There’s a picture I go back to often. It was taken in China after both my parents left for America, when I was two or three. In the picture, I’m wedged between my grandfather, who I call Ye Ye, and my grandmother Nai Nai. He’s wearing a white muscle tee shirt that’s too loose for his body, and Nai Nai a thin smile—lips disappearing into each other, her wide mouth accentuated by how hard she’s pressing them together. Me? I’m scrawny and tiny. I look like a rascal, something someone would gladly leave behind.
Nai Nai’s indifference for me is clear in this photo, because her arm is like a stiff board against my body. Her grip looks firm and strict, like she’s forcing me up by sheer contempt. Other than this photo, I don’t ever remember her touching me. I don’t know if her hands were warm, rough, soft or dry
What I do remember: Nai Nai never lets me do anything. We live above a restaurant that serves pig feet. Every afternoon, I play in front of the restaurant, waiting for the chef to bring out those plump, succulent feet. But Nai Nai never lets me eat them. She never lets me have anything good. “Too much fat is a bad thing,” she says. Thanks to her, I am never allowed to eat more than six pieces of delicious hong shao rou (pork belly).
If Nai Nai isn’t watching my diet, she’s obsessed with my health. I’m required to wear three sweaters before I can go outside to play, because she’s always afraid I might catch a cold. I drink a murky brown “medicine” for the entire winter. It tastes like dirt, even through my pinched nose. I don’t know what is supposed to be wrong with me, but apparently Nai Nai thinks something is.
When I’m five and there’s snow on the market tarps, snow in the creases of my shoes, snow in the corners of my mouth, mom calls and asks if I want to come live with her and dad in America. I start to cry, maybe because I’ll miss China, maybe because it’s something else. Mom tells me there are squirrels. I stop crying and say yes.
“Nai Nai,” I shout. “I’m going to America!”
She smiles, I think. Her thin smile. Tells me to stop jumping—the downstairs neighbors will complain. Ye Ye tries to act happy, but I can tell he’s devastated. I’m the daughter of his only son, which makes me precious to him.
“You are my sun nu er,” he says. “You’re the only grandchild who still carries the Zhang name.”
In America, I have friends named Andy and Rzan and Kathy. I ride a yellow school bus and learn hand-clapping games about My Mother Telling Me Something. I eat deviled eggs for the first time, but not the last time.
I go to kindergarten. On my first day, a group of boys surrounds me on the playground and take turns kicking my stomach. I learn English quickly so that it does not happen again.
I thrive. I play. I grow up. America is fun, and squirrels are only part of it. There are many movies and TV shows to watch. I have friends with blond hair. I run under the trees. I go to sleepovers and eat ice cream for breakfast.
Ye Ye and Nai Nai call every week. I tell them about my new life, how fun America is. I tell them we have duck eggs incubating in our classroom at school. I’m taking piano lessons. My friends Kelly and Jessica both have dogs, and I want one too. I tell them all these things.
“Don’t forget that you are Chinese,” Ye Ye cautions. “Don’t forget your home.”
“I won’t!” I say. But my friends are playing Freeze Tag outside, so I hand the phone back to my parents.
It’s three years before I see them again. They show up at the Atlanta International Airport wearing linen pants. Ye Ye has on dark, tinted glasses. Nai Nai is wearing a floral shirt with ugly colors. They look timid, out of place. It’s so obvious that they are not from here, and I know everyone—the Americans—can see it. I am ashamed.
My parents and I show them our lives here in America. We drive them around and my dad proudly displays his driver’s license. We take them to American restaurants where my mom has to explain what a baked potato is in Mandarin. We introduce them to some friends and neighbors. There’s a lot of nodding and grunting. My grandparents are different from what I remember. It’s weird that Nai Nai walks with her hands clasped behind her and wears a bucket hat to hide from the sun. Why can’t she be normal? Doesn’t she know people are laughing at us?
I must be different to them, too. Ye Ye is distraught to hear that I haven’t kept up with my Chinese. “Never forget that you are a daughter of China,” he implores. He insists on tutoring me in basic Chinese for two hours before I’m allowed to play. I hate it. I squirm in my chair. I don’t pay attention on purpose. I’m in America now, we speak English here.
Nai Nai does not say much. She just sits at the table with her arms folded and watches us during these lessons. I wonder what she is thinking. I wonder if she hates me.
They return to China after a month. Good, I think. Get out of here with your weird customs and your dumb opinions. It’s a relief to watch Rugrats without Nai Nai sitting next to me, breathing, and Ye Ye muttering about how it’s a shame that I’d rather watch an American TV show than a Chinese one.
I finish middle school with a reputation as a weird girl. I start high school and also start to hate everything about myself. Why am I not one of the popular girls at school? Is it because I’m not American enough? What do I need to be American? I thumb through my YM magazines and try their makeup tutorials. The cat-eye liquid eyeliner they recommend disappears under my monolids. The hair-curling tutorial doesn’t tell me what to do with thick black hair that slips and slides.
