Our family used to gather in joy around my grandfather’s couch. He and his sofa are now gone, and I wonder if home will ever be the same.
Taken in Shenzhen, China in 2013. The author is hiding behind a cousin, second from right. (All photos courtesy of Li Keira Yin)
“Don’t forget to say qiezi,” Mother — using Chinese for “cheese” — reminded as she positioned the camera in front of my sister, Father, Grandpa and me, all huddling on our maroon-colored flower-print couch.
Hints of the hotpot and Baijiu (hard liquor) that we had devoured for dinner still filled the air. A fire flickered in the distance, illuminating our features with a soft hue of orange.
“The perfect lighting!” Mother said. Under our weight, the couch sagged a bit in the center, but I felt its mattress supporting us, bringing us together.
“Does my face look round?” my sister asked as she turned towards Grandpa, cupping her cheeks in her hands. “I have so many pimples lately I don’t want to take the photo.”
“You look perfect no matter what,” Grandpa said, planting a kiss on her forehead and pointing to his wrinkles. “The marks on our faces are maps of our history and our hearts. Learn how to treasure that.” My sister giggled, relaxed her furrowed brow and nuzzled into Grandpa’s woolen coat.
A family photo every Chinese New Year’s eve
Waiting for Mother to adjust the camera self-timer, I stared down at the couch, touching its scratched wooden adornments, its ruffled weavings, its color dulled in places from being sat on by many. “Pretty, huh?” Father said. “Grandpa made the couch frame himself. Money from his carpentry held our family together.” I nodded and memorized the marks as if they formed the map of our family.
“Everything’s all set!” Mother yelled, interrupting my thoughts. Tucking strands of hair behind her ears, she joined us on the couch. While we waited for the camera to click, we leaned into the coziness of the cushions between linked arms and prepared our widest smiles.
Click and a blinding flash.
We used to take a family photo in this same place every Chinese New Year’s eve after a traditional dinner, each photo preserved in a collage book. Flipping through its pages, I often mentioned how our appearances evolved from portrait to portrait: the creases under Mother and Father’s eyes deepening, Grandpa’s hair disappearing and my sister and I growing taller and stronger like nothing could stop us. “At least the shafa (couch) we sit on won’t age or change over all these years!” my sister would joke.
I snuggled on the couch as blue light from the TV playing Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away flickered on my parents’ faces. I plugged my ears and hid in my sister’s lap when Chihiro’s parents turned into pigs, when she confronted Yubaba and when No-Face became a monster driven by greed.
I laughed with my father when the Susuwatari danced around and shared amazement with my mother when Haku said goodbye. I remember eventually falling asleep after the movie, right there in the living room.
My parents covered me in blankets, tucked me in and whispered to me that Haku and Chihiro would meet again, that I would find fantastical adventures in my years to come, too.
Eyes closed, holding my sister’s hand and enjoying my Mother’s embrace, I sunk into the couch’s elegantly textured surface. Father later told me that I slept with an untroubled grin on my cheeks.
Grandpa dumped a tub of bamboo leaves on the couch. “We’re making zongzi (rice dumplings)!” he announced.
‘Mistakes make things fun,’ he chuckled.
My sister and I rushed into the living room, abandoning our studies. We blamed our failed tests and unfinished school projects on the Duanwu festival, which set us thinking about dragon boat racing, swimming and making zongzi instead. After all, how could we resist when the sweet aroma of uncooked, fermented sticky rice infused the living room?
Grandpa’s rough, steady hands held our soft, restless ones, helping us fold the bamboo leaves into a triangular cup. He cradled a handful of sticky rice, sifting it between his fingers and into the bamboo cup. Wrapping the leaves until the rice was no longer visible, he bound everything together with a string and a twist of his wrist. One raw zongzi was prepared.
We watched, mimicked, then repeated. The pile of bamboo leaves shrank; the wrapped zongzi grew into a large mound. In delight, I giggled, swirled and kicked out a leg in a weird, elaborate dance move I conjured on the spot. There was a clash of metal on a stone floor. I had knocked over the bowl of uncooked rice, spilling fermented water and raw ingredients over the entire couch.
I stood with my eyelids drooping, tears twinkling, anticipating Grandpa’s reprimands.
But what I heard was laughter. “Mistakes make things fun,” he chuckled. “And they help you master the art of responsibility.” I slowly lifted my eyes, returning his smile. The couch smelled like zongzi for days, but I didn’t mind at all.
