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Ethan Lou defeats his grandfather in a board game in Shijiazhuang, China, circa 1998.


Ethan Lou is the author of Field Notes from a Pandemic: A Journey Through a World Suspended.

I’m lucky to have endured the pandemic relatively well, so naturally, at some point during the past year, my good fortune angered the gods. The last days of 2020 sucked.

The sole, small solace was that, as the cliché goes, it is only when tested that you truly get to know yourself. In that way, I did obtain something valuable from the remains of that rotten, virulent year – not that I deem my misery to be a fair price for this knowledge, of course.

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The crux of the matter involves the death of my grandfather in China, a long-expected event for which I was somehow still unready. But the story really began with an earlier, unexpected loss, a matter with no tangible connection, for these are strange times, and grief is even stranger.

I’d later come to see that the earlier event had everything to do with not just my grandfather, but also with my experience that whole pandemic year, an odd little string tying everything together – it all began on a partly sunny late-November Friday, when 5,000 new COVID-19 cases were reported, Toronto was locked down again and my laptop of five years broke down.

I started troubleshooting the Asus ROG GL551, as I’ve long been stubbornly hands-on. Just that summer, I’d fixed a charging problem on the device. This time, though, the issue was as mysterious as it was fatal. My girlfriend saw me futilely labouring and suggested I take it as an opportunity to upgrade. I resisted, but half a day of fruitless fixes later, I ordered a new one.

About a week after that, I woke to 13 missed calls. It was dawn in Toronto, but evening in Shijiazhuang, an hour’s train ride from Beijing. The sky there was black and the wind still.

It was no shock, to be sure. And it had nothing to do with COVID-19. My grandfather had been bedridden and speechless in a seniors’ home for more than a year and, for even longer, had not been lucid. I’d always thought his death would be a release. From a background of little note, my grandfather had been the first in the family to go to university, and had been through two wars and two regimes. His time had come.

But still, I tried to bury it. As candid as I’d been about my grandfather’s mortality before, when he actually died, I couldn’t bring myself to even tell anyone, not even those closest to me. It was my firm belief that if I didn’t say anything out loud, it hadn’t happened. Even when the virtual funeral came, I told my girlfriend it was only a routine family gathering, and I watched it alone. Then a surprise ritual sprung at me ruined everything.

“Samantha,” I reluctantly croaked to my girlfriend sitting some distance away, who was probably chortling at her Korean television, “if you wonder why I’m about to kowtow to my phone, it’s because my grandfather just died, and what I’ve been participating in is the funeral.”

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For a death so predictable, I faced it in none of the ways I expected. I had none of the stoicism I thought I would have. Sometimes, I thought that I was almost unworthy of my grandfather’s memory. Surely he, who had been through so much, would have a little more steel in him. It was shortly after that that, inexplicably, my old laptop started beckoning me.

I descended upon the device with a renewed vigour. I also started bingeing YouTube videos of people restoring old computers, and an obsession took a hold of me. Sometimes, I swear I watched with my nose nearly to the screen, and I hunched over my broken laptop like a wizened clockmaker. Eventually, with about 70-per-cent certainty, I isolated the problem to the motherboard. I ordered another online.

My new laptop, a shiny new Dell XPS 15, was already on its way, so I wasn’t sure what exactly I would do with the old one if I ended up fixing it. But I knew one thing with bedrock certainty: like the titular character in the last Harry Potter book, digging a grave without using magic, it was somehow important for me to restore my Asus ROG GL551 using my own hands.

I didn’t think about why at the time, but it didn’t take long for the reason to dawn. It’s not that complex, after all. Why I’ve long been so stubbornly hands-on with electronics, why that trait got so amplified at that time – that part of me is my inheritance from my grandfather.

I’d rarely been in even the same country as the man, so I don’t have a lot of memories with him, but aside from the ones that feature him smoking and trying to hide it, nearly every single recollection involves him being extremely handy.

When I was in my early teens, my grandfather went above and beyond to satiate my thirst for the Chinese television show My Fair Princess, a taste I now cannot explain, but recall with cringe. My grandfather could have simply bought me the VCDs – this being before the prevalence of DVDs – but instead he carefully recorded every single episode on his VCR, taking pains to pause at the commercials and then restart the tape when the show began again.

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That was my grandfather’s way. A college physics teacher, he fixed all sorts of electronics around the house by himself, stripping wires with his teeth. He fixed bicycles. He fixed televisions. His desk drawer was filled with old tools and odd parts that everyone thought was junk, but which I beheld as if it were Incan gold.

I have no doubt that this inclination of my grandfather is a reflection of the time in which he lived, not just the wars and regime changes, but also China’s turbulent Cultural Revolution. In that environment, such self-sufficiency is a source of strength, of stability amid chaos. It is accepting that sometimes there is no outside help coming, yet not succumbing to passivity but instead focusing on what is in your control. I don’t know if my grandfather ever read Western philosophy, but his life, in a way, had been an expression of stoicism.

And some of that, in its own meandering way, had trickled down to me. My material well-being in these times – much of that I owe to luck. Mentally, I can say largely the same, but at least a part of that can be traced back to my grandfather.

Throughout last year, I’d taken on all the new changes without complaint, content with cutting my own hair and doing by myself all the other tasks for which I normally depended on others. I no longer had much of a social life. Sometimes, for days, I did not breathe the outside air. But that was all fine. However the world shifted outside, within me, I was unmoved.

That was why I’d found it so hard to say out loud that my grandfather had died, that the source of all my stability for that long while was no more. Through repairing my laptop, I was trying to find it again.

So when the new motherboard for my Asus arrived, it was like the rush from a drug. I dropped everything and spent the entire half-day trying to install it. It was my first time doing something as advanced as that, and I think it went well. I’d added at least another five years to the computer’s lifespan – which was just what I needed.

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At around the same time, I discovered exactly what I was going to do with the old laptop, for the 2020 gods had seen fit to mock me yet again: In the midst of all of this, my new Dell XPS 15 appeared to have arrived defective.

The issue was small-to-non-existent and did not affect the overall function. But like a wisdom tooth pushing at the gums, even if painless, it reminded me every day of its annoying presence. And if the company could get this small detail wrong, what other problems were there that I hadn’t discovered? Customer support proved even more frustrating.

As I prepared to call once more, I thought of my grandfather. I remembered when he patiently explained what was wrong with the brakes on my bicycle, and when he taught me to use a knife to strip the non-conductive coatings off earphone wires – a long story; don’t ask. It’s probably a stretch – and I don’t know how accurate my imagination is – but I wondered whether my grandfather, in his world as a young man, dealing with whatever issues in his life, had any access to customer support or anything like that. I type this now on my old laptop.

I’ve returned the Dell, reverting back to the machine I put together myself. I had barely graduated from university when I bought the Asus, and over the years, I’ve thoroughly punished it. Its body is badly scarred. Its screen was so stained, it was only when I cleaned it that I noticed the dead pixels. But in this time and in this moment, in its own strange way – not so different from the strangeness of the past whole year – using my old laptop is just the most satisfying thing.

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