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My grandfather was just like me: a global nomad

“This is a picture of grandpa,” I said as I looked at the unfamiliar landscape behind him. “Where is he in this photo?” My cousin peered over. “I don’t know,” he said. “I think this might have been Nigeria.”


By

Simon Sheung

Simon is a Third Culture Kid who has lived in Thailand, Hong Kong, Beijing, Toronto and Shanghai. He is now living and working in Toronto, and is still deciding on a place to call home.

Some time ago, I was visiting my grandmother in Toronto. Like a typical grandmother, she immediately sat us down and brought out tea, snacks and several photo albums. As we browsed through old photos of our relatives, one picture caught my eye.

“This is a picture of grandpa,” I said as I looked at the unfamiliar landscape behind him. “Where is he in this photo?”

My cousin peered over. “I don’t know,” he said. “I think this might have been Nigeria.”

“What was he doing there?” I asked.

“He worked there for a few years. You didn’t know?”

That took me by surprise. I’ve never known my grandfather that well, since our family was always on the move and my sister and I only saw our grandparents a few times each year. I always remembered him as a quiet, but kindly old man. He was the last person I would expect as a global nomad.

From what I discovered, my grandfather traveled more than I could have ever imagined. As a young man in the 1940s, he studied journalism in Shanghai while being a student activist who took part in the Communist Movement. After the war, he worked at a textile company in Chongqing before becoming disenchanted with the Communist ideology and moving to Hong Kong. It was there he raised his family, including my mother and two uncles.

Last summer, I had a chance to visit my parents in Shanghai. I took the opportunity to learn more about him from my mother.

“It’s true,” she said. “He started moving in the late 70s. They were just starting to build new textile factories in Nigeria, and they needed experienced foremen to supervise the operations. The companies started looking for people in Hong Kong, and he answered the call.”

“But why did he go to Nigeria of all places?” I asked.

“Your uncles and I had all just left for university then,” she said solemnly. “They offered a good salary and he needed the extra money to support us while we were overseas.”

“Back then, we didn’t think too much of it. We couldn’t visit him since airfare wasn’t cheap and you needed a lot of vaccinations before you went to Africa. It wasn’t until much later when we realized that he kept a lot of details to himself. He worked in a small town and the living standards were tough, and since a lot of the workers were untrained, he had to take responsibility for a lot of production problems. It was actually much harder on him than we thought.”

In spite of this, my grandfather didn’t stop there. After two and a half years in Nigeria, he followed the company’s new expansions and worked in Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia before immigrating to Canada where his grandchildren had been born.

“That’s the thing with your grandpa. He had an adventurous streak, and had always loved to travel. Even though he went on his own most of the time, he would always manage to find other people from Hong Kong who worked in the same country. He was a good person who made friends very quickly.”

My grandfather was just like me: a global nomad.

My mother and I share a memory from many years ago, back when I was very young. We were staying over at my grandparents in Hong Kong one summer, when I woke up one morning to a loud commotion outside my room. As a boy, I didn’t fully understand what was happening then. I remember seeing a crowd of medics and a police officer standing in the living room. They hovered over my grandfather, who sat in a wheelchair at the center of the room.

I remember feeling panicked. “What’s going on?” I asked. “What are they doing with grandpa?”

“He isn’t feeling that well. But it’s going to be alright, they’re just taking him to the hospital,” my mother said reassuringly.

After saying our goodbyes, my grandfather was wheeled out of the apartment.

It was the last time I ever saw him.

My grandfather had been fighting colon cancer for many months before he was taken to the hospital. It had been a few more months before he lost his battle. I was only eight years old then– too young to visit him at his bedside.

“It was many years ago, but I still miss him,” my mother said quietly. “But we’ve moved around so much since then. Sometimes I imagine that he’s still alive, just living in another country,” she smiled softly.

In many ways, my grandfather is in another country, watching over us. Sometimes I look back on the kindly old man who I had barely known. I reflect on his accomplishments, the roads he traveled, the family that he raised, and I think to myself: what must my generation look like to him?

For most of us, we travel the world for countless reasons. Often times, we set out to explore new people and places, finding something about ourselves along the way. My grandfather had long known what was important to him. Out of love, he was willing to live and work in places that he had never been to, risking it all in support of his family.

I miss my grandfather, and I will never forget him or the things he has done. When I find myself at crossroads, I often think back to the decisions he made—those that shaped my mother’s life, and mine in return. Wherever I may go and on whichever path I might follow, I will always remember the reasons my grandfather traveled, and look to him for guidance.