the grandmother i never met

Embroidered binding shoes, Image via eyeofsam

Four bowls of steaming white rice and colorful plates of Chinese home dishes crowded the kitchen table. As per usual, my dad’s sonorous voice expressed his opinions on trifling matters, addressing no one in particular while our chopsticks clinked as the bass beat. I like to joke that you could sit my dad in a room alone and he’ll strike up a jolly conversation with the wall. 

My parents like to reminisce about their childhood over dinner, the famous “back in the days” stories. They would lament over the harsh lifestyle in rural China, how rations of meat were so tiny and fresh fruit was akin to candy. I would listen as I helped myself to the gleaming plate of Kung Pao chicken or twice-cooked pork belly in front of me, trying my best to sympathize. 

When two hard-working immigrant parents built a comfortable living for me, I grapple with how to approach my privilege. What if my formative struggles were one of weight and acne, and not of having enough food on the table?

Over dinner, I typically absorb myself with musings of my own while the background noise of sentence segments played like a broken record: S&P 500…you should major in accounting…America gives free money to lazy people… in Dream of the Red Chamber…Elon Musk…

On this particular meal, my dad settled on the topic of his birth mother. She passed away in her forties, so I never called her grandma in person. He told us how my grandmother refused to undergo the age-old tradition of foot-binding. The process sounded absurd and inhumane. They would crush your bones to mold you into a symbol of status and beauty. A young girl’s dainty steps proved she didn’t labor in the fields and had servants to tend to her needs. 

Maybe like me, my grandma’s formative struggles did include beauty standards, the difference being that she fiercely opposed them while I, though not wanting to maim my toes, furiously chased after my perfect ideal of Eurocentric features.

“They wouldn’t let her go to school but she forced her way in anyways,” continued my dad.

I asked him if girls in that period weren’t allowed an education.

“Families were too poor to send the girls. She insisted, though,” my dad said with a mouthful of rice. He had a habit of talking too much and too loud with food in his mouth and I’ve contemplated whether to learn the Heimlich Maneuver. 

Just a day earlier, I complained about despising school and AP exams. I felt a slight twinge of guilt as I mulled over the stories of my grandmother. 

Academic stress is surely unfavorable but I realized it’s a struggle I’m privileged to have. I don’t have to fight for an education because my family cannot afford to send the daughters to school after they’ve already sent the sons. As for my quiet but ongoing pursuit of feminine beauty ideals, maybe I should see it for what it is— a trend that will go out of style. Foot-binding is surely a relic of the past.

– julie