4 Dates to Bond With Your (Asian) Grandparents

Monday, May 21, 2018

I’ve always been really, really close to my grandparents. In Taiwan, my late maternal grandparents (referred to below as Agong and Amma) were around when I was much younger, so we pretty much just did whatever they wanted to do. Now that I’m an adult, I assume a little more responsibility in planning outings and experiences for my paternal set of grandparents, who live in the states with my parents. I find myself often Googling “Things to Do With Old People” but get pretty frustrated because there aren’t very many guides on entertaining your grandparents, much as you’d like to. There are also other considerations: they dislike the outdoors, have limited walking mobility, don’t speak much English, have dietary restrictions, and can’t travel without medical accommodations. But with a little creativity, I’ve found four reliably fun ways to spend the day with my Asian grandparents.  

When my paternal grandparents visited me in London, I was really concerned that there wouldn’t be much for us to do since it’s a pretty disability-unfriendly city. Luckily, most museums have wheelchair access and we spent most of the trip wandering around some of the world’s best (free!) exhibits. If you go to a particularly photogenic museum, like the V&A or pretty much any contemporary art museum, take candids and portraits of them for their Facebook photo albums! Museums have the most flattering lighting, and if your grandma doesn’t have a picture posing next to a naked marble statue, she’s likely feeling left out. I think we also underestimate how much our grandparents like seeing pictures of themselves, especially if they grew up without photography technology/equipment. If you're multilingual, translate the placards for them (or make it up, I do that all the time because my Mandarin is great, but I'm not sure how to say "birthing tools of the slaves of the Ottoman Empire.") If your grandparents are like mine, they'll be bewildered and lightly amused by your storytelling. Make sure to take a few coffee/tea breaks as the larger museums can get overwhelming.

Game Night
My favorite memories of my Amma are of seeing her viciously competitive personality during game nights. The woman was ruthless when it came to Jenga, and a sadist who liked taking ages to poke out the side pieces in the lower layers. It drove my sister and me crazy. We’d run around her apartment burning off nervous energy while she tapped the pieces out a quarter of a millimeter out at a time. Another favorite is Rummikub, which sorta resembles mahjong and for some reason really unleashes the craziness within. We also like Tangrams, Mancala, Bilingual Charades, Operation, Uno, Othello, and Chinese Checkers.

Movie Theaters
My paternal grandparents had never been to a movie theater in the states because of the language barrier. But I took them to see San Andreas three years ago, which is just one of those films where you can miss out on 80% of the dialogue and still have a peachy time. We indulged in the works: the 3D glasses, the big-ass tub of popcorn, the reclining seats. A peachy time was had by all.
If English isn’t a problem for your grandparents, I’m sure they’d appreciate the occasional traditional movie outing. In Taiwan, my Amma regularly took us to the cinema, though she had a penchant for horror movies and we’d often see separate films. But it checks off a lot of the criteria that grandparents want: indoor (no sun!), plenty of comfortable seating (no walking!), snacks, and some quality time just being with you. Our tradition is to pair movie dates with a post-cinema sweet treat.

Afternoon Tea
Hosting afternoon tea at home helps accommodate dietary restrictions (diabetes, dialysis, etc.), but elegant touches and arrangements can still make it feel like an elevated experience. Invest in some cute props, like this Lorelai Cake Stand, this set of Latte bowls, this Paint & Petals cheese board, and these painted dessert plates. Plate an assortment of homemade or store-bought snack-sized foods really nicely and pick up a bouquet of fresh flowers. Prepare their favorite tea.
Lately, my grandparents have really liked Stroopwaffles (likely because of their recent debut at Costco Taiwan), but other favorite dessert options are macarons, Beard Papa cream puffs, Chinese egg tarts, and mini cheesecake bites. For those monitoring sugar intake, we’ve also done dim sum and mini sandwiches (Japanese mayonnaise + pork sung, cucumber + cream cheese, nova lox + cream cheese, tuna + corn, ham + cheese, etc.). A fruit platter is always nice!

Alternatively, host brunch! Do a congee bar with toppings or a European-style breakfast (an excuse to whip out these egg cups). Whatever combination of finger foods you choose, putting together a nice spread for your grandparents and their friends will make you Filial Grandchild #1 and creates a really lovely environment for chatting, since they also tend to have the best gossip.

And finally, some ideas that are more obvious but aren't always practiced:
- Take them out to eat. I know grandmas are fussy about making you a home-cooked meal, but they also tend to be creatures of habit who don't often experience trendy new restaurants. If your grandparents live with your parents, as mine do, they're also constantly conceding to whatever restaurant your parents pick. Introduce them to Korean-Mexican fusion food, or that expensive-ass gelato that's somehow equal parts authentic and gentrified as fuck. My grandparents associate my visits with the opportunity to eat Taco Bell and Olive Garden, two places my parents would never take them. So they're always extra excited to see me.
- Run errands with/for them. I'm the firstborn of their only son, so a lot of duties naturally get delegated to me, but because I'm not home very often, I'm able to make a day of it. Refill their prescriptions, drop off their dry-cleaning, spend a couple hours at the laundromat stuffing their bedding into XL washing machines. Take your grandma for her much-overdue perm appointment.
- Send snail mail. If your grandparents live in a different country, write letters to them! My maternal grandparents never really got the hang of email, and this was before Skype, so we'd painstakingly write letters to them in Chinese, which they'd keep and make corrections (my Agong was an educator) to show us the next time we visited. I'm also just an all-around fan of snail mail; I send letters and postcards all the time to my sister, who lives in Taiwan, and my boyfriend, who lives in London.

I know these suggestions are informed by very specific criteria (language barriers, health conditions, etc.) but I hope their spirit can inspire some other date ideas.

I also sense an extraordinary pressure on Asian Americans to be filial in ways that are complex. It's a common narrative for second, third, or fourth-generation children to grow up without sharing their grandparents' language. I hear it often in heartbreaking poetry and memoirs, about these moments where you are witty and articulate and interesting in ways that your grandparents do not understand. At a summer poetry slam four years ago, I heard a girl say that the only Chinese words she'd learned by brute repetition were 我不懂 -- I don't understand. This has stayed with me always. In many immigrant families, important relationships can seem conditional upon multilingualism. I understand why we often struggle to feel close to the people we love, or the resentment that sometimes grows in the unappreciated corners of filial piety and obligation. But I also think about the relationship I would want my future kids to have with my mom, and this makes me want to be good. To every other Filial Grandchild #1, I see you and I acknowledge how much it takes to try.

Do all things with great love.

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