On She Goes

In the Holy Land with Grandma & Revisiting Family History

In Grandma’s search for her truth, she helped me find mine.

Fiona Teng
Fiona Teng
November 21, 2017
Story hero image

When my family and I moved from Hong Kong to California, my dad joined us only for the first two months, after which he promptly returned to Hong Kong to tend to his business. After that, we never lived in the same place again, and 10 years later, communication became sparse and he left the family for good. I was 10 years old when Dad left the first time, and 20 when we would never hear from him again.

When we landed in California, I met my grandma—my dad’s mom—for the first time. I spoke little English and found my grandma’s perfect English peculiar. Her British-influenced education in Shanghai trained a fluency in English that made communicating in Cantonese rare and left a gap between us. Over the years, Grandma and I caught up plenty on jobs, school, and relationships, but seldom about Dad, as if his leaving had no impact. As if there was hardly any trace of him at all.

For as long as Grandma had believed in God, she dreamt of visiting the Holy Land. Still in remarkable health, her 90th year seemed symbolic to embark on this trip of a lifetime. In September of 2016, on a frigid 15-passenger minibus, Grandma and I traveled together across Israel and Palestine—from Haifa to Nazareth, Jerusalem to Bethlehem—to trace the stories of the Bible and the footsteps of Jesus. I accepted my responsibility as caretaker, negating anxiety that this would be the first time she and I would spend substantial time together.

Ancient village of Ein Karem, Jerusalem.
photo by Fiona Teng

Our tour group adored Grandma. Most days we were greeted by a bus full of elderly, mostly white couples from the U.S. and Canada. Grandma was the eldest member of the tour group, and I was the youngest. She was always charming with her blushed cheeks, brightly colored tops, and cheerful energy to match. I, on the other hand, regularly adorning my Angela Davis T-shirt and sometimes opting to stay on the tour bus to read about the conflict, vacillated between feeling amused by religious stories I didn’t adhere to, apprehensive about the one-sided Israeli perspective we received, and grumpy about the restrictive tour bus life. We made quite the pair.

Every evening after we finished a day of sightseeing, we ventured down to the hotel’s dining room for an immaculate spread of salads, warm breads, and steaming entrees. My grandma, possibly the pickiest eater I know, carefully investigated the options before sitting down with the usual suspects: a bit of salad, toast and butter, maybe some soup, and a mix of fruits and sweets. Our love for sweets was one thing we had in common, and something she rejoiced in claiming I got from her. Sometimes I watched her excitedly chatting with our new friends and admired her, wondering if my dad got his charm from her.

The Treasury at the historical and archeological city of Petra, Jordan.
photo by Fiona Teng

Hopping from Banias Spring to the Western Wall to Beit She’an, if Grandma’s energy allowed her, she would catch up to our tour guide at the head of the pack and charge him with a myriad of questions about her favorite biblical stories. Other times she patiently listened to others deliberate while leaning steadily on her walking cane. With an outstretched neck and clasped hands, she appeared eager and attentive like an impressionable schoolgirl. I imagined her as an obedient and curious child growing up in China.

The stories continued in our travels together, where Grandma shared stories with me she never shared with anyone before.

Raised in British-influenced Shanghai by her father—a political revolutionary whose faith was more rooted in culture and superstition than in religion—Grandma encountered Christianity at school. While touring the streets of Jerusalem, she took me back to the first moment she believed in God. The stories continued in our travels together, where Grandma shared stories with me she never shared with anyone before. On one of our flights, over the roar of an airplane’s engine, she recalled her English-only school that fined students five cents for speaking in their native Cantonese. In the intimacy of our bedtime hour, she painted the details of the large estate she grew up on and the extensive family that lived with her, blood-related or not. Grandma told me about challenges living with her father. Maybe history really does repeat itself, because her cold and distant relationship with her father seemed to mirror what eventually became a cold and distant relationship I had with my own father.

Roaming around Old City, Jerusalem.
photo by Fiona Teng

She spoke of my father’s affinity for play rather than school. How he was different compared to his siblings, that he was “abnormal.” The term “abnormal” made my heart tighten. My imagination took me places where my grandma’s words didn’t. In a familiar and relentless reach for any reason that might have motivated Dad’s leaving—because without it, forgiving him felt impossible—I wanted to know, was he a gifted artist constricted by the norms and expectations of society? Might he have felt cast out as a political and cultural dissident? How much was I like him?” In these private moments of my thoughts, I was again 10 years old in our living room in Hong Kong. I could see Dad’s sun-kissed face, shaped only by laughter and none of the sorrow that filled him when he left us. I felt closer to him, like maybe I peered into a part of him that looked a lot like a part of myself. Like maybe in him there was a home I never quite knew. If he had stuck around, maybe we could have been kindred spirits.

Winding through the Siq gorge and magnificent rock formations at Petra, Jordan.
photo by Fiona Teng

In Grandma’s journey to uncover her truth, she unexpectedly helped me do the same. On this trip, our two journeys unfolded concurrently, each made possible only because of the other. Grandma continues to thank me for the gift of companionship and support I had extended her. Perhaps this story, this article, is my way of giving her thanks for the gift of my father. Her stories of my dad swirl in and out of my consciousness, and in my mind, I retold them where instead of abnormal she told me he was extraordinary.