I’ve never really had a full conversation with my grandfather because we are each immersed in the worlds of two completely different languages.
I didn’t realize how deeply the language barrier between my grandfather and me affected me until I was older. Although my grandfather, or A-Gong, can understand and speak English relatively well, my Chinese has always been subpar at best. For Chinese conversations longer than two minutes, I will undoubtedly slip English words in. These English words help tape together my broken Chinese into something coherent, enough so that my grandfather will nod encouragingly and pat my shoulder.
Lately, I’ve felt a unique guilt as my grandfather asks me the same questions in Chinese — “How are you?”; “How’s school?”; “Have you eaten yet?” — and I still stumble over the sharp tones and delicate nuances of the Chinese language in my response. Over the years, my Chinese has only gotten worse and worse.
I wonder if my grandparents knew when they came from Taiwan, that life here would produce this sort of cultural gap between them and their granddaughter. I wonder if it’s just another sacrifice that they knew they had to make.
More than 40 years ago, my grandparents raised my dad and aunt in an impoverished corner of Canada. In my teenage years, my dad shared with me memories of how they ran a small grocery store on the block; how my grandmother would eat rotten vegetables for months so that the rest of their family could eat the fresher leftovers from that day; how he and my aunt slept on lawn chairs for a while when they had no money for beds.
It was part of their immigrant dream, to raise their kids so that the struggle of shifting cultures would end with them. It’s a pain that I’ve never experienced, even though I am part of their story. It’s also a beautiful gift that I can never repay: the diligence and drive they possessed to give me the life I have today.
I wish I could give them more than just my American habits and my Chinese, tainted with my heavy American accent and dotted with English; I wish I could say more.
I wish I could tell A-Gong more, specifically. Ever since I was a little girl, A-Gong has not been able to hear well because of a stroke he had a while back. To me, A-Gong has always been a very quiet man, one who shuffles around and asks me the same questions when I come to visit, who walks a little bit behind my sister and me when we used to run rampant around the neighborhood as kids.
Even so, I’ve never felt distant from my A-Gong. I always knew that he loved me, and I’m sure he knew that I loved him too. Through the years, I have collected memories of him even though they are memories with few to no words. Nevertheless, these memories are still meaningful.
Still, I can’t help but wonder sometimes what I would say if he could completely understand me.
If I could tell him:
A-Gong, I still remember how you used to give apple juice boxes to Megan and me when we came to visit you. I remember that it would be the first thing you’d do when we arrived. I never told you, but I always loved that. I would look forward to it every time.
A-Gong, I remember how you told me that your family would make you finish every grain of rice in your bowl during the war. I think of that when I eat rice now, and I make sure to finish it all.
A-Gong, I love how you laugh every time we go get fried rice because you think it’s hilarious that that’s one of my favorite foods. I know it’s ridiculous because it’s so Americanized, but honestly, A-Gong, it’s so good.
A-Gong, thank you for your hard work to help me achieve the opportunities I have today. I know that I will never understand. Still, I hope you know that I will always work to make you proud.
A-Gong, thank you for being there for me and for talking to me every time we come back even though you know we both struggle with it sometimes. I’m sorry that you’ve never been able to hear or understand a lot of what I have to say, but I hope that you have memories of me too that are enough to make up for the words lost between us.
I know there is a lot that I’ve never said to my grandfather, but I hope that one day I can say more than just my ordinary responses to his answers and that he will understand me. I hope that I can bring our seemingly distant worlds a little bit closer.