Being born in May, there’s something ubiquitous about rain in my life. I don’t think it's a coincidence that Vancouver is one of the rainiest cities in North America. When I was born there was also a rain storm coming down on the highway as my parents took me home from the hospital. On paper, it looks great because my birthday comes a month after Qingming as well, so that death can transition smoothly into life. April showers bring May flowers. 好雨知时节, 当春乃发生。To double down on it my parents even named me 澍 (shu4). Timely Rain.
But what if the rain didn’t bring life? What if it just kept on… raining? What if there’s a storm? What if it floods?
Mid-May of 2013, just a week after my 19th birthday, James, my brother, and 奶奶, my Paternal Grandmother, each of whom I cherished greatly and who were part of my upbringing passed within days of each other. James was swept away in a river, and Grandma had developed cancer in her lungs.Stuck in the middle of nowhere on a language exchange in Quebec, I declined going home for the back to back funeral processions. I decided to take that news and bury it. None of my closest friends would know, my parents thought I was being cold, and my ex unrelentingly questioned why I was so emotionless.
At the time, I felt wrong and even guilty, because I thought grief and loss could only be expressed in a certain way, while I only felt numbing and expressed silence.
“Shouldn’t I be crying? Shouldn’t I feel sad? Didn’t they mean something to me?”
I tried to offer my mind almost an infinite number of different excuses to rationalize it but each time none of them made sense.
I understand now that I was afraid to come to a resolution. Afraid of putting the pieces of myself that I had left behind, back together. I was over protective of the memories of them while never having processed them. As if those memories themselves were living and fragile and had to be tucked away. This is all to say that in the end, I think I was the one that probably needed protecting the most.
In popular culture, spirits that have regrets never move onto the next world. They wander aimlessly and drift around their past lives because their internal strife remains unresolved. I think similarly, I felt that I could not move on. My numbness never allowed me to process what occured. And that’s why I decided to write this. I wanted to write so I could recall a little more of what we tried to collectively forget. Both the good and the bad. I want to make up for the time lost... so it can all make a little more sense.. to remember just a little more… To hold space in my heart for the memories of Grandma and James... So that now, I can wear my heart on my sleeve, living authentically as possible in truth. What I really want to say is, I remember you James. I remember you, 奶奶. And I promise I won’t forget.
James was my brother. Just a few years older than me. His stiff and coarse hair changed with every K-pop or anime fad and reeked of Gatsby, purple edition. He had a built frame from years of b-boying and backflips. I think he also only ever did bench press at the gym (typical of a Surrey boy). He had a stupid grin on his face every time he nailed a penny drop or pulled up to church in his duct taped bumper of a Honda accord, or when he did Jay Chou impressions at karaoke. His impressions were really good. His personality was so strong and confident that you had no choice but to like him, even if you thought he was annoying (he definitely had his moments lol).
I was only 6 years old when I met him. I did not have many male role models throughout my life but James was one of them. My relationships with my father and older Brother were complicated and so I owe much of my personality, for better or for worse, to James. Because he was also a complicated and troubled person. In many ways, I saw myself in him as his life mirrored mine. Just like me, he had a father that experienced immense trauma during the cultural revolution. As part of the Red Youth, they denounced their own fathers, toiled the countryside, watched the nation implode in chaos, and often dumped that baggage on their families. His Dad and my own Dad honestly looked exactly the same. And while nobody wants to hear this type of heavy shit when memorializing someone, I felt it was necessary to bring this up because it was taboo to talk about this part of our lives for so long. So to deny such a large part of our lives would be denying the ugly beauty of being human, I think. And James really was that beautiful.
As James and I grew into our teens and adulthood, his role as mentor and older brother never wavered. Teaching me how to b-boy (I never got it down), cutting my hair in his basement (he was rocking the Taeyang look himself), driving me to piano practice, offering me advice on how to chat with my crush on MSN(turns out she had a crush on me too dude wtf!) and introducing me to his female friends to gain confidence in speaking to girls. One of the rare photos we have together before he passed was during a summer bible camp at Trinity Western University where on the last day, he decided to be like Jesus (he was always doing the most lmao) and wash my feet lol. He meant so much to me.
