(an excerpt from All Who Live on Islands)
The route from 上海 | Shànghǎi to 庙镇 | Miàozhèn spans multiple forms of transport: a subway ride to the wharf, a boat across 黄江 | the Yangtze river, and a bus to 庙镇 | Miàozhèn. In total the journey is almost four hours. On every stage of transport the amount of 崇明话 | Chongmingnese I hear increases. It’s only my third time back to 崇明 | Chóngmíng since I left, and the first with a companion: Tom. We met two years ago at a mutual friend’s birthday party.
The bus stops a block away from my grandparents’ apartment. Tom and I walk the long way around via the fruit shop. My mum had briefed me on the basics of filial piety the evening before: take them some fruit and sit with them, they’re old so just do what they want to do. We pick out a large watermelon and some pearly grapes.
My uncle is waiting for us outside the apartment. I haven’t seen him since I was eight. He looks exactly as I remember, the same broad face and spiky hair as my dad. He clasps Tom’s hand in greeting.
My grandparent’s house is sparsely decorated. A dining table occupies the majority of the space in the small lounge. On the table are ten different dishes, including egg dumplings, stir-fried local vegetables, the classic red braised pork and sweet and sour spare ribs. In the kitchen sits a wicker tray of wontons to make the staple food. My grandma and grandpa are sitting waiting at the table.
‘Shiao-ngi!’ | ‘小怡!’ they call out to me. My grandma rises unsteadily to hug me. I receive a wave of love, familial and unearned. When I pull back the bottoms of her eyes are pooling with moisture. I was the grandchild who spent the most time in her care, and she looks at me fondly, remembering my pliable cheeks and gurgling chuckle.
‘这是 Tàng,’ I say, giving an approximation of Tom’s name. ‘奶奶好,’ he says politely. They look at him, nodding and smiling. My grandpa gestures for us to sit, and to eat. In lieu of verbal communication, I had told Tom that the best way to show appreciation was to eat as much as he could.
‘Your grandpa got up at four a.m. to go to the market for groceries,’ my uncle says. I relay this to Tom and he nods to my grandpa in thanks. Another piece of vegetarian chicken is placed in his bowl.
My grandma gives a wheezing cough. She pokes out her tongue, fanning it with her hand. ‘Ghe za su-ji ‘la lai le!’ | ‘这个素鸡很辣啊!’ | ‘This chicken tofu is so spicy!’ she exclaims. My dad had told my uncle that Tom liked spicy food, so he added chili to dishes that were normally served plain. Tom glances at me, mortified, but my grandma laughs, mollifying the spice with more rice.
The pace of eating slows; there is too much to get through. A sizeable dent has been made, but my grandparents had deliberately over-catered. They wanted to cook everything I would have missed from my hometown. My uncle starts clearing plates from the table in preparation for dessert, and my grandpa goes to his room.
Tom tries to get up to help but my uncle shoos him away. We sit and wait at the table, smiling at my grandma. A red envelope thuds in front of us. My grandpa sits back down, motioning with his eyebrows for us to take the envelope. Tom looks at me. I reach for the packet, adorned with a giant 囍 | double happiness in golden foil. It’s thick. I hesitate. I don’t know if it’s impolite to open it, or impolite to not open it. I open it. I peek inside and see a neat stack of bills. By their reddish colour I recognise them as hundred yuan notes. I close the top flap. The decorative front faces me, and with a start I notice some other phrases: 永结同心~~花好月圆.
‘Oh no,’ I say. I try not to let the panic show on my face.
‘What?’ Tom says.
‘They think we’re getting married.’
‘What?!’ he hisses.
‘The packet. It’s a wedding packet.’
Tom turns it facedown. ‘Should we refuse it?’
‘I think that would be more rude!’
‘What do we do, then?’
I pause and glance up to see if my grandparents are watching us. ‘I don’t know. Let me text my mum.’
I keep my eyes on my grandparents as I rummage in my bag under the table. My hand closes around the rectangular object. They look at me impassively. Shit. I’ve only spoken English since the envelope arrived. I let my phone go, and bring my empty hands back up to the table.
‘谢谢爷爷奶奶,’ I say, and Tom follows suit. In return my grandma pats our hands, while my grandpa gives a modest shake of the head. My grandma looks cheerful, but there’s no detectable change in my grandpa’s expression.
The red packet sits between us and my grandparents while I send a WeChat message to my mum. From the kitchen I hear the rupture of my uncle halving a watermelon.
‘你们喜欢吃西瓜吗?’ | ‘Do you like eating watermelon?’ I ask.
My grandpa grunts in affirmation. My grandma nods, and turns her head expectantly to Tom.
‘你喜欢吃西瓜.’ | ‘I like eating watermelon,’ he says to her.
My phone lights up. I whisper the reply to Tom. ‘My mum says that we should take it. They’re getting old, it’s better to let them believe that we’re getting married. It’ll make them happy.’
Tom shifts in his seat. ‘Well, it’s your family, so your call.’
I take the envelope and slip it into my bag. I was sick of the loud red catching my eye. A plate of watermelon lands with a thunk on the table. ‘吃吧!’ | ‘Eat!’ my uncle proclaims, and the attention is turned back to food.
After a walk around the neighbourhood, we head back to Shànghǎi. It’s just been a short visit to Chóngmíng, there isn’t space for us to stay out here. My cousin is sitting in the kitchen when we arrive back at her house. She laughs at us as I tell her the events of the day. ‘Of course! When you meet the grandparents it symbolises that you intend to get married.’
‘Eh?! Why didn’t my mum tell me that?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe she thought that the traditions wouldn’t apply to you anymore, since you’ve been away from China for so long.’
I pose the question to my mum. She sends me back a voice message.
‘I forgot,’ she laughs. ‘These old customs aren’t present in our minds anymore.’
Rose Lu is a Wellington-based writer and software developer. Her work has been published in Mimicry, Turbine|Kapohau, Pantograph Punch and Sport. She won the Modern Letters Creative Nonfiction Prize for her manuscript All Who Live on Islands, due to be published in November 2019 with Victoria University Press.