A Respite

Christina Ma, 1st Place
Grade 9-12
San Jose

As the world revolves at an increasingly rapid pace—automobiles zooming over speed limits, men and women rushing to work, wireless Internet purveying information almost instantaneously—we find ourselves inadvertently sucked into its frantic maelstrom. However, the influence of my grandmother has convinced me that this state need not be ceaseless.

While I haphazardly put on a sweater (failing to align its buttons properly) and stuff my damp swimsuit into a half-zipped sports bag, my mother finishes applying her moisturizer. Glancing at the kitchen clock, we breathlessly slam the front door and trot briskly to the car, my undone shoelaces still skimming the ground behind us.

“7:46,” she groans, “a new record.” Indeed, it does appear as though every morning we thrust our reluctant bodies into the car a little later than the previous day. I attribute it to exhaustion—two hours of struggling to propel my gelatinous body through the thickly churning waters of the swimming pool; several more spent slumped over my littered desk, while my mother credits workplace stress—fear of unemployment; irritation with similarly hassled coworkers.

The week progresses in a flurry of activity, leaving in its wake remnants of cardboard take-out containers and eraser shavings. By the time Friday arrives, we have been reduced to limp caricatures of the energetic figures that we were at the beginning of the week. Essays, tests, meetings, conference calls have taken their toll on us, and we collapse with a sigh of relief.

However, the weekend has arrived, and in our household, the frantic reality of the outside world dissolves. On Saturday morning, as we drift slowly from a thick dreamland into lighter sleep, we barely discern the soft slide and click of a key, the muffled clamp of a door closing.

My grandmother has arrived to spend the day. A quietly intransigent woman who spent half her life in rural China, she possesses a rare blend of caring devotion and stubborn goodwill. Slipping past our bedrooms, she noiselessly enters the kitchen. Before I have completely left the swirling mist of slumber, my olfactory glands are already suffused with the appealing scent of a bubbling pot of rice balls, saturated in the unctuous aroma of sizzling egg enveloped in thin green onion pancakes.

The sun has drifted over the horizon before I rise to find my family clustered around our white Formica kitchen table. My grandmother is talking (she is quite effusive), first about her daily life. However, tales of English classes and senior center events inevitably segue into those with cultural roots; she eagerly relays the happenings of family in China.

“Your grandfather is playing in a retired person’s ping-pong tournament this weekend,” she informs me. Almost unconsciously, my speech melts from English to Mandarin as I laughingly reply that he’s still the same grandpa I remember.

We discuss her beloved houseplants (the red tulips have sprouted, the coriander herbs are shooting up at incredible speeds). She has me examine a worksheet with English grammar on it; I try to explain the difference between adverbs and adjectives. She presents to my mother a recipe for roasted eggplant; this was a dish she ate as a girl. My grandmother lives at a slower tempo than the rest of our family.

Steam erupts furiously from the kettle on the stove; a piercing whistle punctures our ears. With the consummate skill of an experienced cook, my grandmother snatches the kettle away and with a rapid flick of the wrist steeps a pinch of dried tealeaves. They appear suspiciously clumpy, but as soon as I lift the scorching mug I am convinced by the sweetly fragrant odor.

“This is the highest grade tea leaf,” she proclaims proudly, “well, perhaps next to the Pu’er.” I learn that Pu’er is an aged tea in extremely high demand in China before recently suffering deflationary values. She bombards us with more tidbits of information gleaned from the Chinese World Journal: wearing contact lenses tires out the eyes; housing prices have plummeted; President Obama is actually quite the shuai ge (handsome brother).

For the relatively short time she spends at our house before returning to the company of her pomegranate bush, my grandmother has an incredible effect on our home atmosphere. She diffuses warmth and practicality, advice and anecdotes. I count weeks not by outside commitments, but by what I learn from her each Saturday. What she imparts to us is trivial, yet deeply essential in its core. Our normally tense, clock-bound lives ease into the smoothness of green tea and the rustle of a newspaper.

Perhaps the world is inevitably destined to be a turbulent vortex of work and responsibility. However, I harbor the hope that each person can take some time—the way I have been lucky enough to—to reconnect with his or her roots, to treasure the slower things in life, to appreciate the people that contributed to his or her development. Because sometimes, it’s what matters most.