Friday, May 19, 2017

My Mother's Mother


"I can't take this with me."

I'm peering down at a shopping bag filled to the brim with packets of dried Chinese mushrooms and abalone, which my grandma had brandished as I walked into her Kowloon apartment.

There's a low hum from the air conditioner and, outside, the dull sound of a basketball hitting the court at the high school across the road cuts through the windows. An extra-large photo of my grandpa is propped up on the sideboard amongst photos of the grandchildren - myself included. Draped in a graduation gown, I am smiling winningly at the camera from beneath a mortarboard cap, gripping a diploma in my hands.

"What do you mean, you can't take it with you"? my grandma beseeched.

I shrugged. "I only brought a carry-on with me, grandma," I said, palms up in exasperation. "I didn't check any bags!"

I didn't even say 'thank you'. I didn't even say, 'you shouldn't have gone to the trouble, grandma.' Instead, I sat down and helped myself to the Chinese Swiss roll cake she'd bought for me - the kind she knew I loved.

That night, we took a taxi to a restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui. She'd called ahead to order a special soup for me.

"Teacher!" the restaurant staff greeted my grandma, a retired school headmistress, as she stepped regally into the restaurant. "Teacher, it's wonderful to see you here again!" they chimed.

She gave a small wave, as if she were the Queen.

"This," she proclaimed, with a sweep of her hand and a nod in my direction, to anyone who would listen (including the restaurant manager). "... is my granddaughter. She was born in the States and lives in England. And she came here just to visit me!"

The staff nodded politely and released a refrain of practised responses:

"Teacher, she really is so beautiful!"
"Teacher, how could you possibly have a granddaughter who is so grown-up?" (My grandma's ninety-one.)
"Teacher, isn't that nice!"

Afterwards, we headed back to my hotel, where my mother had suggested my grandma stay with me for the night, so we wouldn't have to worry about each other getting home safely.

At first, I resented this. Ever since my grandpa died, my grandma slept with the lights on - a fact I'd forgotten, along with my eye-shade.

"I'm going to try to get some sleep," I announced, turning away from her.

"Go on, then," she said, responding to WhatsApp messages at 12:00 a.m.

I listened for the sound of her soft snoring, before dropping off to fitful bouts of sleep myself. We both woke an hour later, laughing and chatting until 3 a.m.

"You should really get some sleep now, grandma," I said, flicking off the light switch.


The next morning, we walked to a nearby Hong Kong-style cafe, also known as a cha chaan teng. I ordered my favorite set breakfast, Set Menu A: macaroni in broth with thin slices of luncheon meat and abalone, a fried egg and thin slice of ham with toast, and a hot cup of Hong Kong style milk tea, plus a warm pineapple bun with a thick chunk of butter wedged in the middle, which gradually melted as you ate the sweet, pillowy pastry.

My grandma beamed as I devoured my breakfast, snapping photos of me and WhatsApping them to my mother. I posed with the bun in my hand. I posed with my macaroni-filled spoon in mid-air. I posed while pretending to take a sip of the milk tea.

When we finished, I made half-hearted attempts to pay the bill, but didn't protest when she waved me off.

Back at the hotel, she took photos of me checking out at the front desk; of me by the pool; of me standing in the lobby.

"I'll call you before I come over tonight," I said, disappearing down the steps of Yau Ma Tei MTR station.

When I returned to the hotel after spending the afternoon with my uncle, I had four voice messages and eight texts from my grandma: "Where are you? Are you back at the hotel yet? Why haven't you called me?" they read. Panicked, frantic. I rolled my eyes and stepped into the shower, taking my time to call her later.

"I want to take you to have fried pork cutlets," she said that evening. "I actually love them, but no one will eat them with me!"

We took a cab to Jordan - at least a twenty minute drive from her apartment.

The Malaysian restaurant was simple, no-frills. The sour-faced waitress tossed a single menu on our table and, when my grandma asked politely for a second one, the waitress ignored her, purposely turning her back.

Rage bubbled within, but I didn't know what to do.

"Maybe we should go somewhere else," I whispered to my grandma, who looked crestfallen.

"No," she said, determined, flagging down a different waitress. "I came here for the pork cutlet, and I'm going to have it!"

I chose Hainan chicken rice for my dinner, while my grandma got her much-desired pork cutlets, which were admittedly delicious.

As we gradually cleared our plates, I checked my watch under the table. 8 p.m. I wanted to head back to my hotel for some sleep.

"Do you want dessert?" my grandma asked.

I shook my head. "No thanks, I'm not really hungry."

"Oh, okay," she said, deflating a little.

"I love Chinese desserts, though," I said. "Especially the milk desserts at Yee Shun."

At this, my grandma practically leapt out of her seat in the booth, visibly brightening. "Let's go there! There's a branch in Yau Ma Tei! Then I can take a taxi home from there!"

A lump formed in my throat.

"I really miss you," I said quietly, the tears falling as I fumbled for some tissues.

"Well," my grandma said, her voice cracking. "Come back soon, and stay longer next time! Now stop crying," she said, wiping at her eyes.


"Grandma, I don't know how to tell you this, but ... you know those two packets of abalone I packed in my carry-on? I don't think I'll be able to take them with me. The sauce itself exceeds the liquid limit for planes!"

We were at Maxim's restaurant in Hong Kong International Airport, baskets of dim sum steaming tantalisingly before us. I skewered a har gau into my mouth.

"Well, why don't you just take one pack? And if they confiscate it, then so be it!" she declared, helping herself to a Chinese meatball.

"I'll go ask," I said, pushing back my chair and grabbing my small rolling suitcase.

I returned breathlessly, fifteen minutes later, having confirmed with security staff that the abalone sauce indeed, exceeded the liquid allowance, and checking in my suitcase into the plane's hold.

"The crab claws I ordered never came!" she complained. "Do you think I should say something?"

"No," I said, emphatically. Selfishly, I imagined the long, drawn-out scene that might unfold.

"You're right," she said, sitting back in her seat with a tsk. "But I had so wanted you to try them; to just see them!"

"Forget it, grandma," I said, busying myself with re-packing my now over-full second carry-on bag. But guilt tugged at me - and not for the first time that week. She'd ordered the dish so that I could try it - what harm would it do if we said something?

But it was time to go. This time, I really tried to get the bill, emphatically mouthing, "Give it to me," to the waitress, who nodded and gave me the thumbs up before scurrying away to produce it.

Of course, my grandma snatched it out of the girl's hand when it arrived, and I pleaded - no, begged - that she give it to me instead.

I was unsuccessful.

I walked her back to the Airport Express train, slowly, at a snail's pace.

"The one thing I despise about getting old," she had said to me earlier that week, "is how slowly I walk! I hate it!" And I had smiled, patiently joining her slow, deliberate steps.

"Well, I suppose I could get this train," my grandma said at the open doors of the Airport Express.

"Bye, grandma," I said, hugging her to me, my brows automatically knitting; my eyes welling with tears.

She gave a small wave and found a seat, as I watched her from the other side of the glass, both of our faces crumpling at the sight of the other's.

I willed the doors to close. Hurry. I couldn't stand to see her face, so much smaller and so much older than I had remembered, seizing with quiet sobs.

The train pulled away and we waved, and waved, and waved.


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