Conversation with Grandmother

September 2, 2006

I cleared the plates and brought them to the sink. There was my grandmother, already starting on the dishes.

‘Soup too salty?’ she asked.

‘No, it was really good to eat.’ We speak to each other in Mandarin. The words sound alien on my English tongue. I am curious to know how she struggled to communicate with her children, forbidden by the government of Singapore to speak her native Shanghainese in schools, Mandarin being the official language. Now her grandchildren spurn even Mandarin, opting instead for the more stylish and cosmopolitan English. Two of her grandchildren – my cousin and myself – have even attempted to learn French, substituting the influence of the British imperialists.

She remains proud of us anyway. When I first started learning French, and told her, she was terribly pleased – ‘parlez-vous français?’ she asked me, and smiled to herself. The words sounded so alien on her Shanghainese tongue. I must have stared in wonderment, this Chinese woman of nearly 70, how did she ever learn that phrase? But by then she was too pleased with herself, chuckling quietly in her chair in front of the television. I never did get round, or have got round, to finding out from her the extent of her French. I wonder if she had to learn French as a child in Shanghai. But then again, how did she ever retain those scraps of knowledge for so many years?

It strikes me that I barely know her, and she barely knows me, even though we dearly love each other. I’ve been her favorite for ages, or so she has said on separate occasions. My mother says that this is untrue, that this is what she tells all her grandchildren, although my brother has never reported hearing the same from her.

‘Weiwei,’ she says as I place the plates in the sink, for that is indeed her name for me, ‘you when leaving for America?’

‘Next year.’

She smiles. ‘I know from young already you are the one.’

I am a bit baffled. ‘The one?’ I asked.

‘When you young that time, in your eyes always this look. Always not happy, need space, need more space. I know when you go up school that time, that you never happy. You always independent. Very independent. Your father, his fault, never give you space. Now you want to run to America.’

That’s not true – I am going to the US to study, but I have a scholarship from the central bank of Singapore, so I definitely have to come back and work for a few years. ‘No, grandmother, you wrong already. I have won government study gold. Government will want me to come back and work. I will come back.’

‘You sure?’ She is as doubtful of this possibility as I am. ‘Ask yourself again. You want this?’

I don’t know what to say, so I keep quiet.

‘Anyway, you come back that time, I die already. When you in America, I die. Old lady already, so old, already 78.’

78. Has it been 8 years since I started learning French? I don’t know what to say again. This time, I attempt to placate her the Chinese way – deny.

‘No, grandmother, you will live long life hundred years,’ I parrot the appropriate response, a Chinese saying meaning ‘ripe old age’. This strikes me as being quite untruthful.

‘No. Please, your grandmother old already. She knows she will die. She even knows when. And she going to die when you in America.’

My response is, again, silence. I know that, empirically speaking, this is true. She has reached the end of her life expectancy, every single day she has now is, technically, unexpected. And she knows this. She has made plans for her death, in her own quiet ways. She never got that hearing aid when she started going deaf, claiming that it would be an expense wasted on a corpse like her. She has taught my youngest cousin, her youngest grandchild and (in her own words) cutest grandson, the proper way to greet her. She has left her daughters and one son-in-law how the recipes of her favorite dishes to cook, which are the favorites of her children and her grandchildren – bittergourd soup, stewed chicken, egg with pork (my favorite). She has told me how to brew her cooling teas, for when the weather is hot or for when there is excessive heat in the body. I don’t know what will happen to our extended family when she has passed away. She has kept us on a tight leash all these years, necessitating our weekly presence by preparing dinner every Sunday. We go so in order not to miss our favorite foods. I wonder how many more times I will eat her egg with pork.

During my own grandfather’s funeral, my grandmother avoided tears by cooking. Nourishing gruel, for the vigils we had to keep. Cooling teas, to contend with the sweltering heat of the funeral parlour. Brain soups for me, for I was taking my ‘O’ levels at the time. Will we survive the grief of her funeral, without anyone to cook, brew, stew away the pain?

‘Weiwei,’ she calls my name again. No one else calls me Weiwei. ‘Grandmother wants you to be happy. Just happy. Don’t need to come back to see old woman like me. You must be happy where you are, in America, in Singapore, in England, in France. As long as you happy, I happy.’

