I was the most precious, adorable, and physically perfect baby ever to be delivered in the state of Virginia, except that I was born with a mole, a fat brown thing on my left cheek that might have compelled you to scratch your computer screen with a fingernail if my mother had sent you an email with a picture attached of my face. It was a family mole. There was one on my dad’s left cheek, and one on my dad’s big sister’s left cheek, and also one on my dad’s dad’s left cheek. Yeye died before I was born and I never got to meet him, but he had that left cheek mole too, and near the end of his life, before he succumbed to cardiovascular disease, it tripled to the size of a genetically modified blueberry and hairs erupted out of it like daffodils springing forth from manure.
“It was a fertile mole,” my mother’s mother told me, “but it was the most hideous thing I had ever seen. The first time I set eyes on the man your mother insisted on marrying, I couldn’t look away from the mole on his face. It was like a third eye. But your father’s mole was nothing compared to his father’s mole. Your Yeye’s mole was like a secondary ball sack that someone had drawn onto his face with a ballpoint pen and then rendered into the third dimension.”
We stood side-by-side in front of the mirror. It was the summer after fourth grade and, instead of doing ceramics camp in Alexandria with my best friend Jessica Davidson, or doing co-ed recreational swim league with the love of my life, Travis Jason Lewis, I was taking shit from my Waipo in her shitty apartment in the shitty, dusty asscrack of Beijing.
“I can’t believe a girl like you has three boyfriends at once,” Waipo said, looking at the full, God-given name of my soulmate inscribed upon the cover of my diary. Waipo was incredibly old but still stupid in many ways.
“Travis J. Lewis is my one and only, my other half,” I said, even though Travis wasn’t totally aware of the space he occupied in my tiny young heart at the time.
“Can’t Travis and Jason and Lewis see the mole on your face?” asked Waipo, as if an entire law firm was inspecting my blemish on a first-name basis. “You can get it surgically removed when you’re older. Then my beautiful granddaughter will be truly flawless and perfect in every single way.
All of the attention made my mole tingle. I pressed my thumb over it, but Waipo slapped my hand away from my face.
“Touching it will only make it grow faster,” she said. “Do you want to look like a dirty brown peasant man, like your dad, or do you want to look like your Waipo, who grew up in Shanghai, eating delicate pastries and singing for our illustrious leaders? I still have a beautiful voice. Can you even imagine what you would be like if you had grown up with your Waipo instead? I could have taught you how to sing. Think about your poor Waipo and how hard it is for her to live so far away from her granddaughter, whom she loves and cherishes more than anything else in the entire world. Think about how much your poor Waipo has to worry when her greatest treasure has to grow up in America, a nation filled with guns and drugs and black people, a nation entirely devoid of moral principle and nutritious vegetation.”
“America is a nation of diversity, wealth, and opportunity,” said my father, who had finally heard enough of Waipo’s bullshit to stop cracking sunflower seeds with his teeth and get up from the couch. My dad was totally right. Every year that my parents dragged me away from America, we arrived in China laden with vitamins and handbags and lotions and electronics to present to my Waipo, who always acted like she was better than everybody else even though she didn’t know how to cook, smelled like a fart, and kept the packaging of every single product she had ever opened neatly folded under her bed. How could Waipo have gotten all this swag without her son-in-law’s job teaching chemistry at a well-regarded university with a big ass endowment?
And how could my dad have gotten that job if not for graduate school in America?
And how could he have gone to graduate school in America if not for his triumphant getaway from the hellhole of the Middle Kingdom, where his parents were raised eating bark from trees in times of famine, only to later be tortured nearly to death by their own neighbors? And why not torture, if not because they were all brilliant intellectuals, which meant, at the present, that my dad’s entire side of family, despite their moles, had always been a billion times smarter and more accomplished than my Waipo, who had not gotten in trouble in that time because she was the one turning all her neighbors in?
“I don’t want to hear you say anything more about our family mole,” Dad said.
Waipo immediately left the room, probably because the concept of a family mole made her vomit. Dad took her place next to the mirror.
“That mole means that you are one of us,” said Dad, “and that’s why you’re the most perfect, wonderful, and intelligent daughter that anybody could ever have. That mole means that you are smart. It means that you belong on my side of the family, with people who care about justice and French Brie and atomic physics. There are so many things, like culture and truth, that are more important than the silly beauty standards and regressive ideals that your silly grandmother believes in.”
