Embracing our Grandmothers

Poh PohI did not know my maternal grandmother well. Come to think of it, I did not know any of my grandparents well. Both my grandfathers died when I was young, and language barriers kept me from conversing with my paternal grandmother, even though she was present throughout most of my life.

My mother’s mother, Poh Poh as I would call her, came into my life in the early 90s. She followed the path set by my two uncles as they both brought their families to Canada from Hong Kong. Until that point, I had no relationship with Poh Poh, and not much of one there after.

Again, language barriers did not help. I with my broken Cantonese could barely string together a sentence and she could hardly speak a word of English. But language was not the sole barrier. She treated my brothers and I like someone else’s family. We did not belong to her because we did not come from her sons. We came from her eldest daughter.

I knew and accepted that implicit rejection. I did not mind because I never needed her approval. She was Poh Poh; an eccentric old woman who loved Mah Jong, who at times drove people crazy, but was kind in heart and strong in will.

It was not until her recent death that I began to consider the spiritual and emotional impact of my grandmother. On the surface it would seem that there would not be much of one. She came from rural China. Patriarchy, ancestral worship, superstition were all parts and parcels of being Chinese. These were elements that influenced my upbringing but were eventually erased from my identity as I embraced a western Christ. I was so different from her, so foreign. There was no relatedness other than through blood.

But as I watched my mother struggle with her mother’s approval and acceptance, I realized that I have been carrying the same burden. We long for our mother’s embrace; we long to identify with the one who has shaped our meaning of what it means to be a woman. We long to stand in line with our foremothers who have endured tremendous hardship, suffered deep losses, and triumphed in creating beauty in midst of tragedy.

So I began to listen for my grandmother’s story and try to patch together what I knew of her and what I could understand. I used to feel disdain for her apparent ignorance and blatant favoritism towards male family members. But she was a product of her environment and so am I. Despite the differences, I began to appreciate her story and now I marvel at the distance between hers and mine. I have become so much because of the opportunities I have had here in North America. But if it were not for my grandmother, my mother would not be who she is. And if it were not for my mother, I would not be who I am.

A friend who is pregnant with her second child (a girl), shared with me that the baby is now just past the point where she has developed all the eggs she will ever have. Therefore, my friend is also carrying her possible future grandchildren. This thought floored me. It meant that at one point in my pre-history, I was in my grandmother’s womb.

Though biologically life seems to pass down through generations, spiritually the pattern is reversed. I was the first to become a follower of Christ, my mother second, and at last my grandmother who made a confession of faith on her deathbed. This is God’s redemptive power mysteriously at work and which continues to surprise me with hope. Hope that one day I will see my grandmother’s face again. Hope that I will see her and I will know her, and she will know me.  Those feelings of foreignness and distance will finally be erased by the common bond of God’s love and friendship. And without any need for more words, we will be embraced.


This was a contribution to Asian American Women on Leadership, a gathering of Asian American Women for leadership renewal and development.


84 thoughts on “Embracing our Grandmothers

  1. Deeply moving! I can relate to some degree with my own Mother immigrating to the USA with me only 1 year old, and finding it difficult to adapt to the culture and the language. Then my inability to communicate well with her parents (both passed away) and all my relatives in France. It is my prayer that my parents and all my bloodline that is living will come to the saving knowledge of Christ before they die. What a blessing to know you will one day be reunited with Grandmother.

    • Thanks Margaret! I didn’t realize you weren’t born in the States. I think children of immigrant families will always have a difficult time connecting with their ancestors, and hence difficultly finding a sense of home and belonging. I believe our God will make sense of all that one day, and part of that discovery is realizing our common humanity. Thanks for sharing!

  2. This was very moving! I think a lot about these kinds of things, but sadly, despite resolutions to try and change the situation, it’s very hard to connect with a grandparent you didn’t grow up with, only seeing them every now and then. But I will keep trying. I’m very sorry for your loss.

    • Thank you. Yes it is hard to connect but I think it’s worth trying anyhow. Love is always worth trying. Blessings!

  3. A moving and thought provoking post -thank you for sharing! I’ve been lucky to know all of my grandparents but now would like to “interview” them or “quiz” them on their life journey and their thoughts of moving from the Philippines to Australia.

  4. Great piece. I really like the part where you touch on disdain toward the old ways of adoring men, but how this was a product of her environment. I feel similarly about how my grandmother regards her children (one male, two female). I do believe she has shed a little of these biases when it comes to her grandchildren, but it still saddens me to see them trapped in a system of beliefs that demean them as women. Thanks for the wonderful post!

