top of page
  • Writer's pictureYi

8,016 miles away

The last lunar new year I was able to spend with both my paternal grandparents was five years ago now. We all flew into New York and drove into Flushing from my aunt's house where we stayed since my grandparents' apartment was too small. During the day, my grandpa picked apart my brother-in-law's name, writing Chinese characters to remember how to pronounce it. We used broken Fuzhounese, Mandarin and English to have conversations, but mostly we shared meals together, going to a dim sum restaurant where we chose plates of nostalgic crystal shrimp dumplings, rice noodle rolls glazed with sweet soy sauce, my grandma's favorite fried sesame balls with red bean paste; to a banquet Chinese restaurant where we always start the meal with fish maw crab meat soup with red vinegar and end the meal with orange slices or red bean soup.

My sister, me, and my grandpa

My parents were busy trying to take care of us, making money from small businesses to give us a good home and financial security. As such, my childhood is only memories of my grandparents, where we were shipped off to be taken care of in mainland China or when my grandparents flew in to take care of us in the States.

Me in China '97 with grandparents

I can vividly recall my memories in China as a young child. Walking slowly with my grandpa and his limp, crossing the turbulent streets filled with taxis and honking cars. Treated to Chinese steak restaurants where the steak was brought sizzling to you, and the spaghetti and mashed potatoes were sweet. Carrefour escalators with shopping carts, browsing aisles of clothing with misspelled English words, and colorful stationary with Sanrio characters. We ate Big Macs at McDonald's, drank Coke and Sprite, which was cheaper than water, and bought orange creamsicle-like popsicles and my favorite yogurt drinks at the "bodega" in front of the apartment complex.

I remember humid nights as I stood on the dark balcony, watching the glow of the city lights against smoggy air with my grandpa smoking next to me. We'd only turn on the AC in individual rooms, so if we ever left the room, it would be a blast of sticky air on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. As a child, I would follow my grandma into the supermarket in the morning, picking out the vegetables and fruit and seafood we'd eat for the day. I would watch the live clams spray water out from large plastic bins, stepping in puddles from elderly vendors who would pour water out on the side. My two siblings and I would hog the old boxy computer from my grandpa, playing games in the daytime when it was too hot, listening to my grandma sew in the background. We washed and hung our clothes every day. At night, I'd take walks with my grandma, watching older ladies do their routine nightly dances/exercises, avoiding mopeds and vendors with their cheap toys racing on the ground or hovering in the air with neon lights.

Back then, my grandpa would drive us in his sedan to farther distances. We'd run circles around him as we went down to the musty car garage, water always dripping on the walls for some reason. He would take us to the nearby mountain, 鼓山, so we could all hike up, hopping over large stone stairs past old ladies wearing heels walking up, and past old shirtless men wearing slippers and playing loud music.

Grandpa in the back with his apron

In the States, I remember watching my grandpa cook in the kitchen, with his stern thick eyebrows furrowed and a dainty pink apron wrapped around to protect him from the food he was frying. My grandpa loved feeding us, like most grandparents, and he always made the best meals out of everyone in my family. In previous lunar new years, my siblings and I would help use a meat tenderizer to beat fish slices into thin pieces to coat them in flour for homemade soup. I watched my grandpa make traditional Fuzhounese fish balls, blending fish into paste to wrap around pork. We'd fry boiled eggs, 年糕, sweet potato cakes, and eat boiled taro dipped in soy sauce. When my grandpa wasn't cooking, he'd show me how to use his bare hands to press dirt to plant vegetables in the backyard.

Because my parents were too busy and my sister was in college, my grandpa taught me how to drive. With our language barrier, we would point to each part of the car so I could learn how to say it in Mandarin, and he could learn how to say it in English. "开车", and I'd start the car and press the gas, and "STOP" in capital English when I was going too fast or ran a stop sign in the neighborhood. My grandpa was always patient, always sharing his wisdom, and was also the only one who would practice Mandarin with me when my parents and my grandma would only prefer to use our dialect, Fuzhounese.

