I Get It Now

Wednesday, May 29, 2013 / 12:31 AM

My grandparents - most likely in Hong Kong, post-war.
I used to watch my grandma work on her garden through the living room window of her Sacramento home. The backyard was more than just a place to grow food; it was a place we explored and pretended was another world. The grass was our soccer field, the clothesline was a jungle, and the sprinklers were what we imagined running through a waterfall must feel like. In the mornings, it was a tai chi space; in the afternoon, it was a playground.

As I grew a bit older, I was envious of my classmates and friends who lived near parks and whose parents allowed them to go to sleep-away camps and join sports teams. Their worlds seemed to have no limits to where they could go and where they could play, and yet I could only call the rectangular space in a Sacramento suburb my park, my world.

But I think I get it now.

Na and I spent a large part of our childhood calling our grandparents' home our own home, so it goes without saying that the story behind that front door is as important as the one housed in my parents' two-story home. To get to the home my parents built and nurtured, you have to understand where each of them came from: from different homes in different places, all traced back to a country halfway around the world. Both sets of my grandparents found love during war, and escaped into Hong Kong when the Communists came. Their worlds changed dramatically, and even more so when they came to the U.S. at a time when a quota stopped many Asians from doing so. I get it now why they stuck to their kin, afraid of being the obvious foreigners.

Mei gok - "golden land." A land of opportunity. My grandparents didn't do it for themselves; they did it for their children and their grandchildren, and the generations to come. It never occurred to me as a child that the stories of war and torture and escape weren't just inside the pages of an unwritten book. These were the realities of real peoples' lives, my families' lives. The wealthy landowner who was tortured and killed and his wife who committed suicide were my great-grandparents. The diligent engineer who abandoned proof of his educated status to avoid being taken, the young girl who hid her younger family members during war...the soldier and the nurse who stood by the Nationalists until they lost...those were my grandparents.

I get it now why they held us so close when we were young, and spend their days and nights worrying about us now that we're older. I think there's still a lot of pain for what they lost back home as children and young adults. I think they want to make sure that despite all the people they couldn't quite save, they could at least save us from whatever might hurt us.

They came to America with broken hearts, and so I get why they pushed us so hard: to make sure we we were strong enough one day to push on despite our own heartbreaks and struggles.

I don't think my grandparents know how much their grandchildren know about their lives back in China. I remember the look in yeh yeh's eyes when he saw the book of old photographs we'd put together for him from old photo albums we found in their spare bedroom. It must've been 60 or 70 years since he saw many of those faces in person, and the stoic army man I remember growing up with disappeared for just a moment. I wished I could unlock his heart for a second and know everything he was feeling, but I know I'll never know. I can only hope I understand the strength he and my family mustered up to keep going despite all that had happened.

After spending a short week in Beijing and seeing thousands of faces that reminded me of my grandparents, I was overwhelmed just thinking about the sacrifices so many of our elders made for us. And as a child, I know I never appreciated it, and the funny thing is they never forced me to appreciate them for what they did. They stayed quiet so much of the time about the things they saw, the emotions they felt, the anguish of losing everything they knew. When we fought and cried and pouted over what we thought were robbed childhoods, they knew better. I know better now. I get it.

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