“A Little Life” (or, more straightforwardly: “Taiwan”)

“You couldn’t relive your life, skipping the awful parts, without losing what made it worthwhile. You had to accept it as a whole–like the world, or the person you loved.”

— Stewart O’Nan

It’s amazing how a little tomorrow can make up for a whole lot of yesterday.

— John Guare

阿姨 sits down next to me and notes admiringly that I have been glued to my book the entire trip. “You’re so studious,” she said. I’ve always loved to read, I confessed. My parents would scold me at breakfast and dinner and in the car. “Stop reading at meals, pay attention, your eyes will go bad if you read while the car is moving.”

I told her I am currently reading an excruciatingly sad novel. “Doesn’t it color your mood?” she asked. “Of course,” I responded.

“Why don’t you only read happy things then?” I laughed and shrugged. I’m reminded so much that I am too emotional anyway, why not face it head on? Someone once told me that the world is wrong to frown upon emotion and vulnerability. So many people deem it weak, but perhaps it can be considered bravery that one opens herself to feeling. I admit I probably also want reassurance that writing about sad things doesn’t preclude becoming a good writer.

I know I will always be a person who thinks about feelings too much, but there are worse things to be in this world (as we are reminded daily by the news). The sad literature and events in life are what provide contrast for us to know what contentment is. The adversity we face is what prepares us for what we need to do to attain peace.

I guess the thing about the sad novel is that it reminds me of the obscure details, the tiny things that make waves. The tiny obstacles that can turn ships, but also the tiny miracles that can turn tides.

***

For months after I bought the plane ticket, I was anxious. I was convinced that my family in Taiwan would scold me:
1. Tell me that I’ve gained weight (which is senseless to say since: of course I was going to look different. The last time I was there was over a decade ago).
2. Comment with dismay about how I am “still single” and childless.

The way I’ve learned Asian families do.

My mom insisted that my arrival to be a total surprise to everyone. I was concerned about this, too. What if grandmother is out somewhere else when we arrive? What if I give her a scare? My mom reassured me. “Don’t worry, grandmother is always there. Where would she go? And don’t worry, her heart is very healthy.”

***

Grandmother was sitting in the yard with her friend when my father and I first walked up. She did not see me at first. When it became clear the visitors were here for her, the friend helped her to stand up. Her face was cloudy, her eyes squinting through the distance to see. I called out “Grandmother, it’s me, 樂樂.”

Recognition poured over her face the way sun spreads across still, waveless seas. How happy she was. Her face was incandescent as she linked her arm through mine to walk to the apartment, as if I had been there all my life.

There was a woman in the yard who chastised my grandmother in Taiwanese: “You have a granddaughter in her thirties? Single? You need to push her to marry soon, have children. She’s going to be too old!” I felt uncomfortable as all my anxieties about being reprimanded flooded back in, but my grandmother waved her off as we got on the elevator.

The apartment was dark, tiny, but spotless. I loved that everything felt lived-in, warm, distantly familiar. There are photos of my late grandfather. The kitchen rags are all old pieces of clothing.

Everything made me feel simultaneously happy and heartbroken, the kind of heartbroken you feel when you can see the struggle it took for your elders to bestow the luxury you yourself now have in this life.

Once the door was open, she immediately scrambled to retrieve house slippers for us because it is polite, and I smiled wryly as I remembered how sometimes he teases me about wearing slippers in my house and hotel rooms. I knew he disliked it, thought it was unattractive. But my own grandmother was kneeling in front of me. I put them on. I hoped one day he would finally understand why I wear them.

She was bustling the way my mother bustles when visitors arrive. “Have you eaten? Let me make you food. Let me make you some hot tea.” I wanted her to sit down, to rest. You’re 90 years old! I wanted to say. Please, let me do it.

She proceeded to call everyone in the family who lives in Tainan. I was elated that she was distracted and delighted by this task, so that I could be the one doing things for her.

I had the honor of cutting fruit for my grandmother, then kneeling to present her with 紅包 (red envelope) for the new year. Something that as a little girl I never imagined I’d have the honor of doing.

