“You must visit this garden,” my grandmother said. As usual, she spoke in Taishanese and I responded in English. I could imagine her sitting on her wobbly kitchen stool, one hand clamping the phone to her ear, the other holding up her copy of The World Journal to the dingy light. At the corner of Prospect and Divinity streets, the garden that my grandmother mentioned was only a 20-minute walk from my room on Old Campus. The gardeners, mainly Chinese, had a successful harvest — my grandmother wanted me to find the secret of their success.
My grandmother reads local stories written in Chinese religiously. When she has company over, she tsks at noteworthy articles and interrupts conversations to recap — in Taishanese — a story. And when she is alone, which is often, she carefully cuts out pieces of the paper and stores them in a kitchen drawer for later. The last time I visited her, the drawer was filled to the brim.
Before hanging up, I lied and promised to visit.
Two weeks later, on a run up Science Hill, I happened to find the garden. As I sat across the street on a bench to catch my breath, a child walking nearby turned to his mother. “It’s a garden full of garbage,” he said, pointing to a plot of empty gallons enclosed by a fence of cardboard. It looked just like my grandmother’s garden. To the untrained eye, it was an ugly sight.
Whenever I visited my grandmother, she always put me to work in the garden — pulling out the weeds, refilling the watering can. I emerged covered in sweat and mosquito bites. Once, I asked her why she insisted on growing vegetables, when I knew she had come to America to leave her rural upbringing. She smiled and told me it reminded her of home. At the time, I dismissed her answer. It was everything that I was ashamed of: my grandmother’s color-uncoordinated outfits, the way she called me “Elisa” instead of “Teresa” because she couldn’t pronounce the “T,” and her stubborn hold on Chinese culture.
I climbed over the garden’s cardboard fence. Gnarled wooden trellises stood together like teepees. Under layers of yellowing leaves, wrinkled green peppers bunched together like bananas dangled from wooden poles. Fuzzy bitter melons and stalks of chives poked up from the dirt. I knew from my grandmother that these vegetables were staples of Chinese cuisine.
The pungent odor of tiger balm hit my nostrils, and I thought of her. My grandmother never used insecticides — instead, she lathered herself in tiger balm before heading out to tend the garden. It was a smell that I grew up hating because it lingered on my clothes for days, and my classmates would wrinkle their noses at me.
I followed the smell to the source, stepping further into the garden. An elderly Chinese woman in an old straw hat squatted over a plot of chives, hacking them with a knife before throwing them into a plastic bag.
“Ni hao,” I said nervously, when she turned around. Her glare made me feel as if I were trespassing. I tried to smile.
“Gu niang,” she finally responded, then asking in Mandarin, “Why are you wearing those shoes in the garden?” She threw me a pair of plastic sliders and smiled, the golden caps on her teeth flashing in the sunlight. I slipped on the shoes.
As I watched her hack the chives, the woman told me she had been tending the garden for over five years. When she realized that I could hardly speak Chinese, she laughed, then switched over to broken English. “My name is Mrs. Zhang. I am sixty-five. I am from Beijing, in the Republic of China. I live here for six years,” she said with a mocking salute. I laughed.
Those were the only sentences she could speak in English, besides one other: “No speak English.”
When I was little, my grandmother often took me on walks around her neighborhood. Whenever neighbors would approach us to say hello, she would quickly wave her hand over her mouth as if swatting a fly, say, “No speak English, no speak English,” and turn the other way. I used to think it was funny, and laughed whenever she did it. Later, when I was older, I became embarrassed and told her to stop. Now, hearing the same words from Mrs. Zhang, I thought it was endearing, in the way that all old ladies are.
Mrs. Zhang gave me a tour of the garden, which spanned a full city block, much bigger than my grandmother’s cramped backyard plot. The garden used to be an empty lot overgrown with weeds, but 10 years ago, the Chinese community living in the Prospect Gardens apartment complex decided to transform it. It was divided evenly into 81 plots, one for each of the 81 apartments in the complex. When I visited, each plot of soil was filled with summer vegetables.
