I Was Raised by a 60-Year-Old Taiwanese Immigrant
I have very few memories of my parents before the age of five, but not because I was too young to remember. Instead, I remember only my grandparents, specifically Grandma; being outside with her when I was three years old at a nearby pond on a hot summer day, the dampness of the grass under a large tree seeping into my floral-print tights. We chose an area that was least peppered with goose droppings. I studied Grandma as she somersaulted, cartwheeled, and performed handstands. As soon as she finished her routine, I demanded her to teach me.
“Look,” she said in Mandarin, squatting on the ground like a frog. “You have to tuck your head in when you do a somersault. Otherwise, you’ll hurt your neck.”
I nodded; the dull aches in my neck were proof. I crouched beside her, hands between my splayed knees, and we slowly rolled forward together, executing two somersaults perfectly had we not barreled into each other along with a few clumps of goose poop. At first, I was upset, but after seeing Grandma belly laughing, I started giggling too. For the rest of the afternoon we practiced our gymnastic moves, covered in brown spots, leaving the park only when I was satisfied with my newfound skills.
At this time, she was 65 years old.
I lived with my parents, grandparents, and brother until I was five years old. Unlike American customs in which the parents would raise their own children, it’s common in Asian households for one or even both sets of grandparents to help. For me, it was my mother’s parents that raised me while my father’s parents stayed in Taiwan.
Later, when Grandma and Grandpa moved out of the house, I would visit at least weekly. No matter where Grandma lived, you could always tell which house on the block was hers by the enormous garden that bloomed around it. She loved giving me tours of the garden, pointing out the pumpkin patch (“these are going to bloom soon”), the sunflowers (“look how big they’ve gotten!”) and the tomatoes (“some naughty rabbits got into the tomatoes, so I put up that wire fence”). Once, a friend in junior high compared her mother’s gardening skills to my grandma’s and concluded that my grandma was doing it completely wrong. I didn’t talk to her for a week.
Like the plants in the garden Grandma cultivated so carefully, friendships sprouted everywhere for her. She became friends with some of the neighbors because of their common love of gardening. People would often come over to ask how to care for certain perennials. Other times, she would start random conversations with people who were curious as to why she was slapping watermelons at the supermarket and they would end up chatting for hours despite me stomping my feet and loudly voicing my impatience to get back home.
Despite her popularity, Grandma completely disregarded social codes—“People here are so funny. Toilet paper is made out of the same thing as napkins, but they get scared when I put toilet paper on the dining table! When I was growing up, we used whatever we could”—And that behavior translated to me today; a toilet roll that I use as facial tissues sits on my bedside table.
Miracles happened when Grandma was around. During the summer between third and fourth grade, my grandparents took my brother and me on a three-month pilgrimage back to Taiwan. We left the care of my cat Mimi to a mildly autistic aunt.
I loved Mimi so much my heart ached when I held her. Earlier that year, Grandma had snuck me to the pet store after school one day to choose a pet when I realized that my mom had never intended to give me a dog on my tenth birthday like she’d promised. That day, when Mom had found out, she was livid. “You’ll spoil her!” she hissed, a reoccurring phrase in my life whenever Grandma bought me anything. She reluctantly allowed me to keep Mimi, as long as she stayed at Grandma’s.
When we returned from Taiwan, we found my sweet cat transformed into a hyper-aggressive feral feline. At first, we shrugged it off and believed that she was only acting that way because she wasn’t used to so many people around.
We realized that she had suffered abuse at my aunt’s hands when, one day, we heard my aunt yelling downstairs. As I turned the corner, I saw her grab a book to swat Mimi away from the potted plant that she was pawing.
“Get away!” my aunt screamed. “Bad cat! Bad Mimi!”
I couldn’t believe it. After everything Grandma and I had been through to keep Mimi, she was gone.
Because of school, it was a few weeks before I could visit Grandma again. By then, my hopes of ever restoring my cat had died after my attempts of coaxing her back to normal. However, when I finally got the chance to visit Grandma, Mimi jumped out to greet me, rubbing her sides over my shins like she had always done. Wide-eyed, I looked to my grandma, who was beaming from the doorway of the living room. During the few weeks that I was gone, she had been working her magic on Mimi: petting her, playing with her, and talking to her until Mimi learned to love again.
“All it took was some patience and love, Michelle.”
She always said things that made me uncomfortable with its cheesiness. If there were a tagline of her life, it would be “Love fixes everything.” During my youth, I would scoff at the ridiculous idea. Reality wasn’t like those corny movies where, just because you love an enemy, it would all work out. Rarely does it happen in real life.
