Friday, May 6, 2016

taiwan, pt i

{starting the trip in taipei}

{miaoli, where my mom was born}

on a tuesday morning in march, i flew from DC to chicago to tokyo to taipei, and 20+ hours later, found myself in a distant relative's apartment in the da'an district of taipei. the main reason we traveled across the ocean was to attend my mom's family's ancestral holiday (pronounced "god-ze" in mandarin) for the lai family, and we figured we would make a trip of it by bringing my grandparents (goon goon and po po) along to show us the ropes. my mom left taiwan when she was 12, and it was so, so amazing to see her back in her element. 

in the beginning of the trip, my mom considered her mandarin "rusty," but had trouble switching back to english as our two weeks came to an end. my dad and i - neither of whom speak mandarin or "hakka," the language of her hometown - watched on eagerly in the beginning, following the mouths of our relatives, then turning to my mom for translation. the few phrases we do understand - such as "happy new year" and "this food is delicious" - obviously did not get us very far. it wasn't until the end of the trip that my dad and i would sit through a meal having our own conversation in english and my mom would ask us to "be engaged in the conversation" (... hah). mandarin is unlike germanic languages in so many ways and felt nearly impossible to pick up despite my concerted attempts. while in paris, i felt as if i could somewhat follow along to a conversation in french, picking up a few words here and there. i even convinced some cafe owners that i was fluent when i told them je voudrais un café au lait. in taiwan, i felt lucky if i picked up one word that sounded familiar. my mom could not stop laughing whenever i said thank you ("xie xie"), and in such a serious, clearly enunciated manner. i told her that if i was going to say the only phrase in chinese that i knew, and be understood, i was going to say it well, dangit! 

the only language mishap: to my american ears, the words for "excuse me" and "you're welcome" in mandarin sound VERY similar (duìbùqǐ vs bié kèqì). so similar that often i would use them interchangeably - something i didn't notice until the end of the trip. so i was walking through the national palace museum in taipei, telling random chinese tourists "you're welcome" as i sidled up next to them in line. and when i handed my great aunt a warmed cup of soy milk for breakfast, i told her to excuse herself. this is the same great aunt who woke me up one morning laughing at me because i fell asleep with a hair dryer on, in my hands and pointed at my face, the night before (because, jet lag). she thought i was a special american child.

on the morning of the ancestral holiday in miaoli, we drove to the grave site of my ancestors, a small pagoda-like structure in a small field between rice fields and narrow, winding roads. almost a hundred people - all related to me - had already arrived, and we stood in the rain as the ceremony began. the oldest men in the lai family, my goon goon included, cast moon blocks on the ground as we held sticks of incense in front of the shrine. in the middle of chanting in chinese, everyone burst out laughing and stared at my goon goon, who had the biggest smile on his face. apparently in the middle of this important ceremony in hakka, he had spoken some english to the deities - a faux pas for the family. ohhhhh goon goon. afterwards, my family burned fake money and set off fireworks for our ancestors, and said ganbei a few too many times.  

photos above: 
- miaoli: visiting the house in which my mom grew up, her elementary school, the path she walked with her brother to school, "20 miles, barefoot, in the sun" :)

stories from the rest of my trip, to come!

"the world is big and i want to have a good look at it before it gets dark."
- john muir 

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