My Gung Gung and I share a birthmark. It’s a proud round spot on our noses, set on the ridge just where our left nostrils flare. Like the smudge that bleeds from a pen when a writer pauses before her next sentence, hand lingering, uncertainty spreading across the page. I used to be very self-conscious about it. In kindergarten, my crush wrinkled his nose, red freckles disappearing into folds of distaste as he asked me, point blank, “is that a wart?” When we learned about the Salem witch trials in middle school English, everyone looked at me, and for a scary moment I saw in their eyes a plan to drag me off to be tried and executed. Let’s just say, the mark did not ease my young social life.
It did no good when my parents said things like, “it makes you different” or, my mom’s favorite, “well, Cindy Crawford has a birthmark too!”—an earnest but dated compliment with little meaning to my 6-year old self. It did even worse when they said, “but look at your Gung Gung, he has the same one. You should be proud.” In those moments, I’d wail even louder, because I didn’t want to look like my 70-year old grandpa, with his frumpy khakis and collared shirts pressed by my Popo, with his kind, round face scattered with sun spots, and his odd obsession with the jade abacus in his office. Plus, his had faded with age to the shade of pine needles, and the idea that mine would go from brown, decidedly common, to green was simply terrifying.
The years passed and I got over my insecurity, moving onto other ones, like the almond shape of my eyes or the way my inner thighs hugged, until finally, through with puberty, I grew tired of hemming over my appearance and accepted it. Throughout, Gung Gung was a quiet but agreeable presence at family dinners, slurping rice from a ceramic bowl, spinning the lazy Susan with wooden chopsticks outstretched to pluck the fish’s eyeballs or the duck’s head, parts of the dish no one else seemed to want. His hearing deteriorated and Popo made him get an aid, but he hated the onslaught of noise when too many people spoke at once, so he started shutting it off at gatherings. He seemed to prefer it that way, surrounded by his family but not obligated to interact, focusing solely on his Mapo tofu or cream shrimp or jiaozi. His taste buds were still intact, after all, and had always been both keen and appreciative. Usually when I spoke to him, I could tell he hadn’t heard because he nodded and smiled, then patted my shoulder and said “love you” or “proud of you, beautiful granddaughter,” as if these were logical responses to any question I might’ve asked.
One night not long ago, I woke up in a cold sweat, overcome by the fear that Gung Gung would die. Not even necessarily from the virus, though that was a distinct possibility—Popo had called my mom the other day, complaining that he stubbornly refused to sacrifice his habit of buying coffee from the gas station across from their apartment in Florida. “Ai yah, Harry,” Popo reported saying, exasperated, “too dangerous,” to which he replied, heading out into the heat each morning with a few coins in his palm, “it tastes better.”
No, it wasn’t the idea of Gung Gung contracting Covid-19 from his gas station coffee that kept me awake that night. It was an amorphous unease about his health, which I’d never thought to fret about, given his reputation for hardiness. He’d grown up in a tiny, rural village in the Guangdong province, one of eight siblings, before making the trek to America, new wife in tow, as a young man. Since he could move and speak he knew how to fend for himself, and yet I worried. Was he still taking his evening walks while in quarantine? Were he and Popo squabbling? Was he eating well enough, given the sad lack of Chinese grocery stores within 100 miles of him?
During my childhood, Gung Gung was never one of the relatives we clustered around on holidays, like my uncle with his boy scout charm, or my fun-loving half-aunt, or my exuberant second cousin who brought fabulous stories from her life in London. Even among the older set, he didn’t stand out, lacking the flair of both my grandmothers—Popo, with her nurturing air, her homey cooking, her willingness to play along with whatever projects my sister and I devised, or my father’s mother, with her feistiness, her energy, and her encyclopedic memory. But just before lock-down, as I approached graduation from college, something felt different in my relationship with Gung Gung. On several recent dinners, he’d broken his cheerful silence with sudden bursts of storytelling energy, calling my name across the table in his unexpectedly powerful, slightly accented voice, with its throaty gargle that sounds vaguely underwater.
“Liana,” he began on these occasions, and then a memory would spill from his lips, unbroken and lucid and surprising. And he’d captivate everyone’s attention with his tale, until it got just a little too long, or he started to repeat himself, at which point Popo would say, with a touch of embarrassment but always kindly, “Harry, your food is getting cold.”
Initially, I let him lapse back into silence, not annoyed or relieved, but rather neutral as he resumed work on his wonton soup, which seemed just as interesting as the anecdote that had so glowingly consumed him moments before. But the last couple times this happened, I resisted—“no, Popo, it’s okay”—and Gung Gung continued his story with renewed vigor, setting his chopsticks aside to gesticulate with his hands. He stared around the rapt table as if around a campfire late at night, holding everyone’s eyes unwaveringly, drawing them further and further into his world. When his gaze fell on me, I made a conscious effort to encourage him with visible curiosity, nodding vigorously, gasping, and raising my eyebrows. It was touching, in a way I’ve never experienced, that he chose me to be the primary recipient of his stories, and I wanted to show him that he was right—that we were linked by something deeper than our birthmarks.
