My cousin Yijiang wanted to be Christian and a Marine, the first hot pot my grandfather ever refused to swallow.
“Your ancestors blinded themselves from reading the scrolls so many times,” Yeye spit, his eyes soaring to a faraway place I could never reach. “That’s what this ‘God’ gives you when you believe.”
A younger me nodded, transfixed. It never occurred to me that Yeye’s words weren’t etched in some Chinese gospel iced with conviction.
The day Yeye led me down a winding forest path, he spilled me the lifeblood of his story for hours on end, the smoky bags plastered under his dimming eyes ablaze with vitality. With his palms crinkled as shadowed snow, he handed me his memories: the Japanese and their gun-licked fingers and salt-smoked lips. His mother’s collapsed life, one moment a family and the next, she and her children, all eight of them, under the rock. His father, whom Yeye wouldn’t see until he became a stranger, gone.
“What kind of God would starve a woman of hope and two of her children of life, haizi?”
At the time, my ten-year-old self felt blistered. My mother, a part-time Christian, had trained me from a young age to respect religious affiliations of any nature; to me, Yijiang, my fresh-faced cousin cruising along at a swinging twenty, could pray to his great whatever.
“Why is that God’s fault, Yeye?” I mumbled, my words tumbling over the sometimes burgundy, sometimes melon-yellow forest floor.
“Because doing nothing is doing something.”
I now interpret my following silence that day as being just that, doing nothing, making no move to have my own voice heard. My inaction remains a scar, my at once lethargic and aggressively forward decision to meet Yeye’s one-sided truth with the absence of my own.
But that day, as Yeye weaved his superstition in the forest canopy, the silver sunlight dripped and bled over the cloth he’d long spun about death and how to search for such a thing was inviting it into your home and smiling just as Yeye had done when he stretched his arms and shattered faith and remembered all that he’d lost, all that he was afraid Yijiang would lose.
Hours later, after I’d finished explaining what had happened in the forest, Yijiang would whisper, “It’s okay.”
The words, I was shocked to realize, were probably the same ones his father had used before he’d left. They shivered from Yijiang’s mouth, yet as he kneeled on the dust-filmed floor of his mother’s house, he brought a careful finger up to my face to brush away tears I didn’t know were there.
But I choked on the word. I melted into sky-bowls of tears, because I knew the next day he would be prey to the world of Marine training, at the mercy of whatever lies beyond God.
“This is His path for me.”
I shuddered, ashamed for suddenly being so afraid about what my own path was. Yijiang, as always, saw through my silence, and he curled my hand in his, his mouth tight when he swore that no one could ever take my voice away from me.
Looking back, Yijiang’s words were what drove me to see my own light and how things like the great whatever were my own to dictate. This newfound wormhole of infinity, terrifying as it was, was also liberating; I no longer had to squeeze into my ancestral mold, and so, that night marked the moment I braved myself into my silence.
Weeks later, when Yijiang graduated from the Marine Corps Recruit Camp as a second lieutenant, I looked over to my motionless family, their hands frozen on steel laps. Then, breathing in the soft-sweet Virginia air, I rose. My cheers took flight.