By Jiadai Lin
I never knew my grandmother well but I was told growing up that I had her yan sher, which literally means “eye expression” in Mandarin. I understood it more colloquially as referring to Grandma’s spirit, her aura. My father said this as a compliment. My mother, not so much.
The woman I call Grandma—my paternal grandmother—grew up in the pre–Cultural Revolution Chinese countryside just north of Beijing. She had a clumsy instinct for things like judgment and war and enemy lines. She played with the Japanese kids in the yard who nobody was supposed to play with. She unraveled the bandages wound tightly around her feet and learned to read. She became a wife before she was twenty, and a mother soon after. She birthed seven children from her tiny frame and lost two.
Of course, she wasn’t all good and mighty. Grandma’s fingers were just as clumsy as her instinct to judge, so she could never properly sift the rice hulls from their grains in the fall. The rice patties her kids brought to school for lunch weren’t white and pure as they were supposed to be but speckled with brown. This was considered an embarrassment, but Grandma didn’t lose any sleep over it.
When I was young, I sensed that Grandma wasn’t exactly the model of a woman that I should want to embody. Enemy-befriending, bandage-unraveling, wooden-fingered Grandma wasn’t supposed to be my ideal of feminine perfection. She was wrinkled and weathered by the time she was thirty, and she didn’t know how to smile properly for a picture. Her fingers, unnaturally thick for such a small lady, were dusted charcoal gray no matter which picture I looked at.
And I looked at many. From halfway across the world, from a second-floor apartment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I flipped through the thin stack of Kodak photos that sometimes came in the mail. The images I remember were all set in winter. Grandma and cousins posed wearing puffy neon jackets in their front yard. The ground wasn’t grass or the concrete sidewalks of Milwaukee, but a worn, packed dirt. Grandma sat on a wooden chair, cousins stood in a row, and the family dog, Little Black, lounged at their feet. Their expressions seemed never whole—never just a smile or a frown—but instead halfway through a sentence or question, as if they weren’t sure when exactly the camera would go off.
These pictures were mostly the same but I studied each one as if it were a unique blueprint for my own identity. Of all the cousins on my family tree, I was the only one to live in America. I was special in that way, but I was also alone.
“You’re like your grandma,” my father would say.
“How?” I’d ask.
“You have that same sarcastic look in your eye. Yan sher.”
“What do you mean?”
He never replied directly. The answer came at me slowly, through stories and pictures gathered over years.
Just before I turned two, my parents brought me to visit my father’s family. After the stay, I observed that Grandma didn’t pay much attention to me.
“She’s not an affectionate woman,” my father said.
“That’s right—she’s not!” my mother said.
I don’t remember this early impression of Grandma and clearly, it didn’t do anything to diminish her in my eyes. Maybe Grandma was busy playing poker with the village ladies or preparing dinner with the aunts or walking Little Black instead of cuddling me.
My family moved to America shortly after that visit, and I only saw Grandma a few more times in her life. The last was the August before my senior year of college. On this trip, I noticed that my cousin Hailian had bought gifts for the family—bottles of perfume, silk neck ties, a watch for my father, a jar of L’Oreal face cream for my mother. The girl had manners, my mother noted, and I decided that I should learn a thing or two from Hailian.
During afternoon nap on a particularly hot day, I snuck out to the village convenience shop with my little brother. When we walked in, a bell on the door jingled and a sleepy shopkeeper emerged from behind a shredded plastic curtain. We apologized for waking him and asked in our best Mandarin for a nice woman’s shirt.
“For your grandma?” he guessed right away.
My brother and I examined the one option shown to us, a button-down shirt made from a flowered pattern. It would do.
Grandma had an afternoon routine. She spent hours hanging out with other neighborhood women on the stone ledges that lined the narrow village streets. I had often seen them perched in the shade waving their bamboo fans and swatting at mosquitos that buzzed by their legs. These women greeted everyone by name—kids returning home from school, men in suits riding bikes to and from work in the next town over, the fat lady with the toothy smile who herded her goats down the village’s most central streets every afternoon.