Happiness. What’s that? Such an abstract concept.

‘When you have son that time, I die already. But you must show son my picture, say this is great-grandmother.’

My innards untwist in relief. I notice that she always spares me the question about girlfriends or wives. I wonder if she is has been astute enough to notice, or if such outsiders from outside her bloodline are merely irrelevant to her. I would like to believe that she wouldn’t mind too much. Unlike my own parents, she was spared from the Pentacostal epidemic that afflicted my side of the family. Once, she even cheated a policeman of a ride home. She had been caught for jaywalking, but upon being question by said policeman, pretended not to know Mandarin at all, choosing instead to speak in the obscure Hock Chew dialect. She then proceeded to pretend to be ill, and proceeded to emotionally extort a ride home from the policeman. She recounted this cleverness to us with a quite naughty gleam in her old eyes.

‘I know you don’t like China, Chinese,’ she continues. I look away, and embarrassedly think of all my ex-boyfriends, who have been without exception white. ‘But promise me, your son he must know at least a bit of Chinese. Then if I call him, he will hear. Must have Chinese name, like you, Weiwei, I want his name to have a Wei. Wei is nice to hear.’

That is a bit weird for me. I’ve always felt that Wei, which I think means something like brave and manly, was wrong for me. I don’t know what I would do if I had a child. Would he even be half-Chinese? Or would he be all white, and would I have to contend with speaking a different language from my children, like my grandmother has? Suddenly my heart is swelling with some strange emotion, and I have to look away from my grandmother. I want to say, ‘Grandmother, I don’t think I’ll ever marry a woman, but I will have children, and they will have two fathers, which I think is unworkable in a Chinese context, because then the entire family-terminology system will collapse on itself – how to say father-brother-wife then, when it could mean two separate people?’ But I don’t because I can’t really translate this with my rudimentary Mandarin. More importantly, I do not want to surprise her into a premature stroke.

‘Weiwei, this is for you.’ She brandishes a red packet, filled with money and luck, and thrusts it into my fist. I am horrified. I never know how to react in this circumstances – obviously money is a good thing, and I need all the luck I can get, but it would be inexcusably impolite to accept at first, yet to reject seems to me to be terribly disingenuous.

‘No, grandmother, you are old, you must enjoy fortune already,’ I reject her gift with yet another fossilised cliche, which are the backbone of the Chinese language.

‘Don’t waste time, boy! I have to do the dishes! Now go!’

With that, she pushes the red packet into my hand and shooes me away from her kitchen. I creep away quietly.



  1. This piece is a near-flawless admixture of intensely intimate, conflicted observation and private confession which gently yet profoundly reveals dichotomies of character in both the observer and the observed. It also shimmers with genuine love and three-dimensional loss: remembrance of things past, the still-born misalignment of word and deed in the present and a pre-emptive keen for what will be taken away. You have set the delicate dance portrayed here to beautiful music. Thank you.

  2. Two new studies show why some people are more attractive for members of the opposite sex than others.

    The University of Florida, Florida State University found that physically attractive people almost instantly attract the attention of the interlocutor, sobesednitsy with them, literally, it is difficult to make eye. This conclusion was reached by a series of psychological experiments, which were determined by the people who believe in sending the first seconds after the acquaintance. Here, a curious feature: single, unmarried experimental preferred to look at the guys, beauty opposite sex, and family, people most often by representatives of their sex.

    The authors believe that this feature developed a behavior as a result of the evolution: a man trying to find a decent pair to acquire offspring. If this is resolved, he wondered potential rivals. Detailed information about this magazine will be published Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

    In turn, a joint study of the Rockefeller University, Rockefeller University and Duke University, Duke University in North Carolina revealed that women are perceived differently by men smell. During experiments studied the perception of women one of the ingredients of male pheromone-androstenona smell, which is contained in urine or sweat.

    The results were startling: women are part of this repugnant odor, and the other part is very attractive, resembling the smell of vanilla, and the third group have not felt any smell. The authors argue that the reason is that the differences in the receptor responsible for the olfactory system, from different people are different.

    It has long been proven that mammals (including human) odor is one way of attracting the attention of representatives of the opposite sex. A detailed article about the journal Nature will publish.

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