My granddaddy — a tall, imposing, fifth-generation Texan — used to boast to me with a wide grin and his best twang: “Nita, I’ll tell you a secret…” He’d lean in as if other people might be listening… “You’re my favorite grandchild.” I’d look at him with my sassiest six-year-old’s smile, roll my eyes, and immediately retort: “But I’m your ONLY grandchild!” We’d laugh hysterically, and he’d give me a devouring hug. It was our thing.
My mother didn’t like this man, her father, very much. She’d rave on about how mean and controlling he could be. But that’s not who he was to me. We’d watch the Cowboys’ games together (the glory days of Roger Staubach and Tom Landry), and he’d take me to the Texas State Fair. Sure, he’d say things like, “Nita, when you live in Texas, I’m gonna buy you a pony” and not deliver. I don’t remember being upset by such broken promises, but to this day whenever I see a pony I think of him.
I suspect my grandma softened any edges he might have. She was the definition of a sweet Texas grandmother — gentle, quiet, and deferential. She made weekly trips to the beauty shop to have her hair set. She wore blue eye shadow, belted dresses for her slim figure, and a few pieces of jewelry that she kept in a small drawer of her vanity table. She never talked about anything “ugly” or controversial. She just wanted everyone in our family to get along. Sometimes she got her wish, often not.
My grandparents’ Dallas home was massive to my childhood self, and it was full of furniture that I loved like a white faux velvet couch and a pinball machine. There were a few pieces of questionable Civil War memorabilia, but what dominated the decor more than anything were figurines, silk upholstery, and pictures that Granddaddy brought back from China during WWII.
This wonderland of a house is where I — the child of divorce with young parents who lived half way across the country from each other, one just starting graduate school in Austin, the other beginning his career in New York City — found my refuge, my stability.
Granddaddy died when I was 13, and either because of my age or the dynamics of our relationship, I don’t think we ever had a serious conversation about anything other than football or how much bacon I was allowed to have for breakfast. It breaks my heart that I didn’t talk with him about the details of his life before it was too late. Of course, it would take 33 years and a trip to China before I’d even know what I wanted to ask.
Normally when planning a trip to China (of all places), I would labor over research in the weeks leading up to my arrival. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. There was just too much going on between the intensity of Cambodia, my decision to leave Remote Year, and worrying about my stepmother after her Thanksgiving-week stroke.
Luckily a friend living in Shanghai suggests my two-week itinerary — Shanghai, Beijing, Guilin, and Suzhou — I book it and then I arrive, ready to take China as it comes.
Shanghai is a brilliant start and a very soft landing. The city actually feels so much like New York that I can easily see myself living there. Beijing is another story.
Beijing is where the rise and fall of dynasties becomes striking, daunting, intimidating. I spend two days with a local guide taking a whirlwind tour of the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square.
It’s on the Great Wall where I have a small panic attack. Nowhere in the world have I ever felt so overwhelmed by the extraordinary weight of history, and it makes me realize — especially one month after our presidential election — how incredibly young the United States is. For a moment, I’m comforted in that fact. Also, dialogue from Game of Thrones keeps going through my mind — I want to yell, “I am the watcher of the Wall!” but luckily for everyone, I don’t.
There are vast distances between the sites we visit, and each place is mesmerizing in its own way — architecturally, narratively, culturally. I have so many questions about everything, but I’m afraid to ask anything inappropriate. The air is different in Beijing.
As the second of my two days here starts to wind down, my guide asks if anyone in my family has ever been to China. I hesitate and think, what a funny question. Funny because I don’t know why I never told anyone that, in fact, I did. And funnier still that it hadn’t crossed my mind until right now that I did. Maybe I hadn’t thought about Granddaddy because at some point my mother planted the idea in my head that he wasn’t on the right side of history? Or maybe, more realistically, because he, my grandma, my mom, they’ve all been gone so long, I just forgot — that possibility leaves me feeling a bit destroyed.
I shyly respond to my guide as if asking permission for something, “My grandfather was here during World War II?”
Her eyes get a little bigger, and then I watch her face closely to see how she responds to my next statement. “He was in something called the Flying Tigers?”
She audibly gasps and starts speaking a mile a minute… “What?!? That is huge! The Flying Tigers are famous! Heroes! They helped us fight the Japanese!” As she is listing the incredible things the Tigers did, all that’s going through my mind is: Why didn’t I ever look into this? Why didn’t Granddaddy talk about it? How do I even know that he was a Flying Tiger?
As soon as I get back to my hotel, I realize the only way I can be sure I didn’t create this fantasy in my head is to email my uncle, my mother’s brother. In most families, sending a quick note to an uncle might not take any thought. For me, it was a little more complicated.
My mother and her brother may have been close when they were young, but as my mother’s illness drove more and more people from her life, their relationship suffered, and ours, my uncle’s and mine, was pretty much non-existent.
When my mother died in 1999, my uncle and I were now all that was left of our immediate family, he the only son, me the only grandchild. I lost a mother. He lost a sister. Maybe we could be there for each other. But it didn’t quite work out that way.
While my uncle and I exchanged a few nice emails in the years since, the last time I saw him was in the days after my mother’s funeral. I wasn’t avoiding him, I don’t think, I just needed that chapter of my life (and her death) to be closed.
“Buck up, Nita,“ I can hear Granddaddy say to me now in my Beijing hotel room. I sit up a little straighter, as instructed, and send off a note to my uncle asking if I’d imagined this family story, and, by the way, how are you?
