This is how I always imagine my grandfather’s departure from Shanghai: him, a lanky boy of 19, wearing khakis and a pressed shirt, standing near the docks with a small brown suitcase in hand. I imagine the shirt to be white with intersecting gray lines, a series of chess-sized squares on his body. Maybe he’s wearing a matching beige jacket too, or a hat of some sort. I assume that going overseas was probably a big deal at the time, an occasion you were supposed to dress up for.
For some reason, in this scene, I don’t see the man traveling with my grandfather—a friend of my great-grandparents he might have called Uncle. Instead, I see my great-grandmother, small and slightly bent over, her lined face rearranging its features as she struggles not to cry. I see her gazing up at her tall boy, adjusting his shirt, touching his lapel, fussing the way mothers do. I see her pressing a sack of oranges into his palms, worried he’ll be hungry on the boat. Now he’s brushing her fingers away, annoyed, impatient. He’ll only be gone for a few weeks, he reminds her, three months at the most. She tells him not to do anything rash out there. She tells him to listen to Uncle. I can see him barely registering her words. I can see his eyes lingering on the boat and the ocean and the tiny island of Taiwan he can’t yet make out. I can see that his mind is already gone from his childhood home and she can see it too. She takes a deep breath and smiles. She tries to be happy for him, to be proud of her youngest son. She tries to remember that boys his age are fighting wars in the north, and that she is lucky, so lucky, that all he wants is to explore the world. She tries to be happy that her boy will not only be well-educated, but also well-traveled, but he is her baby boy and she is his mother and he’s never traveled so far from home before.
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