A Difficult Truth by Huina Zheng

Friday, December 1, 2023
Huina Zheng's character moves in with her grandmother out of filial loyalty, but at what cost?

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My mother and her brother, my uncle, were both retired. My uncle had been a doctor, my mother a civil servant, and their retirement pay was high. But they were not filial to my 80-year-old grandma, who lived alone. My uncle's family lived in the same town as my grandma, and it took them only 40 minutes to drive to my grandma's house, but they seldom visited her.

Two months ago, Grandma fell and broke her calf. My uncle and aunt stayed in the hospital and cared for my grandma for two weeks, and then my mother went to look after her for another two weeks. After that, they sent Grandma home to live by herself.

When I found out, I asked my mother, "You and Uncle have generous pensions. Why don't you hire a carer to look after Grandma?"

My mother said, "She doesn't want a carer, so hiring one is just a waste of money."

"You and Uncle are retired and have a lot of time. Why not let Grandma live with you in turn?"

My mother sighed and said, "Your grandma is not easy to get along with."

I was angry at their lack of filial piety. This was my first year as a primary school teacher, and I had two months of summer vacation. I told my mother I would live with Grandma.

I said, "Since Grandma's children don't want to take care of her, then I, her granddaughter, will take up their responsibilities." My mother looked embarrassed but didn't say anything.

My uncle said he would pay me 6,000 yuan a month to care for Grandma and for the living expenses. His generosity surprised me. But I gladly accepted it, thinking I could cook delicious meals for Grandma and improve her living standards.

My parents were busy with work, and left me with my grandma to care for me shortly after I was born.

Grandma would cook mung bean soup for me to cool off the heat, and at night she would sit with me in the courtyard, fanning me and telling me folk stories. When a distant dog's barking awakened me in the middle of the night, she would pat me on the back and hum me a lullaby.

I didn't return to my parents until I was six years old. Since then, I only saw Grandma for a day or two during the Chinese spring festival at my uncle's. I missed the good times with my grandma.

Knowing that I was going back to live with her, Grandma was happy and gave me the best room, the master room reserved for my uncle. I arrived at Grandma's house at 1pm. Learning that I hadn't eaten lunch, Grandma ignored my objection and went to the kitchen to make me fried rice with egg. I felt like a little girl again, and Grandma was still the same caring granny I remembered.

When Grandma brought me a plate of egg fried rice, I took a bite. It was too greasy and salty. I tried the fried egg, but it tasted funny. I could not eat another bite, so I said to Grandma, "It's too hot. I will eat it later." Grandma nodded.

I said, "I haven't been here for a long time and forgot what this house is like. I'll take a tour and get acquainted with it."

I walked towards the kitchen, and a whiff of faint stench wafted by. I noticed stains and footprints on the floor and dust and dirt on the windowsills. The trash can was overflowing with some rotting food scraps around. The stove was filthy and greasy. I examined the seasonings beside the furnace and found that the soy sauce and vinegar expired. Oddly, I didn't see cooking oil. I opened the refrigerator and, to my horror, found that some eggs had a green coating of powdery material on the shell.

I asked, "Where's the edible oil?"

Grandma removed the lid from a big bowl next to the furnace and said, "I use pork lard."

"Lard is not good for your health."

Grandma said louder, "Why are you the same as your uncle and mother? My cousin is 92 years old and eats lard every day."

Grandma was angry, so I changed the subject and said, "The seasonings have a shelf life, and you can't eat them if they expire."

"After I use them, I tighten the caps tightly. They won't go bad."

"The eggs definitely go off."

"I had lots of rotten food during the famine and survived."

Grandma's ideas of living were deeply ingrained, and I was unsure of how to convince her to give up those unhealthy habits. I told Grandma I would do the cooking while I stayed with her.

I bought groceries at the supermarket that afternoon and replaced the expired condiments from Grandma's kitchen. When Grandma was not around, I put the expired seasonings, the egg fried rice, the rotten eggs, and the rubbish in the kitchen in a black plastic bag and tossed it into the trash bin on the street. I also thoroughly cleaned the kitchen.

