(Author’s Note: I wrote the first version of this post on the plane back from Toronto on December 20th after my grandfather’s funeral, so the dates are relative to that. I told myself that I had other year-end posts to write, but I think I was just trying to avoid this one.)
I didn’t talk to Yeye (my paternal grandfather) much over the past twenty years. He knew probably less than twenty words of English, and I never learned a useful amount of Cantonese. When my family moved down to Houston, I stopped going to Chinese school, and we only saw him on the occasional vacation.
So our interactions largely froze at my third grade, second language level of understanding. On the phone, we would follow the same script. After my dad handed me the phone, we would say hello to each other. I would call him Yeye. He would call me by my family nickname, “Little Boy.” I would ask him how he was doing. He would say he was doing well. He would ask me if I had eaten my favorite food: McDonalds when I was young, and shrimp dumplings when I was older. I would tell him no, and he would say that he would take me out to eat soon. I would agree, then hand the phone back to my dad.
I was his favorite grandchild through no act of my own. I was the only boy, which means that I’m responsible for carrying on the family name. I was also the only one who was born and raised near him, so he took care of me more than he did for my sisters or cousins.
My grandmother died when I was four or five, so I really don’t remember much of her. My memories of growing up with Yeye are scattered. When we lived in Toronto, we would go out to dim sum with him every weekend. He knew all of my favorites and would make sure they got to me. I never figured out what he liked: I guess he liked everything we ate. If he didn’t like it, we probably didn’t order it.
After dim sum, I would go over to his house for the rest of the day and play with my action figures there. I also had Duplo blocks and a plastic bowling set. I never got any good at bowling then or since.
In the afternoon, he would read the Chinese newspaper he picked up from the dim sum restaurant. In the evening, he would watch Chinese news on TV. He had two big, comfy chairs in his bedroom for watching, though since my grandmother died, one of them remained empty. I would usually sit and play on the carpet in front of him.
He also enjoyed watching WWE pro wrestling. Even though my parents encouraged me to spend time with Yeye, they also discouraged me from watching that with him. I don’t think I ever quite resolved that contradiction.
I remember playing in the inflatable kiddie pool in the backyard. I would track grass back into the water from running around, spend far too long trying to clean it out, and then dirty the water again. He would just sit on the deck and watch. Once, he got ice cream cones for us, but they were maple flavored and I was a picky kid, so I didn’t like it. He ate two ice cream cones that day as I went back to playing in the pool.
He stored a box of ramen noodles in his oven because, as my mom explained, Chinese people don’t use the oven. I guess that just made it fancy storage with an automatic light.
There were two snacks I remember eating at his house. First, we always visited the Chinese bakery after dim sum, and I loved the long buns with coconut on the top and cream down the middle. Actually, I really just loved the cream, so I would carefully eat as much of the bun and save the sliver of bun and cream for last.
Second, I ate toast with margarine. My mom made bread in the bread machine, but Yeye bought sliced white bread, which is basically candy. I was amazed when I once at four pieces of bread in one sitting.
I would usually stay until dinner when my dad would come over to pick me up. My favorite dish was rice with bits of dried scallops in it: “tiu tiu fan.” He would use a traditional pot to cook it, and at the end of the meal, he would pour tea into the pot to loosen the burnt, sticky bits of rice, and we would share those.
He had a very distinct sound for how he would (frequently) clear his throat and spit out phlegm into a napkin he always had in his pocked. I can still hear it perfectly.
He made underwear for me in his sewing room in the basement. He ran a textiles factory in Hong Kong, so I guess he knew how to make underwear.
He had dozens of suits in his closet, and I really can’t imagine him except in his button down shirts and jackets. Well, he also had pajamas with exotic patterns. Another textile factory thing, I guess.
He drove a gray Camry with a personalized license plate with his (English) name on it. I thought it was so fancy because it had automatic locks (but no remote). Perhaps he inspired me to the wild choice for my first car: a gray Corolla. Both of these cars are hard to find at the parking lot for the Chinese grocery store.
He once thought his car was stolen at the mall because he couldn’t find it. He remembered the plants at the entrance, retraced his steps, and found no car. Later, we realized that the mall had the same plants at multiple entrances and found the car.
At another mall, I once had to go pee. Rather than take me inside to a bathroom, he had me pee into a planter with a tree just outside the entrance. I didn’t even question him or have a shy bladder.
Once on a road trip with my family, he crushed a bug with his hand and didn’t wash his hands. My sisters and I thought it was gross, and for the rest of the trip in the car, he kept offering to shake hands. He thought it was funny every time.
When we moved to Houston, he would visit us for a week or two a time. He would sometime watch me play computer games, and when the screen would go black to load the next level, he would act surprised and ask if the computer was broken. I don’t think he ever learned how to use a computer.
On those visits, he would spend a lot of the day doing nothing, and given our language difficulty, I could do much to fix that. I did teach him how to play Checkers by putting out the board and nodding or shaking my head as he tried different moves. I definitely took advantage of his weak understanding of the rules to win most of the early games.
The last time I saw him was last August about a year and a half ago. Julie and I were on vacation in Toronto for a friend’s wedding, and of course, we went out for dim sum. I had been intermittently practicing my Cantonese, but when it came time, it didn’t count for much. I had to ask Gunggung, my maternal grandfather who speaks English and Chinese, to call Yeye and arrange a time and place for dim sum. They each had their own favorite spot, and we ended up going to Gunggung’s favorite place. After the meal, I finally busted out my Cantonese and asked Yeye if the dim sum at that restaurant was any good. He said it was not good.
Over the last year, he had been in and out of the hospital, so it wasn’t a complete surprise. My mom even said that he bought another suit because he knew the end was coming soon.
Just under a week ago, I got a call from my dad while my parents were on vacation. My dad doesn’t usually call me directly, so I knew something was going on, and when he said that Yeye was in the hospital and likely dying, we were on a plane in two hours to see him one last time. As we were flying, I was rehearsing in my mind what I would say to him, but we didn’t make it: he passed away while we were on a layover in Chicago.
I wonder what I could have said to him that one last time that would have made him happy about how his favorite grandchild, who never learned enough Chinese to really talk to him, had turned out.
I never came up with anything other than that same script from the last twenty-five years.
Is Yeye doing well or not well?
Yeye is doing well.
Have you gone to dim sum recently?
Yeye is going to take you out for dim sum soon to eat shrimp dumplings.