A Letter For My Grandma

It’s that time of the year again. Even though she doesn’t admit it, she’s expecting it too.

Every year I send a Chinese New Year card to my grandma written in Chinese characters. My grandma never demanded this of me. I was actually the one to start this tradition several years ago. At the time, I was still taking Chinese classes and wanted to impress my grandma. A typical card to my grandma consists of a hand-painted replica of a Chinese calligraphy painting I found online and a letter in Chinese either wishing her happy birthday or a prosperous new year.

I am fortunate that there is no language barrier between my grandma and me, and we actually communicate in English. Even if we tried to, we cannot communicate in spoken Chinese. My grandma grew up in Hong Kong and came to the U.S. to marry my grandfather, so she speaks Cantonese and English. I only learned Mandarin because my parents or grandparents never taught me Cantonese, and Mandarin was deemed the hottest language to learn because of China’s recent economic growth.

My grandparents only spoke English to their children, who in turn only spoke in English to me. I think it was because my grandparents wanted their children to know English fluently, so they valued English over their own culture. Soon, Cantonese will disappear from my family like it was almost never there.

Is this what it’s like to be fully “Americanized?”

Who will order dim sum for me when my grandma is not there?

How will I go to Hong Kong and communicate with my relatives there?

Sometimes I think about how I will raise my own children to celebrate their Asian heritage. I'll try to speak Chinese to them. Cook them occasional Chinese dinners when I'm not too exhausted to resort to pasta. Put them through Chinese school and camp (I meet too many Asian American classmates in Chinese classes regretting their previous rejection of their own culture in desperate attempts to "be American"). Maybe even force them to write Chinese New Year letters to their grandma like I do to mine. Perhaps I’ll try to learn Cantonese in the future. In the meantime, writing letters to my grandma is one of the few ways I am trying to preserve my own Chinese American-ness.

I no longer have time to continue studying Chinese in college (maybe I'll regret this later in life too), but I still write Chinese New Year letters to my grandma--never email, just snail mail. (Sometimes I even have to use the Chinese dictionary to look up forgotten characters.)