Family Portraits: One woman gets to know her step-grandmother

 

We scrambled to finish the family portrait with blunt crayons on loose papers. It was around a decade ago when my cousins and I were at a family gathering, listing our relatives as we scribbled to make sure we included everyone. We drew every member of our extended family holding hands with one another, but deliberately left out one person, someone we considered a stranger.

Our step-grandmother.

My grandfather migrated to Los Angeles from Singapore in 2002, a year after his wife passed away. He lived with my uncle and found a job in Chinatown. Two years later, our parents told us that my grandfather was getting married to a younger woman he met in the States.

What? She will never replace my grandmother!

I conjured up images of this “American woman” in my head. My father said she was Chinese and had spent more than thirty years in Los Angeles. Bitterness festered in me as I imagined a trendy lady who lived in an extravagant suburban home. I was jealous of her American English, spoken perfectly and untainted by the Singaporean accent. I was angry that she kept my grandfather from returning home. I hated the palm trees in California and the good weather. I hated that my grandfather wanted to love his American children, and live his new life in America.

I tried to forget about my grandfather’s new wife, but our family decided to travel to Los Angeles to meet her in 2007. As my father drove us to their new home, I looked out and scowled at the palm trees as the ocean breeze flooded through our open windows.

Twenty minutes into the drive, the palm trees grew sparse and my father rolled the car windows up.

Perfectly mowed front lawns turned into gated housing. The roads were emptier, small businesses rolled into sight, and communities grew denser. We eventually pulled into a three-floored apartment complex and I got out of the car, confused.

Where was the big house that my grandfather chose over our apartment in Singapore?

My grandfather opened the door and reached out to hug me. Following him was an old woman dressed in a baggy red shirt and loose khaki pants. She was plump and short in stature.

“进! (Come!)” She gestured with her hand and ushered our family into the apartment, her crow’s feet crinkling with her smile.

Why is she speaking in Mandarin?

I felt her dry palms as she took my hand. My father told me that she could not speak English and was only able to muster up a few Mandarin words. The only dialect she understood was Hainanese, so I was to address her as “Maiya,” meaning “Auntie.”

How was she able to survive in America for thirty years without speaking English?

The image of the “young American woman” I created in my head disappeared. That day was when I first met Lin Yiu Xia, my step-grandmother.

Before she married my grandfather, Maiya was widowed with three children, and the family lived in two rented rooms within a small Chinatown apartment. Without any language skills, she was stuck in the ethnic enclave, working menial jobs to feed her children. The only steady job she held was housekeeping for the Hainan Association, cooking and cleaning seven days a week for a meager wage of $800USD every month.

Despite having no shared language, my step-grandmother always persisted in communicating her care for me – preparing slices of fresh mangoes whenever I visited, switching the television channel to an English-speaking one, and making sure I was comfortable in her home. I was humbled by the love she had for her children, and saw that her life was far from ideal. Years of washing and cleaning had calloused her palms and tired her feet.

Maiya’s story brought a shockingly new perspective to what I, as a young girl who grew up in Asia, perceived the United States to be.

My step-grandmother now shares a one-bedroom apartment with my grandfather. At the age of 55, she continues to work seven days a week, earning the same $800USD every month. Nothing much changes whenever I visit. She never forgets to hold my hand, blessing me in a dialect I do not understand.

The last time I visited her and my grandfather was nearly a year ago. Before I left, she told me to “study, study, hard.” I promised I would, and this time, I wrapped my two hands around hers and held tightly, feeling every fractured wrinkle.

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