The end of the first generation
I have been thinking a lot about the death of my grandma, who turns 90 in September. I don’t think this is particularly morbid. Whenever I see her, she mentions her own death with upbeat practicality and tries to give me something from her house — bedding, a jacket she doesn’t wear anymore, spare plates — which I think is a kind of divesting; a desire not to make it too difficult for whoever has to sort her things. But even though I know she is old, her death will still be surprising, and somehow very large, even if it is quiet.
My grandma is the last living member of my immediate family born outside the West. She eats rice with every dinner and orders, every year, the twelve lucky dishes for the New Year feast. She knows how to play mahjong and celebrates her birthday according to the lunar calendar. She is the only one who knows how to write everyone’s Chinese names. Her death will cause us to become a different sort of family, one that has decided consciously what it is and what it will preserve of its past.
There is a point that every immigrant family reaches but I have never seen discussed — the moment when there is no more first generation to ask the questions that shape every descendant: why did you come here, what was your life like, do you ever regret it? I have been wondering what it means to reach this point.
My grandma tells me that when she first arrived in Tāmaki Makaurau at the age of nineteen, she took the tram to English classes on Queen Street after work. The first word she learned was apple. She loved the classes, not because she liked learning English, but because they were the only time during the week that she saw other Chinese girls her age. She tells me about running the fruit shop on Karangahape Road in the 1960s, how some customers were kind and others were unkind, how early her family got up, how tired she always was. As a child, she rarely left her village. She remembers the arrival of the Japanese and drinking a cabbage soup she hated every winter. She cried all night after her father pulled her out of school because he did not believe girls needed educating. As an adult, she travelled all over the world and lived in a chilly house in St Heliers and had three children of her own, two of whom have had children with white partners, and not one of whom has become a doctor or accountant. She left China involuntarily, because her parents thought the family would have a better life here — and in every way you could tell from the outside, they did.
Since I was very young, I have been asked by other New Zealanders where I am from and thought, in my quietest voice, I am from here, like you. But that is a different response from the one my grandma would give. My grandma has always known she is not white, and has chosen to defend her otherness, rather than quash it, which is an attitude I am still learning to emulate. Mostly, though, I don’t think of my grandma as a nexus of racial and political identity. Mostly, she is an old lady I love very much, whose death will make me really sad.
I go round to stay the night. She puts on The Chase and we eat bowls of wonton | 馄饨 unfurling their skirts in a golden broth, and a big shared plate of vegetables. She looks at my acne scars and says nothing, because she knows that white people who love each other do not comment on each other’s physical misfortunes, and part of me is white. I choke down the bitter melon that I find so inedible, because I know Chinese people believe it to be good for you, and she is Chinese. She forms sentences in English, just for me. I form (terrible) sentences in Cantonese, just for her. After dinner, I take a shower and as I’m getting in, I look at my hairy white girl legs and my pink feet with the painted nails, the sort of limbs that belong to a granddaughter she would never have had if she had stayed in China, and I think, I am her granddaughter and she is my grandmother and we love each other in just the way we should, just as people love other people everywhere, respecting each other’s mysteries. We are not what we would have imagined, but we are still each other’s.
What will be left to hold onto after she goes?
The photo of her in a bib eating crayfish in New England the first time she came to visit my parents after I was born, her smile so big both eyes are closed.
Her no-recipe recipes for jian dui | 煎䭔 and lor mai gai | 糯米雞 and the ginger-fragrant soup she makes on Saturdays.
A pair of white Reeboks, spotlessly kept, bought when they were very uncool; six pairs of pink pyjamas; a fur coat she hasn’t worn in forty years; an egregious hand-knitted jumper with alternating stripes of yellow and orange and a zip.
The silk pouch which holds paper slips listing the English words she reads and doesn’t know the meaning of, and the Chinese equivalents she looks up afterwards. Words like perpetuity and accomplish and detriment; words she will never use but thought it was important to understand.
Her orchids in their blue and white pots.
The wedding crockery with the faded pink fish swimming at the bottom of each bowl, all still used.
Her telephone messages, each one identical and undeletable: Hello Lai Lai! It’s Por Por. Where are you? You come for dinner tonight? Okay, you give me a call please. Bye bye.