"Wo zhu le Niuyue yi nian. Hen weixian; nali you hen duo herein."
“I lived in New York for a year. It was dangerous; there were a lot of Black people.”
She says to me as we do the dishes.
Grandma’s a little racist.
(But just a little bit.)
I nod, because that’s what you do when a woman who birthed three sons —
buried two husbands —
moved halfway across the world —
and spoke 19 years of awkward English to a Chinese-school-skipping grandson —
tells you that Black people are dangerous.
You nod, and you dry the spoons.
Grandma’s racism isn't “you can't eat here".
It’s not “don’t date my grandson".
It’s not even “cross to the other side of the road”.
Grandma’s racism is an old souvenir tee:
a thin gaudy reminder of a place you’ve been, to never return.
Grandma’s racism is the bits of bone in the steamed fish at her 90th birthday banquet:
thin splinters, undetected until one sticks suddenly in your throat.
Grandma’s racism doesn’t deserve to define this
who arrived in America in the ‘70s
with three sons in tow
and zero English in mind.
Grandma was born before MTV played Black artists.
Grandma was born before MTV didn’t play Black artists.
Grandma was born before MTV.
Over steaming handmade dumplings, she asks, what does your music mean?
And I say, Grandma, I tell our stories.
”Wo wei ni hen jiao’ao”
“I’m proud of you.”
And I think, this is how it should be:
this woman who walked through death and hope
birthed a man who had a son who learned his craft
from Black men and women who spoke of concrete and roses.
Grandma’s racism comes from a world that never touched me.
It tried, but couldn’t reach, because she moved halfway across the world
so her grandson could skip Chinese school
because he spoke English
so he could go to a university
where professors taught him about race and class
using words this Malaysian-Chinese seamstress never heard.
And how can he ask her to be where he is, when he hasn’t been where she was?
But maybe she was where she was, so that I can go where she hasn’t.
So I nod, and put the plates in the drying rack,
and we sit on her couch while she watches her Mandarin news.
And I sit here, using words and beats I learned from Black men and women
whose voices I hear and whose lives I read.
And I tell our stories.