She’s standing just within reach, but we’re a million words apart. Her eyes are trained on the vegetables that she swiftly chops on the wooden board. Behind us, the television blares over the sound of rice sizzling on an oiled wok. The television screen runs an episode of a Chinese drama. Actors utter syllables that sail over my head faster than they can slip past moving lips. Pale yellow subtitles flash at the bottom of the screen, though they serve little purpose to me. With or without them, I wouldn’t be able to understand.
In the kitchen, I watch her work the stove. I let my gaze follow her worn, wrinkled hands that skillfully flit over the kitchen counter. Her skin is pruned and rough from seventy years of housework. The bluish veins protrude from underneath, mapping out highways on her hands. Those are the hands that rocked me to sleep until the age of three, that tirelessly cook for me from day to day, that delicately sewed up my favorite blanket when it tore. How grateful I am for her boundless guidance and care. How desperate I am to tell her so. Yet, my lips stay shut, rendering our silence unbroken. I can’t find the right words. More so, I don’t have the words.
As I observe from her side, I wonder what her hands were like decades before. Were they soft and smooth like mine? Did they shake as much as they do now? What was she like many years ago?
Envy rises in my chest as I think of those who know everything about their grandparents. Those who know the stories, the anecdotes, the childhoods. Those who can ask about intimate memories that keep loved ones close. Do they know how lucky they are?
Here, distanced by a barrier of tongues, I am unable to inquire and left to imagine. I envision a youthful, bright-eyed girl. She goes to school, where she learns to cook the way she does now. She has a best friend who she tells everything to. She excels in mathematics, but never quite understands literature. She lives with a sister and a brother in a small apartment in the city. She’s an adventurer and dreams of finally escaping the confines of Hong Kong. But, this fictitious image of my grandmother is not enough. I yearn to know her. I yearn to be close to her.
Standing next to her as she cooks, I conjure up a thousand questions made of a million words. But, they remain lodged in my throat, lost in translation. How do I say half the things I want to ask?
I tear my eyes away from her hands to glance at her profile. Her concentration doesn’t waver as she adds the chopped vegetables to the frying rice. I notice that she’s making my favorite dish. Suddenly, I know where I can begin. I reach out and rest my hand on her arm. I hope that my words would touch her as well.
“Mama,” I call her “grandmother” and ask in broken Cantonese, “Can you teach me how to cook?”
She smiles, the crinkles forming at the corners of her eyes. She understands. “Okay,”
We’re standing within reach, but we’re a million words apart. A million words that could have been said over sixteen years if I had tried. A million is difficult to compensate for, but at least now, we’re seven words closer.