Taking heart in tradition
Shi Donglai, associate professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Institute of Humanities and Arts
Importance of family emphasized in life, death
When Shi Donglai was younger, he took for granted the importance of traditional Chinese festivals and family ties. But today they resonate with the 29-year-old more strongly than ever.
Shi studied literature at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom from 2015 to 2021, and, as a result of the intervening pandemic, was unable to see his beloved grandmother one last time before she passed away in 2020.
Now he has returned to China. This year, he celebrated Mid-Autumn Festival in the traditional way by reuniting with his family. But for Shi, he still has feelings of regret.
"My grandma passed away of cancer in 2020 when I was still in the UK and I was unable to fly back to see her one last time because of the COVID-19 pandemic," Shi said. "I feel very guilty for not being there with her during the last days of her life."
He said the death of his grandmother had the most profound impact on him, and that it reminded him of the importance of family ties. Ultimately, it led to his decision to return to China.
Shi was raised by his grandmother in the small city of Lishui in Zhejiang province, until he left to attend senior high school at age 15. In 2014, he flew to the UK to study literature, securing a doctorate at Oxford last year.
He said when he received his invitation to the prestigious university, his grandmother was the only member of his family who couldn't hide her sadness that he wasn't going to be around for some years.
"She just wanted us to be together without having any extra expectations of me, which was different from my parents," he said.
The last time they saw each other in person was in late 2019, after which Shi flew back to the UK. Not too long after that, COVID-19 hit China and the world. Almost at the same time, his grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. She spent her last months in hospital.
Shi was shocked at how quickly her condition deteriorated. By June 2020, he said, she would respond to him much more slowly on their video calls.
"At that time, I realized I should think about going back to see her one last time," he said. Still, it would take about 30 days for him to board a flight and finish his COVID quarantine period. "My grandma would likely have passed away by the time I arrived home."
Shi wrote a long letter he called My Grandma and Me, and he recorded it for her to listen to. He thought it would be the only way left to let her know what her grandson was thinking while she was still able to listen.
"My grandma has always doted on me. When everyone else was asking me what grade I got, and when would I graduate and find a job, she was always asking me what I want to eat, braised pork or something else," he said in the letter.
"I began to fear that something everyone else knew would hit home for my grandma－that the one she loves most is the one who has remained farthest away from her," Shi wrote. "I fear that she would awake to that fact one day and regret not giving most of her love to someone who has always remained by her side."
His grandmother buried her face in her hands and wept while listening to the letter, Shi's mother said. About two weeks later, his grandmother passed away.
Upon her passing, Shi began reconsidering the significance of family ties. "Although my grandma－my most important emotional anchor－is gone, I see my parents and other family members as more important than before," he said. "Such ties are irreplaceable."
After completing his studies at Oxford, Shi returned to China to work as an associate professor in Shanghai. With the world more divided than before by geopolitics and the pandemic, he said he prefers to be back in China, where he can rely on his family and friends. His plans for this year's Mid-Autumn Festival included returning to Lishui, his hometown, to reunite with his family.
Traditional holidays give people a chance to go home, he said. Enjoying mooncakes, the traditional food of the festival, is just one way to "express the emotions of our reunions", he added.
"If you decide to go back to your home to live, every day is a holiday."
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