One Plus One, Two By Two

July 7, 2021 / Olivia Du

One …
Two ...
How do I tell you I love you?

Simple Fundamentals: 1+1, 2x2

My grandma was the first person to teach me math, so maybe that was why I only thought about numbers in Chinese.

In sticky July, when Beijing’s heat waves scattered the city into threadlike mirages, she would teach me on the small, green chalkboard in her tiny apartment. The white dust in the valleys of her wrinkled hands would smudge on mine as she guided my fingers to find the answers. Scribbles, white smears, and my childish sighs of frustration would shortly ensue. Even now, I remember the crackly laughter of my grandma’s favorite show from her box television, beckoning me to sneak a peek. I remember the curious, hot air that snaked in from the mesh screen of her balcony, countered by the steadfast, circular trips of the electric fan on my other side. I remember the steady heartbeat of her grandfather clock and the soft creak of the wooden floors underneath my feet. I could feel myself shifting in the step stool as I scoured my brain for what could possibly be the answer to 256 minus 148. I remember every detail.
I was never particularly good at math, but I loved it because it made me feel close to my grandma. Math was a gift she wrapped for me in flying chalkdust and golden afternoons in harmony. When the school semester started and I flew back to Austin, my pencil would fly hungrily over addition and multiplication tables, and I would remember her. My proud playground talent was fitting as many Chinese digits of pi as possible into my brain, hoping that the numbers would weave long enough to reach my grandma across the Pacific. I fell asleep murmuring numbers in Chinese so often, they burned like warm syrup on my tongue. One times one equals one … three times four equals 12 … six times eight equals 48 …

Plotting Adolescence: y=mx+b

Once a summer, every couple of years, I visit China again. The city burns the same way, where life breathes in shuttered pants through engine sputters and floating waves of overlapping voices. When I go on walks with my grandma, I grip her small frame as mopeds and thundering buses speed by. I hold on to her extra tightly because she doesn’t feel real, as if my time here is just one long continuation of a childhood dream.

Her apartment is still perfectly preserved, with the same, cream, crochet couch covers, blue porcelain bowls, and balcony with hanging plants and airing laundry. The only thing that’s changed is how I’ve become too big and clunky in her living room. When I’m there, I don’t know what to do with myself. The green chalkboard lined with elementary equations can no longer close the gap between these two people sitting side by side. I can’t pinpoint exactly how we have shifted, but I know we have.

Growing up away from my grandma reminds me of the line graphs we made in middle school algebra. Here, I plot Thanksgiving without the big family reunions that my classmates gush about and all the Chinese New Years spent without bright firecrackers and red lanterns dotting the night sky. I plot the sadness that being “good at math” should come easily as an Asian student and the overwhelming silence of phone calls with my grandma as I struggle to reconcile my flying thoughts with the timidity of my broken Chinese. Before I even realized it, I had become a stranger to my grandma. We existed now as two different functions, linear and exponential, lying in two different planes.

Defining Derivatives: f’(x)

The older I become, the more I think about the memories I share with her: I grapple with the lingering feelings of shame when I struggle to tell her how I feel, the strangeness of once driving for hours into the mountains to see the small village she grew up in, or the melancholy stillness when visiting my ancestors’ unmarked burials. It’s a feeling I can hardly trace the origins of. Guilt, remorse, sadness all mixed into one tight, sweltering knot of distance.

These days, I learn calculus and derivatives and integrals, far removed from the comfort of my old multiplication tables. But no matter how complicated the equation is, with its variables and exponents and roots, taking the derivative enough times will eventually return the function to its most basic state of numbers. When I get stumped over math’s complexity and realize its childhood luster has now grown dull, I’m reminded of how far I’ve grown from my family. Maybe I, too, need to go back to something more fundamental.

Does the distance and unspoken words still matter if at our core we’re still the same?

Because when I play her favorite piano melodies over spotty video calls, I feel her listening on the other side. When I wish her a happy birthday or new year in rehearsed phrases with my sister, I feel her understanding. When I learned she was writing her life story on loose-leaf sheets of paper to pass the time, I felt a sharp pang of wonder and curiosity, followed by a softer hint of worry that I wouldn’t be able to understand her writing. My grandma has captured four decades of her life on paper so far, and she says it'll be for her eyes only until she passes away. This time, it’s a gift she wraps not in white chalk dust and scratchy numbers, but dark ink and smooth characters.

My relationship with my grandma is like math. It builds on each concept or memory before it, but can also subsequently be broken down into the purest of emotions. One plus one, me and her. Even though we write in different languages, I realize that we are two by two. Me and my words; her and hers.

This is a love letter to my grandma, written in a language she doesn’t understand. In my own words, I tell her. Thank you. I love you. ■

Written by: Olivia Du

Layout by:
Shuer Zhuo

Shuer Zhuo

Biyun Yuan & Katelynn Mansberger

Mariam Ali

Lucy Hwang & Sumu Prasad

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