By Livia Blackburne
Growing up in the United States, I became aware of a prototypical American model for grandparents. Sit-com grandparents, if you will. While I knew intellectually that the model was by no means universal, it still made an impression on me. In my head, American grandparents came in two sets and they often lived in Florida. Sometimes the maternal and paternal grandparents had nicknames to differentiate them, since there were no built-in words in English to do so. You might have Nana on one side, and Grandma and Grandpa J on the other. You visited them in the summer, over Christmas, and sometimes on Thanksgivings. When Grandpa told boring stories, everyone gave each other long-suffering looks and humored him.
I was envious of the stories, actually. Living an ocean away from my grandparents in an era when long distance calls were charged by the minute, I’d always wished for more of them. Even when my grandparents did share stories of their lives, my Mandarin was not always good enough to understand them. If I didn’t have my parents to translate for me, it felt like listening to a radio with the reception cutting out every couple of sentences.
I loved my grandparents fiercely, and I have no doubt they loved me back. But there were ways in which my relationship with them differed from the narratives I saw around me. My grandparents and I lived on different continents. We were fluent in different languages. We moved in different cultures.
All these factors combined make me feel distant from my grandparents, but there were other ways in which our extended family ties felt closer than those of my peers. My grandparents held respected and honored positions as the heads of our households, and during the years when I lived in Taiwan, they were always around and involved in our lives. My maternal grandmother prepared so many of our meals that my mom didn’t really have to learn to cook until we came to the US. And both grandmothers spent a lot of time taking care of me.
While physical distance presented a real challenge for our family after we moved to the United States, we made strong efforts to overcome it. When my grandfather contracted stomach cancer, my dad single-parented me for a year so my mom could go to Taiwan and take care of him. To this day, I have the melody for that Taiwan hospital’s touch-tone phone number memorized. It was a given that we would rearrange our lives when my grandparents needed us.
I wasn’t much of a sociologist as a teenager. I noticed the differences between my life and the stereotypical American narrative, but I mostly chalked them up to my individual family situation. It wasn’t until I grew older and spoke to other immigrant friends that I realized that we shared many of the same experiences and viewpoints.
There was the Korean-American friend whose father now takes care of her kids when she works. “I didn’t really know my grandparents back in Korea,” she told me. “Now that I see the bond my dad has with my own kids, I think I missed out.” As more of my immigrant friends had children, I heard that sentiment over and over.
On the other end of the spectrum was a Taiwanese American friend whose grandparents raised him. When his parents left Taiwan to study in the United States, they took his two older siblings but left him with his grandparents. “I didn’t go to live with my parents until I was six, and I had a hard time adjusting,” he said. My friend’s relationship with his grandparents was in many ways the opposite of mine. But his story also felt familiar, because I understood the type of extended family dynamic where it felt normal to leave a child with grandparents for years, where relationships were so close knit that grandparents could be an alternate set of parents.
I encountered more narratives of grandparent relationships within my own family. After my grandfather died, my mom wondered aloud what it was like for me to lose a grandparent at a young age. She’d never experienced it herself, because she never knew her own grandparents. They’d stayed in China when my mom’s parents fled to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil war. My mom never experienced what it was like to have grandparents, and she didn’t know what it felt like to lose one. The first time my mother lost a close family member was when her father contracted stomach cancer. I think about that now, the way our grandparents teach us about love, and also how they’re often the ones who teach us our first lessons of loss.
When I set out to write I Dream of Popo, I set out to write my own story, to introduce all the complexities of distance, language, and time in my own personal experience. As I shared the stories with others, though, I saw others resonating with it. Though their individual experiences differed in many ways from mine, there were shared themes, shared ways in which our family histories differed from the mainstream narrative. When people connected with it, their emotional reaction was often visceral and immediate. Sometimes there were tears, but they were happy to have read the story. This makes me think that there is healing in the telling of alternate narratives and life experiences. I hope I Dream of Popo helps reconnect people of all cultural backgrounds to their memories and family histories, and I hope that it’s followed by many more stories to round out the American experience.
I DREAM OF POPO is available now.
From New York Times bestselling author Livia Blackburne and illustrator Julia Kuo, here is I Dream of Popo. This delicate, emotionally rich picture book celebrates a special connection that crosses time zones and oceans as Popo and her granddaughter hold each other in their hearts forever.
I dream with Popo as she rocks me in her arms.
I wave at Popo before I board my flight.
I talk to Popo from across the sea.
I tell Popo about my adventures.
When a young girl and her family emigrate from Taiwan to America, she leaves behind her beloved popo, her grandmother. She misses her popo every day, but even if their visits are fleeting, their love is ever true and strong.
Livia Blackburne is the New York Times bestselling author of the Midnight Thief and Rosemarked duologies. Livia was born in Taipei, Taiwan and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, when she was five. After a twelve-year stint at Harvard and MIT, where she earned an AB in biochemical sciences and a PhD in cognitive neuroscience, she moved to Los Angeles, where she now lives with her husband and daughter.