I don’t usually remember my dreams, but the night before my grandmother passes, I have one that I remember with unparalleled clarity. In it, I’m pushing a shopping cart around at the Carrefour in Pingtung, Taiwan, arguably one of the great retail loves of my life. (For those unfamiliar with Carrefour, it’s essentially Costco but better, as hard as that is to believe. You can get all sorts of groceries and appliances and there’s a whole floor of restaurants and crane games, so it makes sense why my grandmother would rather stretch her legs here than at some park.) At present, there’s a particularly attractive aisle of stationery supplies that demands my attention, but then I spot my grandmother sitting on the bench for people trying out shoes and forget about the colored pens entirely.
“Oh, Chuyun-ah,” my grandmother says in Taiwanese when I perch next to her on the bench. “Are you done already?”
“Mhm,” I reply, taking her hand. It’s plush and full of life as she squeezes back with remarkable strength. “I have everything I need.”
“Your mom and dad are still getting groceries, I think.”
“That’s okay, A-ma. I’ll just wait here with you.”
At that, she hums contentedly. “You’re such a good girl.”
I glow under her praise and take advantage of the too-bright department store lights to memorize the lines of her weathered, beautiful face. Something tugs at my gut and tells me this is urgent, that if I don’t do it now, I won’t have the same chance later.
When I wake up, my face is wet with tears.
Sometime around nightfall that same day, my mom takes a call from her siblings in Taiwan. Just like that, my grandmother is gone.
It isn’t exactly a surprise, but it doesn’t make us feel any less hollow. My grandmother had suffered from Parkinson’s and dementia, and it’d worsened slowly over time, her memories fading fast. About a month prior she had a particularly bad stroke that put her in a coma. From that point on, I’d stopped concentrating on my lectures. My mother stopped sleeping.
I remember one of my first thoughts when it happened was how cruel the timing was. This happened in June of 2020 and it erased one of the only sources of relief I had during this time, that because my elderly family members resided in Taiwan, I wouldn’t have to worry much about them getting sick from Covid. In the midst of moving home from college and daily fears for the lives of all the people I loved, it was a small comfort that I clung to like a childhood blanket, and when my grandmother passed from a reason completely unrelated to the coronavirus, it was if my blanket had been accidentally donated to Goodwill.
Traveling was out of the question. At the time, I didn’t have a Taiwanese passport, and even if I did, my relatives couldn’t afford to wait two weeks for us to quarantine. The solution, as it turned out, was to have them video call us as much as possible during the funeral proceedings.
“Like… a livestream?” I say, hesitantly, when the matter is brought up.
“No, like FaceTime. Or LINE or Zoom,” my dad says.
“It’s not rude, there’s a pandemic.”
“Yeah, I know, it’s just… weird.”
“So? It’s either that or miss the whole thing. Now eat your soup.”
Living an ocean away from family is the epitome of life through a screen. Thanks to the marvels of technology, I’ve been able to attend weddings, birthdays, actual births, and all sorts of holiday gatherings with the small caveat of being at the mercy of internet speed. A poor connection can mean missing the important parts, but you do what you can.
This is an experience many children of immigrants know far too well. We grow up with various degrees of disconnection from our roots due to sheer distance and fight silent battles as we learn the value of our skin. How that skin influences our lives in Western society is a beast I can’t possibly tackle right now, but even within our own family networks, there is a palpable difference, like a natural-looking filter that distinguishes the original from the altered image. We may look the same, but a single faux pas is enough to set you irreversibly apart. (“She’s American, she wouldn’t get it”— I’ve heard that one a couple times.)
As a result, our relationships with our grandparents fall under a category branded with a giant question mark. Some live and grow up with said grandparents under the same roof. Others face distance and language barriers that prevent them from making a real connection.
There were a lot of reasons why I should have fallen in the second category. I was born and raised in a city near Los Angeles, but my maternal grandparents lived in a small southern Taiwanese town called Haifeng. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in that I got to spend a couple weeks in Taiwan every year as a child and then visited every few summers after that; my parents had immigrated to the United States alone and I had no siblings, so they didn’t want me to grow up lonely and cultureless. The language, however, was a problem at first. While Taiwan’s main language is Mandarin, much of the older generation in rural areas only speak Taiwanese Hokkien, and such was the case for my grandparents. At home in Los Angeles, I spoke Mandarin growing up and knew basic Taiwanese phrases, but no more. My parents likely thought it was good enough if I could speak Mandarin, since that was more applicable, and didn’t bother to teach me the language they’d actually grown up speaking.
At first, I didn’t see much of a point, either. But I remember being a child trying to talk to my grandfather and realizing neither of us knew what the other was saying. I was a talkative kid, and this was both a blow to my pride and something else I couldn’t quite identify at the time. Thus, over the years, I strong-armed myself into Taiwanese fluency by treating Skype calls to my family like they were listening comprehension tests and eavesdropping on my parents, who talked in Taiwanese when they were trying to hide something from me. The payoff was priceless— while I’d never be able to hold any kind of conversation about politics, I could chat mindlessly with my grandmother about what was for dinner and get my grandfather the television remote when he needed it, and that was what I cared about more, anyway.
