Roots and Leaves

My grandmother brews smells in the kitchen long before I learn that olfaction is the sense most loaded with memories. Thighbones filled with creamy marrow bubbling in beef stew; young bamboo stems boiled, cooled on ice cubes and dipped in sesame oil; braised three-layered-pork; preserved eggs and soybeans stir-fried with short hot peppers that go straight to the insides of your forehead and rouse a cacophony of sneezes. Hers are recipes thick with nostalgia, dripping sauces and spices preserved from Mainland China where she left sixty years ago, a home she feeds to us with chopsticks.

My grandmother was seventeen when she left China, a girl belonging to stories dug up like pebbles from the past and tossed occasionally into my consciousness by my mother’s hands. I imagine her standing at a crowded train station in the summer of 1949, her one-year-old son in her arms. Communism consumes China in one last gulp as she waits for a patriotic husband to decide whether or not to forget his motherland and escape to Taiwan. She had told him earlier that day that she was leaving, with or without him, and when I hear this story I wonder how confident she had felt, standing alone on the platform, that he would show up. Did she cry or laugh when he finally did? What could have been a tragic tale of abandon is now just a funny story my mother tells, the story of a strong woman whose stubbornness forced my grandfather to bring our family safely out of Communist China and into Taiwan, the island I call my home.


Taiwan is a sweet-potato shaped island whose history of identities is abbreviated into a dot on most maps. In elementary school, teachers teach us that Portuguese sailors passing by in the 16th century were so impressed by our golden coasts and green hills that they named us Ilha Formosa, a beautiful island. This western christening pleases us because it gives us the only name we agree on. Beauty doesn’t care whether its delicate shorelines contain a province or a country, we say. Our identity is our gifts from nature, documented by the ancient admiration of outsiders.

But second-graders are skeptical. We think of empty boba-tea cups and cigarette butts on beaches bleeding into the ocean where our mothers wouldn’t let us swim because the water looked dirty. We see shallow-rooted betel-nut trees growing on green hills, soil loosening under summer typhoons, mud tumbling downhill. We hear debates about national identity and integrity, proponents of either side challenging the other’s love for their country. We stare at the green island on the pages of our social studies textbooks and whisper wonderingly, Formosa, squinting to remember what it looked like five hundred years ago. It is hard to love your country when you don’t really know what it is.

On Wikipedia, there are a total of seven pages about Taiwan under seven different names. There are also several articles consisting of rather long and heated debates on whether or not a given combination of these pages should be merged. Apparently, the distinction is that “Taiwan” is an island, “Republic of China” is a political state, “Taiwan Province” is an administrative division, “Taiwan Area” is a geopolitical area, “Republic of Taiwan” is a proposed state (whatever that means), “Taiwan Province, People’s Republic of China” is a theoretical province of the People’s Republic of China (whatever that means), and “Chinese Taipei” is the name that Taiwan (or is it Republic of China?) uses to compete in the Olympics.

In any case, my family first came to one of these places in 1949. After twenty some years of civil war, interrupted by eight years of Japanese invasion and resuming after their defeat, the Nationalist government had been forced to retreat increasingly southward until the only place left to go was the little island across the strait that they had just reclaimed from Japan. On October 1st, Mao established the People’s Republic of China in Beijing; later that month, Chiang Kai Shek transported the Republic of China and two million of its people to Taiwan. I imagine the massive uprooting: loyal Nationalist members who firmly believed the Mainland would be reclaimed, intellectuals who brought larger families because they suspected it would not, teenage soldiers who did not know enough to believe or suspect at all. Husbands sending wives and children. Sons leaving mothers. Daughters bidding sweethearts goodbye.

My grandparents from both sides were among those millions rushing from homes to trains rushing to boats, to harbors, to land. Stories are born and lost in that chaos, and among them were tiny bits of my parents whose stories carry tiny bits of me. I would have liked to say that I have tried to reclaim those stories just as Chiang Kai Shek tried to reclaim the Middle Kingdom. But the truth is that before a certain age you think the only stories that have anything to do with you are the stories you create, and it is not until you start losing them that you realize the only stories you own are those that created you.


