Ode to My Grandma

By: Austina Xu


This is my dad’s favorite poem.

And I have no idea what it means.

And despite how clumsy my tongue may be And how jiā and jiǎ sound the same to me,
I will still somehow choose this one over a silly but simpler child’s lore About counting frogs

Because I will try and make sense of what little morsels of longing we both have: His for the parents living an ocean away,
Mine for the ability to understand the dialogue that pools in Messy waves from their choppy facetime calls

Because I am a fool

For thinking my handicap tongue will be anything more than some silly some poem about frogs but

Who knew,

That one day the thing I longed for the most
Would come wrapped up for me
And turn 7000 miles of Pacific into
A resting heartbeat under the same roof

Because I didn't.
But if I did, maybe I wouldn’t have drowned myself in this longing to begin with.

Yet like how the tide refuses to stop kissing the shoreline
No matter how many times it’s forced to withdraw,
We both relinquished the parts of ourselves we’ve longed for the most:
My grandma gave up her home,
And now I give her this poem


Eight years ago,
My grandma left the bustling streets of Shanghai
For the quiet Milpitas and suburban skies—
Not out of choice.

Eight years ago,

She brought the hurricane-like chaos of 7000 miles of sea with her
And let it spiral out of control
It turned our living room into a gallery for scraps of mandarin, With nothing but a thin veil separating us from her.
Our floor into a palette for her black calligraphy ink,
You can still spot the stain on the carpet if you look hard enough.

It was during this time I learned that,
In China, the person in the passenger seat does not need a seatbelt

And that,

In China, dinner tables are a place for lobster shells and fish bones

And that,

In China…

In China…

In China…

Even love takes on a different form in China
A kind of love that is as stubborn and unyielding
As my grandma’s red and gold soul
A kind of love that won’t allow for control

A kind of love that is very different from “like.”

Because “Like” is splitting a bite of ya li with her at night
“Love” is allowing the act of sharing to guise how much of a sin it is to split something so whole and perfect and fragile

“Like” is when she is diagnosed with deficient Yin
“Love” is wanting to tell her that Western medicine calls it cancer

“Like” is what gloved my hands as I helped her up
“Love” is what oozed between my fingers as I scooped her blood like memories back into her skull

“Like” is what I wish I felt for her.

But love, if you can even call it that, is all I can give.

Taste buds that sometimes prefer bread over mantuo are all I can give.
An unnative tongue that can’t pronounce four different tones is all I can give.
And she can’t even give me a “thank you”
She’d go as far as “arigato,” not even Mandarin, to avoid “thank you.”

But I can’t blame her.

Because I’d go as far as the Shanghai tower
To search for a semblance of the part of me
Claimed by an ancestry 7000 miles away
Even when I could have asked her for the truth behind those Postcard skylines of a country I have no right to call “home” But I want to,
But she can.

And for some reason,
Eight years still can’t shake the pride
That swells in my chest at the sight of two crescent moon eyelids
Instead of one
But deflates as my finger draws in midair

Instead eight years makes
Xu Tianyu,
A name that my seven year old hand took nearly a month to master
Look like
Ink stained on carpet.
It makes the taste of hong dou tang
Feel like sandpaper down my throat
No matter how many times I try
To fall in love with it.

It makes the sting of expectation
Go down a little easier
Numbing its bristled back
Like sichuan peppercorns,
The dotted black pupils of my family’s gazes
Their mouths already curled into the half-smirk-half-smile
At the sight of a girl so American they don’t know what to do with themselves,

And I don’t either.

And sometimes,
When love rears its ugly head in my blood
I am almost happy
That she will forever be as alien in this country as I am in hers.


Eight years
Can change people.
Make them wonder

Wonder if the same word from two different tongues
Really makes it any different

Wonder if it even needs to be one or the other
If the love between my mother and my mother’s mother
Expanded beyond the boundaries of some passport cover

Wonder if it would be wrong
To pen my name in this culture in different font

Wonder what it must have been like
To be separated from the land in which you took your first breath
Knowing you can never return there for your final rest

Eight years,
Have taught me…

The thing I love most about Chinese,
Is the spirit that floats in every character
The way it caresses the back of your throat
And exhales itself into life
Like the scent of a warm persimmon

And if you listen close enough,
Realization will find you,
And you will understand

奶奶, grandma, one day, I hope I will understand…

“Quiet Night Thought” by Li Bai
There is moonlight before my bed,

I suppose it is frost on the ground.

Raising my head, I watch the bright moon,
Lowering my head, I dream that I am home.

jiā = “Home” in Mandarin
jiǎ = “Fake” in Mandarin
ya li = Chinese white pear
mantuo = Steamed buns
hong dou tang = Red bean soup