Asian Diaspora

My Grandma


I love this photo of my grandparents in their older living room.

I’m most thankful that my Grandma taught me how to be a lady. She loved combing my hair and always held my hand as we walked to the salon. Whether she was getting her hair did or getting a facial, I always had something done too, like a simple double hoop braid a la Princess Leia.

In elementary school, I had waist long curly permed hair. (I thought I was Pocahontas.) Grams would always bribe me to cut it because whenever she saw me in the heat of Taiwan’s humid summers, she said she’d feel hot. I never did get Grandma’s bribe.

Of the many things Grandma taught me, she taught me how to count bills. (Mostly because I always goofed off at the receptionist’s desk.) Red $100NT bills, rolled up in half, stuck between the middle and ring finger, and held with the thumb and index. Count off with right thumb and index. Dip your finger in that wet spongy thing if too dry. Boom, ya girl know how to count bills. And I was 3-years-old. I also knew how to change the dates on those multi month date stamps.

My grandma is a fairly petite woman, probably standing at 5’3. Her hands were small, in comparison to what my hands are now. The warmth in her palm, whenever she held mine, I still remember. Her skin felt soft, but like they had been aged with fine lines. She held her chopsticks with her left hand, unlike the rest of us, and always wore lipstick. On her wrist, was this delicate gold watch. It was thin and dainty, with a small rectangular watch face.

Grandma liked sitting in front of her vanity, dusting on powder, combing her hair or using those little pods of cream I never understood. She always smelled of perfume, the intense floral kind that smells like it’s been warmed on your skin. She had a collection of handbags and scarves — LV, Chanel and the likes. In her youth, qipao’s were her ensemble, but in her later days, she rocked a turquoise blazer with trousers and square toed flats. She was a size 5 in shoes.

My Grandma’s living room was always meticulously tidy. Each cushion, lined up and straightened out. A doily’s corner, never dare flare on her watch.  Every corner, had a pot of plastic flowers. The real orchids were saved for the dinner table.

At our local park, farmers would bring their produce for sale. They would lay out a small cloth on the ground and claim their territory. Grandma would bargain and then the bamboo shoots or leafy veggies would be weighed on a traditional Chinese scale. This would only be the beginning of her day, usually before the sun peaks through with its morning glory.

Under her watch, everything ran like clockwork. Grandpa’s breakfast, tea, nap, lunch, dinner, fruit, walks. It seemed like every day after dinner, Grams would walk by Grandpa, who chilled in his leather arm chair while watching the rest of us finish dinner, and lovingly wipe food crumbs off the corners of his mouth.

My Grams was the matriarch. Everyone reported to her and respected her to the utmost. She was beyond smart, amazing with finances and superbly charismatic. Many referred to her just as “Yen Mama” – in the building, across the street and even around town.

Whenever I left for New York, my mom would always tell me how proud she was of me. Because I was independent and smart, like my Grams who left home at 14 because of civil war.

But I’m no where close.

I don’t wear red lipstick and my repertoire of kitchen recipes is embarrassing. I never comb my hair and have just started to moisturize.

I only aspire to be that brilliant, that charismatic and that poised.

On my most recent trip to Taiwan, I found my Grandma’s watch, hanging on a nail with a bunch of other things that were abandoned in my Grandparent’s room. The room, messy and lonely, no longer the same I had remember. The warmth in it gone. The air smelled stale. And even the light didn’t seem to shine through the curtains. It made me really sad that it’s now just a room with no meaning.

I took the watch.

My late Grandma’s favourite fruit was the apple. Elizabeth Arden was her moisturizer brand. She wore Dior lipstick. Orchids were her favourite flower.

And now I have her favourite watch.

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