TORCH: Lessons From My Grandma on Language and Silence

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The sword, with a maroon hilt and a yellow tassel at the end, had a real blade—not plastic or wooden, but shiny metal, strong and gleaming. My eleven-year-old self felt badass when I held the slightly too heavy weapon in my hands.

My grandmother, LaoLao, was teaching me how to practice tai chi with a sword in the backyard. I quietly copied her motions, making my body look like hers. The only movements of the routine that I remember now are from the very beginning. Both arms start straight by your side, palms facing behind you. Your right hand holds the hilt of the sword, the point facing upwards. Slowly, bring both of your arms up so that they are parallel to the ground. Then, turn your palms face up, and bring your hands towards your hips. Move like you are underwater. Move methodically. Find stillness.

Like most of my memories of my grandma, this one is characterized by its silence, since at the time I knew very little Chinese and she knew very little English. Most children of first-generation immigrants will recognize the plight of my parents, who after moving to Chicago, made my siblings and I attend Chinese school at our local church on Sunday afternoons for years. My mother, proud of her Chinese heritage, wanted us to learn her native language to appreciate our ancestry and culture, to recognize where we were from. She also wanted us to better understand who she was, and part of that was being able to converse with our relatives. But although I was always a little envious of my American peers who could recount in detail anecdotes involving their grandparents, reciting word for word the stories their grandmothers would tell, I was never able to motivate myself enough to really learn the language.

Sitting in that small, stuffy classroom in the church building, all I could think about was how my precious weekend hours were dwindling away. I thought about how none of my friends in elementary school had to do extra homework on the weekends, as I traced complicated characters in my workbook and recited vocabulary words out loud with glazed eyes. The sounds I made were pleasant to my ears, but that’s all they were to me. I was too young to understand what culture and heritage meant, too young to understand the reasons behind memorizing ancient poems. One such poem was this one by Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai, called “Quiet Night Thought,” commonly taught to many Chinese schoolchildren:

Moonlight reflects off the front of my bed.
Could it be frost on the ground instead?
I look up to view the bright moon ahead.
Thoughts of hometown bring down my head.

Where was the practicality in learning words like “moonlight” and “frost?” I found none, and so I would repeat stanzas that I didn’t understand and would never again remember after the lesson was over.

That isn’t to say that I didn’t know any Chinese at all. But my vocabulary was limited to words and phrases spoken consistently in our household, day after day. Chi fan le ma? (Have you eaten?) Chi bao le ma? (Are you full?) Hao chi. (Dinner tasted good.) Shua ya. (Brush teeth.) Shui jiao. (Go to sleep.) Qi lai. (Time to wake up.) Words that described the mundane, the essentials of living—food, sleep, clothing, health.

Because of our language barrier, I came to know LaoLao through her actions instead of her words. She lived in Canada, but whenever she visited, I observed the way she moved, how she carried herself, what she ate. Her diet was memorable in its simplicity, in how seemingly bland it was. She would eat baked sweet potatoes for snacks, along with unsweetened soy milk. She didn’t eat meat dumplings, only vegetable, and had rice porridge for breakfast. She was the picture of healthy eating. Now, she is strong and limber at the age of ninety-two, and I’m finally convinced that there must be something to it.

One summer when I was eighteen years old and LaoLao was staying at our house, I remember her opening the patio doors, stepping onto our backyard porch, and sitting in one of the lounge chairs. She sat there, completely still, for the longest time, sometimes looking out at the backyards of our neighbors, sometimes closing her eyes. I wondered what she was doing. Shai tai yang, she said. Literally, “bask in the sun.” I was baffled. Still in the chaos of teenage years, I couldn’t comprehend the idea of intentionally doing nothing, of sitting outside with the sole purpose of feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin. Stillness, for stillness’s sake—just like when she taught me tai chi. I learned it that day, too.

What I couldn’t learn about my grandma from her actions alone, I learned through my mother, whose relationship with her mom has always been a constant presence in my life. My mom used to call LaoLao every single day, updating her on the lives of me and my siblings, and in turn telling us about LaoLao. She once told me that her mom was the wisest person she knew. When my mom would tell LaoLao that she was stressed out at work, LaoLao would always tell her that being healthy (jian kang) was more important than anything. My mom would often repeat LaoLao’s advice to me—about being happy, about taking care of yourself. After talking to LaoLao, she said, she would always feel better about her problems. That was the same way I felt about my mom. I imagined myself at my mom’s age, thirty years from now, carrying on the tradition and calling her every single day, thinking she would’ve liked that. But my mother died from cancer three years ago, and with her the possibilities of many such traditions.

