Lying in bed, scrolling Instagram and once again seeing all my friend’s amazing travel photos I got an itch. And it dawned on me. I have been single for 7 months now and there’s no one that I like at the moment. I have 7 days until I’m back to work. What the hell, I’m going somewhere.
By the afternoon I had booked return flights to Hong Kong, leaving the next morning, and four nights in a hostel, in a neighbourhood I had never been before.
Over the week I learned so much about myself.
While in Asian culture it’s said that everyone respects their elders, the reality for me couldn’t be further from the truth.
In my family at least, over the years when I’ve visited HK, the country of my parent’s birth, I’ve observed countless dinners where the aunties and uncles talk, whilst my grandma sits quietly amidst the throng. Her hearing issues make it hard for her to engage and the volume of her voice is not strong enough to command attention. When she asks a question the aunties and uncles look exasperated and then try and explain the conversation topic in the most simplistic, elementary words. With her hearing loss they also shout at her, speaking down to her like a child.
I wasn’t much better. Whenever I tried to talk to her in my broken Cantonese, she would always assume the role of a caring grandma and remind me to study hard, eat more, take care of myself. Our conversations would last no longer than two or three minutes and it would end with her giving me a red pocket. It was always a dehumanising experience. I was the kid that showed up once a year and collected money from her.
This time was different though. I was determined to show her I had grown. I was a working adult now, I was the Australian grandson with western values, and that also meant I was ready to make conversation with her on the same level.
I took my ninety year old grandma out for yum cha at 9am on Wednesday morning. Just the two of us hanging out, for the very first time in my 25 years of existence. Prior to this, I was lamenting to my cousin that I was worried it would be awkward because she doesn’t speak a shred of English and my Cantonese is so butchered.
But, in spite of the language barrier, we had a really authentic conversation about buying a house, financial stability, death, her marriage to my grandpa and the luxury of dating while young. It was bittersweet, we were learning so much about each others lives, but it had taken 25 years to get to this point.
When the food arrived and I pulled out my insulin pen, she asked me what it was. I told her I had type 1 diabetes. Some of the aunties and uncles and even friends, I had told previously, who had no medical background, had instantly made assumptions and made ignorant comments like “stop drinking so many soft drinks” etc..I was bracing myself for a lecture about sugar.
But my grandma, in all her 90+ years of wisdom said very pragmatically, “Your grandpa had type 2 diabetes. You must watch out for the rice and noodles, and you must exercise.”
I knew all this, but to hear it from my grandma who was never educated, can’t read or write, reaffirmed my observations that she’s given much less credit than due from my relatives.
After yum cha, she insisted walking me to the bus stop and waiting with me until the bus arrived. I gave her a classic Australian hug farewell and left her on the side of the road, a fully capable woman, mother and grandmother, bursting at the seams with a lifetime of wisdom and experiences. I hope to see my aunties and uncles start treating her as more than an inconvenience.