I think about the seventeen-year-old girl at the train station whenever I make dumplings. I remember spending Saturday afternoons in the kitchen with my grandparents, helping my grandfather roll long cylinders of dough while my grandmother complained that he worked too slowly. He chuckled and repeated the proverb, “slow work makes fine work,” and my grandmother smiled. The smell of dough rose with sixty years of marriage, ordinary and sweet, and I breathed it all in, thinking of their journey over the Taiwan Straight, the home they built together meal by meal. I watched my grandmother peel a piece of skin off the counter, place a lump of meat at the center, and arrange it into a ball with her chopsticks. She folded the skin over the meat with skillful fingers and tucked the corners in neatly, pinching all around the edges, a home wrapped around flesh, safely sealed.

When I make dumplings with my mother at home, we use store-bought and machine-made dumpling skins, and I can always tell the difference. My mother complains that my grandmother doesn’t believe she can cook. She is the youngest daughter and used to spend afternoons after school watching her mother dice spring onions and press ground pork and potatoes into meatballs, but my grandmother tells her: “More oil, too little salt, don’t let it burn!” I remind her that this is exactly what my mother tells me when we’re cooking at home. “But that’s different,” she says. “You really don’t know how to cook!”

I ask my grandmother to teach me but she says, “What’s the hurry? I couldn’t make fried rice until we came to Taiwan.” This surprises me because somehow I imagined that she came into the world knowing how to cook, how to shred carrots into carrot-shredder-thin strips with a knife, how to pick the sweetest, juiciest fruits in the market, and how to peel the skins off peaches without leaving a single blemish on the flesh. In my surprise I forgot to ask her how, then, did she learn how to cook? Did she buy cookbooks like my friends’ mothers? Did she resort to trial and error like me? Did the seventeen-year-old girl cook happily for her new family, or always with a tear in one eye for the mother she left and the recipes she would never see again?


I have never been to the Mainland, and I have hardly heard my grandparents describe it. When they talk about China they describe people and events, not places. The China I know comes from the poets we read in Chinese class, from the lofty peaks of Tai Mountain where Confucius saw the world in one scope: river, mountain, temple, city.

My favorite poems are about departures. There are plenty of them: soldiers marching toward desolate borders, young scholars leaving countryside homes for positions in the city, friends seeing friends off for miles to postpone the final moment of parting. Millennia of breaths are let out in sighs of poetry written in yearning for a vast and aging motherland, and I envision the land my grandparents left across the strait, a fingertip away on the map. I am unearthing a foreign culture with my own language, digging up characters that lived through the characters they wrote. I wonder if it is these characters, or the roots of my family still buried in the Mainland, that fed the Yangtze River into my veins.


In the kitchen, the women in my family cook dishes seasoned with home and traditions. Accents evolve and you can no longer tell mine from the kids whose families have been in Taiwan for centuries, but recipes are preserved over generations. When I go to my friends’ homes for dinner, the slight variations of cooking styles fit awkwardly in my mouth. Too much sugar, where are the Chinese chives, some sort of spice is missing. I listen to their parents speak to them in the Taiwanese dialect, my friends replying in Mandarin lined with a hybrid Taiwanese slur, and I realize that the tongue inherits a mother’s tastes much more faithfully than it does her language.

My grandma has a famous dish called jio-mien, or ‘pinch noodles.’ Whenever she announces that we’re having jio-mien for dinner, my cousins and I rush to wash our hands and gather in the kitchen expectantly. My aunt dices the carrots, turnips, Chinese onions and prepares the ground pork; my mother boils the ingredients in a steamy stew and adds sauces and seasoning; my grandpa kneads the dough for the noodles in his slow methodological way; my grandma makes sure he does it right; and we the kids get to do the actual pinching.

