Culture and Some BBQ Chicken: A Return to Familiarity

The Eng Dynasty: Missy’s Family (center) and My Uncle’s Family (right)

By Matt

In the mid-1990s, my uncle and his family moved to their current house in Silver Spring, Maryland. My grandmother and great-grandmother, both alive back then, also lived with them in their sprawling tri-level house in Montgomery County. As a result, my father would often load my mom, sister, and I on a Friday after school and drive up to the D.C. area to spend the weekend. We would inevitably spend most of our time in the house, running around and exploring the basement with my cousins and sister. My dad spent his time with his mother, chatting with her in Cantonese in the kitchen as she worked diligently and methodically on our dinner all day. In truth, every trip to see my grandmother was a gift, one I took for granted too late in life. I often find myself lamenting about those days. Even if I was an awkward kid with few friends, the feeling of family always made me feel safe and secure, whether I realized it or not. These feelings make the pill harder to swallow because Zelda never got to meet any of my grandparents, including those on my father and mother’s side.

Just like dad

Zelda got her first chance to see the house I spent so much of my youth in this past weekend. My uncle Sam and aunt Anna invited our family out to Maryland for a BBQ with some other family members and friends. I was admittedly nervous to go back. The last time I came to the house was over a decade ago when I drove up and stayed there overnight to pick up my then-girlfriend from BWI Marshall Airport. I’ll never forget their hospitality, even if the relationship I had back then was a bit forgetful—we were together in Baltimore and broken up by the time we got back to Virginia Beach.

We got to the house around 12:30 pm. My sister and her family arrived shortly before us. Walking behind the back of the house where the grill was set up, I immediately smelled delicious grilled BBQ chicken and spare ribs. After some brief hugs and messages of greeting from my grillmaster uncle, we stepped inside the house, which might as well have been a time machine.

I was transported to my childhood as I stepped into the living room. I was a 13-year old with a growing forest of acne across my forehead, brace-faced and full of energy, running around the living room. I was no longer a 33-year old out of shape father of one. I was young, decisively idealistic, and pitifully naïve. I caught myself from falling too far into the nostalgia trip when I realized that Zelda had been tugging on me to let her down to run around.

I sat her down into their living room, and she immediately moved toward the fireplace. Atop it, the ornate Chinese decorations are the same. On the wall in the living room, I am nearly overcome with emotion as I see the paintings and pictures of my elders: My great-grandfather and great-grandmother, grandmother, and grandfather.

Zelda with second cousin Marie

The couches are the same. Zelda played for a while on the banister that connected the kitchen and living room. I had to stop and think: that was me, twenty years ago.

But this time, the smells were different. There was no oxtail soup simmering on the stove. Instead, a giant platter of hot dogs and hamburgers covered the burner my grandmother used to make her long noodles and Chinese green beans. There was no crispy fried whole fish to feast on—just deviled eggs and potato salad. The BBQ smells, albeit intoxicating on my grumbling stomach, were a sad reminder that time is always cruel and passing. Hell, I think Zelda grew a few inches in the trip from Alexandria to Silver Spring.

We all made a plate and joined my sister and her family in the dining room. It was nice for Zelda to play with her cousins, who immediately abandoned their meals and sought out the smell of sandalwood incense burning in my uncle’s study. My cousin Marie spent much of the afternoon playing with Zelda, which brought warmth to my heart. I can remember when Marie playing in the same house all those years ago. Now, Marie walked Zelda around the house, showing different heirlooms and trinkets from her Chinese heritage.

Portraits of my grandmother and grandfather

Before we left, I broke from the action for a second. My official story was that I had to go to the bathroom. I didn’t. I walked upstairs to look at my grandmother’s old room. The old mahogany chest, originally from China, was still in front of her room. She wasn’t there. In fact, her room wasn’t her room anymore. It was something entirely different. But I shed a quiet tear as I closed my eyes and remembered the love she had for me and my sister, her grandchildren. She could give us that transcendental warmth without ever speaking a word of English beyond our names. It’s the full kind of love you can only get from somebody who dedicated their lives to the pursuit of a happy home. It’s the same love my mother and father have for Zelda.

If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a thousand times. Family is everything. We want Zelda to experience as much of them as she can. I don’t want her to go somewhere years later and reminisce about a forgotten past. I want there to be smiles. Thankfully, my uncle provided the perfect introduction of Zelda into the Maryland side of our family.

I showed Zelda her elders as we walked out the door. I told Zelda that they loved her very much. She pointed up at my grandmother and spoke some nonsense. In my mind, I’d like to think they were chatting about my awkward years I spent there wearing Jordache jeans and B.U.M. Equipment t-shirts. It must have been because Zelda had a giant smile on her face as we got in our car to leave. I can’t wait to go back again.

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