In Chinese culture, red envelopes are ubiquitous with special occasions. At gatherings the shiny paper packets are filled with cash and handed out by elders to any children who aren’t busy stuffing their faces with food. The envelopes make their way home where the money is dutifully stashed in piggy banks and the empty packets wait in the junk drawer to be brought out and filled for the next gathering.
I’d get one from my grandmother (婆婆: anglicized; Poh poh)
every time I saw her. She didn’t have a lot of money, but despite my mom’s scolding, would always make sure to slip one into my backpack before I left. The toonies would twinkle onto the table once I got home, adding to the growing pile in a piggy bank I had hidden in the back of my closet.
Poh poh wasn’t what TV shows and movies told me a “grandma” should be. She didn’t bake cookies and I never got any hand-knitted sweaters from her for Christmas. She was quiet, sometimes cranky, and wheelchair bound after fighting off a brain tumour. Her house smelled of Chinese herbs, incense, and the rabbits my cousins who lived with her would keep. Throughout my elementary and high school years we’d visit monthly, my mom doing her cooking and laundry while my sister and I watched reruns of Avatar: The Last Airbender in the basement. On each visit she always seemed to be the same age, even as I outgrew my clothes and my voice changed. She didn’t speak any English and I slowly lost my Chinese fluency as I got older, so our conversations were gradually reduced to one-line phrases, usually:
食 飯 未 (Have you eaten yet?)
你长高了，就像你爸爸一样 : (You have gotten tall, just like your dad.)
我很高兴你来看我 : (I am happy that you visited me.)
多吃米饭! 多喝水! : (Eat more! Drink more water!)
Upon getting to her house, we’d run through some combination of these pseudo-greetings before we’d disappear into the basement, trying to see if the rabbits were up to play.
After I moved away for university, I only saw her a few times a year. Each Christmas the cousins, uncles, and aunts would pile into her house, the dimly lit living room filling with chatter and the sound of eating. Poh poh would sit on the couch, happily watching her us devour take-out barbeque and handing out toonie-filled red envelopes at the end of the meal. I realize now that these were the good days, and I took them for granted.
Poh poh moved into a long-term care home in 2018. She had gotten too weak to take care of herself and was a fall risk at her house. I remember feeling a bit scared when I first visited her, despair and the smell of disinfectant hanging over the place, thick like fog. But Poh poh seemed healthier there. She’d gained weight, her skin regained colour, and she’d befriended her roommate, a jovial lady with a cackling laugh. We’d sit at her bedside and talk about the pictures of us she had on her counter, our conversations taking on a different tone.
你变瘦了! : (You have lost weight!)
你晒黑了! : (You have gotten so tanned!)
多吃米饭! : (Eat more!)
Our visits grew less frequent as I started to spend my summers in Kingston, then Ottawa. I was a year into my master’s when the pandemic hit, our next visit occurring at the peak of the stay-at home-order. We were separated by a window, her face hidden by reflections and glare. A Personal Support Worker (PSW) helped her phone us so we could talk, but the signal kept breaking up. It had since been almost a year since my last visit. We were rightly terrified but couldn’t show it. We told her to wear her mask and take care until the next visit, when we could be with her in person. The PSW wheeled her away and the next family took our place in front of the window. On the drive home an ad played on the radio:
“These are unprecedented times, but we will get through this, together. A message from Audi motors.”
In the summer of 2020 things were relatively calm by pandemic standards so I took my partner, who she hadn’t met yet, to make a socially distanced visit. We sat the government recommended 6-feet apart in a shady outdoor courtyard, the breeze gently blowing her thin gray hair around.
Her voice could still carry across the table.
她很漂亮! (She is very pretty!)
I remember trying my best to smile through my mask, my mom reassuring her that the next time we’d see each other it would be a big family dinner.
I went back to school and the pandemic got worse. In December of 2020 we got the news that the Long Term Care (LTC) home my grandmother lived at was experiencing a COVID outbreak. On Christmas Day she tested positive.
The following weeks my family and I spent as much time as we could calling doctors and talking with her on video. My uncle rigged a phone on a tripod with an auto-pickup system which allowed us to call her and immediately see her, without any work needed on her end. We’d pop in and surprise her, but sometimes find her asleep. We call in for mealtime, making small talk with the truly heroic events-coordinator-turned-PSW who helped her eat. As the outbreak got worse, I became consumed by anger at the Ford government for not doing enough. I ranted on twitter, wrote emails to ministers, and listened to LTC advocates Dr. Vivian Stamatopolous, Dr. Naheed Dosani, and NDP MP Doly Begum. I spoke to reporters about our story. I went on CP24 and Chinese TV and fumbled around with whatever words I could come up with to convey my frustration without swearing. I had never experienced that kind of rage and hate for a politician and system before. After a week I went back to school in Ottawa at my parents urging, trying the best I could to get back to some sense of normality in my life while staying updated on my grandma’s condition.
On Jan 3rd we got the news that she had less than a week to live. I rushed home in the middle of the night, taking a moment before I left to video call her phone. My screen lit up and she was there, asleep, breathing weakly. I tried to wake her up, to let her know that she wasn’t alone, using whatever piecemeal Chinese I had.
婆婆 是我, Auston : (Poh poh it’s me, Auston)
多喝水 : (Drink some more water!)
你能听到我吗？ : (Can you hear me?)
On the drive home I got a call from my sister. She was in tears. My whole family was. Poh poh had passed. I still had 2-hours of open highway ahead of me. I couldn’t cry. As soon as I got home and held my mom, I sobbed like I hadn’t in years.
The days leading up to her funeral oddly gave me a great sense of peace. Together we sifted through old photos of her, laughing at how big my head was as a baby and wondering why my mom never kept any of her cool clothes from the 80’s. On one late-night conversation I learned for the first time that Poh poh was a teacher and midwife back in China. My sister took her old stethoscope to medical school for good luck.
Poh poh brought her kids to Kingston searching for a better life, working long hours in her brother’s Chinese restaurant, then a garment factory as a seamstress. Her father, my great-grandfather, had been to Canada before her, part of the wave of Chinese immigrants brought over by the Canadian government to labour on the Canadian Pacific Railway.
The photo albums began to pile up, Poh poh’s hairstyle changing from curly to straight, then back to curly again. We tried our best to sort them chronologically for the funeral slideshow. As I flipped through photo after photo of her in her younger days, a new picture of my Poh poh started to take shape in my head. A picture of a strong, relentlessly caring woman who would do anything to make her children’s lives better. Of a dedicated grandmother who was always smiling when her grandchildren were around and overjoyed to watch them grow up healthy. I realized that Poh poh gave me more than just toonies. In her own little way, she helped shape me into person I am today, and it’s a bittersweet feeling to know that I only realized that once she had left us.
Like many Asian families, mine was never very emotional. We were always reluctant to talk about feelings together and showed affection through food and awkward side-hugs. Preparing for her funeral, making photo slideshows, and talking about her life together brought out a new type of connection between us, one that has stayed strong to this day.
It makes me smile to think that in leaving us, Poh poh managed to sneak one last red envelope into our backpacks, one that’s a lot more valuable than a few toonies.
Auston Chhor is a first-generation Chinese-Canadian of mixed Cantonese and Teochew heritage. He currently resides in Vancouver where he works in salmon conservation and writes about urban and environmental issues. His writing has been featured in The Tyee and Canada’s National Observer.