My grandma is onto something I’ve been trying to learn my whole life: that total assimilation is a stealthy form of loss.
The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.
Every couple of days, my grandma, 婆婆 | Por Por, makes a pot of 湯 | broth. The process is simple, but it takes some time. First, she takes a lean pork steak and blanches it in a big pot of hot water. She skims the scum off the surface, then rinses the pork in cold water and returns it to the pot, along with a few carrots cut into chunks, and a handful each of barley, black-eyed beans, and Chinese red dates.
Masses of ginger go into the pot, so much ginger you can smell it in the next room, and sometimes some frilly dried bean curd. A little bit of salt. The broth is boiled for several hours, until the meat disintegrates at the touch of a chopstick and the carrots are tender and savoury, then cooled and ladled into a big blue and white dish with a lid before it goes into the fridge.
It has an indescribable taste, faintly sweet and smelling partly like the cupboard where the dried beans are kept. It could not rightly be called delicious. But 婆婆 maintains it has some health-giving properties, and for the next few days, it is served with every dinner and doled out among the family members.
婆婆, 92 this year, is the last living member of my immediate family born outside the West. She celebrates her birthday according to the lunar calendar and drinks only warm water, straight from the kettle. Her diet is regulated according to a series of traditional rules I can’t quite follow: no cold foods when you’re ill, avocado every day to keep your hair black, a couple of cloves of garlic with every meal to aid digestion.
She speaks Cantonese, her mother tongue, on a daily basis, and listens nightly to the news in both English and Mandarin to keep up both languages. Everybody in the family has a Chinese name — most of them gifted by 婆婆 and my grandfather, 公公 — but 婆婆 is the only one left who knows how to write them all.
Her death, which she mentions often, with upbeat practicality, will cause us to become a different sort of family, one that must decide what it will preserve of the past. I have been wondering if we will still go to yum cha as often without her; whether the various factions of the family will come together for the sake of 虾饺 | har gow. I’m fairly certain nobody will make 湯 for everyone.
In Crying in H Mart, Michelle Zauner’s memoir about the loss of her mother, she writes, “Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?” I ask myself a version of this question every time I eat with 婆婆. Is our family even Chinese anymore if we don’t eat rice and 湯 with every meal; if we don’t even know how to make it? My cousins and brother worry aloud about this sometimes, too, but nobody does anything about it. It’s hard to imagine missing rice and 湯; they are so ordinary, so unremarkable.
婆婆’s mother, 太婆, taught her how to make 湯. But none of 婆婆’s three children makes it. I used to think this was because it took so long, but now I think it is about something else entirely — about 婆婆’s cultural understanding that a meal at home is incomplete without a bowl of 湯. The idea that 湯 is essential to a meal is one of many ideas lost between the generations of my family.
It interests me, what is held onto and what is not. Every immigrant family reaches a 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? But what does it mean for the first generation to die out – and to reach this point steadily, consciously? Why is it that only 婆婆 makes 湯, but everybody has the Cantonese vocabulary to order dishes at yum cha? Why is it that 婆婆 alone gives 利是 | red packets for every birthday, every marriage, every Lunar New Year, and before every big trip? Why is it that she’s the only one who still plays mahjong, buys all her fresh produce at Asian supermarkets, believes in steaming as the primary cooking method – but all of us celebrate the big Chinese festivals and say aiyah! when we stub a toe? What is the cultural valence of aiyah? Do we get to choose what is handed down – and what would we choose if we could?
When I am at 婆婆’s apartment, I try to notice everything. I try to write it all down. The little covered dish of peeled garlic cloves in the fridge, for instance: ten or eleven at once, topped up every day, so careful, lightly scenting everything. The articulate silence of the living room, with all its dustless ornaments: the bunch of green glass grapes that so fascinated me as a child, the lucky dried gourd. The portrait of 婆婆 and 公公 with their children in front of their house in the 1960s. Here are the yellowing Chinese newspapers 公公 used to read, several years old and undiscardable. The wedding crockery with the faded pink fish swimming at the bottom of each bowl. And here is the enormous plastic tub of rice 婆婆 keeps in the darkest part of the pantry, the half-cup measure that lives inside.
I keep other things too, intangible things: the recipes that involve no standardised measurements; the memory of the two velvet-covered armchairs we threw out when she moved house; her hundreds of halting telephone messages in English. How lucky to have the foresight to hold onto everything; how terrible to lose it anyway.
I try to ask 婆婆 questions about her life, which she’s bemused by. She tells me that when she first arrived in Tāmaki 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 the family got up, how tired she always was. More than once she tells me the story of being so tired she fell asleep on the toilet and was woken by her mother-in-law, who did not think 婆婆 was good enough for her son, shouting through the door.
