Before the warm light of dawn had hit the face of our home, the lean, strong figure of my grandma was already out in her garden, harvesting the plump melons and tomatoes, the rich green peppers, and the other vegetables that came with her passion for gardening. If I woke up early enough, I would’ve seen her hunched over her vegetables, vigorously pulling weeds from the rich soil, and her quick strides while she steadily held the heavy watering cans without spilling a drop of water.
My grandma, called “waipo” by my family, the Chinese name for grandma on the mother’s side, is Chinese. Growing up in Southern China during times of poverty, my grandmother shared a similar fate to the vast Chinese population of rural China–a fate where one was forced into farm labor due to the cruel reality of poverty. Consequently, her farming skills were excellent and she adopted the strong work ethic representative of Chinese farmers, but she could not afford to be educated past the second grade, resulting in her illiteracy. My grandparents generously took care of me and my brother when we were very young so that our parents could make ends meet. I still remember her strong, calloused hands which led me to the bus stop every day as she whistled a cheery tune. It was those same strong hands that, in the absence of her education, taught me ultimate maturity, empathy, and gratitude.
I can still recall sitting at the kitchen table every day after school as a young child. Growing up in a bilingual environment, I was encouraged to learn Mandarin from a very young age. As a result, my grandma took on the responsibility of tutoring me, despite her lacking education. She would often show me how to write her name over and over again, one of the few things she could write. She carefully calculated each stroke, and each time she wrote the three words, pride glinted in her eyes and a wide smile blossomed across her face. Other times, she held up the battered Mandarin textbook we read every day and squinted at the words that neither of us could recognize. Most times, she would mutter a wild guess knowing it was wrong, to which she would say, “Wait till your mother gets home.” Being just a child, I couldn’t help but giggle at her–poking fun at how she couldn’t read words from an elementary textbook, for which her only response was a sheepish smile.
As I grew older and my education became out of her reach, she still offered me endless support, but I began to realize an upsetting truth about my grandma. Because of her lacking education, she constantly lowered herself to that of someone whose worth was defined merely by household chores. One day, after seeing my grandma’s calloused hands do a day’s worth of dishes, I felt a sudden responsibility to help out. After she left, I slipped into the kitchen, a smile on my face knowing she would be proud that I was lending a hand. When my grandma returned to the kitchen, I whipped my head around to smile at her, but I was greeted with a frown. Rushing over to the sink, she snatched the dishes out of my hand and said sternly, “Leave this dirty work for me. This is what I’m meant to do.” At the time, I couldn’t process such words, and I had no choice but to look down at my feet and leave as she continued doing the dishes with a furrowed brow.
Time went on, and I often looked at my grandmother through sad eyes. I wished so greatly that I could help her realize her true worth. Except for excessively complimenting the food that she worked hard to cook every day, I did not know how to communicate my compassion. As I became aware of my privilege in comparison to my grandmother, gratitude took the place of these emotions.
These experiences and connections between me and my grandmother appear to be so ordinary, yet the meaning behind them is so deep. As I grew older next to my grandmother, along came my entry into maturity, gratitude, and compassion. My grandmother has helped me reflect on my privilege and empathy, and as I continue to mature, I hope I can find the words to express these emotions to my grandmother and fill the time we have together with more meaningful experiences.

DISCLAIMER: The content of this essay does not represent the views of the contest organizer CAPA NOVA.
3 thoughts on “Waipo”
  1. So glad to know you Michelle! You are an amazing young woman with so many gifts! I have sensed for a long time your astute ability to relate to others and not judge. You are so lucky to have these strong bonds with your family members!!
    Nancy Mckittrick

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