Honouring our elders: memories, stories and journeys

There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “a family with an old person has a living treasure of gold / 家有一老,如有一寶.” Our elders are irrefutably pillars of our family and society, holding the key to our heritage and origin stories while serving as a trove of knowledge and wisdom. They’re not only never short of golden nuggets of advice— they will also never let you go hungry, even if it means defying your parents and sneaking you that treat you’ve been pining for.

In celebration of Asian Heritage Month, we are honouring and paying respect to our elders. We asked our community to share their favourite memory of a grandparent in their life, why they’re important to the family and the story of their journey to North America.

From an adventurous foodie and a passionate poet to the family’s first working woman, these individuals never cease to amaze and inspire us. Whether they live a few blocks away or vividly in our memories, we will always have a special place for them in our hearts.

I challenge you to call up an elder in your family and learn something about them that you have never known before. It’s up to us to uncover the stories of our roots and relay them to the next generation so they will never be forgotten. 

Bao Sheng Feng, Grandmother to Jenny & Adventurous Foodie

“Adventure Seeker, Patient, Loving”

Photo credit: Jenny Hu

Favorite Memory:

My grandmother had just immigrated to the US when I was about six years old. She went grocery shopping and saw an avocado for the first time. The adventure seeker in her bought one out of curiosity. She stopped at a street-side curb, peeled the skin off the avocado and took a bite. Her reaction was that of interest, while my grandfather looked on with disgust. He took a bite and immediately threw it out. She yelped and said she actually liked it.

Role in the Family:

My grandmother is the quiet matriarch of my family. While she’s not the most outspoken, there are few moments when she doesn’t know the volume of her voice. She drives the family with her ambition.

Journey to North America:

My grandmother and my grandfather immigrated to North America together from China. They were the first elders to come. My grandparents had taken care of me since I was six months old, and they had come to continue to care for me. Despite not knowing the language or having any friends, they adjusted quite well, especially my grandmother. She’s always seeking something fun or yummy to eat. Even without GPS or Google Maps, in the first couple of months since they arrived in the US, my grandmother decided that we would go on long walks to get to know the neighborhoods. We wandered for hours and somehow we never got lost. With a proud voice, she would say “I know my directions. Trust me.”

She also never hesitated to try American food. Her favorite is anything fried. As a kid, I always knew how to influence her to stop by the nearest McDonald’s for some chicken nuggets and French fries. My grandmother and I would enjoy the food, while my grandpa exclaimed in the background how “yeet hay” it was for us. (“Yeet hay” is Cantonese for a Chinese medicine term that refers to foods that cause inflammation.)

Lolo Romy, Grandfather to Lalaine & Baby Whisperer

“My Dad’s Clone”

Photo credit: Lalaine Alindogan

Favorite Memory:

My earliest and fondest memory of Lolo is when he crouched down on the floor and played with me in my toy kitchen. He pretended to be a patron as I served him plastic croissants. Lolo’s voice, behaviour, mannerisms, and tastes in films and food were so much like my father’s that when he babysat me as a toddler, I thought he just was an older version of my dad.

Role in the Family:

The father is the figurehead of the Filipino family. As Lolo was the father of five sons, my dad being the oldest, I viewed him as the ultimate head of family. When we three moved to Canada, my grandparents would fly over from the Philippines and visit once every few years. It was within these few weeks every few years that I would get to know my grandfather, but I was just a kid back then. Yet, watching Lolo, I could understand where my loud, energetic, and goofy father and uncles got parts of their personalities from – and that’s all I could learn about him before he passed away from lung cancer when I was very young.

W. Wang, Grandmother to Joanna & First Working Woman

“Selfless, Brave, Patient”

Photo credit: Joanna Li

Favorite Memory:

My favourite memory of Grandma was how patient she was with me when I learned to play piano. I was six years old when I first started learning how to play piano. I hated it, because I was always yelled at whenever I hit a wrong note. Most of the time, I ended up crying and playing at the same time. Despite that, I liked playing piano with my grandma because she was always so patient. She never yelled at me. She would only correct me gently when I played a wrong note. Funnily enough, I played better too in her presence. I think because of how patient and kind she was to me, I was way less nervous and was able to play to my potential!

Role in the Family:

My grandma just passed away in April 2021 at the age of 92. I miss her very much. My grandma was such a selfless person who always placed her family’s well-being above her own.

