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Sweets From Strangers

When we heard that Mingming’s grandmother was coming to live with her, my sister and I asked our parents endless questions. Our Yeye and Nainai were faraway figures whom we saw once a year, after long flights. They held us in their insistent gazes and tested us on Chinese characters in the newspaper, shook their heads sadly as each year we forgot more and more. Buhui, we’d say through giggles.

Zhege ne?


It seemed impossible to have a real grandparent present in a house, in a life. But all our parents would say was that Mingming’s mum must need support. We knew that Chen Ahyi was sometimes ill, so it was easy to imagine her as a very tall and very thin tree, bending in the wind, and the grandmother as a post, strapped to her side.

Our impression changed when we saw Mingming’s grandmother walking her to school, though it seemed more the other way around, the tiny, wrinkled woman hanging onto the crook of Mingming’s arm. Each day they shuffled slowly to the gate, where Mingming disentangled herself without saying goodbye, leaving her grandmother to shuffle slowly away. Our parents tutted about golden lotuses, wondered about the kind of family Mingming came from, that had maintained such backward practises for so long. Wondered if that was why her dad had left. Later, in the playground, Rosie and Hannah danced around Mingming calling her grandmother a witch, and we joined them, pretending we couldn’t see Mingming’s tears. When my sister asked if I really thought golden lotuses meant something witchy, I nodded firmly, and she did too.

One day, Mingming and her grandmother came shuffling towards us in the park. Our parents had told us not to move from the swings, so we sat there, swaying gently, legs dangling.

Why haven’t I met these two children before? Mingming’s grandmother said. Her Dongbei accent was just like ours. Mingming stared at the ground. You all look the same age. Aren’t you friends?

We are, I said, for some reason.

Have one, she said, holding out a small open tin. For a moment I thought she was offering us jewels, but they were sugar candies, the size of fingernails, translucent and tempting. My sister and I took one each and popped them in our mouths.

Mingming ran to the climbing frame. Her grandmother stood there in front of us, taller than us, in this position.

You two are lucky, she said. If he’d lived, Mingming’s brother would be four now.

We didn’t say anything. When Mingming’s grandmother finally shuffled away, for the first time in my life, I didn’t turn to my sister. I didn’t want to look at the features that were identical to my own, because I didn’t know what I would see there. I felt her swinging again next to me, but I stayed still, holding the candy under my tongue until it melted, until there was only the sugar-sweet spittle left in my mouth.

Tian Yi lives and works in London. Her writing has appeared in The Daily Drunk, CRAFT, Visual Verse, and elsewhere, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has recently completed an MA in Creative Writing and is working on a short story collection.

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