I realized later that the sensation I’d previously felt was regret. I’ve always hated missing out on things. I hadn’t wanted to miss out on conversations with my grandparents the same way I didn’t want to miss out on invites to birthday parties. Both were important. Both made me feel a tightness in my chest that I didn’t like.
Part of what made missing my grandmother’s funeral so awful was that it felt like deja vu. I had done almost the exact same thing four years ago when I lost my grandfather during my sophomore year of high school. Everything had happened so fast— his health had been declining, but then again, that happened to most old people, didn’t it? My aunts and uncles hadn’t noticed anything out of the particular, despite all living less than twenty minutes away. On a visit, my mother, doting in the way youngest children often are and perpetually in a “better safe than sorry” state of mind, took him for a full checkup, where they delivered a cold, stage 4 lymphoma diagnosis. There wasn’t much they could do. He passed away a few months later, and while my mother flew back to Taiwan, my father and I stayed behind because I had an AP European History exam the week of the funeral.
Every single family member was convinced my grandfather wouldn’t have wanted me to miss it. Although the most education my grandfather himself had gotten was elementary school before he spent the rest of his life doing hard labor in the family fields, he emphasized its importance for all his children and grandchildren, likely due to his hardships. So my relatives were probably right, but I still felt terrible. The guilt was made worse by the fact that perhaps it was because I was scared, but I didn’t protest that much. Not really, not in the way that mattered.
I’d also failed the test. It could’ve been grief, or that I simply hadn’t studied hard enough. Either way, it reinforced the conviction that I had missed my chance to say goodbye for no good reason at all.
In college, when the importance of things like tests had faded slightly in a manner that made my story both less severe and more inexcusable, it became my go-to in group bonding activities in a bitter, aching way. Look at the horrible thing I did, cried the part of me that longed for forgiveness. Tell me it’s okay. And everyone would tell me it was, and the grieving part of me would think to myself, cruelly but with a certain degree of resignation, It’s not, but thanks anyway.
As part of Buddhist funeral tradition, the monk in charge instructs us to call out to my grandmother for a figurative last meal. The calling part is an act I’m very familiar with— I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a single meal before rattling off the names of all the elders in the house. This feels too normal. Immediately, I want to cry.
“A-ma, come eat dinner,” I say, but it comes out quiet because there’s a giant lump in my throat.
What if she can’t hear me, I think. What if she can’t hear me and doesn’t know I’m here because I’m stuck in a tiny screen. The thought terrifies me so much I want to throw up. “A-ma, come eat dinner,” I repeat, just for good measure, although the volume doesn’t change much. My nose is starting to itch in that insistent way that foreshadows waterworks and I scramble to distract myself by wondering what she’s having for dinner. Rice, probably? She likes fried chicken, even though my mother always lectured her about cholesterol. I suppose that wasn’t a problem now. I lighten slightly at the thought of my grandmother finally getting to eat everything she couldn’t in this life.
“A-ma, make sure you dress warmly,” we say next. I think of the coat of hers I brought home on my last visit in January, before she passed, when she let me raid her closet of clothes from her twenties. I’d squealed when I’d found it; it was black and white plaid, surprisingly modern and wonderfully stylish, with the exception of a pair of bulky shoulder pads. Those hadn’t been in style for decades and didn’t seem to be coming back anytime soon, so I’d picked apart the seams and thrown them out. Now I wished for nothing more than to put them back if only to have one more tiny thing that she had once touched.
The rest of the ceremony is speckled by moments that are both novel and frustrating. The monk is thoughtful enough to stop before the beginning of every chant to check in on “our American family members,” and I’m reminded of roll call. But the long verses of Taiwanese sutras she recites are relentless— I can barely keep up on a good day, much less repeat them when the connection cuts out in five-second intervals. My aunt’s cell phone has never gotten good service at my grandmother’s house, and the screen is so pixelated I can’t make out what’s going on.
As I watch and pray to whatever god or deity controls internet connection that I can witness as much as possible, I inevitably end up filling in gaps with my own imagination. I don’t picture the neat rows of white chairs, though, or the colorful bouquets of funeral flowers. Instead, I imagine the softness of my grandmother’s skin, her comfy scent of detergent and steamed rice. There was always something extraordinarily effortless in being around my grandmother, in that her love was simple and pure. She told me to study hard, but it didn’t really matter how I actually did. There was no pressure to be someone impressive for her to brag about. Instead, she loved me because I would walk slowly with her behind everyone else and because I’d root around in her fridge like it was my own. As if coming to see her from across the sea was like coming home.
