Grandpa’s Lessons

Terry Zeng
Dear Grandpa Gong:

How are you doing? It has been two year, nine months and eighteen days since you passed away. My life has been different since the day you left. All I want to say is sorry, and thank you for everything you have taught me. I apologize for being a stubborn grandson to you, even until you left me. Now that I look back to all the moments and the fights between us, I realized that you were trying to shape me into a better person, but I’ve never acknowledged my wrongdoing or my gratitude. I truly regret being a disobedient and disrespectful grandson. As I grew up, I began to acknowledge the importance of the people around me, especially those who have a positive influence on me. “The tree wants to remain quiet, but the wind won’t stop; the son wants to serve his parents in their old age, but they are no longer here.” This is the Chinese proverb you often told us when you were here, but I ignored. I finally understand the true meaning of it; to cherish those around me, I should spend as much time with them as possible. Were you to be here again, I would cherish you, love you and be thankful to have you. I miss you, Gong.

Sincerely yours,

Lobster Dinner with the whole family
Time really flies. It was a cold December evening five years, eleven months and fifteen days ago when I first landed in the United States with my parents and my brother. It started a whole new chapter in my life because I had to learn a new language and get used to a new country. Not only did I have to adapt to a new environment, but I also had to leave my lovely paternal grandparents in China and live with a grandparent whom I later referred to as “The Angry Caveman.” My maternal Grandpa was so unfamiliar that the only fact I knew about him was that he was my mom’s father.

When we first met, my mother asked me to start calling him “Gong,” which means Grandpa in Chinese. I’ve heard of the word “Gong” before from books, from movies and from my other friends. But who is my “Gong?” There was an awkward silence between Gong and I after we said “Hi” to each other. Gong then started a conversation with me asking how old I was and how do I like this country so far. I answered: “I am 13 and I think this country is okay.” My response was so short even though Gong’s questions were much longer. An awkward silence followed when Gong stared at me for a few minutes, but I didn’t open my mouth or even look in his direction.

Our first meal in the U.S. was at a famous Chinese lobster restaurant. Mom was sitting next to me, and my brother was sitting next to Gong chatting about common interests such as soccer. Mom kept giving me all the lobster meat that she took out of the shell whereas my bother helped himself. I enjoyed this privilege that my brother didn’t have, and thought that I deserved the privilege because I was smaller. Gong looked at Mom confusedly, and then started staring at all the lobster meat on my plate, and said: “What a spoiled kid!”

I stared back at Gong without saying a word.
“He must be jealous.” I thought.

After dinner, Mom told me how Gong had had a hard childhood. Born in a poor family in China, Gong and his siblings enjoyed few, if any, privileges, such as eating lobster. Mom’s insights didn’t help me realize that I was leading a privileged life at the time, and instead I was more certain than ever of two things: first, that Gong was jealous of me, and, second, that this lobster dinner was really delicious.

After having soup every night during dinner, each of us would go to the rice cooker and fill our own bowl with rice. Gong was suffering from Metabolic Arthritis, which caused pain in his joints when he would walk. Mom started asking me to get rice for Gong at mealtimes. I was fine with it, until one day I accidentally tripped and fell on my way to the kitchen. I cried and started blaming Gong for not being responsible for his own business.

“It is your responsibility to serve the elderly!” Mom screamed.
“It isn’t! I do everything by myself, so he should do everything by himself too!” I screamed back.

At about eleven o’clock that night, I heard the conversation between Gong and Mom. Gong said: “You should talk to him. It was very disrespectful to scream at you. You should also teach him to take on the responsibilities of serving the elderly.”

“Disrespectful?” I thought, “ You are nothing but a stranger to me.”

After that night I had never helped serve Gong his rice again.

Dumplings are one of the easiest Chinese dishes to make because you simply boil frozen dumplings that were bought from the supermarket in water. I attempted to cook dumplings by myself when I was fourteen. I left the dumplings in water unattended for almost half an hour. They were totally screwed up; the dumplings were over cooked so badly that the dough broke apart, and the meat filling floated in the water.

Gong came into the kitchen and saw what I had done. He yelled: “What’s wrong with you? You are wasting food! You should’ve asked for help and I would have been very happy to help you. This is such a waste!”

I argued: “Mind your own business angry caveman! I don’t need your help!”

I rushed back to my room, to my own corner. Although I was angry with myself for not knowing how to cook, it was nothing compared to the anger I felt toward Gong for offering me help. I began to make all kinds of associations in my head; the day when we first met and he was already calling me a “spoiled kid” and the day when he was telling my mother that I was neither respectful nor obedient. I was quite sure that he hated me, so I should certainly hold a grudge against him, too.

