My dad and his 9 siblings were born in a small grass hut built on a dirt field.
My grandma made cribs out of rocks and filthy straw.
Dad came into the world at the worst possible time—during a famine—to the worst possible parents—illiterate village beggars.
His entire family almost died from China’s Great Famine, which claimed millions of lives in the late 1950s.
Friends and neighbors were dying every day…bodies piled up on the streets…and as death counts rose, so did fear and panic.
There just wasn’t enough rations to go around. Starvation brought out the worst in people.
At one point, all 11 of them (my grandparents, Dad and his siblings) lived off rice and water for weeks on end.
They made their own clothes out of fabric scraps and shoes out of reeds. Everyone spent hours foraging off the barren land, but their efforts yielded little reward.
Sheer resilience and unimaginable frugality ensured their survival.
My grandparents were illiterate farmers and beggars who got married and had children when they were teenagers.
There was no school in their remote corner of the world. No formal education system. Hardly even any proper laws or form of local government.
Knowledge was passed down through storytelling and demonstrations.
Kids worked the fields alongside the adults as early as 5 years old, and toiled long hours to earn their keep. That kind of lifestyle is impossible for most people to understand.
“If you were so poor, why did they have 10 kids?”
I asked my grandma this question one spring evening. I wasn’t judgmental. I was curious.
“I never expected any of them to survive,” she replied. “But all 10 of them did.”
Grandma told me it was common for all the women in her village to get pregnant every single year because most children did not survive infancy. The village didn’t even have a proper doctor.
Since they wanted to escape poverty, they needed to produce more food and breed livestock, which they could eat and sell. More children meant free labor, increased productivity and additional income.
It was just the way things were. The way things had always been.
The last time I saw Grandma was the spring of 2019. She was in her eighties and had just suffered from a paralyzing stroke, leaving her bed-ridden for weeks.
As I sat by her bedside, she told me the captivating story of how her family triumphed during the “dark ages” and succeeded despite all the painful hardships thrown their way.
With a wrinkled smile, Grandma reminisced about my dad’s childhood. “I would pack a carrot in your dad’s rucksack and send him off to school. He would walk hours to the next village just to learn basic reading, writing and math.”
Grandma sighed. “Meat was so hard to come by, sometimes we could only afford to eat it once or twice a year, usually around Chinese New Year…”
“…The kids wanted new shirts, so I dyed old rags with plants and pretended they were new clothes…”
“…No one quite knows your grandfather’s ancestry. He was abandoned as a child and left to fend for himself…”
As she spoke, Grandma’s eyes welled with tears. She told me stories about her mother (my great-grandmother), who was a second wife. My great-grandfather was a bigamist who would bind his wives’ feet and force them into too-tiny footwear until eventually, in the prime of her life, my great-grandmother could no longer stand or walk because her mangled feet couldn’t support her own weight. Foot-binding was a common practice back then.
As the evening wore on, my grandma’s speech grew increasingly slurred and she began mistaking me for my mother.
“I can’t believe you’re here. Traveled halfway across the world to come visit me in this little village. Listening to an old woman talk about ancient history. I thank the Heavens I got to see you again, probably for the last time.”
“We’ll come back to visit you again,” I promised.
“But I won’t be here,” Grandma replied, rubbing her eyes.
Grandma never left her home village.
Can you imagine staying in the same place for more than 80 years?
She stayed, despite all the hardships she endured there.
But that grass hut?
It’s now a mansion.
Those rocks and dirty straw beds?
Replaced by luxurious Queen-sized beds. In bedrooms equipped with custom cabinetry, TVs, Wi-Fi and air conditioning. Her living room was nicer than mine, and when you looked out the window, you could see lush greenery stretch for miles.
Grandma’s farm produced enough food to feed the entire village. But she didn’t need to sell any of that food for income because all 10 of her kids grew up successful. Several of my uncles became multi-millionaires. They pulled up to her house in a shiny Mercedes-Benz, driving along this windy gravel road that, 50 years ago, was nothing more than a narrow mud path they used to walk along with threadbare, homemade shoes.
They visited her often and built her this beautiful house. Furnished her home with every modern luxury and paid all of her bills. Grandma wanted for nothing, and she could even afford to hire help whenever she needed.
Today, my dad’s side of the family owns half the mountainside and they are one of the richest families in the area.
After all my aunts and uncles married and left the village for big cities, my youngest uncle stayed behind, married a local girl and looked after Grandma and the farm. He dedicated his life to taking care of Grandma’s needs and her legacy.
This true rags-to-riches story is the most powerful one I know. It’s the ultimate tale of resilience.
Who would’ve thought that 2 homeless, teenage beggars living in a remote Chinese village would successfully raise 10 kids, including my dad, during a nation-wide famine?
I am mind boggled every single day that my dad and his family survived all of those hardships and thrived in spite of them.
The only reason my PJ-clad butt is even here, sitting in my beautiful home, typing this story out on my MacBook Pro, is because 50 years ago, my dad walked twenty miles to and from school every day to educate himself.
If he never chose to pursue and fight for his education, he would’ve never left that village, gone to university, become an agricultural scientist…meet my mom…have me…and move to Canada.
Grandma hobbled out to say her teary farewells when we were leaving the village. We hugged.
Somehow, I had a feeling this would be the last time we spoke.
I was right.
A couple of weeks later, Grandma had a fall and ended up in a coma for the next two months. She passed away in her sleep on August 8, 2019.
After a ceremonial funeral, she was buried beside my grandpa, who had passed away 15 years prior. They rest on the mountainside behind their home, on land they earned through decades of blood, sweat and tears.
Every time I find myself struggling, I think about my roots and this reflection empowers me. I hope this story touched and inspired you as much as it did my friends and family.
June 27, 2020