My mother tells me a few days later that my grandmother wasn’t really a happy person. Family meant everything to her, which also meant that when things were complicated among my mom and her siblings, my grandmother took it particularly hard. She’d fought relentlessly with my grandfather when he was alive, and when he was gone, she’d go to the family shrine on the third floor and curse at him for leaving her behind. In many ways, she was lonely.
I’m a little surprised by this revelation— the A-ma I knew was all smiles whenever I was with her, urging me to eat more or laughing at something I said. But then again, how would I have known? I don’t even know what the word for depression is in Mandarin; when I tried telling my cousin that I was going to therapy I had to act it out like a sad game of charades, pun intended. Mental health in Asia is just one of those hush-hush things that people don’t think about, much less talk about. Perhaps my grandmother and I had more in common than I ever knew.
The day we found out the news, my mom and I took turns bursting into tears at random intervals. Once, I’d opened the freezer and a packet of tang yuan (sweet rice dumplings) had tumbled out, and I cried because it reminded me of the time I was ready to leave for the airport when my grandmother insisted on scrambling for change that I could give the tang yuan stall owner across the street. She’d wanted me to have something to eat on my way there. My mom cried without much rhyme or reason because as most people know, everything reminds you of your mother.
But later that evening, when she poked her head into my room, she was laughing. “Look, they finished A-ma’s funeral announcement.” She shoved her phone at me, giggling. My grandmother had been 5’0 and plump like she belonged in a picture book. The woman on the flyer was a size 2 and sitting so straight I felt bad for slouching. The powers of Photoshop, indeed. “Tell them we want a refund,” I said, two fingers zooming in and out on the photo. They blurred her pores, too. “People are going to think they came to the wrong house.”
My mom laughed. “I think she would’ve liked it. Don’t you?”
“Yeah, I do.”
When the last day of the funeral proceedings begins, I have both the benefit and curse of knowing mildly what to expect. I know roughly when to bow, when to repeat phrases, and when to have cushions at the ready so we won’t have sore knees the next day. I also know this will break me.
My uncle ties a string onto the casket, and my family members hold on to the string as they walk down the street on their way to the crematorium. We watch in silence for the most part, although my mother points out small landmarks from time to time like she’s giving a tour on autopilot. It’s probably the built-in LINE filter, but from our side of the screen, the sky looks impossibly blue. Beautiful.
The casket is sent inside the crematorium. There is more prayer. More shaky footage. More phrases of Hokkien I repeat but cannot understand until there is one I do.
“A-ma, you must go now. The fire is coming and you must go so you don’t get burned,” I whisper. The screen stutters. Please, I pray. Please, just give me this last moment with her. The fire comes and goes. The internet connection cuts out for a while after that as my family members walk home. I think I see an urn, but it could just be another piece of pottery. The truth is that I have no idea where my grandmother is, but I trust that she’s found her way. I don’t know if this would’ve been easier if I had the chance to be there in person. I doubt anyone would say that it is, and I am not so callous that I would think others have had easier experiences just because the funerals they attended were in person. But the experience of saying goodbye to my grandmother for the last time through the same device I use for my morning alarms, for binging Netflix, for a variety of ridiculous recreation, feels gutting in a way I cannot describe. Simply put, it does not feel real.
But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a small consolation in that lack of closure, from experiencing a funeral that felt more like a simulation than anything else because of all the screens involved. At a certain point, we cannot help but soften things for ourselves, to construct a truth that goes down easier and lets us sleep at night. This goes for heartbreaks, failures, grief. It is simpler to accept that things are out of our control, but self-doubt and guilt are powerful opponents. I know that much.
But I also know my grandparents wouldn’t want me to be sad. And if I can’t let go for myself, I should at least do it for them.
It’ll sink in at some point, probably when I visit my grandparents’ home in Haifeng and find it too quiet. When Lunar New Year rolls around once again and there is one less person to call. But the sting of remembering is a blessing, a reminder of love. My grandmother lives in the Carrefour in my head and my heart as she always has, waiting at the end of the aisle to greet me with a smile.
Ashley Cheng is a writer and musician currently studying at Pomona College. She loves learning new things, stories that shift your world a few degrees, and her dog Nana.
From Ashley: “The night my grandmother passed away, I opened up my notes app and started writing. Just feelings, really, grief condensed into sentences that were so raw and unpolished they could barely be called sentences. It felt like the only thing that could keep me tethered. When I found out about this contest, I dared to open that draft for the first time in months. I scrolled past endless to-do lists and reminders to find this tiny, neglected, electronically-preserved piece of my heart that I had hidden away because I was scared of how the pain would derail my life. Except that when I opened it, I discovered that it had grown into something more potent than pain. It was love, and it was lovely. I asked my mother more questions and learned about memories long forgotten, and through writing this piece, I got to spend some more time with my grandmother, in a way. It’s more than I could’ve ever asked for, and I’m beyond honored that I get to share it with all of you.”