But she always proved me wrong.
Many people are daddy or mommy’s kids, but I was proud to call myself a grandma’s girl. Although I would enjoy other kids’ company, I needed no one else but Grandma. She was the one who taught me to find delight in little things. Before kindergarten, I would wake up to her singing a Taiwanese song, accompanied by a crablike dance. Sometimes we would dance together, my feet on top of hers as we practiced the crab ballroom waltz.
At that time, our house was filled with life because so many people lived under one roof. The door barely closed before another person bustled through. The only time we could even breathe air that hadn’t already traveled through everyone’s lungs was when my parents and Grandpa were at work, leaving the whole five-bedroom house to my grandma and me. On these afternoons, we had adventures.
We would press colorful plastic beans into the carpet and laugh hysterically when they popped a foot in the air. Other times, we would spend hours sitting by a neighbor’s pond with fishing poles made of thin bamboo sticks and plastic string, baiting the catfish with pieces of uncooked chicken. We practiced compassionate fishing, never using hooks and throwing the wriggling fish back into the pond within minutes of catching them. Even after she moved out, her sense of compassion stayed in me. In third grade, a flood threatened a worm massacre so my brother and I spent an entire afternoon transferring the worms to higher ground in the pouring rain.
I had hated attending each of the multiple preschools throughout the state of California. Armed with maybe one friend, Tony, I was teased—then, I considered it being maliciously attacked—by my teachers and fellow students for my strange behavior and ideas. They didn’t understand me the way my grandma did. It shouldn’t have surprised me; I was raised by a 60-year-old Taiwanese immigrant after all.
Grandma could tell I hated preschool because she pulled me out early sometimes. She did this often enough that every day I would wait anxiously by the doors by noon, hoping to be called out. When she did come for me two hours before school was out, she would be standing outside the car in the parking lot with a ripe pear in her hand for me. From across the blacktop, she seemed like such a small figure, huddled in her jacket against the wind. But when I finally reached her, she towered over me with life.
“Shh,” she would whisper, her almond eyes playful under her still-black hair, as we hid in the car. “Don’t tell your mother what I did.”
But somehow Mom always found out. She would not only scold me, but my grandma for perpetuating my unruly behavior—I already got into too much trouble in preschool when I did attend. I would never feel anger or guilt when I was scolded. Only when my mother yelled at my grandma would I get angry; the few times that I had ever yelled back at my mother, legs shaking and tears spilling out of my eyes, were in defense of my grandma. I don’t remember Grandma ever raising her voice. Instead, she fought back with kindness and understanding.
“Ok, I won’t do it again,” she placated my mom. In the aftermath, my grandma and I would retreat to my room and she would comfort me under the covers, my cheek against her beating heart.
“Your mom means well,” she whispered, ruffling my hair. “And she’s trying her best.”
I nodded, ignoring her words. How could she say Mom was trying her best? All she did was yell at me. But it didn’t matter. In those moments, swaddled in the dark cocoon of her arms and the covers, I felt the safest and most loved I have ever been.
At that time, it was my grandma and me against my mother.
Until one day it wasn’t.
A few months before my grandparents moved out, my mother found me sneaking from my room to theirs.
“What are you doing?” she demanded, standing in the hallway. It was dark except for the nightlight in the hallway that we plugged in so that my grandparents wouldn’t stumble on their way to the bathroom, and the eerie blue skylight in the bathroom that outlined the silhouette of my mother. Open doors loomed all around me like ominous black holes. How did she hear me? I was so sure that I’d been quiet. I had tiptoed and moved slowly. And the week before, Grandma and I spent a day going around the entire house and oiling the old, rusty hinges so they wouldn’t squeak since I complained about how I was terrified of going to the bathroom at night because of the creepy noise. So it couldn’t have been the sound from opening my door.
“I was going to see grandma!” I said defensively. My father stood closely behind her, watching the scene unfold.
“No, Michelle, go to bed and sleep by yourself. You’re four already.” She moved as if to herd me back into my room, but I stood my ground.
My poor mother didn’t understand the emotional upheaval I had been experiencing at that time. Earlier that day, my grandma decided to enlighten me about death.
“Michelle,” Grandma had whispered in Chinese, “there will be a time in everything’s life when it dies. Even me. One day, I will die, and you will never see me again.” I now understand that in some ways, she was almost warning me to not get so attached to her while at the same time, trying to instill in me that I shouldn’t take any moment for granted. However, at the time, this conversation had planted a terrible sense of urgency in my mind—an impending feeling that my world was about to end.