First we cut the dough into strips. Next, we roll the strips in sesame oil until our hands glisten with the sweet scent and the dough becomes plump cylinders tinged in golden brown. Then comes the fun part. We pinch off small bits of the cylinders with our thumbs and forefingers and toss them in the massive bubbling pot of stew, watching the soup dance and gurgle and the pinches of dough surfacing one by one. The smell of boiling stew and flour loads the entire house with an appetite inherited from a little village in northern China where my grandpa grew up. The noodle pinches are sleek and chewy in the rich stew, and if you savor a spoonful slowly you can detect the faint taste of sesame oil mixed in with the melting carrots and turnips, a fragrance that will stay in the creases of your palms for days.


At a neighborhood potluck, a lady peered at my mother’s dishes and said, “Wai-shen ren are so different!”

For as long as I’d known what it meant, I had identified as a wai-shen ren, or extra-provincial people. Wai-shen ren refers to the millions who had moved to Taiwan after the Chinese civil war as well as all their descendents, while ben-shen ren are those whose ancestors immigrated to Taiwan before World War II. Ben-shen ren are not indigenous Taiwanese people, because they also immigrated to Taiwan from China. The difference is that wai-shen ren had been in Taiwan for three generations while ben-shen ren were there for more than five. To me, being a wai-shen ren means that I don’t understand Taiwanese, that my grandparents speak in lilting accents preserved from their separate provinces, and that the contents of my bento lunch box always look slightly different.

While growing up, I rather enjoyed the distinction. I would proudly raise my hand when our first grade teachers wanted to know which students in the class were wai-shen ren, and gloated when my friends asked to sample my mother’s cooking. In high school, after a whispered but heated discussion about Taiwanese politics with the girl sitting next to me that lasted throughout history class, we were ecstatic to find out that we were both wai-shen ren. Later on as rallies formed to protest against the corrupt president at the time, we would walk to the gatherings together after school but carefully avoid talking about them in front ben-shen ren friends. “They might support the president,” we’d whisper.

For my parents’ generation, however, the implications were much more complicated. They grew up in the transition from Nationalist martial law to democracy, from “Republic of China in Taiwan” to just “Taiwan.” Politics shifted from Chiang Kai Shek’s maxim “Reclaim the Mainland!” to secret rallies and student protests for Taiwanese independence. The Republic of China’s terrain went from a map that encompassed Outer Mongolia to a sweet potato plus a splattering of even tinier islands. Conflicts arose between ben-shen ren and the Nationalist government, which then consisted almost entirely of wai-shen ren’s.

Meanwhile, the government’s land reform laws and major construction projects launched the “Taiwan Miracle,” bringing our economy decades ahead of Communist China. Taiwan became more and more disconnected from the Mainland, a sweet potato drifting away on the Pacific, growing highways and skyscrapers. But the booming economy could not pull together a divided people. The minority wai-shen government was often cruel and unjust during the martial law period, and it bred a suppressed animosity that was finally released with the birth of democracy. The majority ben-shen ren became the new power. “Unification” and “independence” were issues constantly brought up, tossed around fiercely during campaign seasons, manipulated for votes.

By the time the Taiwanese government allowed visits to the Mainland in 1978, the motherland that my grandparents left behind had disappeared among the shambles of Cultural Revolution along with mothers and fathers and siblings. There was nothing left to reclaim. The China that my parents grew up trying to remember through their parents’ stories was a myth, and their temporary shelter in a divided Taiwan had to become a home.


Ben-shen ren criticize us for not speaking Taiwanese,” my father tells me. “There is a saying in Taiwanese about how we don’t know the language after decades of eating Taiwanese rice and drinking Taiwanese water. And how true! I can’t even really say why that is. We just never learned, and we never taught you. I guess we really don’t belong.”