While I wait for a response, I get an email from my Beijing guide telling me (“Can you believe it!?”) there is a new museum and heritage park dedicated to the Flying Tigers in Guilin — the very next city I am going to. I have to read the email twice.
Time seems to speed up exponentially because in what feels like seconds an email comes from my uncle saying, “Yes, your grandfather was in the famous Flying Tigers. He was a supply sergeant, and he flew a desk (his own description).” Included with the email are pictures of my granddaddy in China, the signature Flying Tiger fighter planes, his jacket patch, all of which my uncle has in Granddaddy’s footlocker back in Dallas… I hadn’t dreamed it (“Can you believe it!?”).
I immediately go celebrate with way too much Peking duck for one person.
A HERO’S WELCOME
Due to a variety of uninteresting logistics, I have to visit the Flying Tiger Heritage Park when I’m leaving Guilin and on my way to the airport. Leading up to this day, I try to do as much research on the Park as I can, but it’s difficult to find anything concrete. So when the time comes, I give my driver the address and cross my fingers that it actually exists.
Driving through Guilin’s rolling mountains and then a suburban neighborhood, I can see the museum in the distance. The architecture is meant to mimic the nose of the signature Flying Tigers’ fighter plane with the shark’s teeth adorning its front. It’s unmistakeable.
I must have stopped blinking because my eyes start to hurt. And I can feel my face get hot with nerves. It’s as if I’m about to uncover treasure or meet someone incredibly important — in truth, I might be about to do both.
When I get out of the car, the driver points to his watch and says “One hour.” Pause. “Maybe an hour and a half.” That should be fine… I think.
At the entrance to the Park is a large red archway that welcomes visitors. I usually don’t mind touring on my own, but here it’s weird; I just want to grab someone’s arm and desperately ask, “Can you believe this??? Can you believe the odds that I’m here?!?” Instead, I smile at every person I pass. I must look like a crazy person.
The Park is vast and full of families picnicking as if this is any old plot of green. There are a few displays strewn about with photos of the Tigers and rocks that show different logos for them. I marvel at every blade of grass.
The silly grin on my face turns to dismay as I approach the museum itself. There are chains across the doors, and I can’t understand the signs. A couple looking to visit indicate that it’s closed for a two-hour lunch break. How can this be? Destiny brought me this far, and now it’s closed? I hear that “Buck up, Nita” again and decide I just have to make the most of it and wander around the exterior, explore more of the park… I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself.
I’m taking tons of pictures as I walk the perimeter of the building (lots of selfies with the shark’s teeth, I’ll admit it), and then I see a guard standing at the back door smoking a cigarette. Without thinking, I march over to him, pull out my phone, and type into Google Translate: “My grandfather was a Flying Tiger. I have one hour before I have to go to the airport.”
He reads the translation, then gives me an endearing look as tears start to well in his eyes. He urgently stomps out his cigarette, opens the back door, leads me in, turns on all the lights, and, with a knowing nod, gives me the entire museum to myself. I’m now crying alone in a museum in China, crying for the kindness of a stranger, crying for the chance to be here… crying for my granddaddy.
The museum is full of displays that chronicle the Tigers’ story, and I try to read every word.
When I leave the building, I continue to the back of the park where there is a cave and viewing point — it’s where the commander of the Tigers, General Chennault, would watch the air battles. But the path is blocked off with yellow “Keep Out” tape. I see a gardener working there. I show him the Google translation, and without a moment’s hesitation, he moves the tape for me.
I feel like royalty as more and more guards come up to me asking if I need anything. I’m so overwhelmed and wondering why Granddaddy never talked with me about this whole part of his life. It’s a strange sensation to feel like I’ve suddenly learned so much and so little about someone I loved.
As I walk towards the exit, I’m reluctant to go. I keep looking towards the museum as if someone is going to wave me back, invite me to stay…
For days after I leave, I’m still in shock that any of this happened, and my mind is racing, imagining all the research I want to do and the other Flying Tigers’ sites I want to visit — the story I want to write, the movie I want to make — I owe it to my family to do something with Granddaddy’s experience and with mine. And then it occurs to me that I know exactly where I need to start.
I’m in Dallas pulling up to my grandparents’ house. My uncle has lived here since my grandma passed in 1993, and this will be the first time we’ve seen each other in what feels like a lifetime. I’m equally nervous about seeing him as I am about returning to the house that for so long was my sanctuary.
Walking in, even with different furniture, it still feels like the refuge I’d loved. My uncle and I have a nice time catching up, and we go out for my favorite Tex-Mex lunch. We talk about my grandparents, about my mom. We go through Granddaddy’s footlocker from the war and look through the amazing photo album. And we admire all of the beautiful Chinese figurines, silk, and pictures that my uncle still has throughout the house.
The way my uncle talks about my grandfather versus the way my mom did, I can’t stop thinking about identity and who my Granddaddy was to me, to my mother, to the people of China… to each of us he was so radically different. I wonder who he thought he was and how different his answer would be before and after the war, before and after he became a father, before and after he had a sassy granddaughter…
It’s an important, necessary day with my uncle, and we make plans to do it again the next time I’m in Dallas. As I’m getting ready to leave, I have that same hesitation I did in Guilin… something pulling me, holding me there. I know it’s my grandparents, it’s the sanctuary, it’s who I used to be, before… it’s Granddaddy’s devouring hug and the warmth of my sweet grandma smiling at me. I have to imagine they’d be pretty happy that their only (and favorite) grandchild took a spontaneously planned trip to China — otherwise, she might never have found her way home again.