I recognized Taiwan by the way it smells. The handfuls of white magnolia champaca, sold by weathered fingers and wrinkled faces for 30 cents on the road. The dense humidity. The distant, slightly sweet smell of incense and routine straw burning. The dampness of pavement after a plum rain.
I closed my eyes, breathing it all in as I stepped off the plane from New York City. This was home. My parents and younger brother were waiting to pick me up at the airport. Together, we would make our biannual southbound pilgrimage to Kaohsiung, where my grandparents lived. Initially, my family and I had planned to stay for only an afternoon. But my mother, who always broke news like this on the car, told me there had been a rupture. My filially pious uncle had stopped visiting the house for the first time in years. My grandfather, my 公公, had asked my mom what he’d done in his youth to deserve emotionally painful old years with my grandmother.
Vaguely confused, I decided to stay a couple days longer than the rest of my family in the somewhat self-important hope that my presence would be a balm. Hoping that because I was away for most of the year, they would put down their pride and, in favor of seeing me, come to a reluctant truce. But really, I wanted to soothe my own shame. For staying away. For being proficient, but not fluent enough in Chinese–– a half-assed bridge between cultures. For continuing to widen the gap between us by studying at a college abroad. Shame, I imagine, feels like a cold egg cracked over your head, the whites dripping through your hair, and the yolk sliding, almost comically, down the bridge of your nose. I wiped the runniness from my eyes.
At nightfall, I waved my family goodbye and prepared myself to speak only Mandarin, clearing the Chinese characters clotted in my throat. What I didn’t prepare for was the sweeping clutter of my grandmother’s, my 婆婆’s, room. The latest symptom of an old obsession. Photographs of building construction obscured the floor. Diagrams of measurements and blueprints. A thermos. A used tissue. English textbooks stacked haphazardly on her chair. Unopened pills still sealed under their foil membranes.
I held my breath.
In many ways, my brother and I grew up with our grandparents’ house. My grandmother, once an aspiring writer, showed me her published personal essays on their black couch while my grandfather snored nearby. We copied Chinese characters into workbooks at the dining table, calling out to our parents if we needed translations for 公公婆婆’s idioms. Summer nights were whittled away on the hardwood floors, atop thick layers of blankets with flower prints. We whispered into the noise of late night motorcycles, listened to the wheezing air conditioner doing its best. The occasional gecko chirped in the walls and someone would wonder aloud whether the tail would fall off if we caught it.
We lived through the contentious addition of the elevator. My mom and her siblings had decided one was necessary as, with my grandparents’ age, climbing multiple flights of stairs a day could wear their bodies. Even then, due to the structure of the house, the elevator was built to only reach the third floor. The piano has also moved to the third after years of being moved between different floors. The once-ivory keys have yellowed like unbrushed teeth from disuse and the notes, in arrogant disregard of the tuner, sit stubbornly a half step offkey. Once they found a dead rat inside and for months afterward, we approached the piano with a trepidation that bridled our curiosity.
The fifth floor now serves as both a laundry room and a mahjong room whose tiled balcony is reserved for plants. Next to the old television (always off), are racks of clothes drying on plastic hangers. The staircase leading up to it is now filled with my grandmother’s old oil paintings that once sat on paint-dotted easels and her dark wooden floor. I don’t remember every single one, but I remember flowers. Sunflowers, to be exact, their petals textured with every stroke.
But ever since I began college in America, we no longer spend our vacations there. We are all caught up in the knotty tangles of our own lives, our rhythms just out of sync. I now miss large family gatherings as my winter break is no longer structured around the Lunar New Year, but Christmas. My summer vacations start and end earlier than my younger brother’s. However, even with my shifted schedule, every time I get on that flight back to Taiwan, I know I’ll make the pilgrimage down south to my grandparents’ house. And this time, despite the tense circumstances, I felt a sense of normalcy.
For breakfast, I knew there would be my grandfather’s signature eggs, pan-fried in an obscene amount of oil (which is what makes them good), and rich homemade chicken broth, stewed for hours from leftover bones. “好吃嗎? (Does it taste good?)” he asked, an anticipating smile in his round face as I cleared the plates.
