|| By Greta Wu
For many months, Aling—my mother’s third cousin from Guangdong province—wrote long letters to my parents asking if she could come stay with us in Berkeley. I can help you with your little boy, she offered. I can help the girls learn Mandarin. Even in those pre-electronic days my parents moved at warp speed: My mother was studying for her Ph.D., my dad traveled often for his job, and we had a house under construction in Orinda. My parents discussed the matter and then my mother wrote back: Please come, Aling. We welcome you.
By the time the paperwork went through and the plane ticket was booked, our new house was almost finished. We had been sorting, throwing away, and packing for a week, but we had hardly made a dent in containing our household possessions. And so we happily took a night off and piled into the car. My dad navigated our Chevy station wagon over a foggy Bay Bridge to SFO.
There, in an arrivals hall packed with reuniting families and friends, I spotted Aling right away. I remembered a school photo she had sent us in which she stood in a row of young women wearing tightly pulled-back hair and drab white blouses. Aling was a half head taller than the others, and though she was just as formal as the rest, I saw, even in that washed-out photo with curling edges, a kind of light in her eyes.
Aling carried a single brown suitcase with a shiny white plastic handle. She couldn’t have missed my parents, who were waving and loudly calling her name. She moved toward us and as she raised one hand to greet this strange, noisy bunch, her watch slid loosely down her thin wrist, face down. She quickly scanned us—me, my sister, my little brother—and her lips parted in a faint smile. I took her all in—a young person strangely dressed in an older person’s clothes. And the clothes, I could tell, were all new—her lilac skirt made a perfectly straight A-line, the collar of her shirt was stiffly creased. Thick beige stockings encased her legs, from knees to slender ankles.
When we got home my mom and dad pushed boxes and old newspapers off the living room couch and set Aling up for the night. But a little while later when I came into the kitchen I found her awake, peeking into the cabinets. She couldn’t sleep, and was a little hungry, she said shyly. I told her that most of the kitchen had been packed away.
“And we haven’t been to the store in days!” I added.
“Then what will you eat?” she asked, her eyebrows arching.
In the end we put a frozen pizza in the oven and I showed Aling how to bake it to perfection—with the cheese bubbly and just browned. We settled on the couch with our pizza and tall glasses of chocolate milk. “Fantasy Island” was on and we devoured our late-night meal and watched the entire episode with our feet propped gently up on boxes.
Greta Wu is a writer and nonprofit consultant who grew up in Berkeley, moved away as a preteen, and then made her way back. She currently lives in Berkeley with her husband and daughter.
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