I still remember the way grandma said goodbye to me when I packed my bags and got ready to return to London after spending a summer holiday at home in Sichuan.
“Work hard, do well and don’t miss home,” she told me at the front door, trying hard to hold back her own tears.
Then, she walked back into the house before I even got into dad’s car. I saw grandma’s frail and lonely figure slowly disappearing from sight. A sudden feeling of guilt overwhelmed me. I longed to call out to grandma, to see her one more time, but in that moment, I found myself helplessly silent.
What I wanted was not just to spend a few more minutes, or even days with grandma. Instead, I longed to make up to her for the times we could have spent together over the 16 years I have lived abroad. And that, I knew, is never possible.
Grandma was a guardian and an angel in my happy childhood. She knitted my first jumper, picked me up from kindergarten every day, and put me to bed with my favorite stories. On days when I felt full of energy, grandma was there to play hide and seek with me all day long. But whenever I got ill, she sat next to my bed, holding my hand long into the night.
She has always encouraged her grandchildren to study hard, chase after their dreams and not miss home. But with that, she was also saying goodbye to her grandchildren. One by one, all three of her grandchildren have left, for good universities, good jobs in big cities, and eventually a settled life in the West.
She gave us all her energy, love and physical strength, and never sought anything in return.
Filial piety, otherwise known as xiao, is at the core of Chinese culture.
Originating from Confucian philosophy, filial piety means love and respect for one’s elders and obeying their wishes. But there is something else too. To fulfill filial piety, you have to be there for them physically, and look after them in their old age.
Working abroad, I have always lived with the guilt of not truly being filial. I was not there to take grandma to the hospital for treatment for her knee injury. I was not there to help her renovate her flat after it was badly flooded last year. And now, I hate to admit the unspeakable truth that every goodbye could be our last.
This year is China’s 40th anniversary of reform and opening-up. The reforms, which changed China from a planned economy to a market-driven one, having inspired many Chinese people to have a dream. The opening-up allowed them to venture abroad and pursue their dreams on a global stage.
That, of course, comes at the cost of being away from our families and ancestral homes.
In our modern 21st century, global migration has long become a norm. Many of my Western friends say they feel very little connection to their birth country, after a few significant moves across regions.
But China’s case is a little different. Although young generations of Chinese people have embraced their new lives all around the world, the unparalleled strength of our family ties and filial piety deeply bonds us to our cultural roots. Like kites flying high in the sky, we will always be connected to the land and the people who have shaped us into who we are.