Fast forward a few years, James had a lot going on in his life.While he was finally doing well in school and career after so many years of struggle, I knew there was a lot more going on at home. My parents told me that he had beat up his Dad, and my own father was scared that I would seek to do the same. I was angry, but instead of seeking physical violence I sought to escape everything. I wanted to run away from it all. I thought about dying. I was finishing my first year of college at the SFU Criminology program and it was ending in disaster. I had Fs across the board. I was in an abusive relationship and I was depressed with my decision to attend SFU (part of the Surrey to CBSA pipeline). I was desperate for an escape route from my home life and Surrey. I thought I was destined to become another suburban failure. For me it really seemed like the “Future dies here” parody T shirt was real. For those that don’t know, if you go to Guildford Walmart, right now, you’ll probably see people wear T shirts that bear a distorted version of Surrey’s logo “the future lives here”. The T shirt will display some of Surrey’s skyline and with bullet holes around the text, it’ll read “the future dies here”. And I hate and love this shirt because it perfectly represents the never-ending duality of the city. Young families moving in and young kids dying, renovation and gentrification, rich and poor, small businesses and drug dealers, quiet neighbourhoods and unrelenting drug war on the Poor, Black, and Brown. Amidst all of this, somewhere in this duality was James and I: flighting and fleeing, breathing and drowning.
To escape, my own plan was simple. I was going to do my exchange program in Quebec. I was going to take out a student loan and start living on my own in the fall. At the same time, my parents were worried about how far I had strayed from Jesus and interrogated James about me. About the drugs, alcohol, and relationship that I was hiding from them. As I took off for Quebec, one of James’ last messages to me on facebook was him offering his advice about how to talk to my parents. I ignored it because I thought he was being a hypocrite.
On May 6th, just 4 days before your passing, you posted a Youtube cover of Jayesslee, two famous Asian Australians known for their acoustic covers of R&B classics. This time it was a cover of Gangnam Style by Psy, captioning it “So good…”. You obviously crushed on them lol.
The following day you quoted Bob Ross and posted: “No Mistakes, just happy accidents…”
Our last messages were just a day before you passed. You asked if you could get my Mom’s number to be a work reference. I can’t remember if I always talked like such an asshole on messenger but I was being cold in my replies. Your last message was “dude your the best” followed by a smiley emoji.
On Midnight, May 10th I got a message from my mother, telling me that that you had gone missing. It had been a hot day during a hike with the new youth group. You were 22 years old. You jumped into the roaring rapids beneath Gold Creek Falls, and when people expected you to resurface, to come up with a giant grin on your face, gatsby melting away in the freshwater, you instead were swept away by the current and disappeared.
That’s when I went numb. I took my night bus from Toronto to Montreal, an 8 hour ride, sleeping the entire way.
Over the next several days I saw hundreds of messages posted on your facebook wall, calling out your name into Facebook’s servers, calling for you to come back, for you to re-emerge out of the cold dark waters. The search parties couldn’t continue because the rapids were too strong. So collectively, like lighting paper lanterns to float through the rapids, the posts were a way to amass enough energy to pull your body out of the riverbank, to lead you back to us, to bring you back to life. I thought it was stupid. I refused to post on your wall. I think I just didn’t want to admit that you were gone because if I were to do so, I was afraid the paper lanterns would drown too.
When I returned it wasn’t easy to begin mourning either. Your family, my family, our churches fought a messy blame game as to who was responsible for your death. I hated it. Resented everyone. All I wanted was to get away. I wanted to run away as far as my student loan would take me. My first few housing situations borderline almost got me killed but anything was better than living at home and doing the same old drugs, same old drinking with my Surrey friends. Later that year Z would pass away by overdosing, W would continue to sell, and J would be incarcerated for selling and gun possession. It really was relentless.
A year passed. I was supposedly doing better. I was doing well at community college. I made lifelong friends. I was going to move to France the year after. I was able to distract myself from facing you and the reality of you being gone from my life. But looking back, with all the things going right in my life, I still felt numb. And I think if I just was strong enough to admit it, I would have confessed that at the time all I really wanted to do was to talk to you. To hear your voice, to tell me you were proud of me. To hear about your latest hobby or favorite Youtube cover artist. To start my sentences with “yo mannnn….” and to laugh so hard it hurt to breathe.