We took a walk to buy noodles; she insisted that she walk everywhere with me. She was very confident. “Your mother brought me this last time,” she said, replacing her cane with the walker in her room. “I can walk *so* far now!”

Sure enough, she zipped through the streets faster than I could keep up. My 90-year-old grandmother, pushing her walker around Tainan and holding my arm, showing me off to the neighborhood, telling everyone who passed by: “This is my granddaughter, the daughter of my only daughter, the one I flew to America to help raise when she was little.” She was beaming. I can’t remember the last time anyone has shown me off publicly this way, like they are proud and gleaming for me to be by their side.

My heart kept skipping with each one of her smiles. Everyone who saw us said they hadn’t seen her so happy in years. I wanted to cry.

They have always warned me that my grandmother loves run-on questions and sentences. Not meanly, she bubbled onward giddily, “Were you in Taipei to see a boyfriend? Or to find one maybe? You must bring him here to meet me. Don’t worry about what they say. Marry whenever you want, as long as I get to meet him. We can find you a boyfriend in Taipei. I’m so happy you’re here. The journey must have been so long for you. You’ve only gotten more beautiful. I’m glad eyes are like your dad’s, not like mine, they are bigger, more beautiful that way.”

My aunt and uncle descended upon us with fruit and cherry tomatoes and dumplings, wanting me to eat more. Worried that I wouldn’t have enough to eat. “You can’t find this in America,” they said, pushing 蓮霧 in front of me.

Everyone wanted to eat. But I was so full already, swelling from all of this feeling, all of this warmth, the tenderness that comes from being around people who share your blood and history. I sat there, haloed in “Happy New Year” and “next time ignore your mother, you *must* give us more notice.” I knew then that my mother avoided announcing our arrival because she didn’t want anyone to make a fuss with preparations. This way, it was just beautiful. This way, it was just spontaneity and joy.

They insisted on walking us to the train station, though it took twice as long to have everyone join on the sojourn. But proudly I ambled with my arms linked with my aunt on one side and my grandmother on the other, bumping into one another with every step because of our different paces and strides. And so we waddled like determined ducks, moving slowly through the speeding scooters.

Here is a family who survived through oppression, who spoke up, who fought, who fled with nothing to its name in a boat to a foreign land, who rebuilt from nothing. Here now, with all this freedom, all this strength, all this being alive.

This day is almost, almost enough to make me believe that our collective love and care can stop an apocalypse. This is naïve maybe, and cliché certainly: but to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. History says so. Physics proves so. Love makes it so. I’ll keep saying it until I convince even myself.

***

So I continue reading my sad novel. 阿姨 was right that I am being studious after all. We must stay studious, diligent, vigilant, alert, and most of all, hopeful. I finish the last page and close the book, then look up at the sunset. I feel renewed in my certainty that we, with our little lives, can make a big difference.

Comments 4

  1. Kristan February 6, 2017

    I’m so glad you had a lovely reunion with your grandmother. Isn’t it amazing how much Taiwan has changed? (And yet also, how much is still reverberates in your soul as being homehomehomehomehome?) At least that’s how it felt for me, going back after nearly 13 years. I can’t let that much time pass again. I want my daughter to know that beautiful place, those wonderful people, our family, or history.

      • Rose Kuo February 8, 2017

        Thank you for this, sorry I’m just getting to it now. I absolutely agree, and they asked me the same thing (in Mandarin). The second I stepped foot in Tainan and heard the way everyone pronounces their “qu” and “si” and “sh” sounds, and the fruit, and the people- this is homehomehomehomehome, I felt. I hope you do get to take the little one sooner rather than later, though it’s a very long journey to make. It’s worth it. Are you going to teach her how to speak Chinese?

      • Kristan February 8, 2017

        I’m going to try, but seeing as I speak at a toddler-level myself… the odds seem low. If I can find a good nanny who also speaks Chinese, that would be ideal. At the very least we’ll put her in Chinese school as soon as she’s able, but I know from experience that one day a week isn’t really enough… Our best bet is probably if Andy gets an assignment in China or Singapore! 😛

Leave a Reply