October 31, 2018

SONG | I Left My Grandpa Behind in China

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My parents packed all their luggage in one just bag when they came to the United States from China. That’s a story my family loves to tell over and over again — the layers of coats my mother wore so she could bring over all her clothes, the prized kitchen knife my father snuck past security, the Scott McKenzie song playing on the airplane when they first landed.

But I never quite thought about what my parents couldn’t pack — the scallion pancakes from the shack downstairs in their province, my mother’s pink bike she rode for three days on a road trip, the Napa cabbage blooming behind their old home. All their brothers, sisters, cousins. Those were all faint elements I knew existed, but never saw for myself.

My grandfather passed away a few weeks ago. I found out in the middle of fall break while mining quartz with my boyfriend. Squatting in the quarry, with goggles that made my face look too wide, it stung. I wanted more time with him. I wanted to fly back to China again, to refuse my parents all those times when they said we were too busy. I wanted to tell them it was never too hard to get on an airplane.

After my grandfather’s passing, I became distinctly aware of the tragedy of the immigrant family, and the grandparents that are left behind in the process. My family and I have only visited China twice together, meaning I was only able to see my grandparents a handful of times. Flying the elderly across continents was hardly an option, and uplifting a family in the middle of work and school was equally challenging.

I only remember him briefly; how he spoon-fed me egg pudding in my high chair and read me a Buddhist passage from his book, taking care of me while my mother was at work. I remember how my mother used to send him to follow me on my walk to school — I hated having a chaperone, insisting I was “old enough” while bouncing around with a Hello Kitty backpack. Now, I’d do anything to rewind time; I’d slow down my pace and walk with him.

When my mother called me about my grandfather getting sick a few weeks ago, the most frustrating part was being unable to do anything about it. Only my mother was able to fly back China in time, booking her plane ticket as soon as she found out. By the time she arrived, he was already in a coma.

I wondered, what could that feel like, your father so inaccessible you don’t even have time to say goodbye?

I think that’s the way China feels for many children of immigrants; somewhere distant, but still deeply connected. I still remember our home in China the way I did when I was nine — it’s been so long since I’d been back. I remember buying milk in a plastic bag off the carts on the streets, heating it in a boiler pot for breakfast. I remember the spice of herbal medicine, jerky my grandmother served for lunch, watching TV shows with my grandfather; him in his knitted vest, me in a purple sweater. My grandfather always asked if I was hungry — I always told him I was, hoping to sneak in another pork bun or a spoonful of sesame. I was too foolishly young to think of giving him the last bite, but he didn’t mind. How I thought those moments were immortal; when you’re nine, you think anything can last.

I hoped that when I got older, I could be the one to feed him porridge. That’s the Chinese mantra: we grow up to serve our elders. But I never truly reconciled with the fact that my elders would outgrow me, or that I wouldn’t be able to visit them. I remember feeling angry that I had to grasp onto those moments; time with family shouldn’t be limited, it should be a life necessity to have people you love surround you. But perhaps it is because those days were numbered that makes them special.

When someone comes up to me and degrades an immigrant, I often wonder — do they know what it’s like to leave everything behind? I wonder if they know what it’s like to wish for a big family, knowing they have one waiting for them overseas, and being unable to see them. Do they know the smell of foreign snacks, the fumbling hands that fed them congee, each a cherished memory that is rarely relived?

There’s an emptiness to being the second generation of an immigrant family, and realizing most of your family has been left behind. I remember aching for that big family, one that was whole. I envied Thanksgiving dinners with huge tables of bunches of cousins, and the pair of grandparents beaming at the front, Grandma bringing out a turkey in her floral apron. Instead, during the Lunar New Year, my father would stick the telephone in the middle of our tiny dinner table and put my relatives on speaker. They would all be on the line, sharing the dumpling recipes we were all making simultaneously.

The few times I flew back to China, I remember the distinct glow of finally seeing a real family. I remember my grandmother sticking a plate of shrimp and wintermelon under my nose as soon as I stepped into the house, her comfort food for a long plane ride. My head would be careening from the jet lag, but I always had an appetite for those strange, authentic versions of dishes I’d always known. My grandfather would come downstairs, bundled in scarves from the winter, carrying a newspaper. His granddaughters were home, and it was a rare sight — the next morning he’d take me to the streets, pointing out shoes he’d like to buy for me, sneaking me a red bean pancake.

It was those family reunions, packed with food every night for two weeks straight like it was a holiday, that made me realize how stepping foot into their province was not just a visit — it was a homecoming, long overdue. And it was one they knew they wouldn’t see again for a while. My uncle bought me a string of candied hawthorns every night, knowing how much I loved them. Every bite of food, every story told, had to be savored.

China is now just a memory — dusted lanes with bikes, children in blue jumper uniforms, bookstores with colorful pens. But it will always be my home; the one that exists, but is inaccessible. The one that is warm with grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles, who will have ginger candies and tea eggs on the table, and shoe stores at the giant malls they picked out three weeks in advance to show me.  I know they will be there to welcome me; I just hope I can go back while there’s still someone waiting.

I’m not sure whether my grandfather’s death was an urge or a motivation — all I know is, there are people in our lives who may be stretched far from us, away from reach but they won’t be here forever. Every time we go home is one less time we’ll be there. If you’re debating whether the trip is worth it — it is. You’ll always want more time when it’s gone.

Kelly Song is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. The Songbird Sings runs every other Thursday this semester. She can be reached at ksong@cornellsun.com