Chow Mein
I finally taught myself to make Chow Mein. It was my first attempt so it was lacking some flavor and was partly burnt. As I expected, Gong was not happy with the result.

“I started cooking for my family when I was ten and I could do much better than you! I am offering help here, you should utilize me.” Gong yelled.

The burnt Chow Mein and Gong’s “dirty mouth” didn’t affect my mood at all. I was in a fabulous mood because Mom bought me a nice scarf with black and white stripes. I ignored Gong and went back to my room to try it on.

Gong saw me with the nice scarf, and said: “Did you buy a new scarf? You’ve just wasted all the Chow Mein and you are now spending money on a useless scarf? When are you going to stop taking all the privileges?”

I was extremely irritated by his words. He shouldn’t judge the way I spend my money (or, in this case, ignore the fact that my mother purchased the scarf!) and the way I live. I knew that I was not his favorite, and would never be his favorite. I chose to fight back, however, as though I were fighting a stranger on the street. I grabbed the Rubik’s Cube on the table, aimed at Gong’s head, and threw it at him so hard, but “unfortunately” it only hit Gong’s shoulder.

In the mean time, Gong jumped up from the sofa, took a few big steps towards me, and swung his cane really hard on my left leg. It was extremely painful and cracked my bone a little. Gong’s face immediately turned red, and he was breathing hard. He could barely stand even with his cane. I started to scream and cry hard.

“How dare you hit me! No one has ever attempted to fight with me! How dare you!” Gong screamed. He lay back down on the sofa. His breathing was so hard that the sound was competing with those of my screams and sobs.

Multiple memories of the first day we met each other, Gong calling me “the spoiled kid,” and Gong referring to me as “disrespectful” were floating around in my head as I cried. Why does Gong dislike me? Am I really insubordinate to others? These questions were revolving my head for hours as I cried.

The pain in my leg was killing me. Every time I walk, the pain reminds me of the night when we were fighting. I didn’t talk to Gong for weeks after the fight, and of course I never apologized to him.

Chestnuts with green bean soup
For weeks, my mom and my brother would talk to me about the importance of those around me, how to treat others with respect and simply obey our elders. I pretended to pay attention, but, actually, thought that they had been brainwashed. “Even if I wasn’t treating Gong nicely, I didn’t see how Mom and my brother were especially being nice to Gong, either,” I thought. I became curious and started to challenge them by observing all their interactions with Gong.

My mom bought Gong’s favorite chestnuts home. Before Gong found them, I selfishly combined all the chestnuts with green bean soup because I didn’t like the dryness of the nuts. Gong became disappointed at my decision because green beans are not healthy for those who are suffering from Metabolic Arthritis. I was selfishly enjoying the delicious chestnuts with green bean soup, but Gong didn’t say a word. My brother then came up with the idea of scooping out some of the chestnuts out and reheat them in boiling water so that Gong can enjoy the delicious chestnuts too.

I stared at the chestnuts and the green bean soup in my bowl for a moment.

“What could I’ve done?” I thought.

Fried rice and egg stir-fry.
Nothing is more satisfying than finally cooking something nice. I made chicken fried rice for Mom, Gong and myself after having a “Cold War,” of sorts, with him. I handed the bowl of fried rice to Gong with both hands, and he took it without hesitating. It was especially tasty because I worked hard on it, and Mom gave me positive feedbacks. When I turned my head to look at Gong, he showed me a big smile and nodded his head. I returned the smile. Gong’s smile was a sudden boost of confidence, and Mom snapped a picture of us eating fried rice together. It was probably the happiest moment between us.

A week later, Gong went to China with my aunt to visit my uncle. I continued to practice my cooking skill, hoping to make a big dinner for my whole family one day. The house was much more quiet without my aunt and Gong. This new lack of pressure was, in fact, a strange feeling.

I learned how to make egg stir-fry. It wasn’t as delicious as the fried rice, even though Mom said that I had improved my cooking skills. It wasn’t lacking any ingredients, it wasn’t lacking any flavor, but it was lacking a smile that could only be given by certain people.

The phone rang. I put down my chopsticks, and rushed to pick up the call. It was my aunt calling from China.

“Terry, Gong passed away from a sudden stroke,” my aunt said in a somber tone.

I dropped the phone on the floor, and was immediately overwhelmed by all my memories of Gong. The fights, the words, would forever be locked in the past. I looked down at our only photo together, and realized that nothing will ever be as tasty as that fried rice.