*This story is part of Girls Write Now and Channel Kindness’ Kindness Collection. To learn more about Girls Write Now – a nonprofit organization dedicated to amplifying girls and gender-expansive voices – visit girlswritenow.org!
A glimpse of how my best friend and grandfather molded me into the woman I am today as we bond in our backyard garden filled with a cornucopia of vegetables and a sense of community.
A forest grew in my bedroom with vines adhering to every iota of white space. My youthful wonder transported me to a different world. In that moment, I was Max, leaping from one page to the next on an exhilarating voyage in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. The pattering of my grandpa’s footsteps became my favorite intervention, snapping me out of my reverie as he called for me: “Bao bei, would you like to help?”
I grasped his cozy, inviting palm. My baby soft skin felt the contrast of his thick, blistered world—every crevice and memento of Guangdong, China, every vein of tribulation as an American immigrant, and every creasing line of my green-thumbed hero. Holding on to his radiating warmth, I felt our stories intertwine.
Those hands were usually buried deep in the soil of our backyard garden. I enjoyed chasing his shadow as the scorching sun bounced off our backs. We spent hours at a time together, tucking seeds, watering them, and making compost out of banana peels and the pits of avocados. As the day slowly dimmed, he would tell me about the passersby who stopped to admire the greenery. We would talk about “white hat” who went to church on Sundays, “golden retriever” who waved when picking her kid up from school, our Bangladeshi neighbors who had a beautiful garden filled with tomatoes of their own, “shopping cart,” who always offered me jelly beans, and many other characters. These afternoons watching the melons ripen and pumpkin flowers blossom allowed me to witness the unwithering respect, civility, and patience my grandpa had in listening to the narratives of people. My grandpa taught me to have the courage to want to make a difference and fostered my connection with the Earth by getting our hands dirty together in the rich, fertile soil.
When the cucumbers, pumpkins, and green peas ripened, he would be thrilled to give them as gifts to friendly strangers. I was a spectator to his unwavering kindness and generosity, and it evoked a complete sense of gratitude in me. Although as a child I wondered why my grandpa hesitated to turn up the thermostat, and I questioned the overflowing Salonpas patches in our cabinets—serving to mend the sores of my parents’ blue-collar jobs—resilience was a constant factor in my life. To see him give so much when living in frugality instilled in me a sense of purpose, not only of thankfulness but of the magnitude of sacrifice.
Despite not speaking English, my grandpa never allowed language to be a barrier in communicating and establishing himself as part of the community. All I ever heard him utter to one-time strangers was “Hi, my friend,” followed by hand gestures. His pride in being Asian American did everything to bolster my own, and I grew to have honor in my culture and Chinese roots. I was not ashamed to bring him to chaperone my school trips or to have him attend my parent-teacher conferences because I was lucky to have him by my side. He stood as my example in learning to dissect the nuances of my heritage.
Hearing the distant voice of my grandma calling for dinner, we walk back into the house hand-in-hand. Returning to my seat, I flip to Sendak’s last page. Max returns from his independent excursion to a home full of love and a hot supper. The jungle of vines steadily vanishes. I exit my bedroom and sit down to a pleasant, boiling bowl of winter melon soup and an array of vegetables freshly picked this morning. I was home.
As an eager elementary school student, I would sit criss-cross on a colorful, alphabet-arrayed carpet as my teacher read picture books to us. Art was by far my favorite subject, and while I had a particular exuberance racing my neighboring classmate for the best quality colored pencil, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are carried on with me far into my adolescent years. My childlike wonder and imagination rode with Max as he sailed off into the night and I was mesmerized by both my teacher’s narration and the sense of comfort that sat in my stomach at the end of his journey.
In fact, this homeliness mirrored my experience growing up with my grandfather who nurtured me when my immigrant parents were working and implanted an unconditional, deep familial love. He took pictures on a 2000s camera of me posing, playing dress-up, studying, and utilized every chance to take a snapshot. When I wrote my personal statement that would set the foundation for my college career, I knew I wanted to incorporate his figure as he was a prominent individual in shaping how I view the world and how I treat the people around me. He reinforced the values I hold dear to my heart. Before I began writing, I reviewed audiobooks of Sendak’s work, followed my grandpa around his garden at 7AM, and continued listening to his story. I wanted readers to feel as though they were in the garden with us and hoped to communicate my deepest veneration for him as I hope to be as wise, strong, and accomplished when I am his age.