My Grandparents

May 20, 2012
By cathfeng PLATINUM, Starkville, Mississippi
cathfeng PLATINUM, Starkville, Mississippi
23 articles 5 photos 1 comment

When I was ten-years-old, my father designated Skype sessions with my “Yéye” and “N?inai,” Grandpa and Grandma, every Friday night at seven o’clock. They would peer into the web camera like a microscope, clapping their hands in unison and exclaiming, “Kànkàn n?! Look at you! How tall you’ve grown! We’re so proud of you!” I just bobbed my head, gave a half-smile, and spoke the only words I knew, “Xièxie. Thank you.” I felt uncomfortable because I did not understand my grandparents’ foreign language. Time passed, and the 8,010 miles that kept our families apart took its toll. We held fewer phone calls and fewer Skype sessions until almost none at all. One day, my father grasped my shoulders and said in a hushed whisper, “Nientsi, your grandmother passed away last night in the hospital.” Almost the very next week, my grandfather joined her. My father showed me crackled, black-and-white photographs of my grandparents: one where my grandfather, clean-shaven face, stood proudly in soldier uniform with his arm gently circling my grandmother’s waist. “It’s time to tell you the story of your grandparents,” he began.

In 1949, Yéye, my grandfather, was a soldier: eighteen years and already fighting. Decked in pale camouflage military green, he was assigned to leave Qingdao, the town of his home and his sweetheart. N?inai, my grandmother, was only sixteen. Both were scared about the war that none of them knew anything about besides knowing the difference between a Communist and a Kuomintang. All around them, houses burned like charred, fiery beacons. Screams and pleas were uttered for the ones who would never again taste smoke-smother duck kebabs and sweet red bean buns. Bodies on the ground buried themselves in the feathery ashes of gun powder and cannon fire.

That day, the warship blared its horn three times. A last warning for uniformed soldiers to escape from that god-forsaken land. Told to take nothing, Yéye just could not leave her. He jumped on his horse to go back into town. His friends, with shaking heads and blank eyes, grabbed his shoulders and said, “Forget it, or you will die.” At home, N?inai sat with steady hands folded in her lap. She was helpless to do anything but accept her fate; she had decided a long time ago not to fight it. Death would be her deliverer. A spider dangled in her face, gleaming on its thin waxy string. The lucky spider, her mother always said. When she heard clop, clop on the dusty, dirt road, she knew her mother had been right all along. She turned around and saw Yéye on his horse. Without a word, he swept her up into the stirrups. N?inai clamped her eyes shut, pressing her face into his back so she would not have to see everything they left behind.

At first, they would not let N?inai on the ship. “Only uniformed soldiers, miss,” they spoke, looking straight ahead. Yéye pleaded, but to no avail. It came down to two options: throw her off the ship for the sharks or sail back to Qingdao to strand her. Then, one of the commanders stepped forward after noticing Yéye’s class ring. “Hey! We graduated from the same class in the army,” he said. And that one connection became N?inai’s ticket to stay onboard. On the ship, with gritty hands clasped, Yéye and N?inai held on to each other, all they had left. The salty sea rime blasted their faces and whipped their hair. They had finally made it – off to a new land and to a new start.

Knowing the story of my Yéye and N?inai shifted my limited prism of the world. I often wish I had sat down to chat with them about their childhood, the war, or their favorite foods, anything at all. Today, I enjoy hearing strangers’ stories – everyone’s is different, something I have come to appreciate. Everyone has taken risks to be where they are today. By honoring others and myself, I know I am honoring my grandparents. I look towards my future, doing what I can, where I can, the best I can. And somewhere out there, my grandparents are smiling and clapping, cheering me on the whole way.

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