dim sum

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It’s a crisp Sunday afternoon and I’m sitting at a large round table with my nai nai, my ye ye, their home aid, and three strangers.

The restaurant is quietly humming, although in Chinese restaurants, “quiet” is always a bit relative. There are still people clamoring for the servers’ attentions, metal spoons clinking against serving plates, boisterous laughter shared over plates heaped with noodles. The man across from me pours a glass of beer, watching the bubbles rise to the top, and takes a careful sip.

An hour ago, we’d sat for a while in my grandparents’ living room for a bit to talk, a pre-dim sum ritual. They as usual fretted over what I was wearing, concerned that I might be cold. The snow had mostly stopped, but a bitter wind still circled Chinatown and it was still flurrying. I complimented my nai nai on her jacket, a rich purple silk brocade with delicate frog closures. “It’s old,” she tells me. “Twenty years!”

I’d recently taught them how to use FaceTime, so we called my dad. My nai nai scolded him, telling him (in Cantonese) that I should learn Chinese. “That would be like telling you to learn English,” he’d joked to her. She made a tutting sound, dismissive.

My ye ye had asked about my recent trip to LA over Christmas break. “El Ay!” he exclaimed haltingly, enunciating the letters as separate syllables. It’s the way it should be pronounced, and yet when speaking your native language, you tend to be unaware of the way your words and letters blend together as you become more intimately familiar with it. “L-space-A” is a jarring departure from the rounded, fluid Ellay I’m used to hearing. He’d asked me what dates I was there and then signaled for me to wait, removing a small paper calendar from his wall.

He does this often when he asks me about my upcoming plans. I don’t think he remembers the specifics; I think he just likes to know. It helps him form a more complete picture of what my life looks like, beyond his little corner of Chinatown. He asks if I was close to his daughter’s house, how many rooms our house in San Diego is, if the dim sum in California is any good. He relates to the world through proximal distance to his own sphere of life.

Afterward, we’d meandered through the streets of Chinatown to the restaurant. The restaurant is above a Chinese pharmacy, with barrels and jars full of strange roots and dried things. My grandparents’ favorite host was smoking a cigarette outside on the curb, plumes of smoke curling up in a fog in the frigid air. He always has such a serene quality about him, which is fitting in a chaotic environment, and he always greets my grandparents upon arrival.

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Now as I sit next to my grandfather, the first things I notice are his hands. Leathery, but at the same time with clear, delicate-looking skin like the folds of a chrysalis. They quaver ever so slightly, but his movements convey a kind of calculated grace; as he pours tea, as he lifts a bite of food to his mouth with bone-white chopsticks. Every once in a while, he’ll turn to me and say something like, “So, Jenny, how do you like New York?” Small tidbits of conversation, but with his limited English, I am grateful for whatever we can discuss with each other.

“The doctor always say to old men, be careful that you do not slip and fall,” Ye Ye explains. “For old man, cannot fix. For you, if you break bone, it take one or two months to put together. This is why no one go outside.” He motions to the half-empty restaurant.

My nai nai and I can communicate even less, the language barrier an invisible wall between us, looming, suffocating. She has taken it upon herself to point things out to me in Cantonese. Yum cha, she explains, means to take dim sum. “Yum cha,” she repeats. I say it back.

She says something to a nearby server, and as if by magic, little wooden steamers full of food appear on the table, along with two steaming pots of tea.

Pai guat,” Nai Nai says, pointing some spare ribs. “Saam”—she touches my coat. “Guai,” she says.

“What does that mean?”

Guai mean good!” she explains.

A server passes, asks me in Chinese if I want anything from her cart. “Har gao,” I tell her. It’s one of the few things I’ve always known how to order in Cantonese. It’s a dish I’ve grown up with at dim sum; I’ve always loved the little shrimp dumplings with their clear, neatly-folded wrappers. Chewy on the outside, hot and delicious on the inside. I could eat a hundred of them. Nai Nai nods in approval. “Good!” she says. Ye Ye is laughing, amused at my attempt to blend in.

We order one of my favorite desserts, sweet little bao filled with warm vanilla custard, decorated with cute pig faces.

“You left the nose!” I tell Ye Ye, pointing to the little discarded dough snout sitting on the plate. He shakes his head. “I don’t like.”

Nai Nai says something in Cantonese to the home aid and gestures to the bill, but I pluck it out of her hands, as is customary, and insist that I pay.

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My ye ye is highly offended, also as is customary. “No, no!” he cries. “This is for Ye Ye to pay.” We struggle over the bill, and he says something in Chinese. “Treat,” he says. I don’t know what he means.

He carefully writes something on a paper napkin with a pen produced from his jacket pocket, and slides it to me.

“Treat,” he says again. “My treat.”

He promises that I can pay next time, but I have my doubts. “Next week?” he says. I answer yes. “You call me, any time. When weather is good, you come.” I promise I will.

There is some confusion over the dates, so I write it down for him. He puzzles over it for a few moments, asking for clarification, and my nai nai chuckles and makes the cuckoo sign. “Don’t listen to ye ye,” she says conspiratorially. “Is no good.”

No sooner have we stood up than the waiters have cleared our table and put down brand new red tablecloths for the lunch service, with new place settings. Then there is the buttoning of coats and the wrapping of leftover pork buns and dumplings.

We walk back toward their apartment, toward the bus stop.

“On Monday through Friday, I go to senior center,” Ye Ye says, indicating a nearby building. The red lanterns strung amidst the traffic lights sway gently, covered in a light coating of snow. The flurries have stopped and life has resumed, people carrying cartons of pastries and fruit, packages of Chinese snacks, iced boxes full of fish, from the trucks to the curbside marketplaces.

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“What do you do there?”

"I exercise,” he replies.

"Exercise?" Of all things, that is not what I expected him to say.

"There is a big gym inside. $1.50 for exercise. They have lunch."

Whenever I leave, I always ask him what he’s going to do for the rest of the day. He always says the same thing: nothing. For him, the details are pedestrian. But I like when he shows me around his neighborhood; I like seeing all of his favorite haunts and where he spends his free time. In this way, we share things with each other, little bits of ourselves. It’s a small window into each others’ lives, but it’s the best we can do.

I thank them for lunch and promise to pay next time. Nai Nai kisses me on the cheek. “You are good girl,” she says, squeezing my hand. “Guai.”