I Went to Taiwan to Say Goodbye | Trending News Buzz
To my grandma, and maybe the whole country, for having such tenacity
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The time wasn’t ideal for travelling to Taiwan. Early in August, when Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei, tensions with China were already high. After Russia invaded Ukraine, people began to wonder if Taiwan was also under attack.
We discussed whether it was safe to travel as my father and I scanned through the news, which reported on aggressive Chinese military exercises and endless U.S. delegations. However, when measured against a fictitious situation, the truth of my grandmother’s disease prevailed. She was turning down chemo. Better to go early than late, we did so in September.
Upon arrival, I discovered that my childhood in Taiwan had not altered significantly. I embarrassed myself for thinking otherwise. Nearly everything was exactly as I remembered it to be, including my grandmother’s apartment on the 13th floor near Taipei’s bustling Shilin Night Market, the department store where my father’s family had a small leather goods shop, and the gua bao stall with its owner who gets bossier every time I see her. The only indication of unrest was a copy of the Taipei Times with the heading “China Unlikely to Invade Taiwan Soon” in the snack section of a convenience store.
The atmosphere seemed normal to me, despite how “defiant” the media had depicted it as being. My father questioned the owner of More Fine, an optical store in Gongguan’s central neighbourhood where my parents and I always get our glasses, as to why everyone appeared to be in such a relaxed mood. He yelled from the rear of the store, “It’s numbness. What other options are there?
I thought about the shop owner’s words as I made my way over to my grandmother’s apartment. I experienced a similar sense of numbness and frustration at all the cold-hearted commentary about the nation where my parents and my grandparents were born and raised—and where my grandma is currently battling cancer. Pundits discussed Taiwan’s past and future, frequently with no vested interest. It was odd to see a location that I was so familiar with reduced to foreign affairs talking points, such as “the most hazardous place on Earth,” “a progressive, vibrant democracy,” and “safe until at least 2027.” I was indignant that we even needed to consider this, that the obligations of living and dying were insufficient.
But with my grandma, the here and now was everything. I was determined to write down her life narrative before I went, so I sat by her side and stroked her back as I listened to it. I shouted questions into her ear and set my phone on my knee. Her memory is surprisingly sharp despite her poor hearing.
She recalls, for example, the other two Taiwanese women who dated my grandfather. In the 1950s, they had all worked in the homes of American soldiers stationed in Tianmu. She told me that the most attractive of her rivals had rosy skin and excellent dancing abilities.
My shy housekeeper grandma was sought by my grandfather, a cook. She said, “I was the most wretched, yet I was good and industrious.” She observed his perfectly arranged bed and the books on his desk; he was an industrious, well-mannered man who wanted to rebuild. From a nearby stall, he started sending her braised pigs’ feet. Later, he brought her scallops and other exotic foods that she had never had. She laughed mischievously, “They were excellent!”
She was able to detect his loneliness in his shoulders, though. He informed her about his lost wife and two small children on the mainland before they got married. When he was stuck in Taiwan during the upheaval of the Communist takeover in 1949, they were one of many families split apart. The limitations on travel and letter communication that the Nationalists quickly established with China would persist for decades and sever families in two. The waishengren from China who married my grandmother, a benshengren born in Taiwan, accepted everything, including the picture of his extended family that he kept in his wallet. My mother once told me, “When I was tiny and I didn’t understand, I’d sneak my photo into his wallet too.”
He demonstrated that he was a devoted husband and father to their five kids. He returned to their compact flat, which she had cleaned and furnished with flowers, as soon as he got off work. She said that her house was the prettiest and cleanest. He would sit with the students and sharpen their pencils by hand while they worked on their assignments. Rarely did they clash. She attributes him with providing her a joyful life—one she could not have envisioned for herself as an adopted child who had been mistreated by her family. She continued saying, “I was the most blessed,” to me. “Your granddad was a blessing in my life,”
My mother had told me about it years before, but my grandma never mentioned the journey my grandfather took to see his first wife and daughter in 1985. By then, his kid had passed away. My grandfather’s brother lived in Hong Kong, and the women had travelled there from northern China. My grandfather met them there.
For his seven-day journey, my grandma stuffed sweaters, mangoes, and any extra cash they had into my grandfather’s suitcase. He had suffered a stroke and needed a cane to walk. My mom added, “It was an impossible voyage.” “But he brought it about.”
After arriving in Taiwan, my grandfather passed away a week later. My grandma said that he had gone to meet his brother when I inquired about how his trip to Hong Kong had affected her. She shifted the subject when I questioned her once more.
On my grandmother’s 87th birthday, I took a flight home. She gave me a pat on the arm and told me not to be concerned as I was leaving. She added, “Your uncle and aunts will look after me, as will all of your relatives. I thanked her and advised her to have a good day and to bao zhong.
But I am concerned nonetheless—both about Taiwan’s future and how the disease will develop. I consider how my grandma would be unable to flee if war broke out since she has to swing her weight between the dining chairs to go to the kitchen. And I wish—perhaps ineffectively—for a world that would be concerned about Taiwan even if it weren’t an important semiconductor producer, a pawn in a great-power struggle, or an example of democracy in Asia. A world where we could all see into the cosy glow of my grandmother’s apartment and see my aunts giggling while my nephews climbed over the couches and made silly faces. I hope that was sufficient.
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