Chinese Opera

My grandma likes coleslaw. She fries some dumplings for my dinner, twelve more than I ask for, saying she will eat some as well. But she eats only four and then reaches into the fridge for a leftover carton of coleslaw from KFC.

“I like this…salad,” she says, “It’s one thing Americans make right.”

Before dinner I ask my grandpa if he likes dumplings, as this is my grandma’s specialty. In her heyday she could make over 400.

“That wasn’t news, honey,” she says, holding up her hands as though there were a watermelon sized ball of dough between them. “I could make that many easy. And I did so for many years. But then I fell and had to enlist your grandpa to roll out the dumpling skins.” She gives him a look, “That’s when productivity really went downhill.”

He isn’t listening. His hands are folded in his lap and his head is turned toward the television, where Beijing opera singers are warbling on a sparse stage. A man with a long black beard and fierce eyebrows is crying about something. I can’t understand, but my grandpa shakes his head, the old frown playing on his old face.

I try to make him smile and ask him a favorite question, one I know the answer to.

“Do you like dumplings?”

He shakes his head again, but the frown softens.

“Well you sure did marry the wrong person,” I say.

My grandma sits down slowly, using her arms to hold herself against the table. She has weak legs but strong arms, and she winces slightly from the bruises on her hips and shoulders. Weak legs caused her to fall against the windowsill the day before Thanksgiving. She split her forehead open, doused the carpet in blood and now she sports a Frankenstein cut over her forehead and the world’s most vibrant bruise down the right side of her face. Her right eye is swollen, but I can see it clearly when she rolls it. She is a hardy woman. She fell. Blacked out. Woke up a little dizzy half an hour later, her face covered in blood, and then proceeded to the bathroom to wash the blood off.

My grandfather woke to the sound of water running at 1AM and went to find his wife covered in blood.

My grandfather has a strong heart. He panicked, but dialed my uncle, who drove them both to the hospital. In the car, my grandfather wrung his hands in his lap. He wonders if he is lucky to have heard the water running, or lucky that my grandmother awoke at all, and did not bleed to death on the carpet. The whole way to the hospital, he is thinking this.

My grandmother has weak legs, but strong arms. Arms that were once capable of making over 400 dumpling in one morning, but now can probably only do a hundred and fifty or so.

“Seventy years is a long time to be married to the wrong person,” she says, rolling her eyes and nodding at my grandpa. “He’s a strange creature, that one. Strange.” If she spoke English, she would have said, “and a huge pain in my ass.”

Without a word, my grandpa rises slowly too – he has moderately weak legs and, when he was younger, a scholar’s hands. He walks slowly to the hot water dispenser and presses down on the top, filling his insulated tea mug with the hideous painted swans.

“Seventy years,” my grandpa says, in between pumps. I see him eying the mottled skin on his hands and thinking back, perhaps, to when he did not move so slowly and when the sound of running water at 1AM wouldn’t have meant anything. Seventy years. Seventy years. In Chinese he says, “how cruel life is,” but I know he is thinking, as I am thinking, how strange and wonderful.

“Marriage was different then.” My grandma leans back in her chair and puts one leg up, a sign that she’s about to tell me something. “I got married at eighteen and right away I moved in with your grandpa’s family. I had to take care of four generations. Four! I had to please them all and make sure the house ran smoothly. Women back then were different. We made everything by hand. We weren’t afraid of hard work. We had to make our own clothes, trousers, even shoes!

Camille Pissarro, Madame Pissarro Sewing, 1885

My grandpa’s mug is filled and he has seated himself back at the table. He nods along to my grandma’s words.

“Your grandpa was lucky – he married a smart one.”

I burst out laughing, and I can see a shadow of a smile on grandpa’s lips. But he nods.

“What! It’s true!” my grandma purses her lips. “I learned quickly. My mother raised me to be useful because my father died when I was thirteen. Women had work, but not all women did it. There were plenty of girls that just ran wild in the street, girls that didn’t even know how to hold a needle, but my mother wouldn’t let me become one of those girls.”

My grandma shakes her head sadly, as though I have just come in from running wild in the streets.

“If you weren’t married by 23, you were an old maid. No one wanted you then!”

Now it is my turn to give her a look.

“Well of course times are different now,” she says, “Back then you were defined by your marriage. If you look at me, you wouldn’t say I need a man.” She leans in close to me and lowers her voice, “Just between you and me, your strange egg grandpa would not last a week without me.” I turn to look at him, with his hands folded in his lap, his lips pursed. They would be pursed forever if it wasn’t for my grandma goading him to talk now and then. She leans back, content that I know who’s who in this relationship, then shrugs. “But that’s just how it was.”

“Women back then were different,” my grandpa says suddenly. He gives me a look and this time, smiles for real. I know he is thinking about me at family dinners, how my voice is the loudest. How I talk too fast. Say too much. Laugh too loud, and then says exactly what I expect him to say, “They didn’t talk so much, for one thing.”

My grandpa takes his blood pressure with his glasses on, recording the numbers in a little notebook. They seem wildly different from day to day, and I ask him how accurate the readings are. Not very he says, but continues to write down the numbers.

They are examining their medication cases, those long plastic bars that have a compartment for each day of the week.

My grandpa gives me a serious, thoughtful look.

What day is it?


Ah. I forgot to take these this morning.

My grandma roles her eyes. What else is new.

Ah well, he says, then motions for my grandmother’s arm. Let’s take your blood pressure. She lays it out on the table, one strong arm. Seventy years, I think. At least she must have made 400 hundred dumplings at least once a month. 4800 dumplings a year.

336,000 dumplings, just in the course of her marriage, not including when she wasn’t yet married and made dumplings for her own family.  

I write on my phone as the machine groans and squeezes my grandma’s arms.

146 over 56 my grandpa reads, and diligently writes it down next to his numbers. Blood pressure. Heart beats. Life in numbers listed on a clean white, lined square of paper.

Are you still writing your email? My grandpa asks me.

No no, I’m done with that. I’m writing about something else.

He nods. Someone in the family told him I like to write. He turns to my grandmother. Did you take your medicine?

I’m waiting for the water to cool.

On the screen, the actors wail. My grandpa turns back to watching Beijing opera just in time to see the actor with the long black beard disappear behind a curtain and emerge with a gray beard. My grandma asks him whats going on.

The man’s family was executed by the evil Emperor, and he too, is next on the list. He wants to escape, but cannot leave the palace. All the guards have their eyes on him and he has no way out. But he stays up the whole night fretting and his beard turns white from stress. The actor disappears again, and reemerges with a white beard. He laments his beard turning white, but knows it doesn’t matter, because he will die soon anyway. But the next morning, the executioner does not recognize him and he is able to escape with his life. The audience applauds wildly.

I don’t understand the opera, but with my grandpa’s translation, I can understand the relief the man with the white beard must feel. Or perhaps my grandma can better understand. Her face is bruised and battered, but she still has her strong arms, even her weak legs. She can still tell me stories and roll her eyes and call my grandfather a strange creature. 

It’s a nice story, sighs the strange creature with the strong heart. He sounds a little tired, but happy.

Edward Hopper Two Comedians, 1966 Oil on Canvas

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