I fried cabbage, steamed a pork pie, and stewed beef and radish soup in the evening. When I put the dishes on the table, Grandma said, "The portions of the dishes are too small."

"They're enough to serve two people."

"Min, you need to make bigger portions at one sitting, so we can eat them tomorrow after reheating. You won't need to wash vegetables and stir-fry dishes. It can save tap water and gas."

"Leftovers can lead to food poisoning."

Grandma's face fell a little. "Nonsense. I have been eating this way for decades."

I put a piece of pork pie in Grandma's rice bowl and said with a smile, "Grandma, try it. When I was young, I liked your pork pie the most."

Grandma smiled, put it into her mouth, and said, "It's too bland. Put more salt next time."

"But Grandma, you should keep a mild diet for your health."

"Don't tell me what I should do or shouldn't do. Your mother always likes to do that; that's why we keep fighting." Grandma's eyebrows drooped, and the wrinkles on her forehead deepened.

I forced a smile and said, "Grandma, don't be mad. Let's eat, or the food will be cold."

That night just after half past eight, Grandma turned off the TV in the living room and asked me to go to bed.

She lit the mosquito coils for me, and soon the whole room smelled of smoke and chemical aroma. I couldn't stand the odor, so I took out the electrical mosquito killer I brought.

When Grandma went to the bathroom and passed my room, she found I was still awake, watching TV series on my mobile phone in the room. She gave me a look, turned off my air conditioner and the mosquito killer, and said, "Use mosquito coils and the electrical fan, as we need to save electricity." When she left, she turned off the light in my room.

I sighed with profound resignation. The grandma in my memory had always been kind and warm. I didn't know why she had often lost her temper with me on my first day with her.

When I was sure Grandma was sound asleep, I turned on the mosquito killer.

In the following days, I had conflicts with Grandma almost every day because of my "extravagance."

She got up at 4am every morning and went through trash cans in nearby streets, picking up cardboard boxes, bottles, and even old clothes that she believed were valuable, and stacked them in the balcony and rooms.

Once when I threw a bundle of old clothes into the trash, Grandma shoved me, yelling, "It's money." Then she ran to the trash can and picked up what I had thrown.

One afternoon, when Grandma went out, I called the man who collected waste products and sold him all the things on the balcony for 50 yuan. He did not accept the 20 broken umbrellas, and I gave him 15 yuan before he reluctantly took them away.

"I can sell them for at least 100 yuan. You have bad money habits," Grandma said.

She still picked up waste daily, and the house smelled sour. Whenever I tried to persuade her, Grandma would get furious and berate me for being wasteful.

As long as I cooked just enough dishes, she would reprimand me for cooking too few; if she saw me dump the leftovers in the trash, she would scold me for wasting food. If I tried to reason with her, she would throw a tantrum, saying, "I've been eating this way for decades."

My mother bought a range hood for Grandma, but every time I wanted to use it, Grandma would urge me to turn it off because there was not much fume.

My uncle bought a washing machine for Grandma, but she insisted that I wash clothes by hand because the washing machine would consume too much water and electricity.

After four days of struggling to live with Grandma, I was exhausted. I thought perhaps I should follow Grandma's habits and adapt to her frugality.

At noon on the fifth day, Grandma asked me to take out the leftover rice from last night, add some water, pour in the leftovers, and make a pot of vegetable porridge. She ate with great relish while I lost my appetite. I ate biscuits in the room after lunch to satisfy my hunger.

It was hot and stuffy in the afternoon, but Grandma wouldn't let me turn on the electrical fan. She said I could use a fan to cool myself off. I decided to visit my neighbor and take the opportunity to enjoy their air conditioner.

The neighbor, Aunt Zhang, was my mother's childhood playmate. When I entered the door and sat down, she took the cut pieces of watermelon from the refrigerator and beckoned me to eat them.

She said, "It must be hard to care for your grandma."

