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A soft humming fills the quiet kitchen as she picks up another potato. Calmly, casually, almost lovingly, she guides a smooth steel blade under the thin, textured surface, and a perfect strip of skin falls onto the cutting board. Each stroke of the knife is uniform, effortless, like breathing. My grandmother, eighty-two-years old, and I sit tackling the unpeeled potatoes. I notice her weathered hands, gnarled from decades of laundry, dishes, and meals. I see her fingers deftly searching the curves of each one, peeling and shaping it.
There is no talking, because it’s not what we do. Years of being reminded to respect and revere my elders have created a distance between us, an inclination to speak not with words, but with polite and meaningful mannerisms. This is typical quality time, a comfortable quietness. Suddenly, she speaks to me in Vietnamese: “You know, your hands are not meant for this kind of work.” Startled, I realize how often she says things I don’t immediately understand. Still, I think of how ill-adapted my hands are to handling a peeler, how when I set foot in the kitchen, I am usually ushered to “go do your homework.” Even my mother has always claimed that housework would “ruin” my hands. I never knew what that meant.
She continues. “If you handed me a pencil, I wouldn’t know what to write. But you hand me a pot or a spatula, and the work almost does itself. One thing I can do is cook a decent meal for my family.” There’s no bitterness, no defensive tone. No assault on my less than adequate skills. “I knew that I didn’t have much to leave my children, but what I could leave them with, was words.” Knowledge. My mother always recounts that, difficult as times were for her family in Vietnam, her education was always put first. “I cooked and I let them learn.”
It was the most she had ever spoken to me. And I saw, clearer than ever, a woman who, all her life, had worked to allow her daughters the chance to leave the confines of the kitchen so familiar to a Vietnamese woman. I saw myself. I could cook little more than a few simple dishes, but in a classroom I was confident: I was an artist, an explorer. And finally, I understood the weight of my hands – the potential harnessed in them and the sacrifice that created them.
There is a bright horizon ahead, and I see it, but I will not forget where I came from. Yes, I am a vital part of the world my mother and grandmother so proudly call “first generation Vietnamese-American.” But I am also nth generation Vietnamese daughter, and in the months that my grandmother does not visit, I willingly assume the responsibilities of housework, challenging or not. Because in this kitchen, there is a culture that I still yearn to explore and experience fully – the world that my grandmother calls her own and for which I am grateful. So as she gently molds yet another common lump into perfection, I realize that her words will come to mold me.
My hands are for building; I will build my parents’ dreams and my grandmother’s hopes. Most importantly, I will build the bridge between these two worlds. That’s my goal. These hands have a purpose, and I resolve to never take them for granted. Full of revelation and appreciation, all I can manage is “thank you grandma.” She smiles, and we continue on in the pale morning light that streams through the windows, in the kitchen quiet broken only by her resumed, soft humming.
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