Incense and prayer beads in hand, we knelt in front of the couch, our tears soaking its floral coat. We mourned the black and white photograph of Grandpa, his teeth glistening, his face beaming, his eyes telling us “everything is going to be okay.” We wished him a safe journey towards a new incarnation, honored his past accomplishments and burned paper money for his next lifetime.
“I don’t care about any of this,” I wanted to yell. “I just want him back.” I pinched the couch’s mattress behind me, silencing myself, reminding myself to be pious and obedient and a good girl.
The couch held me, soaking up grief.
But after the ritual, I forgot what “good girl” meant. I collapsed onto the couch, smothering cries and gasps of air with a satin cushion. I fiddled with the scratches Grandpa had made on the couch’s cherrywood legs when his lungs failed and he fainted. I buried my nose in pillows and fabrics, hunting for traces of his smell. I curled my body in Grandpa’s favorite spot on the couch, searching for his presence.
For three days, the couch held me, soaking up grief and anger and regret. “I won’t change or get sick! I will always be here for you,” it seemed to say. “Everything is going to be okay.” And I believed.
I had believed wrong.
Without consulting me, my parents decided to move, and our couch was not coming with us to our new home. “It triggers painful recollections,” was all Mother said as she rubbed her temples and puffed eyes.
“No, it carries beautiful memories,” I screamed. “And they are fading away! They are fading away! And you don’t care. You didn’t take responsibility. You knew Grandpa had cancer, but you just let him die. And you plan on sending Jiejie (sister) and me away. To America. I’ll miss you. I’ll miss Jiejie. And I miss him already. And, and, I just wish to go back to those years when…”
Grandpa was gone from my sight.
It was too late when I realized what I had yelled at my mother. Before I could ask for forgiveness, I choked on my tears and my vision faded.
Gathering my things, I found the family collage book collecting dust in the corner of the living room. After the page entitled “2015,” the entries stopped. I removed the remaining pictures and held them to my chest. I then ripped the collage book apart, watching its stitchings pop, its pages rupture, and threw it in the trash.
The day after my sister left us for an unfamiliar town across the Pacific, three men from the moving company came to our apartment, took apart the wooden frame of the couch, tore off the flowery covers and cast the stained cushions to the side. They carried the broken bones of what was left of its carcass into a smog-colored truck. The trunk slammed shut, and the couch was gone from my sight.
The lid of the casket was lowered, and Grandpa was gone from my sight.
The security gates closed, and my sister was gone from my sight.
Will they ever come home?
Three years later, I turned around with my two suitcases and my guitar bag in hand, the blinding airport lights in my face. I searched for two familiar silhouettes, but Mother and Father were long gone from my sight.
Fear gripped my throat. With the map of our family erased, can I find my way home?
I would have navigated to the old apartment door, banged on it, jumped up and down to get my parents’ attention. My mother would have opened the door and held me close to her bosom, squeezed my face and nibbled my nose. My father would have lifted me high up in the air and twirled me around like I was once again his little girl. His back would give in, and he would have to sit down, but he wouldn’t complain. I would have rushed towards the couch, covered myself with its pillows and inhaled its scent. The scent of love, of comfort, of a tight-knit family.
But the couch, its frame separated from its coat, is rotting in some stranger’s backyard. The memory of home, its once lively tableau, is washed away by 500 long days of hollow solitude. Or is that number even bigger? I do not know anymore.
What I do know is that on a scorching summer night in May, I will stumble upon an unfamiliar apartment building. I will dial my father or mother’s number for the first time in months. They will hang up, text me later apologizing for being busy, send me the room number I have forgotten and tell me to reach for the key under the doormat.
I will turn a cold, alien key. I will enter a strange space marked as my address. I will sit stiffly and alone on a new couch, depositing the grime of my long journey on its fresh, cream-colored leather. I will weep and wait for Grandpa to run from behind a corner to comfort me, for my sister to sing me the lullabies my parents used to sing, for Mother and Father to finally come home.
But will they ever come home?
Taken in Shenzhen, China in 2010. The author is in the front row, first from left.
Taken in Shenzhen, China in 2012. The author is in the back row, second from left.
Taken in Ojai, California at the Thacher School in 2021. The author and her roommate celebrated Chinese New Year on their own, decorating their dorm. This decoration “恭喜发财” (gong xi fa cai) means “wishing you prosperity.”
Taken in Ojai, California at the Thacher School in 2021. This decoration says “福” (Fu), meaning “good luck.”
Three questions to consider:
- Does your family have yearly traditions like the family photo with the couch?
- What did the loss of the couch represent to the author?
- How would you describe the author’s mood at the end of the story?