For a long time, I had only one memory of my great-grandmother, A-tso. It wasn’t a happy one. I was intrigued when my Auntie Hui-chin recently told me a story I’d never heard about A-tso—doubling the knowledge I had about the oldest relative I’d ever met—just a few weeks after my dad passed away at the age of eighty-one.
We had completed a whirlwind of family events in my dad’s honor: the viewing, cremation, memorial service, and placement of the urn in its final resting place in the columbarium next to my mom’s ashes. In the first forty-eight hours I was in Taiwan, I had not been alone for a single minute; I went from shaking hands and accepting condolences from dozens of relatives and friends, to attending a somber family meeting to decide how to divide up my dad’s estate, to smiling through a formal dinner with my dad’s Bible translation colleagues while pretending to enjoy sea cucumber and abalone. We had one day to relax before all of the out-of-town family members returned home.
After being constantly surrounded by people for three days, I was suddenly alone. Without all the buzz and activity to distract me, all the feelings I had been trying to avoid flooded in; I felt untethered and off-balance, trapped in a strange world where everything looked familiar but nothing was the same. I was a child without parents, a tree without roots.
For the first time, I was left to navigate my way around Taiwan without any parental help. After my husband and son left, I checked out of the hotel in Taipei and went to stay at my parents’ apartment in Sanhsia, about an hour away, with the goal of sorting through a lifetime’s worth of their belongings. It was after five o’clock when I arrived during a lull in the heavy downpour that struck almost every afternoon. I opened the door with my key and entered the apartment like I had hundreds of time before, only there was no one to greet me.
The apartment was piled high with cardboard boxes, a result of my dad selling their other apartment a year ago and consolidating their things in the one property he still owned. It was hopelessly cluttered, dusty and claustrophobic, more like a storage unit than a place where someone had actually lived. On previous trips I had managed to poach wifi from a neighbor, but now all the networks were password-protected. I couldn’t get the TV or the stereo to work. There was no dial tone when I picked up the telephone. It scared me a little, being so completely cut off from the outside world in that apartment. All the noise and energy that used to fill this space—conversations with my mom and dad, an endless loop of Taiwanese TV news, the hiss of vegetables being stir fried in a wok, the chirping sound of the doorbell when we had visitors—was gone, replaced by stale air and an unsettling quiet. I felt like I had crossed a threshold into a strange, forbidden place, like Dante in Purgatory, a tourist in the land of the dead. Eventually I managed to get over my uneasiness and fall asleep on the living room sofa; I could not bring myself to sleep in my dad’s bed.
The following day my Auntie Hui-chin, the wife of my dad’s younger brother, arrived to help me clean out the apartment. She and my Uncle I-to had also gone to graduate school in the US in the 1960s, and partially raised their three children there. Auntie and Uncle speak English fluently, and their experiences mirrored my own parents’ in many ways. After my dad became incapacitated a couple of years ago, they were the ones who translated for me and passed on any news from our Taiwanese relatives.
The author's Uncle I-to, Auntie Hui-chin, and parents, early 1960s / photo courtesy of the author
Auntie Hui-chin is a no-nonsense kind of person; she immediately went to work sorting through the boxes, bookshelves, and closets in the bedrooms, while I did the same in the living room. Every now and then I would pause to ask her a question or show her an old black-and-white photo I’d discovered. Or she would come to the living room holding some object and say, “Look what I found. Do you want to keep it?” The first time she said that, she had found a brittle plastic folder with the original life insurance policy my mom had purchased for my dad more than forty years ago—an account I had been trying unsuccessfully to cash out for years. A couple of hours later, she again emerged from the bedroom and said, “Grace, look at this!”
She held up a small feather duster and a big smile spread across her face. I’m sure I looked thoroughly confused. “Maybe you did not know this,” she said, “but A-tso used to make these feather dusters by hand. This looks like one of hers. I think you should keep it.”
She went on to describe how my great grandmother A-tso—her husband’s grandmother—had come to her on the eve of her departure for New York, where she was planning to join my Uncle I-to at Union Theological Seminary. A-tso said to her, “I have something for you,” while making a show of concealing something behind her back. The implication was that it was a special memento of some sort, perhaps an heirloom she would be entrusted with.
A-tso revealed the gift she’d brought: a handmade feather duster, made with chicken feathers. A-tso was very proud of the feather dusters, and considered herself an artisan of sorts. She painstakingly collected the feathers, arranged them carefully by size and color so they formed a perfect spray, and then tied them with thread onto a stick only slightly bigger than a chopstick. This was her art, and she had bestowed one of these specimens on her grandson’s wife, who was about to travel overseas to meet him.
Auntie Hui-chin said A-tso probably did the same thing for my mom when she left Taiwan to go to Princeton, New Jersey. My mom had gone earlier than my dad, and they weren’t married yet. I tried to imagine how my mom would have reacted, more than fifty years ago, to A-tso’s gift. Did she hide her disappointment, having expected a more lavish or romantic gift as the fiancée of the favorite son? Or was she was delighted and grateful to receive something that was not only handmade, but also lightweight and practical? A generation ago this might have been special, but to me it seemed rather boring and mundane . . . even backwards. Would I really keep such a thing? Should I?
