Guo: Calligraphy. Half-empty teacups. Moral character.

by Clara Guo | 1/17/17 2:15am

I swallow three ibuprofen at once, hoping to quell the pain that has taken permanent residence in my lower back. Six more hours left on this flight home from Beijing, China, and I’ve already watched two movies, drank three large glasses of wine, failed to sleep twice and thrown away a half-eaten meal.

I lean my chair back, thankful that I am the only person in my row. I close my eyes and wrap the free blanket around my upper body, crossing one leg over the other. I had hoped that taking this trip alone, without my husband or kids, would spark a love for Beijing, a familiarity mixed with warmth and excitement.

But I no longer recognize this new Beijing of 2049. The skies once blemished by smog are now colored bright blue; skyscrapers once considered modern have been remodeled and refurbished; historical sites like Tiananmen Square are now the background to invasive technology.

Perhaps, however, I’m not being quite fair. I never truly knew the Beijing of old — I only knew what my grandma (LaoLao) and grandpa (LaoYe) showed me.

My LaoLao and LaoYe married early — an arranged marriage that, I suppose, could be categorized as successful. For 17 years, they traveled back and forth from Beijing to Washington, D.C. to help raise my sister and me. Before my 17th birthday, they left for China permanently, their bodies unable to continue enduring the 14-hour flights, their minds yearning for their friends and a Chinese community.

Thirty-three years ago, during senior winter interim, my parents, sister and I flew to Beijing to visit my grandparents. We stayed in their three-bedroom apartment, located a few hundred meters from the main door of a gated military compound. My LaoYe served in the military before China became the “People’s Republic of China.” I wish I could tell you exactly what he did when he fought in the Korean War, but all I know is that he was a junior army officer.

One morning, I asked my grandpa to give me a tour of the compound. We walked around the center — a cement version of the Green. In one corner sat an assortment of colorful outdoor exercise machines. In another were basketball courts and ping-pong tables. A collection of calligraphy manuscripts enclosed in glass was located on the farthest side from my grandparents’ apartment.

“This one is mine,” said my LaoYe, pointing to a long piece of paper decorated with four or five words, written in Chinese that I could not understand.

I have long forgotten the meaning of the phrase. What I do remember is him smiling, watching me staring at his art, delighted he created something that made his granddaughter proud.

A few days later, we ate at the compound cafeteria, locally famous for its Shuan Yang Rou—hot pot with thinly sliced raw lamb meat from Inner Mongolia. We gathered there for a family dinner: my immediate family, LaoLao and LaoYe, uncle and aunt and some distant relatives whom I had never met before. We reserved a private room, situating ourselves around the circular table. The walls were decorated with two pieces of Chinese art and calligraphy. A modern sofa in the corner held our jackets. Next to our private room was a smaller one with hot water for our tea and extra plates and glasses.

We ordered five or six individually-sized hot pots and four large plates of raw lamb, two plates of raw beef, raw cabbage, raw fish balls (which are much tastier than their name suggests), lamb chops, spicy lamb stew, vegetables, fish, pork and three plates of dumplings. Leftovers were eaten for days.

From my grandparents’ home, we brought oolong tea. Not a single teacup emptied during dinner; every ten minutes or so, someone (usually my uncle) walked around the table refilling half-empty cups until they were three-quarters full. Too full, and the heat would emanate and prevent the drinker from picking up his cup by the top. Not full enough, and the tea would cool down too quickly.

My parents, sister and I were technically the guests of honor that dinner, bringing our family together for the occasion. Repeatedly, my grandparents asked my sister and I to take the first bite of a dish that had just been placed onto the Lazy Susan. Equally as many times, my sister and I refused and rotated the dish until it rested right in front of our LaoLao and LaoYe. They were the eldest and therefore, the most respected. The first bite, which they would never demand, should be theirs.

Two or three days before I left for D.C., my LaoLao sat me down and asked if I had a boyfriend. I said no.

“You’re getting older,” she responded. “Maybe.” She pauses. “Maybe it’s time to start thinking about finding one.”

I smiled and nodded, unwilling to argue. I was only 22. I had plenty of time.

“Do you know what ‘dao de pin zhi’ means?” my LaoLao asked.

I shake my head.

“Someone who treats you well, someone who is good through and through, someone you trust not to purposely hurt you,” she said.

I nodded. “I understand.”

“Find someone like that.”

Two weeks later, I learned that “dao de pin zhi” means “moral character.”

It’s not my place to relay to the public the history of my grandparents’ relationship, so please trust me when I say this: the most effective advice is often the advice stemming from heartache.

I’ve never forgotten what my LaoLao told me that night. I am thankful that I have found someone who inquires into the meaning of calligraphy phrases, pours tea for his dinner guests, foregoes the first bite and, most importantly, possesses that elusive “moral character.” I wish my LaoLao and LaoYe could have met my husband. I wish I could have told them how that one trip to China altered my mindset by reshaping my values; I like to believe that they knew.

My reminiscing is interrupted by an overhead announcement. Dinner is about to be served. I wonder if I will ever return to Beijing, now that my kids have grown and my grandparents are gone. Without my LaoLao and LaoYe, Beijing is just a city with some distant relatives scattered here and there. It is not my home.