The aapi grandmas saved my soul, twice.
The first grandma was a bustling core staff in an aapi-mom-pap-operated kind of salon easily found in the South Bay.
This was many years ago when my daughter was a skinny tomboy girl. She had been refusing to wear any reasonably pretty girly dress I proposed since her senior kindergarten years. Since grade one, my daughter had messy long hair that she could never comb straight and clean by herself or me.
I was secretively worried.
Then, in the summer before her 7th grade, some miracle happened when we visited my parents in China. My hometown is a city full of pretty young girls who love to follow a new fashion trend together. I was very impressed by their long sleek straight hair suddenly appearing in every corner of the city. A newly opened salon nearby offered ridiculously cheap fare to do long hair straightening, boasting revolutionary new techniques that don’t harm the hair at all.
So I decided to send my daughter there to give it a try.
Six hours, two non-stop-working staff, and a dozen US dollars later, my daughter was transformed into a new person, a princess in my eyes. Her hair suddenly and finally became ultra straight and shining. The salon owner proudly claimed that my daughter’s hair would never return to her old messy way until the hair was cut off. She also cleaned up my daughter’s bushy eyebrows to match her sleek, long hair.
I gasped joyfully, and every relative who met her did the same.
My daughter received compliments with sincere delight for the first time and loved her new look.
This was progressing in the way I was secretly plotting for years.
A few months later, back in the Bay Area, we were pleased to see her hair still was very straight and shining as the salon owner promised. However, her eyebrows started to grow wild again.
I brought her to one randomly picked mom-pap salon shop in Cupertino. We two were led into a facial beauty room waiting, and a very busy and mighty-looking AAPI grandma showed up.
She asked me to lie down. And I told her it was my daughter who needed an eyebrows reshaping cleaning job.
She looked shocked, took a hard look at my daughter, and sternly said, “no, she does not need an eyebrow job. She is too young for that!”
“But you do need one. “ The grandma pointed at me.
My daughter and I looked at each other, and it was evident my eyebrows looked messier than hers.
The grandma sent my daughter out of the room and forced me to lie down. She started to work on my face.
It turned out she was giving me some parenting lessons.
“You should not bring her attention to her looks at such a young age! What were you thinking? !! She needs to concentrate on her studies, not her looks or hair.”
I was ashamed, and that’s the end of my daughter’s thining cleaning history. I left her thick bushy eyebrows untamed till she left home and started her independent college life thousands of miles away from home.
Many years later, my daughter thanked me for not forcing her to clean up her eyebrows. Suddenly, thick bushy eyebrows became a long-lasting trend among beautiful young women.
And I secretly thank that stern AAPI grandma.
The second AAPI grandma was a cashier in a rundown, overstocked, overcrowded bakery with a cult-like customer base. They claimed their cakes are French style infused with southeastern Asian preference of lightness on cream and butter and less sweetness. Since I ate one slice of their durian cake, there was no turning back.
Later, I discovered that they even had an Instagram account that shows all kinds of beautifully custom cakes for all occasions, updated almost daily. Some of them are very creative and beautiful. I ordered many birthday cakes from them. Later I saw my first designed one even showing up as a sample on their INS account, which led to many variations.
A few weeks ago, it was time for me to pull a show for my husband’s biggest birthday (so far).
I want to do something creative on the birthday cake. I scrolled through their INS account and I came across a very unusual one.
I thought it would be a great cake for my eternally married husband. We reached an age when I think we could handle this type of joke.
One myth about this cult-like bakery is that I never know who those cake chefs were because they were shielded from a group of busy-bee-like AAPI bakery staff who hardly speak any English.
The custom-made cake I designed in the above photo was based on my observation of the flowers the cake chef made on their normal birthday cakes. They were very beautiful and very tasty as well so I knew the chef was capable to make the cake I was asking for. But boy it was so hard to get the message through these grandmas. In the end, I had to draw the pattern and they texted their hidden chef back a forth a couple of times to get it right.
And I never had a chance to meet the cake makers.
But this time, I thought I would have a blast ordering process since I got this copy from their INS account.
So, one week ahead of the big birthday party, I drove to the bakery on a Monday lunchtime, hoping it would be the least crowded so I could have better attention from these AAPI grandmas.
To my dismay, there was still a line in the cake order corner. Two Indian moms in front of me were ordering a graduation cake and they had trouble asking the grandma to make the right note to change the dark purple of the sampling cake to several shades lighter purple.
“Do you speak her native language?” They were desperate and turned to me, who apparently looked closer to the grandma’s AAPI ethnic identity.
Fortunately, some college-like-home-coming-scouting-comfort-snacks kids showed up and helped out. The grandma instantly understood and put some crypto-like signs on the order sheet. The two Indian moms left with relieved smiles.
Then it was my turn. I pulled out my phone and found this saved photo of the cake and showed her.
“I am preparing a big birthday party for my husband. I want to surprise him with a cake like this.”
The grandma looked at this picture. Her eyes narrowed and her eyebrows knotted. She looked at me and the picture back and forth a couple of times and finally shook her head.
“No. Not this cake.”
She then pulled out her phone’s text message app. I noticed there were at least 6 different phone numbers where she exchanged cake orders with these mysterious cake chefs. She finally scrolled down and found one. Her face relaxed with a triumphant smile. She showed that picture in front of my face a bit too close.
“This is the cake!” She sounded very authoritative. “Not that one. This one. This!”
At that moment, I thought she was my grandma.
I surrendered without any protest.
Author’s notes: “AAPI” (Asian American and Pacific Islander) is a lifesaver. When I first landed in the Bay Area, I was shocked to see so many Asian faces that I could hardly tell which part they were from, so it was hard to address or reference them correctly. Now, decades later, we have this perfect abbreviation to solve this social etiquette issue.