that the shed my parents were assigned to live in Siping was not a good place to raise children. Therefore, my mom went back to Beijing to give birth to her first child – my sister, who is also the first child in my generation. Needless to say, the newly-promoted grandparents and uncles and aunt were all very excited and poured out their love and attention on her. My sister stayed there in comfort until she was 9 years old.

My mom intended to do the same when I was on the way. However, my grandparents on my father’s side protested and they had every reason to. They hadn’t even got a chance to see their first grandchild yet, so the second one definitely had to be born in their sight in Changchun.

When I was about 40 days old, I made the first trip of my life – my mother brought me to Beijing to see my other grandparents (or rather, to let them see me). After some 20 hours on the train, I met them at last, as well as my almost-3-year-old sister.

I don’t have any recollection of that trip or my time in Beijing. My mom told me stories of how naughty my sister was then. When she came home after playing outside, my mom would tell her to be quiet because ‘your little sister is sleeping’. My sister would nod her head obediently. But the moment my mother turned her back, she would stomp her feet and make lots of noises. I would wake up and cry my head off while my sister ran away giggling. And my mom had to decide whether to comfort me or to chase my sister to give her a good slap on the butt.

After a few months, my mom had to go back to work in Siping. She wanted to leave me in Beijing as well, but it was not practical. My grandma was in rather poor health, and she was already taking care of two kids (see “who is this aunt that is younger than me?”). Besides, my other grandparents would be very upset as well. All things considered, my mom had to bring me back to the Northeast, where the living conditions were much more challenging in many ways.

As a result, while my sister grew up blissfully in Beijing, I had to go through quite some hardship during my childhood. I will write in more details in later posts, after sharing this photo of me from my very first trip. 🙂


“Who is this aunt that is younger than me?”

“I probably won’t live to age 50”. This was what my grandma told my grandpa when they started their courtship. I am glad her dire prediction turned out to be false – she actually lived two decades longer and passed away in 1997 when she was 73.

My grandma had gallbladder problems since she was a young girl. She had a big surgery at age 17 but problems remained all her life. This was why she had always been very thin. Despite her health issues, she dedicated all her time and energy to the family – taking good care of my grandpa and their five children. She had all the virtues of a Chinese woman – hard working, frugal, caring, and preservering. She was dearly loved by all family members.

Both my grandparents attended a skill/career-developing school in Shanghai back then. My grandma’s father was the school master. My grandpa was very handsome and intelligent, so my great-grandpa was quite impressed with this young man and considered making him his son-in-law. So he invited him to dinner at his house. He probably didn’t expect that both of his daughters – my grandma and her younger sister, fell in love after meeting my outstanding grandpa.

The two sisters’ personalities were quite the opposite. Even though the younger sister was taller, healthier, more beautiful, and stronger-willed, my grandpa chose my grandma to be his wife, despite her poor health. Their loving marriage lasted for over 50 years, and I am sure he didn’t regret for a moment all his life.

Feeling rejected, my grandaunt held grudges against her sister and brother-in-law, and refused to date or get married for a very long time. When she reached 40, one of her brothers introduced his colleague to her and finally she reluctantly married him. After their daughter was born, my grandma helped taking care of the little girl, partly to alleviate the guilt she had always felt towards her younger sister.

The interesting part was that my grandma also took care of her own granddaughter (my sister) at the same time. Even though this little girl was younger than my sister, my sister was supposed to call her ‘aunt’, which she couldn’t understand and adamantly refused to do. I remember hearing interesting stories about my sister and this very young aunt when I was a kid, now I finally learned the history behind it.