It wasn’t much. I could cross every panel of yellowed laminate in a single breath. Even when I close my eyes, thousands of miles away, I still remember the scent of my grandparents’ third-floor Beijing flat. It always smelled of the wrinkled tangerines that nestled alongside aging chopstick rests on the glass-top dinner table. The sweet citrus scent was accompanied by a fragrant blend of tiger balm and Chinese herbal medicine. Elderly people smell, a recognizable yet indescribable scent, permeated as well. There was a whiff of the familiar but generic, powdered laundry detergent my grandparents have used since Ma was born. I’ve visited the flat every couple of years since I was little, and the smell has never changed.
A breakfast nook is something of a Western spatial luxury — in Beijing we ate on that squat glass-top that’s supposed to seat four, pulling up dusty mismatched chairs and crowding around our meals. My grandma, Wai Po, ate deliberately, picking up each bite with wooden chopsticks and chewing thoughtfully while my grandpa, Wai Gong, gobbled indifferently. After dinner, we often played cards on that table. Wai Gong would retrieve a dull pink tablecloth from a wooden cabinet older than me, and spread it with a flourish. No deck ever matched, and we’d have to count out a full set of cards every time we played. Beneath a flickering golden light, we traded laughs and hands, intermittently slamming our palms against the glass victoriously.
Dinner was chased by a cocktail of international news delivered through static. My grandparents never upgraded anything they didn’t need to. The 20-year-old beast of a television did the job just fine. A dilapidated yellow couch — always sagging in the middle — was crammed next to an armchair whose pattern could give a Rorschach test a run for its money. Wai Po used to drape dingy doilies along the spines of the aged couch and armchair. As a child I remember sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the sinking cushions, pulling at the loose embroidery on those doilies. The bottoms of my feet were always gray from picking up dust across the Beijing streets, and my grandma’s eyes crinkled when she told me to sit properly, to “zuo hao.” Sitting on the couch, I always zoned out during the news, fiddling with the ever-present walnuts on the coffee table. Faithful to Chinese medicine, Wai Po preached the ancient habit of rotating walnut pairs in one hand to increase dexterity and prevent arthritis.
Her bedroom, a few steps away from the living room, was evidence of her unshakable belief in traditional Eastern remedies. Dozens of powdered concoctions and “plant extract essences” littered the nightstand, and a bookshelf cluttered with knowledge of blood pressure points and spirituality stood nearby. At night, I could hear Wai Po shuffling about in bamboo slippers, shaking pill bottles and brewing teas. I would peer through a hairline crack in the door, watching her muttering to herself and squinting at the tiny writing on the bottles. Inevitably, my toddler stomps and giggles would attract her attention, and she would open the door and invite me in. We laid on a weary mattress, talking about everything but really nothing at all. Wai Po was always quick to warn me of the everyday threats to my life. The leaky air conditioner unit hummed constantly in the background, set at a toasty 26 degrees Celsius because cold air would make you sick. Sleeping on wet hair was a carcinogenic practice. Swimming during menstruation would cause fertility problems.
Next door was Wai Gong’s room. The centerpiece was an ancient radio with squeaky dials. For hours every day, he would sit on a rocking chair, eyelids shut and fingers interlaced lazily on his lap, listening to that radio. Music rarely crept from the speakers — Wai Gong didn’t care much for the arts. He was a stubborn man of science, rising to the top of China’s petroleum industry in the mid-1900s after a childhood of poverty in the mountainous Szechuan province. He listened to modern politics and Confucian seminar discussions, the radio voices characterized by bombastic personalities and opinions.
He was the tone-rich accent of Szechuan, the creaking of wooden hinges rocking back and forth, the late Saturday afternoon stories about his ancestry and home, his “jia xiang.” He loved to read, and found sanctuary among the numerous musty, dog-eared books in his study. Though he was only average in height and wiry in physique, his mind and memory were astoundingly sharp. I could ask him about anything from Ming Dynasty vases to the breakdown of feudal Japan and he’d have both fact and opinion ready at hand.
My favorite spot in the apartment was the balcony that hung over the building, covered in lacy metal. Every Saturday afternoon, we would drape freshly washed blouses and pants and discolored white socks over a smorgasbord of hangers. I was too short to reach the rusted clothes bar, so Wai Gong fashioned me a wooden stick with a hook. I’d stand on the tiptoes of my plastic red sandals, hanging up the damp heap of fabric piece by piece. The balcony was about two feet wide and ten feet long, just big enough to fit a hanging woven-reed chair. I curled up in the chair, finding comfort in the overlapping shadows cast by the canopy of laundry. More than once, I fell asleep here. The next morning, we’d take in the dried laundry, inhaling the acrid sweet of Beijing-polluted sunshine.
I smudge my fingers on the dust that clings to these memories. Wai Gong passed away last year — his room has stood vacant, collecting mothballs and time. When I visit Wai Po, I notice that she seems to shrink progressively. As she withers into a frail whisper of a woman, the space around her seems exponentially bigger. She is raspy lungs and ten layers of faded shawls, five feet of tired smiles and tired hands. Every once in awhile, Ma would call her and hand me the phone.
Wai Po’s diminishing voice trails through in a murmur. When you live thousands of miles away from your family, your lives exist in separate spheres of mind. In the United States, I listen to Kendrick Lamar and eat burritos. I take notes in classes where my professors lean liberal and Democrat. When I am on the phone with Wai Po, I am once again a bored toddler, rambling in fragmented Chinese phrases. As she inquires about my health and academic progress, I picture her in my head. She sits alone on that garishly Rorschach-patterned armchair. She lives vicariously through the successes of her children and grandchildren. She drinks in every update with enthusiasm. Although she is elderly, she has carefully archived the progress in my new life. I feel guilty that my life has diverged into a different culture and path, that our Beijing memories are like pieces of crumpled paper that I must unfurl to decipher.
I have moved out now. I do my laundry indifferently in industrial machines, paying in rusty quarters. As I toss in artificially scented dryer sheets, I think about how much I prefer the fragrance of herbal teas and gray sunshine.