It is uncommon for those of us in Chinese families to voice our affection for one another. It is simply not in our culture to openly voice our emotions, and growing up, I remember yearning for verbal affirmations of love from the three most important people in my life: Wàigōng (“grandpa”), Wàipó (“grandma”) and Māma (“mother”).
While I never received the frequent Wǒ ài nǐs (“I love you”s) I craved, I always knew in my bones I was deeply loved. While exploring the shops on Telegraph Avenue on my first day at UC Berkeley, I stumbled upon various objects that made me pause and remember.
1. The lone Rubik’s Cube on the back shelf of Games of Berkeley
In third grade, Māma gifted me a 4×4 Rubik’s Cube.
From multi-hundred piece jigsaw puzzles to word searches to newspaper crosswords, I’d always solved complex puzzles with ease — however, the Rubik’s Cube stumped me. Twisting column after column into new combinations, my fingers grew hasty and desperate.
Noticing my knitted brow and falling tears, Wàigōng gently took the cube from my hands. Wǒ bāng nǐ! (“I’ll help you!”) he told me. Reluctantly, I wandered off to brush my Barbie’s hair and forgot about it until a few days later, when he delivered a fully solved Rubik’s Cube to me.
Wàigōng had not known how to solve the cube either. Instead, he spent hours and hours and hours seated at his desk, his reading glasses and nasal cannula on, taking the colored blocks apart with pliers and reassembling them. Blinded by happiness, I plucked the cube from his hands and ran off. The ignorant child I was, I quickly rescrambled the pieces. I ran back to Wàigōng, pleading with him to help me solve the cube again.
Wàigōng had not known how to solve the cube either. Instead, he spent hours and hours and hours seated at his desk, his reading glasses and nasal cannula on, taking the colored blocks apart with pliers and reassembling them.
And he did. Again and again and again. And again.
2. The Beef Chow Fun at Mandarin House
I grew up in harsh Canadian snowstorms. During school days in the winter, equipped with thick snow pants and sturdy snow boots, Wàipó would accompany me on the long trek to my elementary school through the thick clouds of blizzard.
In the afternoons, at the beginning of lunch recess, Wàipó would meet me in front of the school with a lunchbox filled with containers of steaming beef chow fun and freshly steamed vegetables. No matter how hard it snowed, she would make the journey to deliver me a hot meal.
Even as I started bringing the containers home uneaten, made ashamed of my cuisine by white classmates at school, and even as I started wanting to walk to school alone, ears ringing with the jeers directed at Wàipó, my precious Grandma would show up every lunchtime without fail.
(And over the years, I’ve relearned to love beef chow fun.)
3. Warm caramel apple cupcakes from CupCakin’ Bake Shop
On balmy summer afternoons, Māma would splurge on Gala apples from the local No Frills.
Looking up from whatever subject I was studying at the time, I would be met with the sight of Māma gingerly setting down a plate of apple slices on my desk. This signified a break from my work; a precious few minutes to savor the crispness and sweetness of summertime. Gala apples were and always will be my favorite fruit.
Over time, I began to notice that she always gave me the apple slices and only left a bit of the fruit around the core for herself. When I asked her why she did this and offered her some of my apple slices, she’d shake her head in response and answer that she disliked Gala apples.
During a family dinner last year, Aunt Wendy brought Niángāo (“New Year cake”) and Gala apples to share. Upon seeing the apples, Wàipó chuckled and patted Māma’s hands, making an off-handed remark about how Māma had loved them since her youth.
After dinner, I asked Māma why she hid her love for Gala apples from me. She simply said that she loved me too much to give me anything less than the best parts of my favorite fruit.
I used to believe love was a loud, unabashed declaration, like Mr. Darcy’s “I love you, I love you, I love you” speech to Elizabeth Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice” or the iconic “if I’m a bird, you’re a bird” from “The Notebook.”
But over the years, as I outgrew tantrums, light-up sneakers, and chapter books, I’ve learned that love is quiet. It’s a trail of footprints in the snow; it’s a disassembled Rubik’s Cube; it’s a plate of carefully sliced apples. And it’s the tears I cry when I’m alone in my college dorm, wanting to express my love to people miles and worlds away.
Contact Joy Chen at [email protected].