“We should have bought a house right after we arrived in Taiwan,” My grandmother says. “Instead we drifted around in different places for years. But who knew? Your grandpa was so sure we were going home soon.”

My grandfather, the man who believed in his country and government so much that he was ready to let his wife and son leave without him, passed away four winters ago. A portrait of my grandpa’s mother hangs on the wall in front of his desk. I remember once when I was very young, I climbed up my grandpa’s chair to search for scissors on his desk and saw the portrait straight in the eyes for the first time. I had always known it was there, but never really noticed it until then. The portrait was a very simple sketch of a plain, quiet face with eyes that I imagine resembled my grandpa’s, gray hair tightly combed into a bun, neck and shoulders wrapped in a plain traditional frock. Her face seemed foreign and oddly silent in the clutter of my grandpa’s study. Right below the portrait, written with calligraphy brush and ink, were characters already familiar to my six-year-old mind: “My mother.” I remember quickly climbing down the chair, without the scissors and with a chill lumping in my breastbone. Now I recognize it as the chill you get when you leave something behind.


I was born in 1988 in Clemson, South Carolina. When I was four, my father received his Ph.D but had trouble finding work in the States immediately afterwards. When he got a teaching position in a university in Taiwan, my parents decided to move back, a decision that my father later said he made with some regret. He lamented the opportunities that I would miss without an American education, but was comforted by the fact that I would grow up near my grandparents. Now when we talk about the past, he tells me “It was the right decision.”

When I think of the early years of my life, though, I can now see the sense of compensation with which my parents raised and educated me. Even though I enrolled in local Mandarin-speaking schools and only twice briefly visited the States before college, my parents did everything they could to make sure that I kept up with English: tutors, storybooks, movies with subtitles duct-taped over on the TV screen. My father talks about his careful planning and foresight with pride. Being able to speak English fluently means that I can go anywhere and be anyone, he says. I can make a fortune teaching English in Taiwan, I can go to America and become anything I wanted, I can have kids who grow up inside white-picket fences, away from the little confused island caught between the past and the future. We have been suspended in this in-between area for too long: almost independent but not quite, almost a democracy but not quite, almost belonging but not quite. If you are able to leave, they said, don’t come back.

My parents tell me that they want the world to be open to me like a book, so I read profusely while growing up, mainly in English. “Little Golden Books” before “300 Tang Poems for Children” (a classic children’s must-read), “Pride and Prejudice” before “Dream of the Red Chamber.” Freshman year of high school, I started seriously considering going to college in the States. A stack of SAT prep books grew steadily alongside my Chinese textbooks, and later on acceptance letters arrived from across the Pacific. I was excited but scared, and I tried not to think too hard about departure.


A few weeks before graduation, the weather in Taiwan turns unbearably hot. I walk through the thick soup of humidity after school on a route I had traveled for three years, in summer storm and slow autumn drizzles. The whole city sweats on me, pressing its hot breath against an earlobe, an eyebrow, the inside of my elbow. As sweat trickles along the line of my chin, I think about California. I pass by bookstores and cafes, Chinese medicine shops wafting bittersweet smells of herbs, street vendors, boba tea stores, elaborate 7-11s. As each door opens I breathe in the scent and the cool relief. I gather them deep inside my lungs, I carry them and exhale breaths that had acquired my temperature and memory. The smell of Chinese characters on Chinese pages in Chinese books. The fragrance of tea eggs. The artificial scent of air-conditioned rooms and clearly defined spaces. I walk past them and doors close, cicadas singing.

Now I am in California where grass is yellow in the summer, and people ask me where I’m from.

Taiwan, I say.

“You mean Chinese Taipei, do you?” query international students from the Mainland.

“Oh I get it. Taiwan is not part of China, right?” American students say with a knowing smile.