I took my dad’s side. We both had moles. We both celebrated the Fourth of July. We read books. We loved not only knowledge, but also wisdom, unlike Waipo, who firmly believed that China was the origin of humanity, not Africa, and scientists just hadn’t dug deep enough to find the right bones. All Dad and Waipo had in common was that they loved me, and that we all loved my mother, who was good, kind, and an entirely benign human being. When we visited her parents in Beijing, she would spend every day buying groceries, organizing their apartment, picking up prescriptions, and then sitting wordlessly in front of the television with my Waigong for four hours every night. Waigong was almost totally deaf and he never wore his hearing aids because they were “uncomfortable,” but we all knew it was much more uncomfortable to have Waipo yakking in his ear all the time. If anyone said anything particularly interesting, like “let’s have noodles for dinner,” he would hear you all right.
And dinner, at the end of the day, was the only good part of being in Beijing. Waigong and Waipo bought me any kind of food that I wanted. They plied me with roast ducks, pot stickers, mangos and lychees as big as cows’ eyeballs, glutinous rice cakes wrapped in bamboo leaves, and pancakes filled with egg and chives. There was a day that I ate pork buns for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There was a cookie tin in the living room filled with red bean pastries and mung bean paste. The food was good, as so were Mom and Waigong, so I put up with Waipo, even though she would frequently remind me that all my bad genes—the mole, the skin that browned in the sun—came from my dad, and if my mother had chosen any one of the men who had lined up outside their door, instead of leaving for America, then maybe I would have had delicate moon-like skin, and maybe I would know how to read the lyrics of the songs that Waipo sang, and maybe I would not violently roll my eyes every time Waipo asked me to hold the sheet music of the songs that she sang from.
The truth was that I hated her stupid, simpering voice, and how transparently she needed people to compliment her. She disgusted me. I hated how she smelled. I hated how everything in her apartment was either dusty or sticky. One night, I went into the kitchen for a drink of water and saw her dentures soaking in a cup.
“I am going to throw up,” I wrote in my diary, thinking about how, when she chewed, her long and hairy upper lip would flap around like an eel. “I hate everything about her!!! I hate coming to China! Why can’t my grandma be like Jessica Davidson’s grandma, wholives in Alabama and just sends cash and chocolate chip cookies every month???”
I had first expressed these sentiments to my dad, hoping that he would understand because Waipo was so terribly mean to both of us. But he didn’t take me seriously at all.
“Why is my precious daughter saying such nasty things?” he said. “Waipo might be annoying, but that’s because you’re so different from her that she doesn’t know how to show you that she loves you.”
“I hate her.”
“That’s a strong word, darling treasure.”
“She hates me, and she hates you too!”
“No, she doesn’t. We’re just different. You still have to love her, because your mother loves her, and you love your mother, so you have to love your mother’s mother, too.”
I found this absurd. It turned out that my diary was my only solace when we were in Beijing, since I couldn’t even email my friends because Gmail was blocked. My diary was the only thing that was really mine, which made it a billion times worse when I found Waipo sitting on the couch, looking through every single page.
I snatched it away from her.
“This is private, you bitch,” I said, in English, because I wasn’t sure how to say “private” in Chinese.
Waipo chuckled and snatched it back. “Our granddaughter will grow up and become a famous American author,” she said to Waigong, who was watching television and ignoring her. “Look at all these things she has written in English!”
She slowly flipped through all of the pages I had filled out: a shoddy picture I had drawn of an airplane, a lengthy reminiscence of the time Travis and I had been practicing backstroke and accidentally touched hands underwater, and page after page listing all of the horrible things that I hated about her.
“This is wonderful!” she said.
“You have no shame!” I said, in the same tone of voice that my mother used with me when I talked back to her. I usually kept my diary under my pillow, just to keep it away from creeps like Waipo, but she must have found it. I wanted to grab her tiny, wrinkly arm and yank it off.
“What nice handwriting you have,” Waipo said. She was peering at each page over her glasses. “Here I see you have written—C, H—that’s ‘China’!”
“Duh,” I said.
“She writes about China,” Waipo said to Waigong.
“Please don’t scream at him,” I said.
“Only because he doesn’t want to listen to you!”
Waipo ignored me and continued to shriek into Waigong’s ear.
“Don’t you see, right here?” she said to him. “She’s written ‘China’. She writes about us. She carries on our stories!”
Waigong heard her. He beamed, his smile pure and wide.
“You are the most talented and smart and special granddaughter we could ever have asked for,” he said. He laid a wizened old hand on my arm. “I hope I live long enough to read your future novels.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” said Waipo.
I tugged the diary out of her grip and inspected the page that they had been looking at. I had written, two weeks ago: “I had to go to the vegetable market with mom today and it was way too crowded. Everybody was really rude and loud and it smelled bad. China sucks ass. I want to go home and shop at Harris Teeter.”
I slammed the diary shut and ran into the room where my dad usually liked towork on his laptop. He wasn’t there, so I ran into the room where my mom liked to read books. She wasn’t there, either.
