My maternal grandmother is a remarkable woman with a remarkable life story. She was born in Shanghai in 1916 — five years before the Chinese Communist Party was even formed. She’s survived backbreaking labor as a peasant, the Japanese invasion and occupation during World War II and the CCP takeover in 1949.

Still keen and quick-witted, she easily recalls stories and events that happened nearly a century ago. I’ll share an amusing one she told me recently.

One day, when she was around 9 or 10, my grandmother and several of her cousins went to the local beach. It was where all the locals went to wade in the water and escape the oppressive heat of Shanghai. 

They were playing on the beach when they noticed a white family, two parents and three of their children, nearby. Perhaps they had come from the French Concession area to enjoy a lazy day by the Huangpu River. Those days, seeing white people was still a rarity for most Chinese people, especially for those from the countryside (the country had been gradually — then forcibly — opened up to the West in the past several decades) Whenever a white person — gwailo — would appear in a village in those days, my grandma says, kids would rush over to sate their curiosity and gawk. 

My grandmother and her cousins noticed the parents pulling food out of their backpack. Intrigued, the kids crept closer. They watched the pair take out slices of something starchy, white and flat. They crept closer. They saw the family pull out a jar filled with grape-colored syrup. They crept closer. Then, the family pulled out something brown and creamy. The kids inched even closer, until they were nearly on top of the family. They had no idea what the family was making — they had never seen white bread, nor jam, nor peanut butter.

But it looked delicious. And they wanted some.

They knelt by the family, no more than two feet away, and stared at the family eating their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My grandmother and her cousins were hoping that the family would share and give them a morsel — just a little bit — of their food.

But the family ignored them. They finished their lunch, packed up and left, without ever acknowledging the handful of children who were ogling their food and licking their lips during the entire meal. 

My grandma laughs about it now. Peanut butter and jelly! That’s all it was — but for those kids it was exotic and enchanting. Today, she could have as much peanut butter and jelly as she wants — she did recently when she had an extended stay at the hospital, where they fed her PB&J’s every day, she grumbles — but she dislikes the taste and texture.

She lets out another laugh after finishing her story, shaking her head at the naivete and foolishness of that day like it happened yesterday.