As I rummage through the refrigerator for ingredients: pork, bok choy, salty
pickled olives, and heat vegetable oil in a wok, I get an overwhelming sense of
nostalgia. Stir-frying makes me think of my grandfather who taught me how to
cook and my grandmother with whom we would share the delicious meals we
created together. I laugh when I add leftovers to my stir-fry because this would
surely elicit a disapproving “tsk tsk” from grandpa.
My mom, my brother, and I moved to the United States when I was six. Because
my father had to stay behind for work, my grandparents selflessly left behind their
friends and the lives they had built in Shenzhen to come help take care of me
and my brother in California. They were fish out of water — unable to speak
English, drive, or fully understand American culture, but they never complained.
They helped us with our math homework. Grandpa made us his special rice
cakes every morning before school. Grandma would call me, “Ya Ya,” her special
nickname for me, and would keep me especially close when my mother was
away on her many business trips.
My grandparents were my everything. So, in 2018 when my grandfather was
diagnosed with colon cancer and they moved back to China for his treatment, my
world came crashing down. Even at twelve, I understood that my grandpa
wanted to spend his final months at home.
In the summer of 2020, only a few months after grandpa died, my perpetually
healthy, vibrant grandmother was diagnosed with leukemia. I vowed to take care
of her and treasure our time together. And I did. I woke up in the afternoon and
slept after school so I could coordinate with the time in Shenzhen. Eventually, we
moved back to China to help care for her. I would bike over to the hospital after
my ukulele lessons and play her “You Are My Sunshine.” She told me stories
about their life in a poor, rural part of China when my mom was a child, and how
hard my mom had worked to attend a prestigious university.
During the pandemic, I was in a slump, just languishing, and unable to focus on
schoolwork. My middle-of-the-night walks with my cousin when we commiserated
about Zoom classes, pandemic isolation, and our boredom and discontent,
helped. My cousin reminded me that along with “do what makes you happy,” my
grandparents always told me to “be a good person.” This gave me a new
perspective on the situation and presented new questions. Could I do what made
me happy and also be a good person? Could I do both while also fulfilling the
hopes my parents and grandparents had for me, to ensure their sacrifices were
not in vain?
I now recognized that when I felt neglected by my parents growing up, they were
actually selflessly working overtime to pave the way for my brother and me to
have opportunities they did not. When my mom’s electronics company relocated
her to the U.S., she saw it as a chance for us to get a better education.
My grandmother passed away when we were in the U.S. As she lovingly
whispered, “Yaya, Yaya,” on one of our last Facetime calls, I cried and frantically
tried to thank her for teaching me how to cook, behave, love others, and love
myself. I felt guilty for not being by her side during her final moments, though I
take comfort in the thought that, if she and grandpa were still here, they would be
proud of me and how independent I’ve become.
“Listen to your grandparents!” grandpa always told me. I still “listen” and learn
from their actions and choices, and cherish their altruism, unconditional love, and
generosity. Every day, their memory inspires me to emulate them and live an
honorable and meaningful life — even if I do use leftovers!
by Alice Wang