RIght around the summer of 2014, it was as if you somehow knew what I was going through. As if my longing had grown so strong that it manifested itself into a Facebook wall post that I originally was too stubborn to write, or that paper lantern that I thought would sink in the water. One night, during that summer, you decided that enough was enough and you called me in a dream. A dream so vivid that it had to be real. I personally think it was. I picked up the phone receiver and I heard your voice. I held the telephone receiver to my face so tightly I felt the humidity of my breath on the plastic speaker piece. Through the lo-fi call quality, you asked me how I was doing and saying that you missed me. We talked for so long that at some point I even held the receiver in between my shoulder and head. Thinking back, I guess this was your way of saying that you felt my longing, and that you knew that it was time for me to move on. I guess my paper lantern boat got to you.
Thank you, James. Let’s talk again soon.
I remember your permed afro (your natural hair I later learned was extremely frizzy), wrinkled skin, and hook shaped nose. Wearing your jade bangle, your gold cross necklace, and colourful clothing. With a soft voice that pronounced my name like “買修”. Your apartment was a single bedroom social housing unit, which had acted as refuge to all the men in our family at some point. When my parents were fighting, when my Father had a restraining order placed against him, when my Brother was in college and couldn’t make it home from school because the last bus to our house was at 8:55pm. When we moved to Surrey you would take the 1 hour and 30 minute commute of the 26 to 29th ave. Station, then the Expo Line (carefully avoiding the Millenial Line) to Surrey Central. Walking another few hundred metres to Bay 12, taking the C74 to our house. All the little things.
I’m making it my goal to learn more about you. I learned that you provided for the family on your own as you learned how to sew in a garment factory in Montreal. I heard that at that job you eventually taught the other Chinese aunties how to sew and you took lead in introducing them to the job. I heard you beat all the other white elders in your building at bingo events. I learned you were deeply respected in your church. I learned that in your will you saved enough through OAS cheques to treat everyone at your own funeral to Chinese buffet. I learned that you hung around Chinatown with your friends and was planning to move there soon. I learned that Hunanese people were known throughout history for revolutions and their fire like passion. In Ancient times our people worshiped fire gods. Whose capital city successfully repelled three large scale Japanese siege attempts only to fall on the fourth. That you were from Liuyang, an area that produces the most fireworks in the world and that made sense to me because you were like a firework. Bold, radiant, unapologetic… People from all over the city, whether Changsha or Vancouver knew and felt your presence.
“The phrase "like water for chocolate" comes from the Spanish phrase como agua para chocolate. This is a common expression in multiple Spanish-speaking countries, and it means that one's emotions are on the verge of boiling over. In some Latin American countries, such as Mexico, hot chocolate is made not with milk, but with near-boiling water instead.” Wikipedia
It’s the end of the summer of 2018 and 11am in Queens, NYC. I’m late for work and I’m on the E train with Isabelle. We had just started dating just a few days ago. We’re watching an anime called Flavors of Youth. In the plot, a young child grows up in the countryside of Hunan province with his Grandma and she serves him 牛肉米綫. Beef noodles. As he grows older and moves to the city, he realizes that the noodles he gets at restaurants don’t carry the same love and affection as his grandma’s. Suddenly, out of nowhere, he gets a call and flies back to his hometown as his Grandma is on her deathbed. It was animated by CoMix Wave Films, the same people who worked on 5 Centimetres Per Second and Your Name. As I watched the scene of the movie’s Grandma passing, it was as if there was a dam that was buried deep within me that burst open. I cried so hard that I could’ve sworn that everybody on the Manhattan bound 4 train was going to get their sneakers soaked. Like water for memories. This would happen one more time while watching The Farewell.
Most of my memories of my Grandma are from when I was a child, as I had been raised by her up until then.Sometimes when I walk through Champlain Heights or Chinatown just the smell of something can bring me back to your apartment. The smell of chinese medicine and tiger balm ointment. The touch feel of a plastic wrapped TV remote, the rough and sandpaper like cover of your couch, the ennui of lying on the floor and hearing the birds chirp outside, the dopamine from playing solitaire, minesweeper, 3d pinball and ms paint on your computer. However, after I moved to Surrey that’s when a lot of these memories cut off. When we moved it was harder and harder to see you. What used to be daily pickup after school turned into seeing you maybe once or twice a year. I didn’t think about it much though, because I thought you were going to live forever.