A-tso with one of her great-grandchildren, early 1970s / photo courtesy of the author
I tried to reconcile this vision of A-tso as a sort of fairy godmother to her granddaughters-in-law with the stern, hunched old lady I met the first time we went back to Taiwan after living in the States. I was nine years old the summer we visited on the way to Hong Kong, where my dad had been transferred for work. By then I was a thoroughly American kid who only spoke English and felt profoundly out of place in Taiwan.
My single encounter with A-tso was the most dramatic example of that. When we visited the compound—the home of several generations of the Loh family in Sanhsia, including A-tso—I was taken to an outdoor courtyard, where a tiny old lady was sitting on a stool. She wore a baggy black tunic and pants, and her thin hair was pulled back in a tight bun. Her feet were knobby and deformed from having been bound in her childhood.
My dad nudged me forward to greet her. She looked me up and down, noticing my long ponytailed hair—well past shoulder-length, in contrast with the chin-length bobs of all the Taiwanese schoolgirls we had seen—and my shorts, which at that time were not worn by girls in Taiwan. Her mouth twisted into a scowl.
“Is this a boy or a girl?” she demanded. “Maybe I should pull down the pants to see for sure!”
I didn’t understand what she had said, but I was stung by her obvious disapproval. I was scared of her after that, and always felt ashamed in her presence.
The author at age 9, visiting Taiwan / photo courtesy of the author
Now here I was nearly four decades later, holding something A-tso had made before I was even born—something created out of affection, pride, and the desire to send a memento of Taiwan with the granddaughters who were leaving for a new life far away. Maybe A-tso thought the feather duster would protect them, like a talisman; prevent them from losing their Taiwaneseness—from turning into foreign devils like me.
Taiwan was under martial law then, and it was rare for Taiwanese people to travel outside the country unless, like my parents, they were students who had been admitted to foreign universities. Back then, the flight took nearly a full day from Taiwan to California, with two stops in between, and then it took another half-day to reach New York. Those who were lucky enough to go abroad did so with no guarantee of when they would be able to return home. There was no easy, instant communication through email or Skype or social media; you couldn’t beam yourself into someone’s living room from halfway across the world, or watch videos of the weddings and other family events you missed because you lived in another country. Telephones were a relative luxury owned by a handful of families, and even if you did have one, long-distance phone calls were expensive and required the assistance of a live telephone operator. The majority of person-to-person communication was conducted through handwritten letters. Urgent messages were conveyed by telegram. Ordinary news traveled by surface mail, which took a month or longer; or by airmail using the thinnest onionskin paper or aerogrammes with an accelerated delivery schedule of two weeks.
You were lucky to have one decent photo of a loved one that you could bring with you overseas, as cameras were still mostly owned and used by professionals; photography for the masses was still years away. Photos were precious, physical objects that existed in finite quantities, unlike the endless proliferation of digital images we have today. Because of the difficulty of communication and limited ability to travel home, whatever you put in your suitcase to bring with you was incredibly important. If you wanted to remember someone or something, you had to choose carefully.
I imagine my mom, or my Auntie Hui-chin, selecting what to bring with them on a trip halfway across the world. Clothes for all kinds of weather; a few family photographs; a ring or a necklace given to them by their mothers; two or three books; their best shoes; an address book with contact information for all their relatives in Taiwan, plus a few friends-of-friends to look up in the Tri-State area; a handheld mirror; a purse. There wasn’t room for anything frivolous.
Under these circumstances, maybe A-tso’s feather duster was the perfect gift after all. Don’t forget your parents , it said. Don’t forget the labor of those who helped you succeed. Don’t forget these mountains, this landscape. Etch them into your mind so that Taiwan never leaves you.
Today, the feather duster probably wouldn’t make it through customs. But fifty years ago, it was an ideal souvenir, the closest one could get to bringing back actual Taiwanese soil—a tangible reminder of the land and life my mom and my aunt were leaving behind. I faced the same decision that day in my parents’ apartment, when Auntie Hui-chin told me the story of A-tso’s feather dusters: What, if anything, would make it into my suitcase, a piece of Taiwan and my parents that I could bring home with me?
In the end, I didn’t take the feather duster. I asked Auntie Hui-chin to organize an open house for our relatives to take whatever they wanted of my parents’ leftover possessions—clothes, books, furniture, dishes, and more. I knew they would claim everything that was usable and practical.
I, on the other hand, did not want anything “useful.” Instead I sought out objects that had deep personal significance—things that represented what my parents had loved, and what I loved about them. My mom had been a museum lover and art professor with a PhD in Japanese literature, so I chose a set of art postcards showing famous scenes from The Tale of Genji to remind me of her. My dad, who raised me in a houseful of books, had been a scholar and translator also known for his collection of more than one hundred water buffaloes, a symbol of the hardworking Taiwanese and their agricultural roots. I picked one of his favorites to take home, a smooth wooden sculpture with a mother and calf in a tender pose, set on a base the shape of a leaf—the shape of Taiwan.
Portraits of the author's parents / photo courtesy of the author