Yesterday I spent the night in Taipei visiting my (distant) relatives on my mom's side of the family. It's strange to think that were it not for me teaching in Taiwan for one year, I might've never had the chance to meet my mom's stepfamily.
It's comforting to know that I have relatives (albeit not blood-related) in Taiwan. Before leaving for Taiwan, my mom's stepbrother's mom contacted me via WeChat, the popular Chinese messaging cellphone app. Because we technically aren't blood-related, I struggled with how to address her politely. My mom suggested I keep it simple by sticking to laolao (姥姥), or "grandma."
For a "grandma," she's quite technologically savvy. Since my arrival in Taiwan earlier this month, she's sent me WeChat messages; the first is displayed below.
She's also sent me many sweet messages like the ones below:
看到妳的回信好高興。很想看到妳。 ... 等妳消息，也期待妳來台北玩。
Lynna - a fellow ETA from San Francisco, CA - and I traveled to Taipei together via train. Booking train tickets is super convenient in Taiwan. You simply go online to order a train ticket and obtain a reservation number. Then you stop by your nearest 7/11 convenience store (called "seven" for short) and enter the reservation number into a self-service machine, which produces a receipt. You pay the amount printed on the receipt at the cash register, and then receive a printed copy of your ticket. My one-way ticket yesterday morning on a regular-speed train cost $289 NTD, or less than $10 USD.
Lynna and I left our apartment in Beitun District (北屯區) yesterday morning at 09:00 to take the bus to the Taichung Train Station (台中火車站). The commute to the Train Station took about 45 minutes including walking - our train left just after 10:00, and we arrived in Taipei at 13:12.
After alighting the train, I took the subway to Nangang Exhibition Center (南港展覽館), which took about 25 minutes. I texted my grandma that I was wearing a red dress (紅色的連衣裙) so she could identify me in the crowd of people outside the subway station. The only visual of her I had was her profile photo on WeChat -- before I got the Fulbright, I had no idea that I had distant relatives in Taiwan. All my life, I assumed that all my relatives on my mom's side lived in Beijing, China. Truth be told, my mom knows very little about her Taiwanese relatives, too. Sometime in the midst of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s-70s, my mom's stepfamily fled to Taipei. My mom has only met them once - and that encounter took place about 8 years ago in Beijing during a family reunion.
So as you can probably imagine, I looked forward to this moment with a great deal of anticipation, excitement, and curiosity. I saw her approaching from a distance and we hugged when we met. I could only glean so much about her personality via her messages, so it was incrediblly novel to interact with her in person. Right away, she struck me as an affectionate, motherly, witty, jovial, and doting grandmother. I instantly connected with her and admired her.
Moments later, we were picked up by her son (my mom's stepbrother) in his car. After a short car ride, we arrived at their apartment (they share a two-bedroom apartment). I was greeted by smooth jazz in the hallway right outside their apartment, located in a gated complex with an amiable guard who remarked with great surprise at my ability to speak Chinese, "She can speak Chinese? Awesome!" (她會說中文?! 很厲害!).
We sat down in their living room - a small, immaculate and cozy space - while my grandma handed me a plate full of freshly sliced cherry tomatoes and guava, along with a glass of refreshing, iced date tea (紅棗茶).
While I was greeted by many questions, I felt at ease talking to them - not like I was under scrutiny or interrogation (which, truth be told, is sometimes how I feel when speaking to relatives). They treated me like family, although we only conversed in Chinese. This was a bit challenging considering I hadn't used it much since arriving in Taiwan due to Fulbright's month-long orientation (delivered largely in English).
For dinner, we ate at a Japanese restaurant where I had easily some of the best hot pot in my life -- sukiyaki style, i.e. a sweet and salty soy sauce-based broth with bold flavors, thinly sliced beef, and crisp vegetables. There, my grandma, her son, daughter, and granddaughter (my step-cousin) and I got to know each other over a hot meal. I learned that one of my grandma's other sons served as an English teacher for 12 months at a rural elementary school in Taiwan during his compulsory military service. This is considered a form of alternative service (替代品), as it falls under the umbrella of community service-related work.
Many of the Fulbright ETA's in Taichung work at elementary schools with soldiers completing their compulsory military service. We like to refer to them as the "soldier boys." In this type of position, soldiers are expected to help with all sorts of miscellaneous tasks, such as cleaning, serving lunch, and even assisting teachers (including foreign teachers, yay!). It's possible that the elementary schools where I'm teaching will also have "soldier boys" - I guess I'll have to wait and see come August 29th (the first day of school).
Left to right: step-uncle, step-aunt, me, and my step-cousin.
Me awkwardly posing for grandma.
My step-cousin and I.
My grandma doting on me by preparing a lovely breakfast -- toast with egg, fried cow tongue (yes, that's a thing!), salad, coffee, and a banana.