Grandma was an extraordinary woman of her times. During her time, most young, single women did not work. They waited at home until they reached an appropriate age for marriage. My grandma was not one of them. While her sisters waited to be married, my grandma, at the age of 15, had the courage to be unconventional and went to school to become a nurse. When she graduated, her dad (the only breadwinner of the family) was laid off, so she ended up supporting her whole family (her parents and 6 siblings) with her wages. This left her living paycheque to paycheque, but she was glowing with happiness because she was able to help her family in a time of need. It didn’t matter how hard she had to work. As long as her family was taken care of, she was happy.

Petronila Agustin Santos, Grandmother to Melissa & Passionate Poet

“Loving, Genuine, Strong”

Photo credit: Melissa Tolentino

Favorite Memory:

Not only was my Lola, Petronila Agustin Santos, kind hearted, full of love for others, and had the best sense of humour, she loved spending time with her girlfriends. Sometimes when I visited her, she would be hosting her fun group of friends where they would get manis and pedis, and play cards.

She grew up in Bulacan, a province in the Philippines well known for birthing many poets — my grandmother included. I never knew that my Lola was a poet until I attended a FILCAS (Filipino-Canadian Association of Saskatoon) holiday party in 2007. With it being the Christmas before I moved to Vancouver, I attended the party with some family members. The FILCAS committee members all took turns hosting the event so when my Lola walked up to the front of the banquet room, I was surprised. She recited by memory a well-known poem called, “Pamalo o Pangaral”, that translates to “Whip or Sermon”.

She performed it with such passion — you could tell by the movement of her body and the tone of her voice, a tone you would only hear if you eavesdropped on her praying alone in her room. To be honest I didn’t quite hear the full poem because she kept moving her arms and the microphone was in her hands. I also didn’t realize she was a hand talker until that evening. I remember being so mesmerized by her performance, and realized my Lola was an artist. 

Role in the Family:

As the head of the household, my Lola was the heart and soul of our family. She was the glue that held us together, and kept us close. Even though she’s been gone for nearly three years, her memory still lives so strong among us. When I make big decisions, I always have my Lola in the back of my mind. Would she approve? Would she be proud of me? My family members back in Saskatoon still place a bouquet of fresh flowers on her grave once a week – mostly yellow ones since that was her favourite colour. We all miss her so much.

Journey to North America:

My eldest aunt, Margarita, was the first to come to North America. My Lolo applied for her to work as a seamstress in Canada when she was 18 and left in March of 1975. After my Lolo passed in August 1977, my Tita Meg took on the responsibilities of supporting her siblings, her niece and my Lola. She sponsored everyone to come to Canada and they arrived on January 1st, 1981. We wouldn’t be here without her and we are forever grateful.

“Po Po”, Maternal Grandmother to Sabrina, aka “The Harmonizer

“Kind, Matriarch, Family-oriented”

Photo credit: Sabrina Ting

Favorite Memory:

I always remember the small or “weird” things my grandma did for the family. My grandma required very little to be happy and always put her family first. When I was a child, I went through a weird phase of wanting oranges, so she always had an orange in her purse on outings just in case I really wanted one. One time, my brother needed new dress pants so he took my grandma out to go shopping, and then went for lunch. She wouldn’t stop talking about it for years after. To us, it was such a minor thing, but it clearly meant a lot to her. One time, I really wanted to order pizza but my mom said no because it was unhealthy. My grandma started arguing with my mom saying that pizza is actually very healthy because it had bread, cheese, vegetables and meat – all the food groups! My mom caved in and we got pizza. 

Role in the Family:

My grandma was the “leader” of our family. Family dinners, vacations or decisions centered around her, yet she was the most generous of all. On my mom’s side, there are seven siblings and each sibling had at least one child, so it was a big family –  a big family of different personalities, religions, viewpoints and mannerisms. Despite our differences and strong personalities, my grandmother taught us to always put family first. Because of her, my family is able to have intense arguments but still get together in a few hours for dinner. When she passed, there was a concern that our family would fall apart because she was our glue. However, her life lessons have continued to keep our family together despite her passing. 

Journey to North America:

My grandma moved from city to city depending on which of her kids could take care of her based on where she was in her life. She lived with my family in Vancouver for almost a decade, but had lived with her eldest son in Vancouver before that. She wasn’t the first to move to Canada, but she followed her children around. She enjoyed Vancouver but I knew she always felt the most comfortable in Hong Kong. 

Do you have a story about an elder in your life? Share on Instagram and tag us @ColdTeaCollective.

Featured photo credit: Rodnae Productions from Pexels

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