Unlike my grandmother, Mrs. Zhang had never farmed before coming to America. “It was impossible in Beijing,” she told me. “There’s no farmland in the city. I learned to farm by myself.” She showed me her tools: a spatula duct-taped to a mop handle used as a makeshift hoe and a deconstructed stroller used to hold huge containers of water. They worked fine, she said.
Fifteen minutes later, she invited me to visit her apartment. This would’ve been what my mother would call “stranger-danger,” everything she taught me never to do as a child, but I agreed anyway. After a quick loop around the plots, Mrs. Zhang filled a few plastic bags with fresh chives, and I took them from her as we crossed the street, her hand tugging mine.
Mrs. Zhang’s kitchen was small and cluttered. With both of us standing back-to-back, my stomach grazed the kitchen counter. A clothesline stretched the length of the kitchen, with an array of woks and pans dangling precariously from plastic hooks. When she started to cook dinner, the running water, the rummaging through kitchen drawers and the clanging of pots and pans sounded almost melodic.
“Everything is handmade and grown here, except for the meat I bought at the supermarket,” she said. As she spoke, she chopped up the chives, each satisfying crunch of the knife hitting the chopping board and sending a burst of earthy aroma into the air. I watched as Mrs. Zhang mixed the chives into the dumpling batter, plopped generous scoops onto rice flour, and then twisted the dough to wrap them up. In the time it took her to make five dumplings, I had finished one that instantly fell apart when I set it on the platter. She tsked, and I let her take over. Every so often, she stopped to wipe flour from her fingers, sprinkling loose clumps all over the kitchen counter.
As Mrs. Zhang worked, she spoke. I learned about her health problems and how gardening had healed her, about her daughter and how proud she was of her, about her life back in Beijing and how much she missed it.
I asked Mrs. Zhang how it felt to live alone. She smiled. “It gets very lonely in here,” she said. “My daughter doesn’t have free time to spend with me. She’s doing research in the lab from 7 in the morning to 7 at night, and she doesn’t come home for dinner often. But it’s okay, because I know she works very hard, and has her own life.”
It is like this for most of the Chinese families that live in the Prospect Gardens apartments, Mrs. Zhang explained. When students from China come to New Haven for graduate school, she said, their parents often move with them to provide emotional support.
Traditional Confucian beliefs hold that family is most important to success. A child should never be alone in his journey. This is completely different from the Western idea I grew up with, that higher education was meant to be a time for students to discover themselves on their own. Mrs. Zhang often spends her time waiting for her daughter to come home.
When we sat down for dinner, Mrs. Zhang filled my plate with dumplings. “You must miss Chinese food a lot!” she said, beaming. I devoured my meal. I noticed while I ate how she glanced out the window from time to time, often in mid-sentence, her words trailing off as her eyes moved. After dinner, she left uneaten dumplings sitting on the table for her daughter, covered carefully with a layer of aluminum foil to keep them warm.
My grandmother always cooked for more than one, in the hopes that I would keep my promise of coming over and eating dinner with her. When I didn’t come, she would place the dishes in the fridge, in case I wanted to eat them later. Usually, she’d end up having to throw them out.
As I imagined Mrs. Zhang eating alone at her kitchen counter, picking at the feast she had prepared, I couldn’t distinguish between her and my grandmother. It felt wrong to assume a life for a woman I didn’t know, but I couldn’t help it. I envisioned for Mrs. Zhang all the sacrifices my grandmother had made, the comforts of her village home for a small space in Brooklyn where no one speaks Taishanese. I envisioned a granddaughter who doesn’t visit, who twists away from hugs. I envisioned a similar loneliness.
In a matter of ten minutes, the sky turned navy blue. I felt an urge to hug Mrs. Zhang as I said goodbye. “Zai jian Zhang da ma,” I said, and she smiled.
“I’m so happy you stopped by, and I want you to know that this is your home too,” she said. She clasped my hands and shook them, a sign of affection, then she added, “Please, call me Nainai.” The Mandarin word for grandmother.