In America, when we lived in Atlanta, in Houston, my grandpa didn't have anywhere to walk around to pass the day. Although he was taking care of us, eventually we had more extracurriculars, more friends and other things to do. After I passed my driver's license test, my grandparents went back to China, where we only saw each other occasionally after.

During college, I'd make a point to at least call my grandparents on lunar new year. Although my grandpa was more tech savvy than my grandma, I still only saw his forehead when we spoke over facetime. When I studied abroad in Shanghai, I took a train down to Fuzhou to visit my grandparents where my grandpa picked me up from the train station. This time, he could no longer drive and he was using a cane to walk around, so instead we called a cab to make it back to their apartment. To explore nostalgic memories, I asked to go back to 鼓山, but my grandparents could no longer make it up the mountain with me, and I took a bus on my own to the mountain, taking steps up a place that was both how I remember it but also different, subtly eroded and reshaped by time. When it was time for me to go back to Shanghai, my grandparents dropped me off at the train station, and I waved to them with so much heartache-- was I able to convey all the gratitude for everything they've done for me through the years? Did they know, from the little I could say fluently, how much I appreciated them?

After I graduated college and started working I had such limited vacation time. I wasn't able to afford traveling abroad for the flight and the time alone that it would take to make it across the ocean. My brother eventually was in school in New York, and my grandparents came back to stay for a longer period of time in an apartment in Flushing. I'd make sure to visit at least once a year so that I could live a few days daily with them again, walking together to get groceries, watching my grandpa cook to show us his love for us, listening to them chat about Chinese and American news.

The last time I saw my grandpa in person, at the end of 2019, he was just about to go back to China alone, as there were responsibilities he still had there. That's when COVID hit, and afterwards nobody was really able to go in or out of China. I'm not good at keeping up not in person, and so before I knew it I had only facetimed my grandpa once or twice during COVID. I messaged him periodically to tell him thank you for the wedding gift, that I missed him with photos of me and my siblings. And as the years passed, it became harder for him to message me back or pick up calls to the point that just before my maternal grandma passed, my aunt finally told me she thought my grandpa was depressed. And when my maternal grandma passed, my dad was also showing me photos of my grandpa who had lost weight severely. The back to back grief was something I didn't know how to handle. Was it my parent's fault for not expressing concerns to us ahead of time or was it my fault for not keeping in contact? Or perhaps it wasn't anyone's fault but time, and COVID.

Right after my maternal grandma passed, my sister and I both tried to facetime my grandpa, but he was always sleeping whether we called in the morning or at night. Although my sister was able to show him my niece over the video, he wasn't as responsive as we hoped he would be about his great-grandchild. Shortly after that, my grandpa had a stroke, and my parents and my aunts and my grandma in New York applied for emergency visas to China, a lengthy and complicated ordeal granted to immediate family at the time. It took a month before my parents could reach my grandpa in the hospital, by which time it was Christmas.

I try not to think of my grandpa in his worst state because it's too hard. I have so much to share about my grandpa, and his stories are only just as far as I've known him as a grandchild. I wish so much that he could have met my husband and attended my wedding he sent me money for. I wish he could meet my niece in person, see how my brother is doing.

When we lost my maternal grandma, my mom spoke of how she did her best to provide for our family, hours of working immigrant small businesses and juggling taking care of us and the black hole where all the time was lost to spend with family. I think of losing my friend in December, and how we always wish there was more time to have shared more memories together.

On lunar new year this year, I couldn't help but miss my grandpa in the hospital 8,016 miles away with my parents. I thought of all the times I received 红包 from my grandparents. I thought of walking with my grandpa, pacing myself slower to match his steps, of him telling me to slow down when I drive, pushing invisible brakes on his passenger side. I thought honestly, how I was, excuse my language, a little shit to him when I would stress him out during those driving lessons, when I was hormonal and in tears, but also full of rage in my teenage youth. I thought of the quiet wisdom from long years that radiated from my grandpa, the gentle way he would have conversations with us, and how he conveyed how much he cared. I only hope that I can pass on his character and generosity to the people around me as well, and learn to slow down and appreciate all the time that I have with my loved ones.

108 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page