After my mom died, I worried that my connection to my grandma, and to my Chinese heritage in general, would become more tenuous than its already fragile state. I vowed to finally become serious about learning the language, and for the past year or so, I’ve borrowed countless Chinese language books from the library and constantly watched Chinese soap operas on YouTube. My vocabulary has improved considerably, but I still struggle to internalize the grammar, to form coherent sentences, and to comprehend rapidly-spoken Chinese. I blame my age for not being able to internalize another language as easily as I could have if I were younger, but part of me knows that my shame of not learning Chinese sooner holds me back.

Last summer, my grandmother went to China to visit my uncle and one of my aunts, and my husband and I went to meet them there for a week. I hadn’t been to China since I was in grade school, and it was the first time I was there without my mother. It was strange to walk through Jinan, the city where my mother grew up. There is a beautiful park called Da Ming Lake, resplendent in willow trees, tall pagodas, and lotus flowers, with stone trails meandering through a myriad of gardens. Seeing dozens of children running around the pavilions, I thought of my mother playing there as a child, many years ago. In the city’s downtown, there is a large outdoor fountain that displayed a light show at night, and I imagined how my mom might’ve watched the same colorful lights dancing before going to bed. Holding my grandma’s hand as we walked through the city, there was a ghost between us, an emptiness that might have been filled in some other lifetime.

One night when we were walking through the park, my grandma and my aunt were teasing my uncle about how overprotective he was of my grandma, on how he insisted on holding her arm when she walked down steps. I couldn’t pick out all the words she said, but I saw the way her body expressed the story, how she mimed my uncle clearing space for her to walk with exaggerated motions, how she pretended to bat away his arms in defiance of any help. I suddenly saw my mother in her in that moment—her fierce independence, her goofy sense of humor.

I think about my grandma now, and how she went from speaking to my mom on the phone every day to a sudden silence. I want to pick up my mother’s mantle, to call her and fill the void, but the language barrier stops me. We’ve never had any practice speaking in long conversations before. I think even if I were fluent in Chinese, I wouldn’t know quite what to say.

I try to call her once every week or so on WeChat (China’s version of Skype). Our conversations are always almost exactly the same. We greet each other with big smiles, and we say, “I miss you.” She asks me about my health, my work, my sleeping habits, and the food I’m eating. Jian kang. (Be healthy.) Hao hao chi fan. (Eat well.) Zao shui jiao. (Sleep early.) These are the words I know best in Chinese—the essentials of living. After a few minutes, the conversation lulls to silence, but neither of us are quite willing to hang up just yet.

At first, these silences were awkward for me, and I would frantically run through all the words I knew in Chinese in my head, trying to think of what to say and how to say them. But now I’ve grown comfortable with these pauses, because I’ve since realized that all she wants is really just to look at me. I see her eyes studying my face, looking to see whether it’s a healthy color, whether I’ve gained or lost weight. Sometimes she comments on how pretty she thinks I am. After a few searching minutes, she’ll suddenly smile. And I am content to smile back, to let her look, to look at her. It’s not so easy to visit each other often, living in two different countries, and so I am grateful for the opportunity to simply let her see me—happy, and healthy.

There is a stillness in our silence, a sort of meditative quality. We both know it’s hard to speak sometimes, whether it’s because of language barriers, or of feelings too difficult to put into words. There are times when she looks at me, and I know she is thinking of my mom. Finally, we say, “I love you,” and “Goodbye.” Sometimes I am grateful that the only words I know how to speak in Chinese are the essential ones.

In The Art of Chinese Poetry, author James Liu cites Li Bai’s “Quiet Night Thought” as an example of one of the most common themes in Chinese poetry: nostalgia. The feeling of homesickness is so pervasive, he says, because of “the vastness of China, the difficulties of communication that existed […] and the importance of the family in traditional Chinese society with the consequent deep attachment to the ancestral home.”

All those years ago, I was learning the words of longing before I knew what longing meant. Words like “moonlight” and “frost,” so useless to me as a child, now seem to convey the incommunicable—words that express the failings of words, words that connect me to my grandmother.

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TORCH is a monthly series edited by Arielle Bernstein devoted to showcasing personal essays and interviews about immigrant and refugee experiences. You can visit the archives here. For more information on submitting head here.

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Rumpus original logo art by Jyotsna Warikoo Designs. Photographs provided courtesy of author.


Elena Zhang is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Her writing can be found in Paste Magazine, Food52, The Establishment, Extra Crispy, and The Mary Sue, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter: @EZhang77. More from this author →