yours, tiramisu

we don’t get to choose our memories

Today we had the big family reunion I’ve been waiting for all these years. My mom’s older sister came with her husband, as did my mom’s uncle (my grandma’s little brother).

My late uncle’s wife and daughter (my cousin) kindly joined us too. I mentioned how much I wanted to see my cousin in an earlier post. When we went to my uncle’s apartment with strawberries in hand to visit her I felt bad seeing the eye bags and stress lines written all over their face. In spite of all that, they invited us in and told us their side of the story while shedding tears. The details of his precipitously declining health and death were gruesome; I had to bite my tongue to keep from crying. I can’t imagine the whirlwind of emotions the last month has been for them.

That said, I was still really glad to see my cousin. The last time I visited she was still taller than we were; I tower over her now. She’s somehow thirty years old (oh, how time flies), and just as kind and personable as I remember. When we left she said the next time she’ll see us is probably going to be one of our weddings, if she can figure out the visa situation. I wish I got to see her more. I think we’d make good friends.

My mom’s older sister plays Cool Aunt. She’s the most outgoing and affectionate of my mom’s siblings, always going out of her way to ask my brother and I lots of questions without overstepping boundaries. She dotes on us like we’re children while speaking to us as equals. We’ve talked for only a few hours in my entire life but when she looks me in the eye I feel like she just gets me. Maybe her relationship with my mom helps her understand me better too. She’s another member of the family I wish lived closer to me. (As an added bonus, her husband is also easy to talk to, and feels as close as any blood relative.)

My mom tells me my aunt is also unwell from the stress of taking care of my uncle. When he first got sick she was the one who drove him to the hospital and paid for all the bills and took care of everything. Uncle’s wife didn’t even know what was going on. My heart swells thinking about how much she ran herself ragged this past month out of love for her older brother. To have all that work end in abrupt death must be crushing.

Since today is Mother’s Day we had to sit at home and wait for our late lunch reservation time to come around. The language barrier and cloud of grief hanging over the room made it harder to catch up with my cousin and aunt, but we tried our best. Many of the words and phrases I want to say snag when I try to get them out of my mouth, though even in that short hour or two before lunch I can feel myself beginning to smooth out the wrinkles in my Mandarin. My cousin’s English fills in the blanks and we have a rare conversation about cultural differences and work.

My cousin started her own business which sells electric equipment on Amazon and is doing quite well now, from what I’ve been told. She’s a gem of a person. I wish I could have better expressed my sympathy and admiration to her but how do you say such things to a mourning cousin you last saw as a child when you don’t even share a common tongue?

In Chinese we have different words for all the different family members on each side of the family. The maternal grandfather is called laoye (姥爷), the paternal one yeye (爷爷). I really like this distinction, and wish the other languages I spoke carried this level of detail. In English when I say my aunt you have no idea if I’m referring my mom’s older sister or my dad’s younger one. In Mandarin we distinguish between all of them by calling them big/small and the corresponding maternal/paternal term of reference.

I tell you all this because hearing my cousin call my laoye her yeye made me realize that what for me is the mother’s side of the family is for her the father’s side. I don’t know why this surprised me as much as it did. The father’s side has a reputation for being the worse/distant side so it’s strange for me to consider that the better half of my family could be the worse half for someone else.

While the ten of us sat around waiting in the living room for lunch, I couldn’t shake the feeling that all of us were just sitting around waiting to die. That’s what it feels like my grandparents are doing, at least. The only difference between them and us younger ones is that we keep running around and distracting ourselves from having to think about waiting for death. But we’re all barreling toward its door all the same.

The ten of us there in that room is, I think, the most of my family I’ve seen together at a time. I’ve never even seen any member of my dad’s side with one from my mom’s side at the same time. Since we’re all scattered across the globe, partial family reunions are the best we can do. I would absolutely love to see all thirty or forty something of them mingling in one room, but sadly it’ll likely remain a pipe dream for the rest of my life.


One question I’ve been mulling in my head as I travel is whether I’ve been faithfully representing my experiences here. I try to write about the most noteworthy moments, which often means I present a version of things that skews negatively. Am I being too harsh? Will I look back at these entries and think that I was more sad than I actually was? I wish there were some way to make the subjective objective, a way for me to respond to “how was your trip?” with something other than a simple good or bad, but alas. As Ada Limón put it, “you can’t sum it up / A life.”

Misu, if you’re reading this from the future, I want you to know that while I’ve definitely had my fair share of unpleasant memories here (many of which have nothing to do with China at all, and everything to do with my neuroses and traumas), I’ve also had many happy moments. Seeing my family again after so long and actually connecting with them. Spending occasional non-fighting time with my brother and mother and getting to peek through their shells. Marveling at how beautiful and vast China is. I don’t want you to get the sense that it’s been all doom and gloom. There’ve been so many little moments of wonder; I just don’t have the time or energy to write about them all.

(A shocker, I know.)

This last bit was inspired by this Goodreads comment I came across.

The memories we have are like family. We do not choose them. They choose us. They follow us and we follow them.

I don’t know why I’ve never thought about this, but it’s true. I have no idea why certain memories stick out so vividly in my memory when other more momentous moments are lost.

Supplementing my memories with written accounts like these means that I also have to think about how I extract meaning from these experiences. I inevitably have to highlight some moments at the expense of others. While I embrace the power to shape the written records in a way I can’t my experiential memory, with that power comes great responsibility. It’s one I’m not sure I know how to wield responsibly or sustainably yet.

#china #english #family #life #travel #wordvomit