My grandma’s name is YouDi, which, in Chinese, reflected her parents’ vague hope for a son. In the southern village where my grandma was born in the late 1940s, people still expected men to win the bread for the family. But the son her parents hoped for didn’t come until much later. As the oldest of the family, my grandma took on the responsibilities of working in the fields of the family farm and caring for her younger siblings.
To other people, YouDi is a rural Chinese woman whose great strength, resilience and determination proved her name to be an irony. “YouDi is like a pine tree with roots in the ground and hands touching the sky. Her family is fine without a son,” people in the village would always say. But the more I learned about my grandma growing up in southeastern China, the more I felt I didn’t know her at all.
Grandma was like a mystery to me, like the moonlight reflected on a tranquil lake –– so familiar yet so distant. I knew she loved me, but many times I wondered if seeing me brought her pain. Behind her determined eyes and the deep furrows between her brows, I saw a woman who strived to break away from the traditional expectations of a Chinese woman, yet was still trapped in old values. Every time she saw me, she seemed so apologetic and fragile. It was hard for me to associate the self-made independent woman with those vulnerable traits.
When I was seven, I spent a summer in my grandma’s village, surrounded on three sides by mountains and on the other by a lake. The mountains were where the ancestors were buried, and the lake was where people fished to feed the next generation. In such a close-knit village, one who grew up in it never felt excluded. It wasn’t easy for a person to break away from the role that one was supposed to play. My grandma must have faced much friction striving to be an overachieving woman.
But even after I spent a summer with grandma –– feeding chickens in the backyard, riding motorcycles between farm fields, picking wild bamboo shoots in the mountains –– there was still a gap between us. When her large, coarse hands grabbed mine as we walked home along with the sunset, I would look up and see some shining perspiration on her tanned face. Or were those tears? She seemed so tall and too far away for me to see clearly. I felt she was closer to the moon than to me.
Many times, I caught grandma watching me play from some a distance, with a tearful smile. I vaguely knew her regretful demeanor had something to do with a scar on my left leg. It couldn’t just be a generation gap between us, I thought; it was deeper and more reclusive.
There’s a long scar on my left leg, from just below my knees to my instep. I got this scar at too young an age for me to remember anything about it, but words from my family shaped my memories. When I was a toddler, during one visit to my grandma’s, I accidentally spilled a teapot on the table –– freshly boiled water poured down to my left leg, instantly creating a waterfall of blood.
Having lived with this long scar for as long as I could remember, I never gave it a second thought –– it’s been a part of me, and I embraced it as a unique trait.
To me, the injury was something cool that I could joke about with friends, but to grandma, the scar trapped her in endless pain and regret. No matter how many times I told grandma that I was fine with it, she would turn back and wipe her tears off when she looked at my scar.
For a long time, I didn’t understand why she never let that moment go. I even got annoyed when grandma kept gazing at my scar as if I would be destroyed by it. At the time, this was the gap between grandma and me that kept us from truly understanding each other; she was still that mysterious woman in my life.
After I came to the United States, grandma seemed even further away. Ironically, it was the global pandemic that reconnected us, as grandma embraced new technologies. Grandma speaks a Southern Chinese dialect but learned to text me in Mandarin five months ago. While texting made communication between us more frequent and instant than phone calls, I had a hard time imagining grandma’s voice from those Mandarin characters.
Grandma learned to use FaceTime in March, and over our first call, I hesitantly asked her the question that I have wanted to ask her for years: “Grandma, does seeing me bring you pain? Why are you still not over an accident that happened almost 20 years ago?”
“My dear, I am forever regretful, and I feel I owe you a flawless body. You are a girl, and a scar would hurt you so badly,” said grandma.
In grandma’s village circulated words that having a flawless body is linked to a girl’s marital prospect. Grandma was afraid that having a scar on my leg would hurt my future marriage. Is this what trapped grandma for so many years? Is this what’s behind all those tearful smiles?
I had to turn away from the screen to hide my tears. Over all these years, even though I spent time with grandma, I never discovered her internal burden. Grandma was bearing the weight of these deep-rooted beliefs alone. Grandma had always been a powerful woman that I looked up to, proving she can take care of a family and surpassing what’s expected of her. But ultimately, grandma was still trapped in the idea that marriage is of utmost importance to women. She couldn’t help associating a flawless body with a flawless marriage. The deep-rooted belief trapped her whenever she saw my scar. And because it was at her house that I got injured, grandma blamed herself forever. She escaped from one loop and got trapped in another.
I never resented the scar on my leg for even a second in my life. But at that moment, FaceTiming with my grandma, I wished the scar would vanish just for her. Because while the scar was on me, the pain was on grandma.
Contact Annie Li at ALi21 ‘at’ thehill.org.