The deepest divide between myself and my grandmother is undeniably language. It stands as a linguistic barrier that separates me most from her, unbreakable and stubborn. Sure, I can understand the gist of an exchange in Mandarin when I’m in a restaurant or at a family reunion. And occasionally, I’ll even pick up on Taiwanese — given my undivided attention. But when I attempt to share anything cohesive to my Mandarin-speaking relatives, it unravels in splintered strands and the conversation inevitably cuts short.
But nevertheless, my grandmother made an effort to bridge this gaping void. Somehow, the promising foundation manifested in the softest creases and lines of miniature strips: It was origami.
When I was younger, my grandmother told me a story of falling stars. She explained how folding 100 paper stars brought good luck and fortune. She explained how gifting these very stars in a mason jar was to wish well on the recipient. If I worked diligently, perhaps through these tiny stars, I could wish well on someone.
Sitting on a stool too small and at a table too tall, I followed her steps. My grandmother held my hand by guiding me through the directions I found incomprehensible. My mind tangled alongside my papers, but each time, I was recentered back. I studied my grandmother’s frail hands and worked to mirror them. The dainty baby blue streak of paper laid in front of me, patiently anticipating the next attempt.
Alas, the gentle knots and edged pentagon granted the final step. As I tediously pinched the sides light enough to not crush the paper, a star was born. That delicate piece rested vulnerable in the palm of my hand. I admired it like it was the greatest creation to ever meet mankind’s eyes. My grandmother beamed and glowed with contentment and I was left with the burning desire to make more.
As the morning sun met the night sky and then again, I folded each star with my humble touch. Over the next few days, my mason jar gradually populated with these bright specks of colors and patterns. It was a mosaic of my own making, one that I could empty, recreate and reimagine. With every star I completed, my grandmother’s words echoed — I was creating luck here between my fingertips.
Overflowing with this papyrus wonderland, my mind began contemplating where exactly these stars belonged. I mentally perused through all the humans and hearts I knew. I considered their birthdays, celebrations and graduations. I time-stamped their upcoming performances, final exams and job interviews when they would likely need a boost of encouragement. My grandmother left me with this open-ended question for when it was time for these stars of mine to find their home.
Resting at the nucleus of these stars, I found a sense of communication, an avenue to express what I wanted to without the constraint of phrases and descriptors. In this way, I discovered an alternative to the unsteady voice I had to always rely on but could never deliver. Actions, not words, somehow meant so much more.
With this, language meant so much less. I admit that I won’t ever be able to seamlessly break down each detail of my day to my grandmother or verbally explain the specificities of what I did over the weekend. But maybe, like the stars, I can convey myself and what I think without depending on a language that remains foreign to me no matter how hard I try.
Rather than a mere conversation, the moments I can experience with my grandmother live in the fleeting memories we share and little gestures we exchange. I attempt to sing along to the karaoke version of the Mandarin songs she loves and she light-heartedly mimics how I play the piano. Through this, I find an unlikely translation, language and language-less.
But as time has passed, I’ve grown apart from my grandmother. Not because I chose to, but because life doesn’t slow when I desperately need it to. Bit by bit, the years fly faster. The places I trek and the never-ending responsibilities that relentlessly demand my attention leave me barely the room to breathe. Helplessly, I feel myself fading further into a distance where my grandmother can no longer see or hear me.
I think about the younger version of myself, one that wasn’t stretched thin and held the world in her hands. I think back to those stuffed mason jars that have been messily shoved into the corner of my childhood house closet, never seeing the light of day. And I think of my grandmother, her patience and unconditional love.
With 670 kilometers standing in between my grandmother at home and me at Berkeley, I finally decide where those stars truly belong. It is with her.
Ashley Tsai writes the Monday A&E column on art bridging the internal and the external. Contact her at [email protected].