On this particularly hot afternoon, my brother and I found Grandma on the stone ledges and presented her flowered shirt. Almost immediately, the neighborhood ladies clapped their hands in laughter. Look at those American kids! What funnies! They called us not by our names, but as our father’s children.
Grandma laughed too, then started unbuttoning the shirt she was wearing. Soon she was topless and slipping her arms into the flowered shirt we had bought. I stood there with my eleven-year-old brother, unable to turn away. Grandma was skinny and tan, her breasts small and wilted, gently falling over her ribcage. Her skin was withered as if a layer tissue paper had been glued onto her actual skin beneath. I had noticed that Chinese women, who often showered communally, were generally more comfortable with nudity than American women. But an eighty-something-year-old woman changing out on the street with a group of ladies cheering her on? This was not normal. Afterwards, Grandma sat there on the ledge sporting her new shirt with a beaming smile on her face. This was her way of saying thank you for the gift.
When I recounted this story to my mother, she looked disturbed. I got the message. What Grandma did was not ladylike. It wasn’t something I should emulate. But over the years, I always remembered this story and felt a kinship with Grandma. Maybe she wasn’t refined and full of grace, but she was bold. She was a hoot. She didn’t care what others thought about her. She did what she wanted to do, in that nonchalant way that always had my mother shaking her head.
My mother was a different kind of woman. She wore billowing dresses and strappy sandals and tortoise-shelled sunglasses with lenses the color of tea eggs. She knew how to stand for a picture, arm-in-arm with my father in front of Tiananmen Square the year before I was conceived, a silver flowered clip locked into her wavy hair. After we moved to America, she bought do-it-at-home hair perm kits that came in purple and silver boxes with a blonde lady on the front.
I can still see my mother standing over the sink in our tiny bathroom in Milwaukee, her hair dripping of something that looked like milk and smelling of chemicals. I’d watch her from the bed where we all slept—my mother, father, and me. Every night, my mother would come to this bed and put Lubriderm lotion on her hands, her fingers smooth and long like a ballerina’s legs. And then she would take mine and do the same for me, paying special attention to the dry cuticles that I had a bad habit of chewing off.
For a long time, whenever my mother tried to teach me about being a woman, I felt like she was pulling me away from myself. More times than I can count, my mother would come up behind me, rest her hands on my shoulders and press her thumbs into my spine. “Straighten up,” she’d say.
I’d arch my back to an extreme. “Like this?”
She’d shake her head. “You know what I mean.”
Did I? I don’t remember. What I remember is feeling defiant. Proud of the fact that I didn’t naturally stand up tall or want to sit nicely at holiday parties with the women who gossiped until midnight spooning dessert from the table. I wanted to be the one rolling in the dirt, the one with the scraped knees hanging from the top branch of a tree, the one riding her blue Huffy down the street that ran the length of our apartment complex. Through grade school, I insisted on wearing tee-shirts and cargo pants, the kind that could be unzipped at the knees and transformed into baggy shorts for the summer. In high school, I wore my hair in a messy bun that I had to keep re-doing throughout the day to keep tousled because my thick hair always fell straight.
My mother thought of names for me. Things like kuang tou (basket-head) and bu-nan-bu-nu (not-boy-not-girl, or, as I guessed, tomboy) that she muttered when she saw my getups. I knew these names were not endearing. They were meant to stir me to change. I did change, but in the opposite direction. I messed up my hair even more and slouched defiantly. I wanted to show my mother that this was who I was.
I felt less that I was caught between two cultures and more that I was caught between two women. Except I wasn’t really caught. I knew who I wanted to be, but I was too young to be her yet. I felt a maddening ache to get out of the house and out of our town. Once I grew up, once I moved away, once I had my own place, my own money, my own life, I could be whatever kind of woman I wanted to be.
