I was born in 1996 in Mudanjiang, China. I was born into the era of “New China.” Mom, Dad, grandma, and I have lived together since I was six years old. It is quite common for Chinese families to have three generations living under the same roof. Grandma has always cooked for the entire family. She is the best cook I know, and she would always cook a lot of greasy meaty dishes with a lot of flavor. Having meat on the dinner table makes her happy. It is luxury in her eyes.

My grandmother was born in 1942. When she was born, World War II was at its final stretch. On our land, Japanese troops were still slaughtering civilians and taking cities. Then after the U.S. dropped the nuclear bombs, Japan finally forfeited. However, instead of peace, the civil war between the NationalistParty and the Communist Party broke out and lasted for three years. When grandma was seven, communist China was established. She was an adolescent who witnessed the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, during which her father—along with 30 million Chinese people—died. Then comes the three-year famine. Grandma would tell me stories of her childhood. It seems that the experience of true poverty, of hunger, has stuck with her forever. To be able to put food on the table is the goal of her life. Not any food, but fish, chicken and beef—the more delicious and greasy, the better. Meat is a luxury. To grandma, it represent success and status. So such mentality has stuck with me, too. I automatically consider meat as better food than vegetables, even though I grew up eating whatever I wanted. Meat is the royalty of food, and vegetables are just peasants.

During the true communist years, grandma got assigned a job at the local grocery store. She always said that her house never lacked food. Every time she cooked pork stew, a true luxury in communist China, all the neighbors in their apartment compound would smell it and drool with jealousy. She is very proud of that.

Grandma’s life has not been easy. She always talked about grandpa with such affection, how tall he was, how handsome he was. He is the true love of her life.However, I never had the chance to meet him. He died of lung cancer when my father was seven and left my grandma alone with two young sons, one seven, the other six. In Chinese society, raising boys is more expensive, because the man is expected to provide a house when he gets married. Even today, millions of young Chinese men struggle to get loans for the down payment of a house so they can become more eligible for marriage. Thus, at that time, raising two boys as a single mother put grandma under tremendous pressure. At the same time, it deepened her love for my father and my uncle. They became her life. If anyone bullied them for being “orphans,” for not having a father, my grandma would literally bring the cooking knife from the kitchen and go to their door, demanding an apology. She was like a mama bear. She was ready to fight with her life against whoever came near her children. It is an irrational kind of love, unconditional. She would bring back pork from work. My Dad and uncle never worried about food when they were growing up, which in their generation is quite a big deal, let alone in a family of a single mother. Grandma is so proud of the fact that she provided her children with good food. That was the goal, it was that simple.

And then the Communist era of China came to an end. The country started to open up, started to allow economic activity and free trade. My grandma quit her job at the grocery store and started her own business selling clothes at the newly built local underground mall called “Manhattan.” Who would have thought I would actually be living in Manhattan years after grandma started her shop. My home town is at the very north-east end of China, but at that time, all the clothing manufacture factories were at the very southern part of China. To put it in perspective, say if my hometown is Maine, then the majority of the clothing manufacturers are in Florida. So grandma had to take a three-day train all the way across China to get the clothes to sell. She told me she would buy a standing-only ticket because it was cheaper than a hard-seat ticket. She would sleep on the floor of the train under the seats. She said one time she woke up because a cockroach was on her forehead. This was her journey for three days. My grandma is a very small Asian lady, only 142cm high. I don’t know how much would that be in inches, but she is pretty short. She always said she should have been taller if it wasn’t for all the heavy duty chores she had to do in her adolescent years.