The air turns slightly humid with their questions and I sweat a little as I politely answer. But it all depends, I want to say, on what you mean by China, and then again on what you mean by Taiwan. We are not part of the People’s Republic of China, simply because my grandparents did not fight the Communists sixty years ago so that sixty years later their grandchildren will readily accept a Communist government. But we are part of some concept of China. Some aspect of China that doesn’t change with shifting politics, slipping economy or threat of war; a China that is the same in wai-shen ren and ben-shen ren because it is not a collection of provinces or governments, but a single idea of belonging that exists even in the fiercest proponents of Taiwanese independence. A massive land and history that fits snugly inside a sweet potato, like good food encapsulating the value of family. Like scents we carry in our palms. Like the characters we write and the characters we love. Like this understanding of this conflict that is so difficult to explain to others who ask, that leaves me nodding and shrugging at the same time. We can never be truly independent from China just as I can never be truly independent from Taiwan, even though we are both drifting away from our roots, slowly forgetting.


“Do you plan to go back to Taiwan after college?” People ask me.

“After grad school?”

“Eventually? At all?”

I come up with different answers every time. No, it depends, probably not, who knows? They are all true.

I think of a famous line from a Taiwanese poet: “The Mainland is my mother, Taiwan is my wife, Hong Kong is a lover, and the West is an affair.”

I think of the Chinese proverb that says a fallen leaf returns to its roots.

Then I imagine a sweet potato. It is its own root, clumsy and odd, but it doesn’t need other roots to ground it. It can grip the earth firmly and then leave, taking a skin of earth with it, shed tiny bits wherever it goes.

I think about the different reasons people leave. Some are forced to, like my grandparents. Some are taken, like my uncles in their mothers’ arms. Some are fortunate enough that they get to, like me.

I am now six years older than my grandmother was when she left China. I crossed the Pacific to a college in the States, and the distance was so much shorter than when she crossed the Taiwan Straight to build a home from scraps and a kitchen. My eyes and mouth water for things that are lost in the process of inheritance. I am the product of memories and recipes wrapped and concealed, hidden away so that only the smooth plump skins are visible, and I still don’t know how much salt to put in the fillings.

Whatever it is that I leave behind, I can only leave it behind because it belonged to me. Roots are tiny beginnings sprouting. I stare at the little root vegetable through an airplane window, growing smaller when I leave, looming larger when I return. The breathless awe of foreign sailors five hundred years ago breaks over me in waves.

History is a series of departures, lives leaving words leaving mouths.

Ilha Formosa, I whisper.

* * *

Justine Kao was born in the United States and grew up in Taiwan, where she attended local Mandarin-speaking schools and developed an incorrigible taste for linguistic oddities and sweet potatoes. After high school, she attended Stanford University and studied Symbolic Systems (how the human mind makes sense of language) and Creative Writing (how language can help make sense of the human mind). She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology at Stanford, where she continues to explore the roots of language, meaning, and her own existence through research and creative non-fiction.

Roots and Leaves was originally published December 2012 in As/Us Journal. The website is a space to showcase the creative literary expressions and scholarly work of both emerging and established women writers from around the world.

One Response to “Roots and Leaves”

  1. Carlos Sempere Chen

    Thank you for this great essay. My mom’s family is ben-shen ren and my wife’s is wai-shen ren, and I’m continually learning about her side of the story. It’s a fascinating one, and it’s regretable that the different peoples in Taiwan got off to such a bad start together. We’ve come to realize with some sadness that both groups have felt oppressed by the other in some way, at some time. It’s been improving though. Probably more so in Taiwan than here in the US, where I would hear very un-PC things years after people in Taiwan were starting to get tired of it.

    I do have to disagree that even proponents of Taiwanese independence feel they belong to some concept of China. Many of us don’t; it simply didn’t take root in our minds, despite (or perhaps because of) having been bombarded with the idea from multiple sides for our whole lives. I suppose it’s like asking someone to believe in a religion that isn’t theirs. Some of us who grew up as minorities in the US have pan-Asian tendencies, but I suppose that’s not the same thing.

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