My grandmother is dying.

A snowman we found during my last trip to Beijing in February 2015, when I last saw my grandmother. I do not have any photographs with her because we never took any.

I won’t be there.

I chose to surprise my mother with a FaceTime call to let her know I loved her. I did not expect her to surprise me back with the news.

“Leo, I’m flying to Beijing tomorrow. Your grandmother was hospitalized. It’s pretty bad.”


My grandmother is in her nineties — I’m not sure of her exact birthdate, because she’s lived in China all her life, and the Cultural Revolution was messy (to put it exceedingly lightly).

As a family, we’ve known for a few years that her health was poor, and her life was coming to an end. It wasn’t a matter of if she might die, but when.

I don’t know much about my maternal grandmother. My earliest memories of her are hazy at best. As far as I know, she’s always been so old.

She’s lived in a tiny, dingy little ground-floor apartment in Beijing’s west inner city for as far as I know. She rambles and mutters and tells stories of how the world is, and how politics and society works, and she lectures me on how to be a good person. Do unto others as you would wish for yourself. Don’t hurt other people. Don’t harbour ill feelings. Don’t wish evils upon others.

When I was very little, I didn’t understand her and dismissed her for more interesting toys, like goldfish. As I got older, I started to realize the wisdom of her thoughts.

Once, when I was seventeen, I made it clear I thought the Communist Party of China had made a massive mistake by not appointing my grandmother as a special advisor to the Chinese national government.

My mother once told me that my grandmother came from a rich family that lost everything in the Cultural Revolution. There’s no way to prove that for certain, as hundreds of thousands of documents and artifacts were destroyed, and the social attitude of those living in China is to try to avoid talking about it as much as possible. It doesn’t surprise me, though, as my grandmother has struck me as a worldly woman with a wisdom that only comes with age and experience, despite never having stepped outside of China.

I know she married my maternal grandfather when she was very young. I do not know the age when they married, but I remember seeing photographs of their wedding where she did not appear to be much older than her twenties.

She had four kids: an eldest son, an older daughter, my mother, and a younger daughter. Her first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, although I’m not supposed to know about that because the family doesn’t talk about it.

My grandmother’s greatest aspiration was to give the best to all her children. And it’s evident: all her kids were somewhat successful in life, each of them living a decent life in China. They’ve passed on that parenting style to all of their own children, including my mother to me.

Whenever I’ve known her, my grandmother has almost never left the house. My grandfather does all the grocery shopping, the cooking, and most of the cleaning. I heard he’s stopped doing that in the last few years as he’s been getting older, and my uncle’s taken on that job since his retirement.

That’s how much my grandmother is loved: my uncle, despite being married and having his own son, chooses to spend his retirement days with his own parents, cooking and cleaning and caring for them in their final golden days.

That’s who my grandmother is.

My grandmother has always strongly believed in education. All of her grandchildren: I, my sister, and all my cousins have gone to universities across the world.

And my only memory of her outside the house is from maybe six, seven years ago, when she clambered out of a taxi to join the extended family when my eldest cousin graduated from Peking University.

She’s always been somewhat of a traditionalist, but she loves all her grandchildren. Chinese culture and tradition dictates that the bloodline is considered descended through the male line; as the son of one of her daughters, I am not considered a part of her bloodline, unlike my maternal uncle’s son (my cousin; her son’s son). Yet, she’s never really treated me as an outsider, delighting in showering me with gifts of snacks and food and stories as she did all her grandkids.

It may not come as a surprise to you, but it is remarkably progressive for a Chinese grandparent in her eighties; my grandmother has clearly understood some universal truths that I can only hope to achieve someday.

I have not seen her for several years; international flights to Beijing are not cheap, and I’m spending an incredible amount of money attending Northwestern as it is. I’ve heard that her health has slowly but steadily deteriorated. And so I’ve been preparing myself for that moment when my mother would call and tell me that she’d be in hospital, and that she’d probably not make it.

It still hurts, though.

My grandmother’s greatest pride and love was for her grandchildren, and all of them are currently in the United States, halfway around the world from her hospital bed in Beijing. Fortunately, with the exception of my mother, all of her sons and daughters are in Beijing; but because the whole family believes in the quality of American education, they sent all their kids to the United States for a better life.

And even though one or two of the grandchildren might be able to make it back, I can’t.

As a United States citizen, Chinese immigration law prevents me from entering the People’s Republic of China without a visa; my last visa to China expired recently. New visa applications normally take several weeks, and US citizens are not eligible for emergency visa-upon-arrival arrangements under Chinese law even for humanitarian considerations.

For me, it drives home how much the political is the personal: however much I wish to disassociate myself with China, I cannot escape the reality that my family — those closest to me — live there, halfway around the world.

And no matter what I do, I’ll always be an outsider: in the country of my heritage, I’m an outcast for being a national of another country; in the country of my citizenship, I’m always considered a visitor, never being able to lay claim to the American identity. (This week, I almost unmatched someone on Tinder because he asked “where are you from originally?” You wouldn’t ask that question if I wasn’t of Asian heritage, would you?)

I’m making plans to visit the Chinese Consulate in Chicago tomorrow to apply for a visa. They might possibly expedite the process; they may not. Regardless, I can’t buy airline tickets until my visa is granted — all the while, my grandmother lies in a hospital bed, halfway around the world.

At least she’ll be surrounded by her children. And maybe some of her grandchildren. But I don’t think I’ll be there.