“Bear, we have to go inside.”
My son pulls at my hand. His tug is insistent, surprisingly strong for someone who isn’t yet two; when I refuse to comply, he pulls harder, his legs in a textbook tug-of-war stance. I counter his weight with one hand as multiple Target bags hang from the other. I do not have the wherewithal to make the walk around the block that we often do after coming home.
Nor do I have the time. It’s almost 4.30, and we have a date. After struggling for a few moments, I pull out my ace:
“Yei-Yei and Nai-Nai want to talk to you.”
Suddenly his arm goes slack. He drops my hand and runs to the front door, patting it insistently as I fumble for my keys. We enter the house and I fetch my laptop. As I sign onto Skype, he claps his hands and looks eagerly at the screen.
Seconds later, my parents appear. “Hellooooo? Hiiiiiii!” my mom exclaims, waving with both hands. “Hello, Bear!” says my father. “Goochee goochee! Moochee moochee!” He turns his index fingers into horns and pretends to charge at the screen. My son squeals with delight.
And so our call begins, just as it does every Tuesday and Friday at this time. My parents and my son entertain each other as he shows them his new tricks and they make silly faces at him. I sit on the couch and watch them, quietly marveling at the relationship they’ve formed in just 21 months with 2,000 miles between them.
Much of my amazement stems from the contrast between their relationship and the one I had with my grandparents.
Mine lived in Taiwan, halfway around the world, in a time when that distance was far more difficult to traverse. It was practically impossible for my grandparents to be part of my everyday life; there was no FaceTime, no Skype, no text messages, just long-distance phone calls that, at $2 a minute, were too expensive to make frequently. (One 30-minute call a week would set you back over $3,000 a year.) My mother compensated for this however she could. When I was a baby, she would audio-record me cooing and laughing and mail the tapes to her parents; two weeks later, after the tapes finally arrived, they would tell her how much they loved them and ask for more. Later, she would make my brother and me write them birthday and New Year cards in Chinese, even though she would have to compose them herself and show us how to write each character, even though it would have been much easier to write them herself. She did everything she could under the circumstances to bring our lives together. But for the vast majority of time, their lives did not intersect with mine at all; my grandparents felt almost theoretical to me.
When our lives did intersect, communication was always a problem. Mandarin was my paternal grandmother’s fourth language and my distant second; things weren’t much better with my mom’s parents, who spoke it exclusively. Trying to tell them about my life only got more frustrating as I got older and it got more complicated, so I compensated by talking with them less. Our phone calls were perfectly summarized by Aziz Ansari’s character in Master of None — “Hi! Good! Bye!”
When we did get to spend time in person, it always involved a drastic upheaval in our lives. Because it was so time-consuming and expensive to fly from Taiwan to Detroit, where my family lived, my grandparents would visit for a month at a time — first my maternal grandparents, then my father’s mother. During these months, everything in our home would change: The language we spoke, as my parents shifted to speaking only Chinese and required my brother and I to do the same. The food we ate, as one grandmother took over cooking responsibilities and the other brought her own requests. Our routines, as we spent our weekends at the Gucci counter at Saks Fifth Avenue and our Thursday nights at Old Country Buffet. (Both of these trips were for the same grandmother. She contained multitudes.) Our chain of command, as one grandmother felt the liberty to tell me what to do and the other did the same to my mother. None of my grandparents spoke English and none of them could drive, so when they were with us, they were additional charges for my parents to care for. During these months, the focus would be on them, the respected elders and the guests in our home, instead of on me, where I preferred it. Being the child that I was, I did not appreciate this shift, nor the sense of being displaced in my own home.
On top of all that, we were such wildly different people. Generation gaps can already be hard to cross for grandparents and grandchildren who live in the same country, even the same city; when you add radically different cultures and histories into the mix, they can feel insurmountable. One of my grandmothers came of age during the Chinese Civil War, when her family decided it was safer for her to get married and flee the country than to stay and attend college. She got the last seat on the last flight out of Manchuria before the Communists took power. She raised four children practically alone as her husband, an army general, spent months at his post. Their entire neighborhood had only a single television. Meanwhile, my other grandmother was the daughter of a businessman’s second wife at a time when the Japanese occupied Taiwan and polygamy was still common practice. She spent her childhood watching her mother jockey for attention and resources — “for love,” my father says — with two other wives who had children to fend for. This was her world until she was 18, when she entered an arranged marriage. She would bear four children and bury her husband by the time she was 34, the age I am currently.
