I would like to dedicate this three-part series on my travels in Oxford to the memory of my grandma, Yang Xuhua. She passed away in China on January 10, the evening of my first day in Oxford. As a loving grandma and former elementary school teacher, she taught me to seek knowledge, explore, write, and cherish every moment.
Oxford, the City of A Thousand Spires, has long been on my list of dream places to visit in Europe.
My love of university towns drew me to the city, home to the oldest university in the English-speaking world, an epitome of learning, and the former residence of some of my favorite writers. Throughout my childhood, I had lived in many cities, but always resided near schools, including in the staff residence of my grandma’s elementary school; in ever-changing and unfamiliar environments, learning and living near a school environment became my one constant, providing friendship and knowledge, comfort and familiarity. Thus, living abroad in Edinburgh, I could not pass up the chance to visit Oxford.
As a bookworm and writer, I longed to see the places where writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, and Oscar Wilde stayed and drew inspiration for their works.
As a Harry Potter fan, I wanted to trace some of the places that were used as film locations for the Harry Potter films.
During my first day in Oxford, I fell in love with the city. It exceeded my expectations, living up to its reputation with its university atmosphere, narrow lanes, literary history, and attractions.
Then, on the evening of my first day there, I received the message that my grandma had suddenly passed away. The night was spent in numbness, tossing and turning in my hostel bed, waiting for sunrise in a foreign land.
I spent the next day in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown, then returned to Oxford for another day. The sky was bleak and overcast, and rain poured, as if grieving with me.
As I visited Tolkien’s favorite tree in the botanical garden, and ate lunch in the pub where Lewis and Tolkien met to share their writing, I thought of my grandma and her encouragements to me to learn and write.
My grandma took care of me for several years when I lived with her, taught me Chinese and her worldview. When I last visited her two summers ago, she told me of her youth growing up in a village, her struggles during the Cultural Revolution, her views about history and politics. She wanted to read my writing and see my books in print.
I wished that she could explore this city with me and share my journey to retrace the footsteps of storytellers I admire. I longed for her voice and words, missed her presence and the school courtyard where she lived. But she is gone.
And as I walked and walked, Oxford distracted and comforted me with its city streets, with stories, with smiles from locals and my fellow travelers, just as schools had comforted me in the past. Memories of my grandma fused with my impression of the city’s alleyways and nooks, of its history and culture.
Slowly, Oxford became more than a place of history and learning. To me, it has become a place of personal loss, longing, and new hope. It echoes my grandma’s life and legacy, her teachings about the Chinese language, her love of learning, strength to overcome challenges, and positive outlook on life. I could sense her presence there, even though she never visited it, and my memories of her are fused with my memories of Oxford.