This morning I ate breakfast at a Vie de France in Yokosuka, Japan. It's amazing how well one can get on without spoken language, just a big smile, nodding and bowing at the appropriate moments. The food was heavenly, but the memorable thing was the little old lady sitting across from me.
My grandmother was a little old hunched Asian lady before her passing. And this little old woman sitting across from me picking at her pastry was so like my grandmother that I started to tear up. I could never talk to my grandmother. She spoke a dialect of Mandarin that was incomprehensible even to the Taiwanese folks she ended up living amongst after fleeing from Mao Tse-tung's communist regime. Her only window to the world was through her husband and children, who learned to speak the language.
My dad resented the way he was treated as a foreigner, so he decided to liberate his children from racial discrimination by making sure we were as American as possible. He refused to teach us Mandarin. In fact relatively few people now even realize we are 1/2 Chinese (thanks to the genes of our tall, blond, european-stock mother).
So I never, ever, had a conversation with my grandmother that extended beyond smilling and nodding and bowing (and hugging) at the appropriate times.
A few years ago my Taiwanese sister-in-law moved in next door. I was so excited. Now I could have my sister-in-law write a letter to my grandmother, and grandmother could read it and write back to me. I asked my dad for Grandma's mailing address.
"Why?" he asked.
"So I can write to her."
He looked at me funny. "But Grandma can't read."
"I know. J--- will translate my letter into Chinese."
"English, Chinese, it doesn't matter. Grandma can't read."
It was like my world turned upside down. Dad must have seen how upset I was, for he leaned in, as though to confess something.
"Meg, Grandpa was a soldier and can read, but he was dogmatic - rigid. Grandma might not be able to read, but she was the one who was creative, she was the smart one."
Dad tapped his forehead. "I, you, we take after Grandma."
So I sat there in the Vie de France, crying, thinking about Grandma, who has been dead now for almost 6 years. Then I got up and bowed and smiled and nodded and went out into the sunlit street.