By Bethany Ao
“What do you call that thing that puts water into the air?”
I stopped sipping on my soda that I had just purchased at the store. “What?”
My grandmother turned to look at me, a stack of Sticky Notes with random English words on them in her hand. She gestured vaguely and continued in Chinese. “The thing… you fill it with water and then it goes into the air.”
“Oh,” I said in English. “A humidifier?”
“Yes!” She nodded excitedly. “Can you write it down for me? The filter in ours is old and I want to replace it.”
My grandmother is a simple person. She lives with my grandfather in an apartment across town, furnished sparsely with pieces and knickknacks they’ve scavenged over the years from yard sales. They love yard sales – when I lived with them during my sophomore year of high school, my grandmother would wake me up every Saturday morning and usher me into the backseat of their car to go see what treasures they could find that day. A shoe rack here. A lamp shade there. But they never bought too much.
These days, she drives to the senior center every morning with my grandfather. He plays pool while she sings and dances with the grandmothers of other second-generation children. In the afternoon, they go to my uncle’s Chinese restaurant to help him prep cooking ingredients for the night. I think it gives them a sense of purpose to be standing in his kitchen, folding dumplings and chatting with his cooks.
I didn’t recognize that my grandmother is one of the strongest people I know until I was older. Her father was a general for the Kuomingtang political party when she was a child, and she enjoyed the luxuries of his status. He was killed by Communist forces when she was 12 years old. Her mother couldn’t bear to go watch his execution, so my grandmother went to identify his body.
I’ve heard stories about the poverty my grandmother faced all my life. Her younger brothers had to share one pair of pants and one pair of shoes. Her mother, once considered one of the most beautiful and elegant women in their city, worked as a maid. My grandmother never attended high school because she had to work as soon as she was of age to help feed everyone. The oldest of six children, she had to keep her siblings in line too. Sometimes her bossy side still comes through when she tells me what to eat and where to go.
When my grandparents immigrated to the United States, they faced the same difficulties all immigrants face at the beginning. They didn’t know any English and had very little money. My mother, who had come with them, worked as a waitress even though she had just finished studying to become a doctor in China.
Most people will never face the hardships my grandmother has faced in her life. She is cheerful and loving to her four grandchildren, of whom I am the oldest. I remember visiting her in the hospital when she received a mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She gave me a weak smile and asked me how I was, even though she was in great pain. I used to sleep in her bed when she stayed with us because I thought her snores would keep the monsters away at night.
When she looks at her four grandchildren, she sees her sacrifices reflected in our lives. We attend prestigious colleges, speak English fluently and navigate this world, still so foreign to her, with ease. Despite having all these opportunities, I am not sure I will ever be as courageous and resilient as my grandmother is. She is over 70 years old now, but my grandmother continues to adapt to this country and culture, even though it will never truly accept her as she is.
During long road trips, my cousins and I used to chat in English when we were in the car. My grandmother would listen from the front seat, occasionally piping in.
“I heard the word ‘grandma’! What are you saying about me?” She’d ask.
“She doesn’t understand because she never went to high school,” I remember saying to my cousins cheekily.
It wasn’t until later that I recognized my privileged upbringing and education were the result of all the sacrifices my grandmother made.
“When are you going to get the filter replaced?” I asked, handing her Sticky Notes back.
“Probably sometime next week,” she replied. She looked at the word I had written on the piece of paper. “Hue-mid-ee-fear.”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“It’s okay,” she settled back in her seat. “But you should come over for dinner sometime.”