Saturday, July 7, 2012


Sometimes as I'm walking to the studio very early in the morning I shut my eyes when I reach a part of the neighbourhood that's quiet and nobody's around. I just walk with my eyes closed. 
When the sun is rising, and the air thick with heat, I close my eyes and just walk for a few steps.
I did it this morning. 
I'm not sure why, but it's something that I did.
This morning
I passed the old asian woman who collects bottles from the trashcans near my studio. I see her every morning around the same time. She wheels a cart that's filled with bags of empty bottles, and I wonder how early in the morning she awoke just to begin her day's work. The past few times that I saw her, I knew that she saw me. Our eyes locked, and I could feel some pressure in my throat; they were words that wanted to come out,
"Jo san."
That's good morning in Cantonese. 
The problem is that I don't even know if she's even Chinese. And if she is, does she even speak Cantonese? Maybe she speaks Mandarin, or Toisan. But the words "Jo san" I believe might be quite universal within Chinese dialects. 
The old woman reminds me of my grandmother who passed away when I was in high school. We were very close, and she helped raise me along with my aunt since I was about 3 or 4 years old. It's not that my parents weren't around, they were there - except that they had to work, both of them. 
My aunt came to live with us one day, and then my grandmother arrived soon after that. She was getting old and so my father being the eldest chose to take care of her.  It's typically what happens in Chinese households, the oldest son or daughter cares for their aging parents. Still, shortly after her arrival, it seemed more like my grandmother took care of me.


I don't recall the day, or month when she passed away, but I do remember the moment that it happened. She was already in the hospital having suffered a stroke before that. She couldn't speak, and was partially paralyzed. I got a call from my father one afternoon telling me that she died. 

My grandmother and I spent a lot of time together, and at a very young age, I had the privilege to witness at close range, the aging process. She arrived to Canada being able to stand and walk with a cane. But slowly, over the years her body began to break down because of arthritis, and so she needed the support of a wall, or desk, or railing to help brace her while she moved. Eventually her body became so old that she spent most of her time in her bedroom, and because of her extreme immobility my father filled her room with everything she might need to keep her comfortable. A rice cooker, cookies and snacks, bread, hot water, tea, a television, papers and pencils, and magazines.  To pass the time, my grandmother and I played boardgames, where she sat and rolled the dice and then watched me move both her and my figurine across the board. We played Bingo, where I was both the announcer and the players, filling my card and hers with plastic chips. Sometimes we watched exercise programs on television and my grandmother would raise and lower her arms in the air over and over again, and also kick her feet in and out, while in sitting position. At lunch time, when I was in elementary school, I would go home to see her. I would walk upstairs to her bedroom and sit on her bedside and eat. She usually sat in her armchair next to a broken Singer sewing machine that we used as a table. We also taught her how to write her name and some numbers in English,
Chen Yut Sun
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
I combed my grandmother's hair sometimes, and clipped her nails; each time tracing my fingers along the crooked bones of her hands and feet.  

As her body began to break down even more in her old age, my father needed help caring for her, and so as a family, we pitched in. She could no longer go to the bathroom on her own, and so my father taught us how to change her diaper. I understand how strange it is for a teenager to change the diaper of their grandparent, but for me, and the rest of my family, it was very natural. At night time, one of us would go into her room and tuck her in. She would say in Toisan, lucky words and sentences.

"Grandmother loves you very much. Good luck. Good luck. Good luck. I wish you lots of good fortune. Good night."


The old woman is hunched over slightly, her layers of clothing spotted with dirt from her morning ritual. She wears a small hat, I expect to protect her from the sun, but moreso I believe it's to keep her grey hair away from her face because the hat has no brim. I can see that the lines around her eyes and mouth are deep, and her nose is very slight. From a distance they are two tiny dots near the center of her face. 
She approaches the corner of the street at the same moment that I do.
We stare at each other for a few seconds, and then I feel shy and look away. I continue to walk about half a block down the street and then I turn back to see her from behind still lifting bottles out of the trash can and placing them into her cart. 

* The illustration on the top right was done for The Atlantic magazine.

1 comment:

George G said...

What a beautiful, poignant story.

I always notice that, more often than not, those scavenging through the recyclables are Asian women. Being Asian myself I feel a strong empathy towards them, and I often think about how old they are, and yet how hard they're still working as opposed to just begging on the streets. I feel saddened by their plight but also admire their strength to work...