When my mom told me we were going to visit my dad’s parents the next day and my grandmother was going to prepare lunch, I was taken aback. She’s still alive? I wanted to say. All my relatives lived on the other side of the world, in China, and my dad never mentioned his mother. In my mind, she was neither dead nor living— nonexistent. But now I was standing in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, and she was a four-hour drive away.
I kept this revelation to myself, knowing my ignorance would upset my mom. She’d put the words to her mouth and taste bitterness.
The day before we flew to China, I had asked her why Dad hadn’t packed a suitcase.
“He’s not coming with us, duh. He just went to China a few months ago!” my little sister answered.
My mom looked up from her cell phone and stared at me. “How did you not know?”
I shrugged. “No one told me.”
Two weeks later, on the day we were going to see my grandmother, a cousin from my mom’s side drove us out of the city of Changsha. I tucked in my knees to avoid hitting the glove compartment of his car.
We parked in front of my dad’s old elementary school, a faded red concrete building with only half a roof left. On the other side of the road, past a quiet lake, were steep, untouched hills in the distance. It was the kind of place my elementary school teacher had told me about, seemingly free from pollution and harsh streetlights, where at night nothing could obscure the thousands of stars in the sky.
My dad’s two brothers led us behind the school building through a maze of deteriorating gray structures, vines crawling through the window holes. When I was a child, I would wonder why my grandparents never sent me cards stuffed with money. Now I wondered how my dad wasn’t more impressed with our six-bedroom home in the landscaped American suburbia, after growing up in a village that looked like it lacked plumbing and a garbage disposal service. Maybe he was.
“Your ancestors owned all of this!” my mom told my sister and me in Mandarin, pointing at all of the century-old, abandoned houses we were walking past. “They were landlords. They had lots of money!”
I started to think about my future kids — would I ever get around to telling them about their rich ancestors? Would I take them here someday? As I’m writing this one month later, I can’t remember the name of the place.
Chinese people in the countryside always leave their front doors open. Inside my dad’s childhood home, the cloudy day was our only source of light. We sat — me, sister, mom, aunt, grandparents, cousins, uncles with round bellies and no glasses, unlike their older brother, my dad — at a circular wooden table. I shared a wobbly, six-inch-wide bench with my sister, my jean shorts uncomfortably riding up.
My grandmother, nai-nai, was thin, small, and fragile, like a hand carved doll. (“Isn’t she in such good shape?” my mom exclaimed when she introduced me.) Her half-gray hair was tied in a ponytail, and her smile was missing teeth. The way she swung her arms and darted with such nimbleness resembled the gait, I guiltily imagined, of a primitive human being. I tried to picture what my grandmother used to look like — her wrinkles taut, her hair long and black, scolding my young father for eating too little or coming home too late. The best I could do was project my twelve-year-old sister’s face on a middle-aged Chinese woman’s body. “She looks just like her grandmother!” my mom had proclaimed to everyone.
My grandfather, ye-ye, sat next to me. He was handsome and amnesic.
The cousin who’d driven us decided to video call my dad, who was twelve hours behind, to show him the happy family gathering. He handed the phone to my grandfather, who softly told his son to come visit; it’s been so long.
“See, he doesn’t remember that your husband came to see him a few months ago,” one of my uncles told my mom. “He’ll forget you came, too.”
While the adults conversed and my sister and I waited quietly for the food, my grandmother brought out some manufactured packages of Chinese cookies and poured a pile of peanuts onto the table as appetizers. I reached for the cookies. They were savory and a little sweet.
“Eat the peanuts!” insisted my mom. “Your grandmother grew them all by herself. Isn’t that impressive?”
I politely took a few shelled peanuts after I finished the cookies, spending a few seconds figuring out how to crack them open. They tasted a little rawer than those unsalted supermarket ones in that package stamped with a smiling peanut.
“Wow, I can’t believe nai-nai grew such delicious peanuts!” said my mom, who was sitting across from me.
I saw, above her head, a poster of cartoonish Chinese soldiers. They were a horde on white horses, storming towards me. I opened my mouth to ask my mom what historical event it depicted, but I decided I didn’t want to interrupt the conversation. The adults were busy speaking in a dialect that sounded familiar to my ear, but the words were as distinguishable as the chatter of a coffee shop.
My uncles were going to give us a tour of the village, so everyone waited outside the house after lunch. I walked back inside to pick up my stuff. Above my backpack, on the concrete wall, was a large wooden frame filled with family photos. I stepped closer to look at the images: my parents in the nineties, my sister as a baby, my family seven years ago. It felt a little strange, seeing the pictures in my grandparents’ house, knowing they had thought about us all these years.
When I turned around, I saw my grandmother standing behind me, studying the photos, or maybe me. She was smiling.
“Do you like looking at them?” she asked. There’s no exact Mandarin word for “yes,” so I murmured a sound of assent. I wanted so badly to say more to her — Did she miss my dad? Did she ever want to visit us in America? What did she know about me? — but I was unable to form a complete phrase in my mind without stumbling over the words. My mom, the translator, was outside. My grandmother looked up at me, expectant. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, so I smiled, and I walked away toward the door.