At night, I settled in the same old room. I took the shower stall that’s missing one third of its sliding door, carefully angling myself so as to minimize the amount of water that escaped to the bathroom floor. I squinted, nearsighted, at the mismatched bottles of shampoo and an old bar of soap. Grabbed the towel (just washed! as are the blankets and bedsheets, my 公公 would say) and began my routine hunt for their hairdryer. I climbed softly down the stairs in case my 公公婆 婆 were both asleep, reading the handwritten labels over the light switches to turn on the lights. Every time I turned one on, they threw curious, angular shadows on the walls with which I steadied myself. Often, the night quiet blanketing the house made me forget its internal peace has been shredded for years. Though perhaps, I shouldn’t have forgotten. My grandparents’ own stories are, after all, ones revolving around property and wealth, family and tension.
My 公公 was born and raised on 大陳島 (the Dachen Islands). His family’s primary source of income came from boats his father rented out to fishermen, alongside the additional rent he would collect from owning property in the mainland. His mother, having lost three other kids, raised 公公 as an only child.
When my grandfather was nine years old, his father went on one last trip with a partner to the mainland to collect rent. Only the partner returned, allegedly rent-less, claiming that 公公’s father had fallen ill and died. Whether this illness narrative was true or something more sinister had happened, no one could say. The body couldn’t be shipped back. 公公 and his mother never collected rent again. His mother was left to be a single parent, having suffered another loss to the family. When everyone on the island boarded the boats headed for Taiwan, only three people voluntarily stayed behind, including one of my grandfather’s classmates (and, my mom said in an afterbreath, fate was not kind to him).
My grandmother was a mainland child. Her father was some government official for the democratic Kuomintang Party. Her mother was in the shipping industry and the family was well off enough to have workers in their business sleep and eat at their spacious home. Not long after my grandmother was born, money flowed in like water. Her mother believed she was good luck and lavished her with care. Fleeing the encroaching Communist Party, they initially ended up on the Dachen Islands where my grandparents first met. When they all moved to Taiwan, my grandparents continued to grow up in adjacent neighborhoods as the city began to populate.
A couple years into their marriage, they bought the house that I have come to know and love. At the time, Taiwan, with its budding government, didn’t have quite so many regulations in urban planning. Houses were so tightly packed together that neighbors often shared an inner wall, their living room spaces separated by a layer of bricks laid horizontally between them. Property boundaries divided the bricks perfectly down the middle so that each side had 12 centimeters. The neighbors that my grandparents shared their particular wall with were colleagues who taught at the same school as my 婆婆.
Though she would later come to lament this, my grandmother trusted them (and in general, most people) completely. Perhaps this was influenced by Taiwanese culture where forgotten wallets are returned to owners, mopeds with keys left in the ignition aren’t stolen, and, in the old days, farmers with pitchforks marched to neighbors’ houses to help catch a thief. But her trusting nature is also largely due to the comfortable household in which she was raised and the environment that my grandfather provided. She gave out her trust widely for free–– it was something she could afford and she found no reason to do otherwise. My grandfather, on the other hand, made sure his trust had to be earned. Having fought to provide since childhood, he had honed healthy skepticism and a keen judgment that served him well in his later years.
If the way they handle the issue of trust is any indication, it follows that their personalities have largely resided on extreme sides of the spectrum. At times, I imagine they are absolutely unable to understand each other.
公公 is someone who could tear apart the fabric of sunlight if he wished. Despite his age, he’s still of a robust constitution and can easily beat any of the men (boys) in the family in an arm wrestling match. As children, we could wrap our small hands on his arms and have him lift us up to squeals of terror and delight. He is also blessed with the ability to sleep anytime, anywhere. Usually before the first floor TV, on the couch, his head tilted back and his mouth slightly open. He has a straightforward, stoic sort of mentality and can eat the same breakfast for months without complaint (if it’s nutritious, why not, is his reasoning.) He cares through practical and tangible means. He has a blunt, direct conversational style that leads him to talk politics with taxi drivers.
My 婆婆, on the other hand, has a soft way about her. She battles insomnia. Her nerves are constantly worn from the lack of sleep and her tendency to worry. It’s usually impossible for her to believe anything other than good about people. She is readily trusting, lighter on her feet, and absolutely non-confrontational. She is embarrassed during taxi rides with 公公 and holds grudges til the end of the earth. But above all, she is a mercurial soul. She wants a deep romance, adventure, and someone to talk to about books and movies and poetry–– a spiritual connection. When we take walks, she’ll name the different species of flowers.
