What Do I Call Her?
A few days before the arrival of my father’s mother from China in 1960, I lean on the kitchen counter and ask my grandfather, “What do I call her?” Busy preparing the family’s supper, he pauses, looks at me intently, and replies, “You call her Yin Yin.” In Toisanese, a Chinese dialect, Yin Yin refers to the grandmother on the father’s side. In the Chinese language, every grandparent has a designated title. After decades of political red tape, my Yin Yin, the last of the family to immigrate to the United States, is leaving her small country village in China to be reunited with her family.
Even though I was a child at the time, I remember waiting at the airport for her arrival. As the family watched passengers deplane, my uncles joked, “Is that her?” or “Maybe she’s the one?” Because it had been so long since they’d last seen their mother, they could not recognize her. For my grandfather and for my father, the oldest son, the end to their 22-year wait was nearly over.
Love at First Touch
Standing in front of me, my Yin Yin utters my Chinese name. I fall into her arms as she embraces me for the first time. It is love at first touch. No awkwardness, no shyness – it is as if I’d known her love forever.
Although cancer cut her time with us short, my Yin Yin cherished the days she spent with her family. I became her little shadow. I helped her hang the laundry out to dry, defrost the freezer, pick slugs off the vegetables and water the garden. She taught me to speak Chinese and I taught her to speak English. When she made Chinese dumplings, she popped them into my mouth as soon as they finished steaming. I deem those eight years with her my chubby years.
Yin Yin’s Tea Cozy
Decades later, my sister and I stoop in the dusty attic of my father’s old family home in China. Using a small flashlight, we conduct a final search for any keepsakes that should go back to the States with us. In a dark corner, where the angles of the roof meet, we find an old tea cozy basket. Taking care while opening it, we are surprised by the basket’s contents. Both happiness and sadness flood my heart as I recognize the photos that my grandmother must have placed there for safekeeping. Photos of my grandfather, my parents, my uncles and aunts, and my sister and me – people my grandmother loved, but people she’d not seen in decades or ever met – nestled against the floral fabric lining of the cozy. Standing in the attic, I think about how happy she must have been to leave the photos behind and the joy she must have felt at the prospect of seeing her grown-up sons and meeting her grandchildren for the first time. The journey back to China with my family reunites me, in many ways, with my Yin Yin.
Call Me Yin Yin
All the gifts under the Christmas tree have been opened, but my second son passes out one more to everyone in the family. “You have to open up these presents together,” both he and his wife say. I am suspicious, because his camera lens points at me. We open our little packages and words of excitement flutter out of our mouths. Each of us holds a newborn-sized onesie. Happiness leaves me speechless and then I smile. I’m going to be a Yin Yin! I can’t wait to share all the love that my Yin Yin gave to me with my grandchild!