More than just words

BY WHITNEY POW
Fine Arts Columnist
Published October 6, 2008

My last day in Manhattan began with a walk through SoHo’s art district, and it ended in a tiny apartment at the edge of Little Italy and Chinatown. There I found myself in the tight embrace of my grandmother, who asked me in Toisanese if I was going to return to New York next summer. I said yes, and told her to take care of herself, because we don’t say “I love you” in Chinese; we ask if you’re healthy, if you’re safe; we show things, do things. That evening, she wouldn’t stop filling my dinner plate with my favorite fish and eggplant dishes, asking me repeatedly if I was full enough. I told her to stay safe for me. I think this can be an effective, albeit frustrating, method of communication.

There is no word for love that we (my extended family and I) say with frequency. The closest spoken equivalent of “I love you” is something that sounds kind of like “ngaw oy nay” (a phrase which is slightly, if not culturally, awkward to say in all practical situations) and we don’t really use hugs or kisses or any traditional means of communicating feelings of endearment. In my grandmother’s apartment, I’ll usually end up sitting on the couch, heart bursting with affection for the small woman who is diligently boiling water at the oil-spattered gas stove, cutting bananas from the fingery bunch of them bought from the Chinese fruit vendor downstairs, sitting in her seat and amiably trying not to doze off as she underlines the spidery characters in the Chinese newspaper with a red grease pen.

This is the woman who held me when I was young, who saved the drawings I drew for her when I was three years old and who still periodically shows them to me, face beaming proudly, as if I were still in toddler's clothes and had just presented her with my scribbled artifact. This is the woman who insisted on walking me to the subway station some days that summer, who would stand on the subway platform, watching me slowly depart toward Union Square to my job at Publishers Weekly. She would diligently wave until I was just the leftover presence of a steel car filled with business people waiting to arrive at their destinations. She didn’t walk me to the subway out of obligation or worry — I knew my way to work and consider myself street-savvy — she walked me there because I mattered to her.

It's bothersome to realize that words don't work. I usually won’t know how to express my affection for her until my lungs become tight and full with so many unspoken words. So instead, I'll suddenly decide to start doing the dishes, or I’ll clear off the tiny dinner table of dirty plates and cups and wipe it down with a cloth rag, or I’ll offer to take out the trash and bring it downstairs to the garbage bins. Seeing all this, my grandmother will respond with all the ferocity that her four-foot, eleven-inch frame will allow, saying in terse broken English that I should sit down and please stop washing the dishes; go and eat something, there are buns in the fridge.

I know that I'll be told not to do whatever cleaning I’m doing. But to me, the act of trying (sometimes fighting) to be helpful is meaningful, especially to my grandmother, even when I know that it will inevitably end with me eating a bun or two. Events like this will conclude in my grandmother’s scariness petering off, and, rubber gloves donned, scrubbing away at the tea rings in her gigantic blue mugs, she’ll say to my mother that I’m a “gwai neuri,” or a good girl. This is the highest term of endearment I can receive from my grandmother, and when I hear it (often through my mother), affection for this tiny woman bursts in me again, and then I might go around carrying her shopping basket up two flights of stairs to the apartment, or insisting on carrying all of the groceries back from the market on Mulberry Street, or bringing her some egg tarts from the bakery when I’m walking home from work.

There is so much that can be expressed silently through the mere act of doing, of making meaning through the actions we create. Sometimes when I’m in my grandmother’s kitchen and I’m contentedly reading a book, she’ll approach me, tell me I need to stop slouching and direct me to a chair with a comfortable backing. Then she'll go out of her way to retrieve a small, red, paint-chipped incandescent lamp and place it in front of me, insisting I use it so that my eyes don’t go bad. Next, she’ll go to the refrigerator, retrieve a large box and ask me if I would like some taro root buns and then she will start a kettle boiling so that she can make me a quart-jar-sized mug full of peach ginger tea with honey.

The words “I love you,” will only go so far, you see.