Starting in 2012 you had begun showing signs of cancer and my family said you didn’t have much time left. I didn’t believe them. I was foolish but at the time it seemed impossible that someone so powerful like yourself could be beat by cancer. By the time that I realized I was wrong, you were already in your transition to hospice care, and I was getting ready to leave for Quebec. The last thing you said to me then was to pursue my passions and that what was truly important in life was to be happy. Sometimes this kind of advice is the hardest pill to swallow because it dares to against everything you've been told in life which is to find a stable 9-5, marry a Chinese speaking Christian girl, and work until you die. It's only recently that I've begun to truly understand your words, and to live out that kind of truth.
I’m in Saguenay, Quebec. It’s night time and my brother briefly messages me that 奶奶 woke up quickly to have a meal. I tell him to keep me posted.
The next day, May 14th, in the middle of the opening ceremony of my French program, I got a text from Mom. I shut off my phone. Like with James, I am silent. I continue on with my day, pretending as if nothing happened. I let myself be empty because if I had filled myself up I’m scared of what would have boiled over.
I got off the phone with my counsellor today. She said that when we experience trauma sometimes we leave pieces of ourselves behind because we’re not ready to integrate them back into our life. For the longest time, I felt guilt, shame, and regret for leaving those pieces behind but now I realize it was a natural response for me as my body wasn’t ready to accept the reality of you all being gone. Today, on my 26th birthday, I wrote in my journal that I was ready again. And I realized that I had actually been trying this entire time so there was no reason to feel guilty or shame.
For Chinese people, Qingming is celebrated on “The first day of the fifth solar term in the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar, the 15th day after the Spring equinox (April 4 or 5)”. Growing up Christian and as a son of a family who experienced the cultural revolution, Qingming and ancestral worship were considered paganism and the devil’s practice. We did not celebrate Qingming. So during 2016 when I visited my 爺爺 (Paternal Grandfather’s) village located on the mountainous border of Hunan and Hubei province, my extended family taught me for the first time to pour Moutai into three plastic cups and bow to the gravesite to my paternal grandfather, of which my name and my brother’s were inscribed on. They taught me that they usually burn incense and set fireworks to honour the deceased as well. For my 奶奶, there was no one to teach me such traditions so I developed my own ceremony and tradition. Mindfully thinking about her, visiting the corner store that we used to shop groceries from, visiting her old apartment, and walking along the same routes that she would. Intentionally thinking about what it all meant, and imagining even more. Catching up for lost time I suppose. I developed this routine during my years at Langara College (2013-2016) as I often passed by your gravesite that was along my commute. I felt your presence calling to me, whether it was visiting your gravesite or just passing by. I had developed the habit of praying this prayer to you.
Grandma, it’s me, Matthew. Thank you for everything. Thank you for having always protected me and looked after me. I love you Grandma.
It’s not uncommon that experiences sometimes are so surreal that you start to think you might have imagined it all. There’s one visit that I think about so much that at this point I’m starting to think it was all a dream. It was during a visit in the spring of 2016, on a foggy day, overlooking the graveyard. As I walked towards your gravesite, there were a group of cranes flocked around that plot of land. They sat very peacefully and didn’t shy or run away when I got close to them. I concentrated and made my prayer and I left. I was extremely careful not to disturb the peace that blanketed itself over the graveyard. Afterwards, I had to google and make sure. I didn’t even know Vancouver had cranes. In my search, I learned that throughout history, cranes in Chinese mythology were linked with ideas of immortality. It felt so surreal that I started doubting that it had all happened. I didn’t want the cranes to fly away. I got the same crane tattooed on my heart.
Despite all the doubt, I now know that this was your way of reaching out to me. As if I were to pass by your gravesite right now and listen intently, I would hear your whisper. The same whisper that you used when speaking to me sweetly, the same voice that called me by my name. I can hear it now and I understand.
“我永遠會在你身邊一起走“ And I’ll always walk alongside with you
Whether through Facebook posts, paper lantern boats, or prayer, my recollection of your words and acts remain as guidance and nourishment for how I want to live my life in the future. Finally, allowing myself to put the pieces of myself back together and moving forward in life. Living everyday mindfully and with intention. Being kind to myself, promising myself to be happy, and to “let love have the last word”.
In remembrance of James and 奶奶.