“They left to meet one of your dad’s old classmates for lunch,” said Waipo, who had followed me from one room to another.
“Stop following me,” I said, even though I was the one running through her house. I wanted to go home. I missed the swimming pool; I missed the sound of English and being able to read the signs on the road and the familiarity of seeing my friends everyday. I wished I were having a sleepover with Jessica, competing to see who could peel the thinnest string of cheese off of a mozzarella cheese stick. Instead, my Waipo was closing in on me.
“I can’t believe you read my diary,” I said to her. “I want to go home.”
I threw myself onto the bed and Waipo sat down at the foot of it.
“Don’t you know how lucky you are to be where your mom and your dad grew up as kids?” asked Waipo. “Don’t you know how lucky you are to be with your Waigong and Waipo, who love you more than anybody and spend the entire summer trying to appease your Western needs in order to make you happy to be with us? Most of your classmates have never even gotten the chance to leave the country.”
Mom and dad and Waipo and Waigong were constantly telling me that my world was infinitely large because of all that they had sacrificed for me, their most precious and most promising daughter and granddaughter, but at that moment, both my heart and my world felt small and hard, like the pit of a plum.
“I hate being in China with you,” I said to Waipo. “You don’t know anything about me.”
I was crying a little bit and hiccupping, but Waipo was very quiet and still. After she heard me, I think I saw the wrinkles on her forehead soften slightly, like her skin was letting out a tiny sigh. She stood up and shuffled back to the living room couch, where she sat down at her regular spot next to Waigong and resumed watching television until lunchtime. I don’t think she ever told my mom or dad what I had said, and I don’t think she touched my diary again, but I would later try and remember that moment, that tiny sigh in the shriveled-up folds of Waipo’s skin, and wonder if it was maybe an acknowledgment of truth.
The next time that I visited Waigong and Waipo in Beijing was the summer before I started high school. Although the mole on my face was slightly larger, I also had a fresh new set of boobs, five more inches of height, and a suggestion of hips on my body, so Waipo commented on all of that instead. I walked into their apartment and it hadn’t changed a bit. Waipo and Waigong sat in their same places in front of the television, wearing the same ratty cotton nightgowns. Everything was still dusty or sticky, every bed still had folded up bags and boxes under it, and every cabinet was still filled with instruction manuals for calculators purchased in 1999, the calculators now lost but their manuals preserved forever.
“We bought pork buns because you liked them the last time you were here,” said Waigong.
“We bought mangos because it seemed like you liked mangos,” said Waipo.
“It seemed like you didn’t mind cucumbers, either, so we bought cucumbers and dressed them with garlic and vinegar, like you ate last time.”
“And a whole fish.”
“And sticky rice cakes.”
“Sticky rice cakes?” asked Waipo.
“I told you to buy sticky rice cakes,” said Waigong. “I think she likes sticky rice cakes.”
“Of course I like sticky rice cakes,” I said, because I was shocked by how fragile and old the two of them looked and now felt like it would be dangerous to their health to displease them.
Waipo dug through the fridge and the freezer.
“You’re right,” she moaned. “I was supposed to buy sticky rice cakes and I forgot.” She paced back and forth in the kitchen, yanking her old, drooping earlobe with her thumb.
“It’s okay,” I said, as quickly as possible. “I don’t like sticky rice cakes that much.”
“How could I have been so old and stupid and forgetful?” asked Waipo. She was still tugging on her ear, so ferociously that she seemed to pull all of the skin on her face to one side. “How could I spend weeks preparing for the arrival of my most beautiful and beloved granddaughter, whom I have not seen for years, only to forget even the most basic foods with which to welcome her? How can she tolerate the meager offerings of her poor, old grandparents, who live thousands of miles away and are thus unable to truly cherish her?”
She slapped her own forehead and I grabbed her wrist.“It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” I said. Waigong was slowly arranging a collection of wrinkled mangos on the kitchen table, flies buzzing around him. I held Waipo’s wrist as she yanked on her ear with her other hand. Her skin felt so thin and so loose. The flies and the stretch of her skin disgusted me. It was so pathetic, watching the old woman hitting her own head with her hands, but it must have been because she loved me, more than anything else in the whole world, her most perfect and precious and adorable treasure. For the first time it felt like I would maybe love her back, too.
“It’s okay, Waipo,” I said to her. “I don’t like sticky rice cakes that much. There was no way you could have known. I live so far away and it’s been so long.”
Her eyes were wet and shiny. Waigong had gone back to the television.
“You don’t know anything about me,” I said to Waipo. She nodded. I pulled out one of the chairs at the kitchen table and held her hand as she sat down.
Alexandra Ye is from Great Mills, Maryland. She is a senior who studies English literature and Chinese at Swarthmore College.