Auntie Yihua and My Mother – Cousins by Blood, Friends by Choice – by Joy Zhang – August 2020

May Li Zhang and Yihua Li Tu

I remember a saying from a while back: “Cousins are different beautiful flowers in the same garden”. I think the saying adequately describes Auntie Yi Hua and my mother May.

Auntie Yi Hua and my mother May are cousins from two branches in the big Lee/Li forest that has many trees. They are of the same age, although my mother is four months older, which gives her the privilege of claiming the “big sister” title. They are both the oldest siblings in their nuclear families. They both received an education from missionary schools in their youth: Auntie Yi Hua from St. John’s and my mother from St. Mary’s. They both went on to have successful professional careers. Auntie Yi Hua was a translator and interpreter for the influential and powerful Chinese news authority in Beijing while my mother was an architect for a major design firm, and later with one of the most prominent developers in Shanghai.

They both are kind, people-oriented and sociable. They travel in similar circles and share same groups of friends and acquaintances. Naturally in their retirements, they tend to get together a lot with their mutual friends. Some of those friends are also relatives, whether close or extended. In recent years, they can often be found at the same dining tables during Auntie Yi Hua’s frequent and lengthy visits to Shanghai. When not physically in Shanghai, Auntie Yi Hua would make regular phone calls from the U.S.A. to chat with and check up on my mother to make sure she is fine. My mother, on the other hand, would resort to her “pony express” method of communication by corresponding with Auntie Yi Hua with letter writing from Shanghai. Regardless of the method, they would make sure to let the other know that they are in each other’s thoughts.

May and Yihua surrounded by family members

They both care about their ancestral heritage and are committed to serve the Lee/Li family. Whenever there were extended family functions, they were actively involved front and center. So when the local authorities of their hometown Ning Bo were building a memorial hall and a family museum for the Lee/Li family, the Lee/Li commemorative monument and the Lee/Li Music Hall at Ning Bo University, they were there to contribute whichever way they could. Being a natural leader, Auntie Yi Hua was even more instrumental in overseeing several projects to their fruition. Almost 30 years ago, Auntie Yi Hua’s mother, “Grandma #5” as many youngsters would dearly and respectfully call her, at the ripe age of 87 started to be in charge of the updating and addition to the Lee/Li genealogy book. It was a monumental task!  The original genealogy book was written in 1936. By 1991, Grandma #5 felt that many decades had gone by and new generations had been born. It was time to re-edit the genealogy book and update the information to reflect the changes. As she embarked on this remarkable endeavor, Auntie Yi Hua, my mother along with other younger relatives, offered assistance to alleviate her work load. The newly completed genealogy book is now in the hands of many Lee/Li family members, and is considered the most important document of the extended family.

Grandma #5 was a lovely and cultured lady. She was gentle, even tempered, determined and wise. She was my mother’s favorite aunt-in-law. As a child, I used to visit Grandma #5 with my mother. I can still visualize her suite on the top floor of a typical Shanghai style house. There was a wooden door at the top of the stairs before the last few flights leading up to her suite. The decor of her room was simple but elegant. She had traditional Chinese furniture throughout her suite. The walls were decorated with calligraphy and paintings from her own hands. She always seemed to be so happy to see my mother. From her warm reception, I suspected that my mother was perhaps one of her favorite nieces. At the time, Auntie Yi Hua was working in Beijing.

Later on, Grandma #5 moved to a different apartment. By then Auntie Yi Hua and her family had gone to the U.S.A. My mother’s visits to Grandma #5 continued and became more frequent as Grandma #5 got on years. During my mother’s visits, the two ladies would talk about the TV programs Grandma #5 had just watched, especially Beijing Opera. Grandma #5 would show my mother her calligraphy and demonstrate her know-how in traditional Chinese arts. She would ask about the wellbeing of some relatives she had not seen for a long time. On one occasion, my mother and another cousin of hers, Auntie Ming Fen, visited Grandma #5 at the same time. The two ladies in their 70s were discussing the stock market. They made it sound quite convoluted. Suddenly, Grandma #5, who was in her 90s, asked them a simple question about what they were talking about. The two younger ladies were dumbfounded. They could not come up with an answer. I was chuckling inside: Grandma #5 still had her wits about her!  Sometimes, my mother would bring treats to Grandma #5 knowing they were what she loved to eat. Grandma #5 would announce to other guests that “all of the most tasty and yummy food were brought to me by May”. Those visits carried on as Grandma #5 lived her peaceful life till she reached 106 years of age.

When Auntie Yi Hua and her family were in Beijing, my father, too, was working in Beijing. On weekends, my father and another cousin of Auntie Yi Hua, Auntie Elaine, would sometimes go the Auntie Yi Hua’s house for Sunday dinners. I could only imagine the lively conversations and occasional heated debates that might have occurred during those meals. For Auntie Yi Hua being a translator and interpreter at the International News Department where she had direct contact with foreign reporters and correspondents, she was the most valuable source of information on current affairs in an era when there was hardly any real news available to the masses. Yet, politics permeated every corner and affected every facet of ordinary people’s lives. Auntie Yi Hua’s husband, Uncle Harry, a mining engineer by trade, was very precise and insightful in analyzing the political landscape of the day. My father, an urban planner working in a branch of the Science Academy, was leading an idle career in an age of non-existing urban development. With the same token, he was also very much interested in political and policy issues. I suspect that many exchanges around their dining table might be of this nature or about identical themes.

Auntie Yi Hua and Uncle Harry have two daughters, Da (Large) Beijing and Xiao (Small) Beijing. As far as my recollection could reach, before I even met Auntie Yi Hua I had heard about Da Beijing and Xiao Beijing. Whenever I did not want to study hard or behaved poorly, my father, Shao Liang, would tell me stories of what top notch students and all round children Da and Xiao Beijing were. They were good at all academic subjects as well as sports. Even though they were quite a few years younger than me, I developed a well deserved inferiority complex which lasted until one day when I knocked on their door during a summer break. Da Beijing answered the door. Her parents were not at home, she said. At that time, I had already graduated from university and was working as an editor. Da Beijing was still in high school, I believe. To a 22 year old, the teenage Da Beijing looked very young. Then out walked Xiao Beijing. She looked even younger. I think it was at that moment that I overcame my inferiority complex although they have remained little role models I could never measure up to. They were, nevertheless, cute and adorable.

A couple of days ago, in search of materials for writing this article, I asked my mother if there was something she could tell me about Auntie Yi Hua during her years in Beijing. Immediately, my mother recalled a visit to Auntie Yi Hua’s home during which she played cards with Da and Xiao Beijing. Uncle Harry sent Da Beijing out to buy noodles with clear instructions. They had very strict upbringing during their formative years. My mother, on the other hand, took a laissez faire approach towards me. If I must name one big difference between Auntie Yi Hua and my mother, this has to be it.

When my grandparents were still alive, and before the Cultural Revolution, our two families had members visiting one another frequently, spending many hours together. The friendship between Auntie Yi Hua and my mother, however, has been cultivated in baby steps and over time. Like a well aged wine, it has been growing stronger as time goes on. It has culminated in the later part of their lives. They are cousins by blood but friends by choice. It is a beautiful friendship between two cousins with beautiful spirit!  

Joy Zhang and her mother, May

 By May’s daughter, Joy August 12, 2020