Po Po and Ling Ling is the title of a narrative nonfiction that I am currently working on. The reason why I’m writing the book is simple but something that took me 26 years to figure out: I love talking with my grandma. I was slow to start talking to her, and even slower to admit that I love – or no, more than that, that I need – our little conversations.
We talk in Chinese. Cantonese to be specific since our family is from Hong Kong. Po Po is how I address her. It means “maternal grandma” if you want a straight translation, but really it feels more like “granny.” It sounds childish and silly, but it’s just what I’ve always said and taken for granted.
Ling Ling is how she addresses me. It doesn’t mean granddaughter or anything like that. It’s the last syllable of my Chinese name, Fook Ling, spoken twice. (When our family first immigrated to America, and the Chinese characters had to squeeze into the blanks on American forms, my parents combined the two words into one to stand for my legal first name. And that’s what the repurposed word became for me, a sort of legality or symbol of my roots, but one that I never really identified with. When introducing myself to my all-new American friends at my middle school, I was always quick to change the subject and say, “Oh, I go by Benita.”) And so, not only do very few people call me Fookling, even fewer call me Ling Ling. In Chinese you say the last syllable of someone’s name twice to express endearment – and you usually only do that with a kid. I just turned 30 this year and Po Po still calls me Ling Ling.
Four years ago, I thought I would call her just to say hello. Had never done that before. Was never even a family-type person. We haven’t stopped talking since.
During our phone calls, she would tell me story after story from her past; I would listen – I mean, really listen – because my Chinese is rusty from leaving Hong Kong at the age of twelve. Her stories would transport me from my downtown Philadelphia condo and my over-extended life as an architect to the Chinese village where she was born, the budding city of Hong Kong where she survived a world war and raised eleven children, and her suburban home in Seattle where she lives now.
At the end of our first phone call, I said my aunts and uncles must be amazed by her stories. “No one knows any of this,” she said. “No one knows because no one asks.” She told me I was silly for finding her special. That was when I realized it wasn’t up to me. It wasn’t a choice. It was my responsibility to record her stories. Somehow. No matter how imperfectly.
As I try to relive her voice in writing, my own reflections and memories leak uncontrollably, into the margins when I am handwriting or into random additional files when I am typing. Slowly and a bit reluctantly, I realized the book isn’t about her. It’s about us.
As the chapters progress through the book, two seemingly disparate storylines converge – the eighty-five chronicle of her life and the first ten weeks of our phone conversations. Just as this book offers glimpses into my grandma’s inspiring past, it reveals how this ongoing process has affected me, not in summary, not in conclusion, but along the way. At the same time, you can say this book is a collection of independent stories as well. I can imagine reading a chapter to a kid (maybe not a little, little kid but a slightly grown one or a kid at heart) and sending her to a night of wonderful dreams.
Especially these days when many people are depressed over the loss of money and jobs, I hope this book can remind us of a small cross-cultural, cross-generational truth: in life, it is relationships, not things, not money, which matter the most.
Prompted by my friendship with my grandma, I approached the Philadelphia Senior Center with the idea of a storytelling and writing class last year, in the midst of the economic crisis. Our first session was September 24, and by October, the seniors started calling our class “Partytime”. Besides showing up to laugh and cry with this marvelous cocoon of eager storytellers every week, I keep a blog to share their stories and reflect on what happens during class. (Partytime, I mean.) Behind the scenes, I lead a team of over twenty volunteers to transcribe the seniors’ handwriting into typed text, plant similar classes in other venues, and broaden the project’s digital and physical reach. Please click here to check out my blog on the class. The title of this growing project is The Best Day of My Life (So Far).
My work has been featured in the local and national news media, including The Philadelphia Inquirer and the radio show American Routes, in major local aging-related publications and websites, such as Milestones Newspaper and Philadelphia Corporation for Aging’s E-News, and is supported by Philadelphia’s leading public broadcasting station, WHYY. Among other speaking engagements, this year I am a panelist at American Society on Aging’s esteemed annual event, the East Coast Conference for Aging. I am also a 2010 recipient of Leeway Foundation’s Art and Change Grant. In November, my storytelling organization is hosting a large public event (combining reading, conversation and video) at The Free Library of Philadelphia.
As my work with seniors expands, I continue to work as an architect and lead a small design firm in Philadelphia. I hold a Master of Architecture from Harvard, and a Bachelor of Art in both art and architecture from University of Washington, and enjoy teaching design studios at various universities including University of Pennsylvania and University of Washington.
Thank you for reading and please browse through the rest of the site. I’d love to hear what you think and welcome your suggestions via email.
Best, Fookling Benita Cooper