A month before I started college, my parents and I attended a dinner reception for incoming freshman and their families. We drove into New York City in our green Dodge Caravan and circled the blocks around school several times before finding a parking spot. My mother wore an olive and bronze–colored silk dress with a sash at the waist. She had brought this dress with her from China and kept it in her closet, taking care to replace the moth balls every winter. I don’t remember what I wore, but I know that it had not occurred to me that I was supposed to look nice for this event. I probably wore my uniform at the time: jeans and a tank top, flip flops, and a choker necklace made of plastic sea shells.
There was a woman at the reception who seemed important. I don’t remember what color her hair was or what she wore, but I was alert to her presence. While the families sat at round tables, this woman paced around. She shook hands and made friendly conversation to which families laughed and nodded as if on cue. As this woman circled closer my table, I noticed the muscles in my mother’s neck clench. Her hair was twisted into a bun with a flashy jewel barrette that she saved for special occasions. By the time the woman got to the table next to ours, my heart was pounding hard in my chest. I was suddenly embarrassed at how out of place my family looked. I watched as the woman told her joke, smiled, and then moved straight to the table on our other side.
I ate a piece of my bread and tried to look unfazed. But I was confused. Did the important woman skip us by accident? Would she come back around? I was glad that I was spared an awkward encounter with this woman, but why didn’t she speak to us?
My mother and I never talked about this incident. It occurs to me now that maybe it doesn’t stand out in her memory as an exception to her everyday life. When I was growing up, my mother always reminded me that it wasn’t easy to be an immigrant. “You have to be better to get the same result,” she would say. A better student, a better woman, a better friend.
I’d usually laughed it off. “I don’t feel that way,” I’d respond, “You’re being paranoid.”
But being at that reception, as I sat proud and excited and anxious at the prospect of being alone in the world for the first time, I experienced something that never left me. Only years later did I understand that what I had experienced was how it felt to be an immigrant’s child. That lucky first generation. And all the pride and burden and vengeance that came with it.
I graduated from college and then law school. I got a job at a firm in New York and rented an apartment on the Upper West Side. I worked long hours and indulged in fancy cocktails to justify those long hours. One Monday night in late September, I had come home and had just stripped off my corporate outfit when my mother called me. This was normal, so I took the call and steeped a peppermint tea. Then I put my mother on speakerphone on the kitchen counter and got ready to scrub at the dirty dishes in my sink.
“You should sit down,” my mother said.
“Your grandmother…” my mother started.
I immediately had a bad feeling in my stomach. My mother never said much about Grandma. Something big or bad had to have happened.
Grandma had died sometime through the night. The night in China that was the day I had just lived. I tried to remember something, anything, that had happened during the day that felt tragic or poignant. A moment I could identify in hindsight as a sign that I knew viscerally my grandmother was gone. I must have felt something. Grandma and I were connected by blood, and something even stronger. We shared yan sher. That had to count for something. But I had nothing. I had been sitting at my computer for most of the day, chatting occasionally with coworkers but mostly working on assignments that barely varied from one day to the next.
After I hung up the phone with my mother, I went to the bathroom. I stood in front of the mirror above my sink, next to my blue shower curtain. The pattern on my shower curtain was a map of the United States, and I thought about how my grandmother would never step foot on American soil.
Grandma wasn’t sick. She had been weak through the previous winter but rejected my uncle’s invitation to stay with his family. She liked where she was. She was walking to the market every morning for breakfast buns and soy milk and playing chess on the stone ledges with the ladies in the afternoon. It had been a good summer. She was getting stronger. Of course she would die someday, but I wasn’t prepared for her to die today.
I sat on the bathroom floor against the cold bathtub and cried. I had never lost anybody close to me before, and I hadn’t expected the tears to come so diligently, before I could even fully process my sadness. I was puzzled by my tears because along with vague sadness, I felt something light. I felt the peace of a life ended without great injustice. Grandma had lived long. She had died in her sleep, as she always claimed was the best way to go. Her death had not been big or bad.