My mom was becoming very insistent that I go back into my room and I couldn’t let that happen. I started sobbing in the middle of the hall. Surprised at my reaction, she stopped talking.
Immediately, my grandparents emerged from their rooms, alert. Their eyes scanned the hallway quickly. Whoever said that old people are slow and confused definitely never met my grandparents.
“What’s wrong?” Grandma exclaimed. Her eyes darted from me to my mother and back, repeatedly, her brow furrowing. Her hand gripped mine, squeezing every now and again.
“Grandma’s going to die soon!” I said in between sobs. “I need to be with her until then!”
My grandma dropped to her knees beside me. Everyone turned to stare at her.
“Who told you that?” my mom demanded loudly. No one answered, but her eyes settled back onto Grandma who stood there, burdened with sad knowing in her eyes.
“No, no, no, Michelle,” Grandma said, “I have a lot of time left! I’m only 65. I promise I will watch you graduate college and get a job and get married! I’ll follow you to college even when you don’t want me to and I’ll cook for you every day.”
“Promise?” I hiccupped and rubbed my face.
“Yes,” Grandma whispered, wiping the tears from my face more gently. I buried my head into her shoulder and, after exchanging glances with my mother, she carried me into their room.
Even with her promise, it was the one time I didn’t completely trust her on something and I was too wary that night to let her leave my sight. I don’t remember what my mom said, if she said anything after that. All I know is that a month later my mom announced that my grandparents had found a home of their own ten minutes away, walking, from our house.
I blamed Grandma’s eviction entirely on my mom. She just didn’t want me to be happy. She only wanted me to work and study every single moment of my life. After Grandma moved out, whenever I was with my mom, I would bombard her with questions of when I would be seeing Grandma next. As a result, our interactions were usually terse and more disciplinary than the friendly relationship I had with my grandma. It must’ve been difficult for my mother to watch as I grew closer and closer to my grandma while the distance between my mother and I was still so wide.
It was only after going to college that I realized how my relationship with my mother often got lost in the one I had with my grandma. Looking back on it now, I understand the complexity of our relationship and how hard she tried to bridge that gap, and how much harder it would have been had Grandma stayed. It was strange how I sometimes felt as if I had to compete with my own mother for my grandma’s attention. And having Grandma assume such a prominent mother figure to me barely gave enough room for my actual mother, who was left scrounging for a role in my life. Although I don’t think I’ve ever fully allowed my mother and father to assume their roles as parents, my mother has become a bigger part of my life. However, our relationship is sometimes almost sisterly.
I also realized that there was more tension in my family than the one between my mom and grandma. I understand now that my dad had cultivated resentment towards my grandparents because they were so close while his parents were still back in Taiwan. He was and is also bitter that they took up all my time, preventing him from establishing a closer relationship with me. Seeing me crying in the hallway for my grandparents who represented all that bitterness was too much for him to take. So to correct both situations, he banished them from our house. He wasn’t able to see his parents often, so my mom was to suffer the same.
Grandma has moved five or six other times over my 21 years, each time farther and farther away. The first time she moved out had been a difficult transition and the following times weren’t any easier. She and my grandpa now live in North Carolina, a good ten hours drive away from my university and fifteen hours away from home. North Carolina is where my uncle—her son—lives, and when she announced their decision, I couldn’t help but think that she was leaving me behind for him. That my place in her heart was being replaced. But now that I think about it, maybe her moving farther and farther away has been a strategic move of hers, allowing me to adjust to her not being in my life so much so that it won’t be as hard when her time comes. She’s always been prepared in that odd way.
There are days where I just want to be by her side again. Lately, I’ve been recalling and reliving the sense of urgency that I had during my childhood to hoard as many moments with her as I could.
She’s the one person that I go to for advice about anything. We talk every day, but not in the way that most people communicate with their grandparents.
Grandma rarely calls; the few times she has, it was around 6 a.m. and I constantly remind her that I don’t wake up that early. Usually, however, I receive a text from her. Sometimes it’s a simple picture of her and Grandpa standing side by side all bundled up against the cold, smiling with open mouths. The sides of the picture usually cut off a part of Grandpa because Grandma likes being in the spotlight. The past two times, they were both holding burgers from their shopping/McDonald’s adventures.
Other times, she texts me little blurbs:
“For breakfast I had toast with avocado spread. No butter or other oily stuffs.”
“That’s good for your heart!” I reply.
“Actually a little bit butter. Just a little tiny bit.”
A picture of buttered toast followed by a picture of it now covered with avocado spread.
“Butter is disappeared!”
“Grandma!” But I can’t help but laugh.
“Hahaha, secret between you and I.”
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