    • Thanks Alice. Learning about my family history, even just a little, actually helped to heal some of those wounds.. and I try to focus on the positive changes that have been made, and what is to come. Blessings!

  5. Thank you for writing this! I have been fortunate enough to know both of my grandmothers and they are both, now 88, still living today. However they both seem like they’re from different planets. My dad’s mom grew up the only daughter of 10 brothers and was poor and she and my grandpa were hard workers and she loves me so much and did everything for me when I was able to visit her or her visit me as a child. I consider her one of my very best friends despite our huge differences on what we both think is acceptable. I can tell her anything and she’ll love me regardless. My mom’s mom suffers from bi-polar disorder. She can be so loving one minute and screaming and yelling at you and throwing things at you the next. I’ve never met anyone with such a mean streak. For awhile I was like you, I just thought she was a crazy old lady who was mean, though extremely generous with her and my grandfather’s wealth, but I just couldn’t accept her behavior towards me and my other family members. But then I saw my mom struggle, just like yours, with wanting her mother’s love and acceptance. My grandma would do anything for her two sons but she treats her two daughters differently and my mom the worst..but my mom knows her history, was there when she lived a life that a person couldn’t dream of..traveling from country to country with two kids and two kids that you love away in the states. Once I understood my grandmother’s upbringing and her life in her early 20’s I began to love her and appreciate her much more. Even though she can still be very cruel, I know why. Sorry for rambling on, I’m just glad I’m to have someone to relate to. Thanks again for your sharing your story!

    • Wow, thank you for sharing too. I’m glad you’ve been able to understand and reconcile with who your grandmother is. Peace to you.

  6. This was beautiful and I am so happy for you and the journey you have begun into understanding on a deeper level who you are. I wish you peace~

  7. Thanks for sharing! I’m blessed with three grandchildren so far, and thankful for the ways God keeps reminding me that I still have a calling–to love and encourage my married children and be a loving influence on my grand babies!

  8. Thanks for your story. We never knew any of our grandparents. They all died in China and never travelled outside their region. All were poor and some died shortly after Communists took over in late 1940’s.

    Don’t know what the character of my 2 grandmothers were like. Yes, my mother did have favouritism towards …at least to make sure there was a boy in our family. There are 6 of us. But no, I think she tried to raise us with enough attention here in Canada.

    My mother came from a female dominant family — there were 8 of them, with 5 girls. So she was also influenced what it means to grow up surrounded by sisters who had their own minds…probably. I’ve met some of my aunts..

    As you know, displays of affection, hugging wasn’t really culturally norm during grandparents’ generation and even my parents’ generation (they are in their early 80’s). So we have had to learn the hard way, over the years, that finally, mother’s food care pkgs., all the healthy meals she prepared faithfully for us, year after year, etc. and fixing our sewing botches..are her expressions of love and dedication to us.

    • Thank you for sharing too. I’m starting to appreciate the indirect ways grace and love are shown in immigrant Chinese families…and it makes me reflect on how God’s love is also often shown in indirect ways (probably more to write on later). Blessings to you.

  9. .This is in sharp contrast to the relationship I had with my mother’s mother. I was her favorite granddaughter and she spoiled me rotten. She loved me so much that when eventually my mother wanted me to come and stay with her, she was heartbroken. But I can understand your situation was different and I think your grandmother was a victim of a culture that did not place so much importance on a female child and I am happy in the end you looked at the situation with a balanced eye

    • What a gift to have had a close connection with your grandmother! I think as one who wasn’t favored, I had a choice to feel bitterness or seek understanding. In the end it was helpful to know that it wasn’t about who I was and that I was still dearly loved. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  10. I cherish the memories of my grandmother on my mom’s side and appreciate the time I have with my grandmother on my dad’s side who is still alive. It is such a beautiful type of relationship, filled with amazing stories and wisdom and love, and I feel blessed to have experienced this kind of love in my life.

  11. Thank you for such a wonderful piece. I am going to be a grandmother next month, but I live 2000 miles away from my sons and their wives, so I’m sure I won’t be too involved in the lives of my grandchildren. This piece helps me see that even though I won’t be there physically I am still a part of their lives because my sons are a part of me. Thank you again!

