Pickled Pork Tongues

(memoir)JOHN JOHNSTON - OLD SHED KING COUNTRY

I was in an Uber heading home, after lunch with fifteen distant relatives from my mom’s side. My dad called to say that my grandparents were waiting at the door, and had no key. I was surprised at first because I had not seen them for too long. None of us knew that they were coming.

My grandparents lived in a rural village far away. I never really knew the exact location of their town, but I always knew its name: Nanxi, meaning the south stream. I used to think it had to be located in the south of the province, but my family said otherwise. So I never knew for certain. Once every few years, we drove to see them, bring them cases of kiwi fruits, well-planted green tea leaves, and bottles of white wine. Grandpa couldn’t eat a meal without wine. Somehow I knew that very well.

It was often the case that they took the public bus to Chengdu, and my dad would then pick them up at the city bus terminal. For the past ten years, they had been coming to stay with us twice a year, once in the summer and once in the winter. Whenever they came, they brought me freshly pickled pork tongues because they were my favorite. They normally came to help with the housework, meal preparation, clothes washing, and cleaning the house. But ever since we moved to this new apartment, my parents had hired a house cleaning company to clean every weekend. So instead of wiping the tables themselves, they now watched four women come in every Sunday morning with full equipment — glass polishing cloths, double-sided window sponges, cleaning brushes, mop and bucket. My grandma would wear glasses to see if they cleaned the spot usually covered by the clay pots. She sometimes said to Dad that it wasn’t worth the money, hiring helpers, while she and grandpa could do better, even without those professional tools. Then my dad would joke about how he would go to jail for hiring an old-age labor force.

I call my grandparents Nainai and Yeye, different from what I call my grandparents on my mom’s side. My parents, on the other hand, call them shushu and shenshen, meaning uncle and aunt, instead. I made some immature comments when I was younger, about my dad being the adopted child of Nainai, and gotten beaten up harshly for it in the yard. I was told not to ask that question because I was too young to understand. Growing up with my parents calling them shushu and shenshen, my curiosity had slowly dissipated. I almost forgot how unusual this was until two years ago, when a middle-aged aunt sitting near me heard my parents call them shushu and shenshen, and asked that question aloud in front of three round tables full of relatives from both sides of my family. If this aunt had been small, she probably would have been beaten to a vegetable. At least, that was what I thought the second after I heard. The lady sitting next to her gave her a sign, distracted the crowd and got her off the hook. After people returned to their drinking and eating, the lady whispered to my aunt, and I heard her explain the mysterious answer that I had never been able to get in my past twenty years.

They did it to circumvent the one-child policy.

I finally arrived home and saw my grandparents sitting on the floor outside our door, with three big packages wrapped in sheet cloths. One of the packages was freshly pickled pork tongues. I asked them why they had not called us before as we could have picked them up at the bus terminal. But they said they didn’t want to disturb us. They took a transition bus from East train station to Huayang bus terminal, the local bus t209 to the nearest bus station from my home, and then walked for twenty minutes to our apartment on a boiling summer day. They kept talking about how convenient it was to come to our apartment from the city bus terminal. I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t listening very carefully either. I hadn’t seen them for at least a year and half, and I knew things weren’t going well between them and my mom. Some time this January, I heard my parents talking about grandma’s big fight with mom, and they had stopped speaking ever since. Two weeks ago, mom told me that grandma called on dad’s birthday in March and said that they he was the only one in the family they really cared about, not the others. Mom and I were “the others”.

My relationship with my grandparents was never close. There had always been something standing in between us. I knew that the first reason would be my gender. For people like them, coming from the rural area, having passed through World War II, Cold War, and Mao’s era, boys were surely preferred over girls. I had been hearing stories about how differently they treated their daughters from their sons. And it had indeed been different, compared to the relationship between them and my younger male cousin. But I was a little heartbroken to hear them say I meant less. And it hurt even more to know that the second reason standing between us would be mom.

I remembered grandma telling me the same story over and over again when I was growing up. After I was born, I spent a few months in grandma’s cottage in the village before mom came and took me back to her. They told me that on that day she was wearing an officer uniform, with that squared hat. They kept telling me, “this is your mom”, but having stayed with my grandparents for the first few months of my life, I thought the hostess from the national news channel was my mom. She tried to hug me but I fought against her, grabbing her face, and my nails even hurt her neck. It bled a little. Mom was heartbroken. She cried, and swore that she would take care of me all by herself, and would never bring me back to that village again. She took me by force, running away from grandma’s house quickly. Grandma cried too, and begged mom to let me stay with them for longer. Mom was running so fast on the muddy road from the village to the local bus station, that on the whole journey she didn’t even look back once. The sandust from mom’s back flew up and began to blur my sight of grandma running after us, grandpa trying to catch up behind her, and the small cottage where I spent my time with the watchdog, the chickens and the ducks.

I didn’t know if things had finally patched up between mom and grandma. They probably hadn’t and perhaps never could. There would probably be fights every few years. And then one day, out of the blue, they would take the bus to Chengdu, ring the doorbell and bring me freshly pickled pork tongues. I would never compare myself to my younger cousin, the closeness he had with them. I barely saw him nowadays anyways as he was busy with the new job. I tried to reach him this summer, hoping to catch up with him. Despite only a twenty minute drive between us, it was hard for us to meet, much harder for my grandparents. I still went to have a short lunch with him near his workplace. We talked about his new job, the real estate situation in Chengdu. But we didn’t talk about grandparents.

Aside from one-and-a-half years of silence, everything else stayed the same. They prepared meals, washed clothes, and grandma inspected the house chores with her glasses. Quiet as usual, ordinary as usual. And I thought, perhaps as long as there were freshly pickled pork tongues every once in a while, everything would be just alright.

 

Artwork by John Johnson “Old Shed King Country”

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