Holding onto the sweetness of rice balls


Provided by Nicole Tian

Opinions editor Nicole Tian (11) holds a frame in front of her face, a self-portrait for her column in the newest “I Believe” repeater.

by Nicole Tian, Opinions Editor

On a taxi back from the military hospital in Beijing, I asked my grandmother to speak Japanese.

“Konnichiwa, arigato,” she said, the corners of her eyes crinkling as she smiled down at her eight-year-old granddaughter.

She knows Japanese! Happily intrigued by her understanding of a foreign language, I pressed on, asking what “arigato” meant.

“Thank you,” she replied.

“Arigato,” I giddily repeated, rolling the round syllables off my tongue.

My grandmother was born in Manchuria a month after Japanese armies solidified their occupation of the northern district, beheading the rooster and hauling away the spoils of the landscape. Oil. Rubber. Lumber. Livelihood.

Despite charting her own way through a childhood of war, my grandmother also remembers the moments of joy packed into sweet rice balls costing two cents yet worth recalling decades later at her apartment dinner table. Between becoming an opera singer, raising a family through the Cultural Revolution and keeping my grandfather company in the hospital amid the lengthening shadows of late autumn, she always radiated unfailing energy. Her tenacity shone through in little ways. When she brought me along to the bargain market, haggling with a merchant to lower the price to buy me an ox horn comb. When she accompanied me on a crowded bus or in a busy supermarket, her steps brisk, her back ramrod straight, and her hand holding on so tightly to mine.

Watching my grandmother’s unflinching tenacity, I realized that I wanted to reflect the same determination. I believe in perseverance.

Sitting at the kitchen table during a recent and rare visit to see her grandchildren, she informed us that her stay would be cut short. At 86, she signed on as a senior adviser for a performing arts project and threw herself into her dedication for music. Despite the ailments that come with age, her mind was set on a slew of creative directions for the new musical.

Watching my grandmother’s unflinching tenacity, I realized that I wanted to reflect the same determination. I believe in perseverance. I believe that it clings on during moments of hopelessness, when burdens and responsibilities have me pinned in a corner. There may be no easy handouts to satisfy every need, every goal, every hope, and each day orbits wins and disappointments. But I choose to dwell on the future possibilities, the chance of reaching that goal, becoming an opera singer, or a playwright, or even simply speaking up more often in class.

This past year, our family confronted the fact that our planned visit to China hung in an uncertain territory between the pandemic and U.S.-China political relations, dimming even my grandmother’s lively spirit. In the meantime, she happily greets me with a birthday message over the phone, her eyes and voice lighting up at the sight of her now grown-up granddaughter.

So I wait. And we persist.