    • Congratulations! Technology has helped to maintain connections in my family… hope you’ll find ways to bond and grow together. Thank you for reading and commenting 🙂

  12. Deeply moving. Next month, it will be one year since I held my grandmother’s hand as she danced with the angels.There was no language barrier and our stories differ in many ways but by the time I made it to her bedside across the miles, she was weak and speechless. I wonder what she was thinking as I held her hand and I look forward to the day when we embrace again and talk all about it. This really hit home. Thank you for sharing and God Bless.

    • So sorry for your loss… but how precious that you were present to her during that time, I’m sure it gave her strength and much peace. Thank you for sharing too.

      • Thank you for your kind words and that moment was indeed, precious. I just discovered your blog yesterday and I’m looking forward to reading more of your entries in the days to come. Keep inspiring. 🙂

  13. touched my heart, so true and beautiful. grannys are just the most wonderful beings – they have shaped generations though they seem whimsical yet as you so rightly said – ‘they are a product of their environment’. i lost my grandma a couple of years ago and now when i think back, i can trace so much of her in me and my sisters. they are interwoven within us and we will always a carry a part of them.
    lovely post. congratulations!

    • Thank you for the kind comment. Sorry you lost your grandma but it’s lovely to hear that you see her presence still. =)

  14. This story is very inspiring! I think that your grandmother is watching over you. I have a very close relationship with my grandmother and my mother. I thought it was interesting that you said that we were once in our grandmother’s womb. I have never thought about that before, and it seems crazy since there is such an age difference. Great post!

  15. Thank you for sharing your story. I had my maternal grandmother for all 42 years of my life and she passed away a few months ago at the age of 99. I spent time with her but I never really felt like I knew all of her – only the grandmotherly face she chose to share. I’ve learned so much about her since her passing and I love her and am amazed by her even more now than before. Her life was tumultuous, but she was always able to keep her cool facade – I try and channel this part of her when I am at my worst. It’s amazing how much impact grandparents can have.

    • 99! that’s amazing. I’m sure you have more of her in you than you realize. Thanks for sharing and God Bless!

  16. That’s a wonderful story. My father was from a tiny town in rural Mexico, and since he was much older than my mother and I’m the youngest, he was ancient to me ever since I was born. He was from a different world, a different era, and I never fully understood him until well into my college years, shortly before he died. Now and then I see him in my dreams, and I’m glad he was around for the few years I knew him, since he shaped who I am today.

  17. I really loved the story about your grandmother it was honest and beautifully written. i too was greatly influenced by my grandmother and it’s something I love writing about.
    Thank you for sharing

  18. Thank you so much for sharing. Pieces such as these have the power to change people’s lives. My grandmother is also from Hong Kong, and because of the language barrier, I barely know her except for her crazy and stubborn ways, but I don’t know how to tell her how much I admire her intelligence, her strength, and how grateful I am for everything she’s done for me. It’s time I learn how, before I no longer have that opportunity.

  19. Beautiful enlightening post. My grandmother and I did not have a language barrier, I cant even imagine how difficult and frustrating that must have been, and to be carried in your grandmothers womb, what an INCREDIBLE thought. Never in my life have I thought about that or put those things together. Its amazing. Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful uplifting story. Made my morning.

  20. My great granny passed away in 1998 and I still find it hard living without her face; without combing her hair and walking her home every Sunday. I still struggle and have spontaneous outbursts of, what I can only call, pain. I miss her terribly and yet I am aware that she is not gone. She showed me God before I knew His name and for that I am so grateful. Recently I have reconnected with her daughter, my grandmother, and it is so different. She is harsh and temperamental and says really horrible things that cause me pain, but not the pain of missing my great granny; the pain of being hurt. I am going to keep going and keep loving her in spite of it though. I want her to see that the love my great granny demonstrated is alive in me. The love of God.
    Thank you for sharing this and showing me that I am not walking this journey alone. God Bless you. x

    • Wow, what a gift to have known your GREAT-grandmother! Sorry that the relationship with your grandmother hasn’t been positive, I can see that being really disappointing and hurtful. But an opportunity, as you’ve said, to show the love of God as given by your great-granny. Blessings friend, and peace to you.

      • Thank you. Isn’t that something! That I never considered knowing my Great Grandmother anything but ordinary. Thank you again for the beautiful words. x

  21. Reblogged this on glittergaff and commented:
    I loved a miss my Grandmother everyday and too have daily struggles trying to gain my Mothers approval and love. I didn’t need to with Gran, it came willingly, this is a lovely and thoughtful post, Alison

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