yours, tiramisu

the homecoming pauper

A gold Volkswagen Jetta with no seatbelts picks us up from the airport. Our driver talks to Mom in thick accent, slurring syllables together in bunches. There are many words I can’t catch, but the lilting rhythm falls comfortably on my ears.

I grip the door tightly as empty fields and abandoned skyscrapers fly by my window at 150 kilometers an hour. The gray sky is so choked with smog I can look right at the sun, and breathing in the air makes me wince.

Fourteen long years have passed since I was last here. As I take in the vast emptiness unfolding around me on the car ride, I think about just how much has changed. The decade and a half away has put an eternity of distance between me and this place Mom calls home. It feels insurmountable now.

Grandpa comes out to greet us as we lurch to a stop in his apartment complex and gather our bags. I smile at the sight of him and go in for the hug. Instead of reciprocating, he holds my face and slaps me on the cheek. My brother gets the same treatment. I don’t remember him doing that last time, but somehow that slap tells me he’s my mother’s father. It’s the exact sort of cold, awkward gesture I’d expect someone from our bloodline to give.

Grandma’s prepared a humble but hearty spread of 炸酱面 (noodles with black bean paste) and cucumbers for us, urging us to eat before we’ve even put down our bags. My brother V and I are ready to tuck in when Mom interrupts. They’re not hungry, she says for the two of us. (We are.) They don’t need to eat. (We want to.)

Chaos ensues. Have you ever tried to stop a grandma from feeding her grandchildren? Grandpa and Grandma urge us to eat in Mandarin; Mom responds that she’s not speaking for us, that we’re really not hungry. Between her protests she hisses death threats to us in English if we eat. My brother and I are caught in the crossfire, exposed by my mom playing double agent and lying through her teeth to keep up appearances.

It’s an uncomfortable scene that I really could have done without. I especially dislike the way Mom plays Nice Chill Mom to outsiders while unleashing Ruthless Tiger Mom behind her back. I know she watches my diet like a hawk for my own good, but why lie about it? If you’re going to be a tiger mom you might as well own up to it.

Despite being a middle child my mom looks significantly older than both my aunts. As we nibble on tiny portions to save face while avoiding Mom’s ire, my grandparents bring over supplements and herbal medicine for Mom, telling her to take them so she doesn’t age more. Mom and I both know it’s all a load of hogwash, mostly superstition and placebo effect, but I don’t know if we agree on the reason she seems to age twice as fast as her sisters. I’m adamant the culprit is stress, stress that she puts on herself to raise her two sons exactly to her specifications. My aunts each have one daughter that they raised rather laissez-faire. Mom beat me and my brother to within an inch of our lives growing up. That sort of long-term violence surely can’t be good for your skin. I keep my mouth shut, though.

After we clean up and most of the noodles go in the trash the conversation rambles to the elephant in the room. Between long sighs Grandpa, Grandma, and Mom’s voices lament my uncle’s sudden passing, finally cracking into sobs. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen my usually stoic mom cry. I don’t really watch so much as I try not to pay attention from the corner of the room where I scribble this post out on a spiral notepad. I think I’d turn into stone if I ever looked Mom in the eye while she cried.

After they’re done with that my grandpa goes out for a smoke (can you believe it?) and my grandma turns her attention back to me and my brother. She’s especially interested in my brother’s girlfriend. The questions go from acceptable to not so much. How tall is she? How much does she weigh? How dark is she? (Jesus Christ Grandma, please.) Does she eat with her hands? (Okay, that’s enough of this Grandma, let’s get you to bed.)

I don’t escape her critical eye either. Put on a jacket so you don’t catch a cold, she says. (I’m not cold.) Put a pillow under your knees while you do your stretches. (I don’t really need one, but I stop stretching to appease her.) Put on some slippers so your feet don’t freeze. (It’s almost summer here, and I hate the feeling of anything between my bare feet and the ground.)

Mom protests while Grandma interrogates and nags. It’s true, it can get on your nerves if you let it, though Mom either doesn’t realize or refuses to accept that she does the same thing. Grandma is a lot more set in her ways — she never passes up an opportunity to air her grievances about the war crimes the Japanese committed — but it’s not hard for me to imagine my mom sounding just like this in a decade or two. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

Grandma complains that Mom, my brother and I speak in English too much to each other, that she can’t understand. Our little cousin who visits from California speaks only Mandarin to them. What I think she doesn’t realize is that we don’t speak English not because we can’t speak in Mandarin, but often because we don’t want to. My grandparents can’t speak a single word of English, which lets us interject asides without subjecting us to further questioning.


I don't know what we'll do for the rest of the week. So far it's been a lot of listening to conversations from my armchair in the corner. I’m going to take a stroll now. Internet connection permitting, I’ll be back soon with more writing and photos.

#english #family #life #travel #wordvomit