Just last week, with Chinese New Year right around the corner, I got a call from my grandparents. Through my broken Chinese, I learned that they were making their annual journey by train to my uncle’s home just outside Beijing a bit early this year, in part to avoid the frigid climate in our hometown of Harbin. Harbin is the capital of Heilongjiang, the northernmost province of China abutting the southern tip of Russia. Nicknamed the “Ice City,” it is known for its excruciatingly cold winters during which temperatures dip as low as -40°. I often joke that residents use the Kelvin as the standard unit of measurement for temperature. Thankfully Beijing, on the other hand, averages a tolerable -4°C (25°F) during January, just colder than the weather here at Swarthmore this time of year.
My grandmother is a bespectacled woman of 68 who loves to talk and joke and gossip about family relatives; I call her “Nainai,” Chinese for paternal grandma. A retired engineer of 72, “Yeye,” my grandfather is more austere and sober-minded, with a severe jawline and graying hair, thin from a past surgery. Both have always tried to inspire in me the same hardy, practical wisdom and resilience that were instilled in them by a lifetime of perseverance in the face of everyday hardship. Both are healthy but frail with age from years of hard work and struggle to eke out a living in a time and place where not having enough to eat, drink and wear was accepted, even expected, as part of everyday life. “Remember to take care of your health,” Yeye would always say. “Education is important but nothing is more important than your health. You don’t realize that until you’re my age.” It pained me to imagine the two of them making their way through the frozen, bone-chilling air and icy streets to the train station and traveling for 10 hours to my uncle’s home. I wanted to advise them against making the long, arduous trip but I knew they would reply with the same reply they offered last year: Chinese New Year is a time when a family comes together to celebrate itself, to celebrate life, to celebrate the blessings of the past year and the one to come. Tradition dictates that this be done every New Year’s Eve no matter how widespread the family is geographically or how inconvenient the voyages required to reunite — and that was that. I knew hearing it repeated to me again this year from the other side of the planet would only serve to set me going on a different kind of trip: one of the guilt variety. I count myself blessed every time I hear their voices on the phone and yet voices are painfully unable to carry the warmth of a person across thousands of miles of distance to another human being.
Barriers of space and time I can deal with; it’s the linguistic one that I can’t seem to overcome. I can’t describe in any language how hard it is to listen to my grandmother tell me how much she misses me in a thousand different ways and to scramble to even find one good way to properly communicate how much she means to me. I listen to her go on and on telling me how my Yeye brags about how tall I am to all his poker buddies, how she looks through photographs of me every time she feels unhappy, how they are so proud of me for studying at a school like Swarthmore, how she worries night and day about silly things like whether or not I have long underwear for the winter, yet I can’t tell her in turn of my life and thoughts towards them. In my broken Chinese I try to explain to her what she means to me but my vocabulary betrays me and I end up tongue-tied and embarrassed and reciting some Chinese phrase telling them to take care of their health.
It’s hard to explain how hard it is to not be able to communicate well with your parents and grandparents, when the former knows only basic English and the latter knows none. My friends always tell me their parents and grandparents just don’t understand them and that it’s almost like they speak a different language; imagine how challenging communication is when your family literally speaks a different language. My Chinese is improving, slowly but surely. I am taking Chinese for Advanced Beginners this semester (the equivalent of Second-Year Chinese in subject material) in a desperate attempt to maintain what I learned in my three months in Beijing during my gap year. That had been the first time I had seen my grandparents since I immigrated to Los Angeles from Beijing more than 12 years ago. When I lived in China, they raised me when my parents were busy starting their business in Beijing and it killed me that I could barely remember what they looked like.
At the twilight of a wonderful year and the dawn of another, I am at once overwhelmed with gratitude for having all that I need and overwhelmed with longing for the only thing I want: to be with my parents and grandparents, to understand and to be understood by them in ways that I see only in TV and movies. In spite of all I have to be thankful for, it seems to me that to count one’s blessings is easy to say but not very easy to do. It kills me when my friends get to see their grandparents so often and fail to appreciate that extraordinary privilege. Next time you see your grandparents or spend a holiday with them, I implore you to give them a big, earnest hug. I try not to think about how long it will be before I will get to do that again.