When I think about my grandpa being young, my head starts to hurt. To me, he had always been the elderly man who, with all his wisdom, taught me Chinese Chess, ate tart orange papayas, and called my brother and me xiao jiao huo, little fellows. I was aware that his life had been far more extensive, but to me it didn’t seem real. The depth, veracity, and reality of his existence didn’t seem real until I watched a slideshow depicting it, the one made for his funeral.
I saw pictures of him working on a train in Taiwan, homeless and alone. At first, the black and white palette cast a hollow shadow over his early life. It reminded me of those pictures in history textbooks, the ones that make you wonder how anyone could have lived “back then,” how happiness could have penetrated that colorless landscape. But then I saw that there were always other people sharing the same shabby work clothes, the same weary frowns, the same determination to fend off misery and loneliness. They didn’t appear in the slideshow, but I imagined laughter forming an umbrella against sweat, of friendship filling the edges of that colorless world.
Fast forward, and the pictures exchanged black and white for color, grim and grime for grins, ambition for success. In these pictures, he was shaking hands with important people, giving important lectures, attending important events. But these made me uncomfortable too. It was hard to rationalize the photographic evidence of my grandpa’s importance because he had always just been my grandfather, a part of my personal life removed from the outside world. But his impact on others was undeniable.
It filled me with joy and melancholy to see the pictures of him and my grandma, newly married. I didn’t think he could smile so widely, with the corners of his lips touching the edges of the picture frame. I didn’t think his world could twist in on him and turn upside-down the way it does when one is in love. But it must have. That’s how love works.
And then there were the pictures where he held my dad, still a boy. I didn’t know my dad could be a boy. I didn’t know he could gather his legs in someone’s lap, tiny hands reaching toward imagination, twinkling eyes scanning the future. But there he was, ready to leap out the screen. Seeing that version of him made me realize that, even though my dad called him yeye, Grandpa, in front of me, he had really been to my dad like my dad was to me. It was terrifying, the realization that my father had just lost his dad.
But the pictures that frightened me the most were the ones at the end, the ones where I was in the frame, dated only a few years back. Because everything had been fine then. Because he had still been here, and I had not cherished it enough.
Chris Tai is currently a freshman studying Computer Science and Creative Writing at Rutgers University – New Brunswick. He writes in order to reflect on his emotions and experiences, and he wrote Different Countries, Same World in honor of his late grandfather. His favorite genres to write are fantasy and romance, but he also enjoys writing about coming of age.