Be With Me As I Grow Up

Xiao-xuan lives in a world where her grandparents loom large. Soon after she was born, her parents divorced and left home, leaving the family without the middle generation. Her grandparents have cared for her ever since.

The sun had sunk low and pedestrians were casting long shadows when we arrived at Xiao-xuan’s home late one afternoon. The fifth-grader lives in a neighborhood in Annan District, Tainan, southern Taiwan.

Xiao-xuan’s grandfather, the man of the house, was cooking dinner, which usually starts quite early for this family of three. The young girl and her grandmother were watching TV in the living room. Grandma was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease in 2014, and ever since then Grandpa has been taking care of things around the house.

Soon after Xiao-xuan was born, her parents divorced and left home, leaving the family without the vital middle generation. She has since been raised by her grandparents.

Grandpa has always taught her by his own example to be positive and look on the bright side of things. He has also encouraged her to be open. “I don’t wish to see her keep to herself or bottle up unpleasant emotions. I want her to get them off her chest. I’m quite all right with it even if our discussions lead to arguments. Keeping the channels of communication open is more important.”

Xiao-xuan has turned out as he has hoped: She is a vivacious and thoughtful child. Without any parents to turn to, she is more mature than the average child of her age, especially as she realizes how hard her grandparents have had to work to bring her up. Though still very young, she has come to terms with the fact that she does not have the luxury of being a whimsical child the way many children seem to be these days. Instead, she always strives to be considerate and helpful to her grandparents.

“I boiled some dumplings for her grandma,” said Grandpa as he emerged from the kitchen, sweaty from the relatively simple cooking. “Xiao-xuan said that she’d eat the leftover rice vermicelli from lunch. I just needed to heat it up.”

“I help Grandpa with the cooking,” Xiao-xuan said, as she ate the rice noodles. “I wash the dishes too. I do whatever I can to help.”

After dinner, she deftly did the dishes in the kitchen, apparently quite experienced with the routine. Then she came back to the living room with a glass of water for Grandma to take her pills. Because Grandma’s limbs might jerk out of control due to her Huntington’s illness, Xiao-xuan puts the pills into her mouth so she does not risk dropping them.

Knowing that we were there to gather information so we could write a story about Xiao-xuan, Grand­pa, eyes on his wife, said, “I really hope that, through Xiao-xuan’s story, more people will become familiar with the rare disease that has afflicted her grandma. There is a fifty-fifty chance that a child can inherit this disease from a parent, so people should pay attention.”

Looking at Xiao-xuan feeding Grand­ma her pills, Grandpa added, “How can we not dote on such a darling?”

He went on to tell us how considerate and caring the little girl had always been. One time when she was in second grade her grandma was hospitalized, and Xiao-xuan would go to the hospital on weekends to look after her. She would keep her company and sleep on a chair outside her room at night. Grandpa said, “One day she told me that she knew that her grandma would recover. I asked how she could be so sure. She said that she had asked our ancestors about that by throwing divination blocks [a traditional Chinese divination method] and they had told her that it would be so. Even my own children aren’t as mature and understanding as my darling granddaughter.”

A tight bond

Grandpa used to run a business of his own. Business was good for a while, and he and his family had a comfortable life. But then it went under, plunging the family into difficulties. Now he and his wife and granddaughter live in a rented home. He provides for the family with an income earned from hand-picking corn on farms.

Because Grandpa has brought up Xiao-xuan since she was a baby, she has always been very attached to him. He recalled that once he went out at night to harvest corn, and when Xiao-xuan woke up in the middle of the night and did not see him by her side, she burst into loud wails. “I couldn’t stand the thought of her crying at home, so I started taking her with me to work, sometimes laying her down to sleep on the ridges between the fields,” he said with emotion, his heart going out to his granddaughter.

One time he broke a leg in a traffic accident. He was unable to work for a time, and his family abruptly lost its only source of income. When Tzu Chi volunteers learned of their situation, they began to provide care for the family.

When volunteers made their first home visit, they saw in the small living room a dilapidated couch. It was beyond repair because grandpa had slept on it ever since the traffic accident. Thanks to a benefactor, volunteers were able to replace the worn-out couch. Poor though the family was, that was actually the first time that it had received outside aid. Never before had they requested help from others; the three of them had simply stuck together and lived with what they had.

Grandpa recalled the time after he was injured in the traffic accident. “Xiao-xuan was really considerate. When I went back to the hospital for follow-up visits, she’d go with me and take care of everything for me. If she didn’t know how to handle something, she’d just ask for help.”

Xiao-xuan knew that her grandpa’s leg hurt, so she even bought medicated patches at a drugstore for him with the allowance that she had saved. When the owner of the store found out about her thoughtfulness, he gave the patches to her free of charge.

Grandpa could not say enough good things about the girl, albeit with a trace of sorrow. His granddaughter was at an age when she was supposed to be carefree, but circumstances had forced her to grow up more quickly than most of her peers.

All this, however, does not seem to matter to Xiao-xuan. To her, all that matters in the world is her grandparents. She knows that they love her dearly, and as long as they are happy, she is happy too.

Because she is too young to help earn money, she strives to be a source of joy in the house. When Grandpa feels blue, she plays the recorder to lift his spirits, and then she asks him, “Was my playing good?” He, tickled, sometimes says the opposite of what’s in his mind. He even purposely guesses wrong the title of a song she is playing, and the two of them will collapse in a heap with laughter. Grandma, though unable to speak, smiles from ear to ear.

“When she was younger and saw me getting mad, she’d stick her butt out, swing it from side to side, and say, ‘Grandpa, come spank me!’ It was a funny sight, and of course, how could I bring myself to spank her?” Grandpa said, smiling heartily. But his smile soon faded and he said solemnly, “Come to think of it, she’s the source of strength that’s kept my wife and me going. We wouldn’t know how to carry on if she weren’t around.”

The two generations in the house indeed deeply rely on each other.

Xiao-xuan washes the dishes after a meal.

A pure heart

A small table in the living room also serves as the family dining table. Underneath that table is a coin bank, which Xiao-xuan received when she attended a Tzu Chi prayer service with volunteer Wu Li-heng (吳麗姮). Wu asked Xiao-xuan at the time if she knew what such a bank was for. Xiao-xuan replied, “It’s for people to save money which they can use to help those in need.”

“Grandpa doesn’t have much money, so don’t keep asking him for money so you can save it in the coin bank,” Wu reminded the little girl.

Soon after that, Xiao-xuan started to help at her school store. She makes 200 NT dollars (US$6.50) a month from that work. She puts half of it into the coin bank and gives the other half to Grandpa. She explained cheerfully, “People have helped us, so we should help those who are poorer than us when we can.”

She has kept none of that money for herself. Not only that—she rarely asks her grandparents to buy anything for her. She is more disposed to think of her grandparents’ well-being first and foremost.

On October 30, 2016, the Tainan Tzu Chi branch awarded scholarships to 229 students. Twenty-four recipients were awarded scholarships in the category of filial piety—Xiao-xuan was the youngest among them.

The scholarship program has been around since 2007. Since then, more than 42,000 scholarships have been awarded to students around Taiwan. More than 9,000 students received awards in 2016 alone.

Xiao-xuan’s grandpa was present with her at the ceremony. She was happy he was there, and she told us her wish: “I want Grandpa and Grandma to be in good health and live to be a hundred years old. I want them to accompany me as I grow up.”

Spring 2017