婆婆 has three children, two of whom have had children with white partners, only one of whom speaks decent Cantonese, and not one of whom has become a doctor or accountant. She left China because her parents thought the family would have a better life here, and in every way you could tell from the outside, they did. New Zealand is very nice, says 婆婆, chopping the 叉烧 | cha siu for our lunch. The people are not dishonest. She has made her peace with the fact she will die here, far from the place she grew up, to be buried alongside 公公 in the plot by the train station. She impresses on me strongly, without ever saying it, that I am lucky to have grown up here.
I feel furthest from 婆婆 in language. When she is reading the newspaper before dinner, she brings out a little silk pouch full of slips of paper. 呢個係乜嘢? | What is that? I ask her. She lights up at my halting Cantonese. All my thoughts come to me in English first, but in her dining room, under the photographs, I hush the English and bring the Cantonese forward. I long to meet her as herself. She replies in Cantonese I can’t understand, then repeats in English: My English words!
The slips of paper contain English words she has read and not understood, then the Chinese equivalents she has looked up afterwards. The words are amazing, a colourful record of women’s magazines and the business section of the New Zealand Herald: perpetuity, lovechild, tenterhooks, incumbent. Words she will never use, but wanted to understand. Sometimes she asks me what a word means and I realise again that I can’t explain it to her in her own language. We speak to each other across a great chasm of silence.
What do I do with these details, these stories? In his memoir Stay True, American writer Hua Hsu writes, “The first generation thinks about survival; the ones that follow tell the stories.” 婆婆’s stories feel like an important cultural artefact, symbolic beyond my family. They remind me of the stories in Manying Ip’s Home Away from Home, a book I keep coming back to. It tells the life stories of eight Chinese women who immigrated to Aotearoa in the twentieth century, in their own words, accompanied by photographs.
In those days it was really hard to be a Chinese person in Otago. It was quite demeaning. Quite frankly, I didn’t like being Chinese. / My hands were badly ruined washing so many nappies. / The shop kept me very busy all those years. We were open from six o’clock in the morning till about midnight. / Now all my children are married. We have twenty-four grandchildren. / I don’t know when there can be true racial harmony. There may come such a day, when there is so much intermarriage that there is no difference among the various races. Maybe. I recognise 婆婆 as having stories like these, stories which encapsulate something about the female Chinese immigrant experience in Aotearoa more generally. But mostly I don’t think of her as a nexus of racial and political identity. Mostly she is an old lady I love, whose death will make me really sad.
婆婆 has a friend in the apartment building opposite hers, another elderly Chinese woman. They come out onto their balconies at 9.30 in the morning and wave to each other. 婆婆 tells me the woman does not speak English or Cantonese. Instead, 婆婆 is using her rusty Mandarin to communicate. On the phone I hear her stumbling cheerfully through it. It’s important to learn another language, she tells me. My friend is silly. It’s not that hard! This attitude to language means she is painfully excited about my learning Cantonese; it fills me with shame that I like learning Cantonese so much less than I liked learning German. Is this because it doesn’t feel completely like my choice? I study with a combination of obligation, guilt, and exasperation.
婆婆 always wants to hear my progress. We develop a set conversation we have almost every time we meet. Hundreds of times I have heard that she spent the afternoon playing mahjong and reading the newspaper, that she has a piece of fish for dinner. But maybe it doesn’t matter. I think underneath, we are having a different conversation. 咁大雨! | So much rain! we say; 我好忙 | I’m so busy; 早抖 | goodnight — and what we mean is I love you I love you I love you.
When I left my boyfriend of almost five years, I went to stay with 婆婆, who did not understand. On my third night at her house, she ventured carefully, What happened, 麗麗? I was supposed to get married and settle down, two children, safe as houses. Still, she did not forget I might be heartbroken. She made dinner each night, did my laundry while I was at work, emptied the bin of tissues without saying anything. In the mornings, I sat on the balcony and wrote. When she got up, two hours later, she came outside and asked 你瞓得好唔好啊? | Did you sleep well? We had our rhythms. We were both the less lonely for each other. When the time came for me to move into a new flat, she said 唔使走 | You don’t have to go.
Now, I go round to stay the night. She puts on The Chase and we eat bowls of 云吞 | wontons unfurling their skirts in a golden 湯. 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 苦瓜 | 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. I am the eldest grandchild. Not the eldest boy, traditionally the most important in Chinese culture, but the eldest girl – like 婆婆 in her family. I am the closest to her of all the grandchildren, the one she calls to check on. I am certain that in whatever way matters, we understand each other.
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.
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 婆婆 would give — 婆婆, who has always known she is Chinese, who has always known there is nothing wrong with that. I think maybe she is onto something I have been trying to learn my whole life: that total assimilation is a stealthy form of loss. I ask her to teach me to make 湯 and she is surprised. But she does it. She finds a pork steak. She chooses a carrot. She waits for me to write down each step.