“How are your grades?” Ye Ye asks. His voice sounds higher these days, more far away.
“Good,” I say. My Chinese is very bad—I hardly use it anymore. I’m a senior now and there’s no time to piece together a language that doesn’t fit into who I am.
“Your father told me you got into the college in Aw-sss-teen. What is it called?”
“Yew-Tee? How does it compare to Sss-Ten-Fu (Stanford) and Hah-Fuh (Harvard)?”
“Good. Many people want to come.”
“Your father tells us you want to study English.”
He launches into a speech about how unfortunate it is that I would rather study English. I roll my eyes, put the phone down, and return to chat with my friend Laura. At the end of these calls, he asks Nai Nai if she wants to speak to me. Sometimes she says no, other times she gets on the phone.
“I don’t love you like your Ye Ye. Your Ye Ye loves you,” she tells me during one of these rare exchanges. “I love you because I must, because I love him and he loves you.”
I’m surprised to say this hurts a lot.
“Don’t read too much in to it,” my parents say when I repeat her words. “That’s just the way your Nai Nai is—she has never been one to show emotion. Not even to your father.”
I go to college. I start drinking. I go to parties every weekend at people’s houses I don’t know, because I’m sad and lonely and don’t know how to make friends without alcohol. I talk to Ye Ye and Nai Nai a few times a year now, because I don’t live at home anymore and my parents can’t nag me to call. The conversations are always very brief. Just Ye Ye telling me the same things and Nai Nai listening on the other line, simply because she must.
Everyone else has grandmothers who bake them casseroles, and grandfathers who can do cool things like fix watches. My grandparents live an ocean away and remind me how disappointing I am through the tiny holes of a telephone.
I turn 21. I get very serious about my English degree and a career in English. I write a thesis about William Faulkner and Edith Wharton—possibly the two most American authors there are. I graduate. Meet a boy. Fall in love.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“What are you going to do with your life?” Ye Ye asks. “Your cousin is a financial advisor; she makes a lot of money. Your other cousin is pregnant and has a husband with a good job. You have an English degree. You have to think about what you’re going to do with your life.”
I will never be the person you want me to be. This is one of the few things I know how to say to him, and I want to, badly.
“Remember who you are.”
Who is that, exactly?
I find a job, miraculously, in a tech startup, doing exactly what I want to do: Writing. It’s a steady paycheck and the office is downtown. I feel cool, like a grown-up. I replace $2 pitcher nights with happy hours and charcuterie boards. I’m actually excited to call my grandparents. I have something I can tell them, something that will make them proud instead of disappointed. I have a JOB. I have a PAYCHECK. I can pay my own RENT now.
“Good, good, that’s good,” Ye Ye says. “But when are you going to go to graduate school?”
A year later, I break up with the boy I fell in love with and start dating someone else instead. He’s older and it’s amazing at first—we sneak around, try new restaurants, go back to his place when we’re both drunk and fall into bed. But then it’s bad. Really bad. He throws me away when we’re no longer new and dangerous and exciting. I go back to my apartment and it’s very quiet inside. I don’t know what to do with myself.
“Your parents tell us you have a new boyfriend,” Ye Ye says. It stings to hear them call him that, to hear him in their mouths. “Your Nai Nai wants to talk to you about that, but not today. She’s very tired.”
I tell myself I’m okay, but I’m not. I’m sad about the boy, and sad about the way I am. How could I throw away my first relationship with “The love of my life” for someone who so easily discarded me and moved on? I go out every weekend to the same strip of pointless bars, taking the same sugary shots and wearing the same black boots in hopes that someone will notice me. I’m more violent than I used to be. When I’m walking home from a bar one night, some college kids yell, “Love me long time?” I flare up inside and kick one of them on the side of the face. They shut up real quick.
That year, my parents and I go back to China to visit my grandparents. Nai Nai jumps when she opens the door. I’m shocked to see her in the flesh after all these years and all the silences. Her hair is white all over and her mouth sags. I wonder if she still wears a bucket hat when she goes outside.
“You have returned,” she announces to no one. She ushers us inside and motions to the puddle of sandals at the door. “Your Ye Ye is out at the market. He wanted to buy you fruit.”
She is small, but moves quickly. As we’re taking off our shoes and puzzling over which sandals fit our big feet, Nai Nai carries our luggage into the spare bedroom.
“Ma, I should have done that,” dad says in disbelief. “I come home only to have you carry my luggage! Sit down, I’ll do the rest.”
But she’ll have none of it. “I have to make food!” she exclaims. “Your Nai Nai is very healthy, did you know? I eat 30 different ingredients every day. When I cook, I make exactly the amount we will eat. I never have leftovers.”
“Healthy? Me too,” I say.
“How much porridge can you eat?” She cups her hands together. “One cup? Okay. What about su bing, how about three su bing? How many pickled cashews do you think you can eat? If I say nine, will you agree with me?”