Me? I grew up in the suburbs of the most powerful country in the world, in a house with as many televisions as people. My mother outworked and outearned my father, almost all of my classmates were white, and my biggest frustrations were casual racism and the fact that my parents ordered so many toppings on our weekly trips to Pizza Hut. My grandparents and I had virtually no experiences in common. Even if communication weren’t so hard for us, I am not entirely sure what we would have discussed.
So when my friends would talk rapturously about their grandparents — these mythical creatures who would bake cookies with them, fill their Christmas stockings, take them on trips to Florida — I simply could not relate. I cared about mine, of course, but if I were honest, they felt either nonexistent or intrusive, depending on the time of year. I spent much of my time with them waiting for them to leave so my life could return to normal. In hindsight, I recognize this as selfish; perhaps things would have been different if I had been 25 instead of 7, if I had more compassion and understanding of cultural differences and appreciation for our strange circumstances. But I was a child, and I was not yet capable of such things.
Needless to say, my parents and my son do not have nearly the same hurdles that my grandparents and I had. They have so much less distance between them — linguistically, geographically, culturally. My parents speak fluent English. While they live in another state, we’re able to fly to each other multiple times a year. At this point, my parents have lived in the US twice as long as they lived in Taiwan; they have iPhones and Instagram, and they love In-n-Out burgers and getting samples at Costco. They will understand my son’s life in a way that my grandparents could not understand mine. Their presence in his life will never feel unusual. And thanks to the glories of the internet, they get to see our normal, everyday life — reading books, pushing cars, crawling on furniture — for a few hours every week. These are luxuries that my grandparents could not even fathom.
And I finally understand why my friends talked about their grandparents with such awe and wonder. My parents (and my in-laws, I might add) are incredible grandparents. They think everything my son does is amazing. They buy him everything my husband and I won’t buy him and feed him everything we won’t feed him. My dad once saw a commercial in the early ‘90s, not long after his own son was born, in which a grandfather took his grandson to McDonald’s for a milkshake. He held onto that image for 25 years, and now he takes my son to get milkshakes almost every day that they’re together. Every day! And my nutrition-professor mother doesn’t even mind — she encourages it, in fact — because she sees how happy it makes both of them. For them, grandparenting is the victory lap of parenting — they get to enjoy all the best parts and then return their grandson to us for discipline and diaper changes and midnight feedings. They get to be the good ones, the fun ones, all the time. This is awesome for grandparent and grandchild alike.
It never bothered me before that my grandparents and I barely had a relationship; I did not know what I was missing. But now, when I see my son build a tower of blocks and look to my laptop screen for applause — applause that my parents are all too happy to provide — I see what could have been. I wish now that my grandparents had been a part of my daily life. I wish that I had the experience of enjoying my time with them, of being excited to see them and sad for them to leave. I wish I had a set of cheerleaders who thought everything I did was spectacular and reminded me of that all the time. And I wish I could have really known them. My grandparents were survivors — of war, of immigration, of poverty, of patriarchy. They were strong and strong-willed, traits that I can trace directly from their DNA to mine. I wish I could have appreciated that while they were alive instead of only in retrospect.
I can see my mother going through a similar process. She and my father are deeply and appropriately proud of the life they’ve built for themselves in the US, but her one big regret is that this life made it next to impossible for her children and her parents — four of the people she loved most in the world — to know each other. I see her recognize this loss more profoundly the longer she knows my son, as she experiences a relationship that her parents did not get with her children. Every moment that she has with him, whether trivial or profound or both, is a reminder of what her parents did not have. They were victims of bad timing: They had grandchildren in the 50-year window after moving across the globe became common but before technology made long-distance communication easy and cheap.
One thing from our relationship simultaneously comforts and saddens me: I know, and I knew then, that my grandparents loved me deeply. If I ever said that something my grandmother cooked was good, she would make it every day until I could barely stomach it. The first time I visited Taiwan, I had taro ice cream for the first time and liked it; every morning after that, she walked to the corner store in her neighborhood to see if any had been delivered and bought out the entire stock if it had. On the same trip, my grandfather set up a place for me to write and games for us to play — ones that did not require us to talk, ones that he always let me win. Years after he died, I came into possession of piles of stamps he had collected for me while he was alive in case I ever developed an interest. In hindsight, these glimpses into their fondness for me are heartbreaking; we had so many barriers between us, and yet this tenderness still squeezed through. I can only imagine what else my grandparents would have done, what else we could have experienced, if we had even one less obstacle to contend with.
In the absence of almost all of these obstacles, I can only imagine the kind of relationship my parents and my son could have. I watch him laugh at the laptop screen as my mother balances a small bear on my father’s head. I can’t help but think about how incredibly lucky they are — and how lucky I am to be able to witness this.