Our newfound kinship might seem strange to any other member of my family, given that Gung Gung is notoriously laid back and I’m, well, not. Not that I’m especially uptight, but I acknowledge I’m the kind of person who won’t eat breakfast without sending a few emails, and can’t totally relax on the beach for fear of idleness. Gung Gung, on the other hand, finds immense satisfaction from the simplest of pleasures: a hot meal, a phone call from an old friend, a plush chair to sink into at the end of the day. His is a contentment that has always puzzled my father, a man weaned on American capitalism in New York City and pressed ahead by the notion that ambition ought to be limitless. Back in Hong Kong, Gung Gung’s father started a rattan furniture business that grew quite successful. As the eldest son, Gung Gung had a claim to the company when he reached adulthood, but he backed down, accepting the fiery rise of his scrappy younger brother. Although Dad only heard about it later and secondhand through my mom, he never understood it. Why would he give up such an opportunity, with all the pieces of the puzzle there, waiting gloriously to be assembled, to move to a new country and become one of a hundred cogs behind desks, staring at their computers through thick spectacles?
Perhaps Gung Gung realized that more ambition means more pressure, and wanted little to do with either. He needs what he needs—a roof, rice, a healthy family—and nothing else. But still, sometimes I didn’t get it either. I remember feeling sick when I heard that Gung Gung stopped playing tennis when he moved to Florida, because he couldn’t find a group where he felt comfortable and accepted. Back in Waldwick, he met regularly for doubles matches with his friends, a trio of grizzled, Cantonese men, but by the white beaches of Fort Lauderdale, there were no such people. Suddenly, cultural differences and his shaky hearing were a lethal combination, and after a period of trying, he gave up the sport. It broke my heart to imagine him standing on the court in his clean, bright sneakers, smiling at everyone, oblivious to their snide comments and dishonest line calls. I knew if that happened to my dad, he’d smash his racquet, stride across the court, demand they say it to his face. Gung Gung would never do that, and neither would I, but I wanted a triumph for him nonetheless: for him to wait until the end of the game, as if all were well, then unleash a withering glance and a sizzling remark over his shoulder, leaving them with dropped jaws and guilt-bitten hearts.
The last story Gung Gung shared with me was about his mother. Sitting at the table with the afternoon sun coming through in dappled sheets, folding pork and chive dumplings, he explained that she had been the sole wife of her husband, despite common practice in parts of China at the time of having multiple spouses. Her husband’s brothers, in fact, had taken two, even three wives, but their union was an unusually faithful one, something Gung Gung seemed to take great pride in. His mother was illiterate, and remained stubbornly so her whole life, despite Gung Gung’s attempts to teach her to read and write as a teenager.
“She was brainwashed,” Gung Gung asserted adamantly, knitting his thick eyebrows together for effect—brainwashed into believing that an education, even when accessible, was unattractive or even dangerous for a woman. But she found strength in her puzzling resistance, which came to define her. Unable to sign her name on important documents, she invented her own signature: two slashes of pen, forming an “x,” followed by the indelible print of her ink-soaked thumb.
Demonstrating this, Gung Gung drew the lines in the air with a crooked finger, before landing his own thumb, like an airplane, on the tarmac of our kitchen table. There was a beat of silence as we both stared down at his finger, dispensing a tiny puddle of flour on the wood, the air in the room turning heavy with meaning. It was like he was trying to tell me, in some strange way, to do things as I pleased, and to do them with someone who chose me even when it wasn’t easy or simple.
To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that Gung Gung was never a storyteller until recently. He has always treasured his memories and, growing up, he would sometimes give me and my siblings little windows into his past—like when I was ten, and he beckoned me into his living room in New Jersey, pointing to a framed scroll on the wall, which featured a poem his father had composed in light brushstrokes.
“Look, look,” he said, and then he had looked, his eyes shimmering, a memory playing behind them. We gazed at it for several seconds, and then, feeling I’d satisfied my duty, I scampered off, leaving him with the characters that seemed to dance and flit down the page. I never did ask him what the words meant.
But the difference in those dinners, just before quarantine, was that Gung Gung seemed to be feeling keenly the preciousness of life, which manifested in a special urgency to verbalize his past. He was no longer content to say, “look,” and then keep the attached memory in the quiet between his temples, to be turned and examined by him and him alone. It was a new phenomenon, this talkativeness and storytelling of his, and it remains unfulfilled since the pandemic took hold, and fractured our family routines.
Now I think that perhaps my assessment of Gung Gung’s wants and needs is only superficial, drawn from knowing him for 22 years as just another relative, a giver of presents and hugs, solid, silent, and proud. After all, I also know that at first, he disapproved of my parents’ relationship because Dad wasn’t Chinese, or even Asian, but white and Jewish. There is a lot I still need to learn about my grandfather.
For now, I’m waiting for the next time we can all gather safely as a family, without distancing or worried phone calls an hour before. There, Gung Gung will turn to me at the dinner table, eyes bright as he takes my hand between his warm, calloused palms, and speak the words, like a song only we can hear:
“Liana, I have a story to tell you.”
Liana Tsang Cohen just graduated from Princeton University, where she majored in English and wrote a movie. When she’s not reading, writing, or discussing stories, she enjoys re-enacting the scene from Ratatouille in which Remy eats the strawberry and the cheese separately, then together. Her work has appeared in Nightingale & Sparrow, Halfway Down the Stairs, and The Nassau Literary Review, and her short documentary recently won Best Student Mobile Short at the Indie Short Fest (October 2020).
© 2020, Liana Tsang Cohen