“I can eat one cup of porridge,” I say, trying hard to remember the words. “But not much more. I will have a hard-boiled egg. No su bing for me.”
“Ah, you have grown indeed!” She exclaims. “Come with me to the kitchen. I will show you exactly what I have prepared for tomorrow.”
I follow her, feeling strangely happy that I seem to have done something right in her eyes. The kitchen hums with the smell of white steamed bun. Nai Nai lifts the lid of the steamer and reveals a bowl of cabbage and sliced Chinese turnips. She sits down on a little stool next to the pot and crosses her legs.
“Your parents told us you are no longer seeing that boy.”
I feel myself closing. I wish I hadn’t come into the kitchen after all.
“Let me tell you something,” she says to my silence. “I was a headmaster for many years, did you know? Girls came to me. I’ve heard every love there could be. I’ve heard them all.”
Maybe it was hearing that once, she was more than just my curt, cold grandmother. Maybe it was hearing her talk about “love.” Or maybe it was easiest to tell someone who already thinks the least of me, who I can’t possibly disappoint any more, how badly I fucked up. Whatever it is, I suddenly want to tell her everything. Like how this boy got high every night. How strangers would come to his house to buy drugs. How he got mad at me for not smoking with him. How he played dumb when I asked where the bobby pin that wasn’t mine came from. How he called me boring. How he stole me away from myself. I want to tell her everything, but I don’t know how.
“I was dating someone. I thought I loved him. But then I started liking someone else. And I thought, how could this first love be real if I like someone else? So I broke up with him and started dating number two. He said words that sounded beautiful. But then it got really bad. He wasn’t a good person. And then we ended.” My explanation is slow and broken, and I don’t even know if it makes sense. I stutter over words I haven’t used in a long time. It’s enough, though. She closes the kitchen door.
“So both were failures,” she says. “What is stopping you from looking for someone else?”
“Because I’m trying to develop myself from the inside. And I don’t know if my heart is ready for another relationship.”
“What do you mean not ready?”
“My heart still hurts from these last two. And now I just want to be alone.”
“I know women like that,” she says. “I know women who are alone.”
“Not forever,” I correct her. “I don’t want to be alone forever. Just for now. I need to figure myself out.”
“So when will you be done figuring it all out?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I am afraid I’m not a good person.”
“This second boy, did he hurt you?”
“He hurt my feelings,” I say. I hate myself for sounding so pathetic.
“That’s nothing,” she says. “Feelings are feelings. Your future is forever.” She lifts the lid of the steamer again to check on the cabbage and turnips. I take this as the signal that our conversation is over.
I stare at my Nai Nai. Her paper skin and red sweater vest. The sunspots on the edge of her jaw. Her blinks—quick, sharp, thinking. In this kitchen of boiling water and muffled smells, for the first time, I feel like I could have a grandmother.
My parents and I spend two weeks in China. It’s February and very cold, so there’s not much to do except put on our snow boots and wait for the sun so we can walk to the market. Nai Nai wakes up early to cook us food, watches a philosophy show from 9-9:30, goes on a thirty minute walk before lunch, and washes her feet in a pink plastic basin every night before bed. Sometimes she peels lotus seeds. Sometimes she calls old schoolmates who are still alive and asks them about their families. We do not speak of our conversation in the kitchen again, but one night she does ask me to help pick dirty ends off the green beans. She brushes my hands aside when I don’t do it right, and her fingers linger on top of mine for just a moment. Her hands are flecked with water and red from scrubbing. They are soft.
When we leave for America, she does not cry. “I will not come downstairs to the car to send you off,” she says. “Here is good enough.”
Ye Ye insists on carrying at least one of our suitcases, even though we have hands to spare. He shuffles downstairs and asks the taxi driver over and over again which route he plans to take to the airport. “Avoid the highway, it’s too crowded at this time of day! Are you taking a left or a right at the main drop off entrance? Do you know if they’ve finished construction on the Ao Yang Mai Chang exit?”
“When will you visit again?” He asks me. He has tears in his eyes. “Don’t let it be another five years. Visit us next year, we have money to spare. We can pay for your flight. Don’t let it be another five years.”
“I promise to call more,” I say.
“Your Nai Nai,” Ye Ye says. “She loves you very much.”
I am surprised. “Are you sure?”
“She cried when you left for America,” Ye Ye says. “Because she raised you. Both parents in another country, you were all alone. You were like an orphan in her eyes. She felt so much for you.”
My Nai Nai? My Nai Nai who did not speak to me all these years and has a thin line for a mouth?
Back in America, I look at the photograph of us again. Her mouth still looks thin to me, but this time it could be trembling. Her arm is less stiff, more paralyzed—maybe she was not forcing me to sit up straight after all. Her grip looks strong as ever, but maybe it’s not so strict. Maybe this whole time, she has been clutching me, desperate and never wanting to let go.