I nodded but said nothing, not wanting to complain about Grandma with Aunt Zhang.

She said, "Your uncle hired several carers before. They were nice and responsible. But your grandma asked them to eat leftovers and didn't let them watch TV. She even set a time limit for bathing, worrying about them wasting water. Many couldn't stand it and quit their jobs. Only one could bear it, but it killed your grandma to know that the care fees cost so much, so she drove the carer away. Your uncle had to let your grandma live alone and ask us neighbors to keep an eye on her."

I didn't want Aunt Zhang to think of Grandma negatively, so I said, "Grandma had a hard childhood, and she is frugal because of it."

Aunt Zhang shook her head and said, "Your grandma is not short of money. Your uncle and mother give her a lot of money every month, enough for her to live a very comfortable life. She is too harsh on herself and others around her."

"Grandma didn't want to be a burden to her children."

"She once had diarrhea from eating leftovers, which cost your uncle 10,000 yuan hospital fees. Two months ago, when she saw a man who also wanted to pick up trash, she rushed toward the trash can and fell, only to fracture the calf, and the medical cost was almost 7,000 yuan. Her frugality cost your uncle and mother more money."

I suddenly understood why my uncle and mother were "unfilial." It was not that they didn't want to be filial but that my grandma refused the way they took care of her and insisted on her own living habits, even if such habits were unhealthy.

I told myself to live with Grandma for two months, to get used to it, and to see the good side of her. But I often had a stomach ache or a hungry stomach. I felt uncomfortable, like living in a slum after bankruptcy, saving here and there.

Maybe loving someone was easy, but getting along with them was hard. After living with Grandma for less than a month, I lied that I had work to do and needed to return earlier.

Before I left, Grandma said, "Remember to come back next summer vacation."

I watched her silver-white hair flutter in the breeze and the wrinkles around her eyes when she smiled. I hugged Grandma, wishing I was still that little girl who enjoyed living with her grandma.

I nodded and said, "I'll be back next year."


  1. When I moved in with my mom when she was 84, to “take care of her,” I was likewise taken aback by some of her ways that were so ingrained over time. Interestingly, a similar set of attitudes had been assumed by Mom in regard to her aging mother, decades before. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” she’d remark sagely. For both women, harkening back to their experiences during the Great Depression was used by others to explain some of their attitudes and behaviors. Upon years of reflection, it occurs to me that she wasn’t always wrong, that she often knew whereof she spoke. A carapace of irascibleness will often be revealed, over time, to be a patina of wisdom.

    1. My grandmother lived through the Great Depression as well. During meals at restaurants, she would put packets of sugar in her pocket book. Over time, her pocket book became packed with sugar packets. She also called her own refrigerator an "ice box". I didn't realize until much later that for many years she had no refrigerator. What she had, instead, was an actual ice box. Toward the end of her life when she had fallen very ill, she resisted going to a hospital. Back when she was growing up, going to a hospital often meant going to die. By her own inverted logic, staying away from the hospital was a way of staying away from death.

      I like the way the author of this story wove together the "threads" of frugality, health, and subtle advances in technology. I also very much liked the moral of her story: that you can love someone and at the same time that person can be hard to get along with.

  2. What a familiar scene! I can relate! It’s bittersweet because grandma had plenty…but felt things were desperate. Yet, her children were generous with her. The details were lovely…specifics all through the piece. Really lovely story!

  3. There are many interesting culturally specific aspects to this story, but what I find most compelling is the universal theme of caring for an aging loved one, particularly one who is so traumatized. If you’ve ever gone to bed hungry as a child, or needed to steal food, or money, etc. in order to survive… …these traumas stay with you into your adulthood. What are eccentricities in your eighties were once useful and necessary survival mechanisms. Grandma clearly lived through some very challenging times.

    1. I agree with Adam Strassberg. I would add to what he has said. You develop your eccentricities when you are young, but many people can "work around" their eccentricities until they get very old. Or, before they get old, at least they are more aware that their eccentricities are things they should be trying to work around.