Daniel and his great-grandfather
Even before I got engaged to my now wife Su, I had heard horrible things about how much Chinese families “welcome” laowai interlopers to steal their daughters. Luckily, in my case, I found this to not to be true. Not only that, but I also soon discovered that there was actually a cosmopolitan streak in her family: my wife Su’s granddad (Laoye) came from a cosmopolitan upbringing in pre-war Shanghai. Moreover, back in the days when ganbei was about the only word of Chinese I knew, it was an unlooked-for blessing to find that I could even communicate with him directly – after a fashion, at least. Laoye spoke French, a language I used to mangle at school.
Though pleasing, our tête-à-têtes provided insight into why my French teacher believed I had no talent for languages. But this did not discourage grand-père, as I called him, from showing off his French, which he had picked up, together with a later discarded Christianity, at a French missionary school in the Shanghai of his youth. Even in his eighties, he was keen to impress his wife with his linguistic prowess, constantly interrupting her over dinner to provide unasked-for glosses of our broken conversation. Cosmopolitanism was something that had set him apart for a long time, and he remained proud of it.
Laoye was the product of China’s first age of opening up and capitalist flourishing. Once-upon-a-time in pre-liberation Shanghai, he was a keen amateur dancer with a blossoming career in finance; laolao came from moneyed gentry stock, but decided that she had had enough of kowtowing. She liked ballroom dancing better. Theirs was a romance of choice in an age of change.
Much later on, when Su and I came up with Daniel, the desired great-grandson, Laoye was chuffed. He reckoned that he had always been handy with babies, which was probably just as well since he and his wife had four children of their own and had helped raise a couple of others, my wife included. If Laoye loved his great-grandson, the feeling was mutual. On Daniel’s part, just the sight of Laoye would provoke smiles and giggles – though I suspect the old man’s allure may have been burnished by his eminently grab-able, thick-rimmed spectacles.
Looking at photos of the two of them together – Daniel gazing with a cheeky grin at his playful Laoye – it is hard to resist the reflection that they represent parallel ages: Daniel, with his bilingual burbling and British passport, as much a testament to China’s current age of opening up as laoye was to a former one. Amidst the rapid change in modern China, history seemed to have come full-circle within one family.
A month ago, Laoye passed away. At 88, he had lost a mercifully brief fight with cancer. Despite the ominous signs, his death still came as a shock. We were on a trip to Europe at the time, and missed the funeral, so it was only later when we visited his grave with the family that the realization he had gone really struck. Tears were shed, but were admonished in a typically no-nonsense Beijingesque manner: Aiya, shei dou yao zou de (“Oh come on, we all have to go in the end”). All the more reason to live life to the full, my wife countered. At such times, platitudes ring true.
Recently, at age 1 and a quarter, Daniel took his first sustained solo walk, a purposeful meander in the direction of the living room window. We had expected it to be a happy moment, but instead were surprised to find that our tears were curiously not those of joy, after all. Somehow, Daniel’s steps seemed to be carrying him away from us, as a precursor of things to come: he was no longer our helpless babe, and one day he will leave us.
All things must pass, we are reminded. Still, the difficult bit is to enjoy them while they last.
When he’s not busy raising his son, Martin Adams is a freelance writer. During his three and a half years in Beijing, he has also been a warm weather kung fu practitioner.