That night, I lay in bed staring up at the wooden beams across my ceiling. I thought of my grandmother, who had gone to bed not long ago. Now her small body was cold and empty of life, her brain without consciousness. It was impossible to understand how a person could just be gone like that. And not just any person, but Grandma. The lady with the sarcastic look in her eye. Now there was only one of us in the world.
A few nights later, I left my Midtown office building and walked up Sixth Avenue. I strolled along the southern edge of Central Park, past the row of carriage horses resting in the shade. It was a quiet night, the air cold but comfortable. I settled on the stone fountains facing Columbus Circle and spoke to my father, who had gone home to China.
In my grandmother’s village, funerals were celebratory events. My father described how the whole village had come out. There was a live band and two teenage go-go dancers. At funerals, it was tradition for family members to dedicate songs to the deceased.
“Your uncle selected two songs for you and your brother because you guys couldn’t be there,” my father said, “It was really a nice celebration. Everyone said that your grandmother was a really kind lady.”
I watched as two men in front of me played with neon rockets that could be wound up and shot up into the sky. At the top of their trajectories, the rockets flashed with bright lights, lingered for a moment, and then fell back down. I kept my eye on them. Up and down, over and over again. Something about the simplicity and sureness of their paths was calming.
All this reminded me of Grandma. As long as her life had been, it was never meant to be much more than what she was born into. She would get married and have kids. She would live in the same house through most of this and die there too. Then I thought about own my life. I was born in a hospital in Beijing, to a country-boy scientist father and a Manchurian mother with a graceful edge. Maybe I was not meant to travel far in my life either. But I had. What were the chances that somebody like me would be here sitting in Columbus Circle on this very night?
My grandmother could never have dreamed of this life for me, but she did live to see a glimpse of it. A few months before she died, Grandma found my lawyer profile online. She didn’t mention this until she overheard my uncle talking about my website profile in the other room. “I saw it,” Grandma said.
A clunky old computer had sat idly in the corner of Grandma’s room for months, maybe years. Nobody guessed that she knew how to use it. But there it was, in her browser history. My name, my picture, my degrees.
This last story makes me smile because this was Grandma’s way. Understated but crafty, insulated but modern, modest but full of pride.
I see now that while Grandma could never have dreamed of this life for me, my mother did. And even more, she demanded it of me.
Over the years, I realized that the main difference between my mother and grandmother is how each woman handled judgment. Grandma was fearless. This was the essence of her aura. She was not ashamed. She did not care that her children brought to school rice patties that were not perfectly white. She didn’t often ask, am I good enough? She just was what she was.
But my mother, she never stopped asking that question. My mother didn’t believe in accepting what you were born into. She believed in being better. She believed in learning to sit up straight and breaking bad habits. She believed in going to the salon for a perm, and when she found herself in a new country with little money, she believed in doing it herself. She believed in upkeep. And most of all, perhaps, my mother believed in her kids. While I begrudged my mother’s attempts to mold me when I was growing up, I see now that her intentions were pure. She pushed me because she believed in me.
It is a humbling thing to look back on your younger self and see somebody who cared so much about how you would turn out today. The lesson, I think, is in the effort and intentions. Perhaps the time I spent as a girl searching for the good and bad and admirable allowed me to face the judgments I had of myself. Perhaps being exposed to the wildly different personas of my mother and grandmother instilled at a most basic level the idea that there was no one way a woman could or should be.
I never did find a model of feminine perfection that both satisfied my mother and sat comfortably with me. I was a college grad who sometimes dreamed of being a farmer, a corporate lawyer who changed immediately into sweatpants at home, a tomboy who learned to walk in heels. And while I was becoming these things, I forgot to think about how much I wanted to be like Grandma. I forgot to think about how much I wanted to show my mother exactly who I was. I forgot to try so hard. Without detaching from either woman, I detached myself from the idea of being confined to their qualities. In growing up I became my own woman, and I am still becoming her.
JIADAI LIN lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where she is working on a novel based on her former life as a lawyer in Manhattan. She can be found on Twitter here: @jiadailin