“She says the only power she has in her life is over food. My son
doesn’t listen to her, her son is never home,” Mei mockingly told Lin.
“She seems to have some power over the credit card. I saw her coming
out of Nordstrom’s with bags of new clothes,” Lin averred.
“Aiya, she’s such a liar, that one.”
“I hope they were muumuus. She shouldn’t wear tight tops with all
that back fat.”
“My son probably stopped doing it with her because she looks like a pig.”
“She’s so full of it. She’s got an excuse for everything. It’s
probably her fault your son never visits.”
“Then again, she might be the reason Jin comes all the time. She’s
such a horrible mother.”
“Just feed Jin what you’d cook for your son. He’s a good boy.
Everybody in the building thinks so.”
Mei and Lin squatted before their offerings, each item on sale for a
dollar. Government cheese, chips, plums, potatoes, and gallons of
fruit juice sat arrayed on blankets on the red brick sidewalk at
Market and Jones for passersby to browse. Some stopped to buy. Mei
used her money to buy greens in Chinatown. Lin had a secret cigarette
habit, and kept her grape juice. They hoped to sell everything before
any police stopped to tell them to pack it up and move along.
The two had been friends since before coming to America. In college,
in the late 1950s, they would walk together up Powell Street, trading
glances that rated the boys they passed on their way home. Now
grandmothers, they were still silent friends. They seemed to
communicate without words. The only audible conversations they had
were about Mei’s thoughtless son and self-indulgent daughter-in-law.
Both Mei and Lin agreed the best thing those two had ever done, the
only worthwhile thing, was have a son, Jin, who visited his
grandmother as often as he could.
The visits began the year Jin turned 14. He would bring a forged note
with a copy of his dad’s driver’s license – anything would do as long
as it had a picture. It got him into the building, past the
persnickety front desk. He was too young to have his own ID or
driver’s license, but if he could prove he was Mei’s grandson, he
could get in.
He had the best time of his life. His friends in school were pretty
well-behaved kids – they got good grades, and never got into trouble.
They all spent a lot of time with their families. But Jin kept quiet
to them, as he did to Mei, about his life at home in that dark, lazily
decorated Duboce Triangle condo. He knew he shouldn’t criticize his
dad and mom to his grandmother, but he was stuck: his parents were
The hardest part of his visits to Grandmother Mei’s little shoebox of
a single-room occupancy studio (next to leaving when their time
together was up) was trying to find a way to explain why he visited so
often. His Chinese was halting, and she praised him just for making
the effort. Sometimes, she would hold up little things like plates or
her treasured bracelet of almost-white jade, and try to teach him the
words for these.
He would let her distract him then, over steaming bok choy and
dumplings, as she taught him how to say new words. He forgot about
learning how to make her understand something he suspected she already
knew, and knew better than he did. In fact, he soon felt a bit of
shame for assuming her to be more innocent than she was – an
assumption many seemed to make of the old Chinese ladies who hustled
around town. It was an important epiphany, when a boy on his way to
becoming a man realizes his grandmother is no doting, daft old
creature, but a woman, a complete woman who has seen so much more than
he might ever hope to.
He wanted to tell Grandmother Mei how hard his mom was trying – in
all the wrong ways. For example, she would insist on doing his
homework for him. How could his mom not understand that he needed his
pride, pride he could earn only from doing the work himself and
knowing the B on the paper was worth more than his mom’s A? How could
he tell his father’s mother what a douchebag the hapless guy was?
When Jin was six, he saw a Japanese cartoon he loved, and wanted his
favorite character’s name. So his dad let him change his own name
then and there, in front of the television, like nothing had any
importance. And where were the fishing trips? Camping?
Jin, though, the more time he spent eating savory dishes at his
grandmother’s Tenderloin hotel, learned how much stronger silence
could be than complaints. He tried not to hate his father for never
visiting, and put effort instead into loving who was present, and
loving that they were present; that’s what his grandmother’s
demonstrated skill for living taught him. Why think about dad’s
failures at all when he could play ping-pong with Auntie Lin in the
community room behind the lobby?
He also felt a swell of pride from finding his first footing as a man
– what dignity with which he carried himself when he knew his
escorting Grandmother Mei was the reason she could brave the
intersection at Taylor and Turk, a rather rough part of the
neighborhood. She would never go that way alone, but Jin was nearly
5’10” and growing a moustache. She could rely on him to be her guard.
She taught Jin so much without words. Sure, the pidgin Chinese was
fun – and he already spoke better than his father. Yet Jin also
learned the secret language of shared glances, eye contact from the
side that spoke whole passages. He quietly treasured his grandmother.
She was a link to roots his parents never took time to respect.
Jin knew he had to say something, anything so that mom and dad would
get it. Not a fight, not a criticism, just words that stated how much
he needed Grandmother Mei’s guidance and wisdom, and with those words
hopefully imply that he wasn’t the only one. So one day, he came home
from school, changed into a shirt and tie his mother had bought for
him at the store as though she had been awkwardly bargaining for
something. He stood in front of his father, between him and the
television, and said aloud, “I’m going to grandma’s.” It was the
first time he had announced where he was going, instead of heading
His father stared ahead absent-mindedly, as though through him to the
television on the other side. “Watch yourself in the TL, Jin. Don’t
take too much money.”
Jin stood there for a moment, unsure if his dad had even looked at
him. He had at least hoped to hear how sharp he looked – something,
anything. All Jin could say was, “So, bye.” And he left.
It was about six months after Jin’s first visit that his father
finally took interest in the worst way. It was complete happenstance.
Jin was sitting with Mei and Lin after the food bank, when who should
show up but his father, livid.
“Jesus, Ma, I’m on my way to lunch break when somebody said, ‘Hey
David, is that your mom selling shit on the street?’”
“But I’m your mommy, yes? Why are you yelling?”
“What the hell? Do you know how embarrassing this is? They were
laughing at you, the guys from work.”
“Don’t you love your mommy? Don’t yell.”
Jin stood up. He knew he didn’t want to disappoint his grandmother –
how could he upbraid his dad?
“Dad, can I say something?” At 14, his eyes were nearly level with
his father’s. “I don’t listen to what people think of my grandmother.
They can laugh. It’s just harmless laughter. It’s innocent, right?”
“Jin, you’re not old enough to understand.”
“No fight.” Mei’s voice was steely from her squat beneath them.
“Dad, it was my idea. She hates this food, and I thought she could
sell it for vegetables from the store she likes.”
“Why didn’t she just ask for some goddamn money?”
“She didn’t know better, Dad. I didn’t think it was a big deal.”
His dad took a step back. “She knows better,” he muttered, and
walked back to where his coworkers were waiting.