All the weight on her shoulders carrying things around, working on farms, picking left-over coals, have prevented her from getting the height she deserved. She told me every time she came back from the south, she would have a bag taller than her, filled with the most fashionable clothes at that time in China.“An international style,”she would say. Needless to say, grandma’s shop became very successful. She even bought a house for my dad so he could get married. She laid the foundation for my family. Without her, I would not be here. I would not be able to go to America to get an education. She is a formidable woman. She made a comfortable life for her and her family through her hard work. And nothing in the world meant more to her than my Dad, the handsome, charming, and smart oldest son of hers. She did everything for her children. She never asked for anything in return, truly. Sometimes I wish she were my mother, because the unconditional love she gave my father is something I have never seen or experienced in my life. I respect her, and I would never cross her. Seriously, this is an old Chinese lady you would not want to mess with.

Grandma has always looked good. She cared about her appearance. She dressed well. She is very talented with her hands. She is always sewing up different clothes to give them her own stylish touch. Her short hair is always kept with perfect curls, and dyed black. She has great skin, with almost no wrinkles, even at the age of seventy-five. She always wears bright red lipsticks. She walks fast and with strength. People are always impressed by her and admire her, but for some reason, she doesn’t keep any close friends.

When I was six, my father, mother, and I moved to Qingdao, a much more modern city than my hometown. Grandma had already moved to Qingdao two years before us. She arranged everything. She found us a temporary small apartment to live in, and then she helped father start his own business in this new city. She just worked, worked, and worked. We started with a small shop in a small mall and ended up renting the whole mall. Then we opened another store and then another store, and then we bought a two-floor house in a very nice neighborhood, where I spent the majority of my childhood and adolescence.

Every morning grandma would wake up at 5:30 am to cook me breakfast, and then she would wake me up at 6am. I am the worst at waking up early, but whenever I dragged my ass reluctantly out of the warmth of the bed, there was always a delicious breakfast waiting. And then she would walk me to the bus stop so I could go to my elementary school. The walk to the bus stop was almost an hour. After that she would go back home and prepare to go to the store for another day of work. She never complained, never. As time went by, my father kind of forced her to retire from the family business. That’s when I started noticing that the unstoppable confidence and energy in grandma started gradually fading away. It broke my heart to see her feel more and more powerless in her old age, but grandma coped with it, like she always does. She became a full-time housewife. She cooked for everyone. She cleaned. She went grocery shopping. When my little sister was born, she took care of her. My little sister is eight now. She still lives in the same room with my grandma. She is the joy of my grandma’s life. She is her hope. They have a very intimate bond.

I grew up in an entirely different generation. China opened up its market thirty years ago, but it is in the past fifteen years that the country’s economy really took off and every single person started feeling the benefit. People started getting rich. As I was growing up, China was growing up with me. Thanks to grandma and my parents, I grew up showered in material riches. Whatever I needed, I had it. And like any other Asian family, they put my education as the top priority of the household. I went to almost any kind of classes that existed: English, contemporary dancing, math, drawing, and of course, playing an instrument. My father would say that each generation of my family would step on the shoulders of the older generation to climb to a higher place.

I never experienced the poverty and hardship my grandma experienced, but she raised me. I see her experiences in her face, even today. In my family, it is a given to be grateful for the material riches we have now. We never wasted food. Mother always demanded me to finish every last bit of the rice in my bowl, and I have been made more than aware how incredibly lucky I am to be able to study in America. Sometimes I would think: when my grandma was my age, she was worried about where to find the next meal. She did not have the chance to receive even a basic education. It is one of her greatest regrets that she doesn’t know enough characters to read properly, even though she taught herself as much as she could. In only two generations, I am studying film in a world-class art school in New York. I am speaking fluent English and having discussions about the French New Wave, Renaissance, Surrealism, and Enlightenment with friends from all over the world. I can afford the luxury to think, to create, to do more than just surviving, because of my grandma, because of my family.

Don’t get me wrong, my family has more than its share of craziness, but one thing I can never deny is that they always took care of me, financially at least.They made sure I had the best opportunities I can get. My grandma’s life is a micro landscape of the modern history of China. She lived through some of the most turbulent times. She not only survived, she thrived. This is my heritage. A complicated hero that I have the privilege to observe closely and call family.

Meicen Meng is a junior majoring in Film at the School of Visual Arts.