My maternal grandmother…my popo, passed away a few days ago. She was 93 years young and she was a fighter up until the end. Born in Shantou, Guangdong China, she fled to Vietnam during the Japanese invasion of China during WWII. She married my GongGong in an arranged marriage sometime in 1939 or 1940 (my mom doesn’t know) and over the years raised 7 children. My mom was the fifth child and the third girl. A few days before the fall of Saigon, she and my grandfather left Vietnam, money sewed into their clothes, leaving everything they had to join most of the family already in California. By then my own parents had married and were living in Rhode Island.
My Popo was resilient, full of grit and gusto. She was the matriarch of the family and there was no questioning it. She passed a lot of that strength down to my mom…they shared the same stubborn streak, which in chinese we describe as being hard necked.
My best memory of Popo was when she “fattened me up”. When I was 9, I spent the summer in Los Angeles with Popo (GongGong had passed by then). She lived on the hill above Chinatown, so everyday I would walk down to the markets with Popo, buy the day’s groceries and walk back up the hill. I would always be carrying the lightest of the bags but without fail, I would complain the whole way up about how the plastic was cutting into my hands. I also remember being embarrassed by the umbrella she carried around to shield us from the sun. She worried for my skin even before I knew to worry. Anyways, when I was young, I had a thing for this preserved shredded pork stuff (still do actually) that was sold in plastic tubs which we called yok si. So, like the typical chinese grandmother, she would poke my bones, comment on my chicken legs and visible ribs, and feed me heaping bowls of rice with yok si in between meals. I loved it and gobbled it all up, playing the good little grand daughter by bringing her and her friends water and tea while they played mahjong. I gained about 10 pounds that summer and went back to San Francisco a bit rounder than before. I remember my mom and aunt greeting me with, “Wah! You’re so fat now!”