I stopped by my grandmother’s room to check if she was still awake. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to locate the hairdryer without her. I peeked my head around the corner, found her poring over documents, and posed my question. Eyes half-lidded with exhaustion, she propped up her glasses in thinning, curled hair.
“一樓的廁所吧 (First floor bathroom maybe?)”
I thanked her and was about to leave when she said “妹妹，來坐一下。(Granddaughter, come sit for a bit.)”
She cleared the papers beside her to make space on the couch, stacking them on another haphazard pile. I sat with my hair still wet, slowly soaking the side of my shirt. She put her hand on my thigh. “晴晴，你知道人其實都不是我們想像中的那麼好。 (Claire, you know that people are not as good as we think they are.)”
I made a small noise of affirmation.
She gestured toward the papers around her. “你看。就是因為想說反正是隔壁鄰居，認 識那麼久了，又曾經是同事，所以才相信他們。結果搞成這樣。(Look. All because we thought, as longtime neighbors and former coworkers, that they were trustworthy. Look at what’s become of it.”)
From her fragmented stories (pieced together by my mom who could translate some of the more complicated bits), I knew there was a current lawsuit over a portion of the property that started three years ago. But the story really began a couple decades before then when my grandparents wanted to renovate their house, which required tearing down the shared wall. My 公公婆婆 asked if it would be possible to renovate together. The neighbors decided against it. My grandparents, in an attempt to work around the issue, decided to build a new wall on their side. With a certain amount of foresight, they built the third, fourth, and fifth floors so that they jutted out 8 centimeters over the old wall. Twenty years passed without much thought until, in 2014, the neighbors decided that it was about time for them to also renovate. They came by to seek 公公婆婆’s permission to tear down their shared inner wall. My grandparents agreed.
An official came by to measure where the divide lay. He marked the boundary with a painted red circle surrounding a particular type of nail designated for these purposes. And so construction commenced. My grandparents thought nothing when the construction site encroached upon their property with high green metal walls erected on the sides. Behind it, according to my grandparents, the neighbors had stolen land, damaged part of the additional inner wall, and were attempting to cover our twelve centimeters with a marble slab. They claimed that my grandparents had built the wall slanted. The red circle that marked the original boundary had shifted. More centimeters were taken. A paralegal friend took a look and frowned, this boundary is faked. I don’t think the government would do anything illegal, but I could buy these nails anywhere for you.
My grandmother rushed to the city council. The man who had measured the boundary back in 2014 promised to come back to take another look and redraw the line. With his tools, he remeasured and declared the neighbors were in the wrong, but that they were only five centimeters off.
He shoved some papers in front of my trusting grandmother’s face and told her to sign. She was about to when my grandfather stepped in. Stop. Don’t sign. It’s not right. If you do, the third floor will still be a centimeter over the boundary. She waved her hand at him. Shush. SHUSH. Let the man speak. She turned to the official. Is that true?
He smiled benignly at her. Ah, don’t worry. The on-the-ground divide is different from the one you’re talking about. And no one would come after you about it. What are they going to ask you to do? Rebuild that section? If you worry about this, there would be an infinite amount of things to worry about.
My grandmother’s mind was settled.
Perhaps it was more telling that the official asked her to give him the nail. It must be an eyesore. It was. She gave it to him. He pocketed the fake nail and left.
I sat in silence. All this, for 12 centimeters. 12 centimeters replaced by arguments so exhausting that it sucked the house dry of its marrow. 12 centimeters replaced by three years of lawyers and court hearings. Then I remembered, 12 centimeters may not sound like much, but on an island that only takes 5 hours to traverse from tip to toe, where we build aching skyscrapers and narrow sidewalks, every space counts.
“晴晴”, she said again, patting my leg, “你知道人其實都不是我們想像中的那麼好。 (Claire, you know that people are not as good as we think they are.)”
I looked at the mess we sat in, eyes glossing over her English textbook, open to a chapter on, almost laughably, conflict-resolution.“好。(Okay.)” I said softly, to demonstrate I understood even though I don’t quite just yet. The two of us have all too often been ready to give people the benefit of the doubt, the second chance when it’s really been the fourth, and to see the good before the red flags.
We said good night, but not without a reminder that I should dry my hair thoroughly, otherwise I’d catch a cold. I left her room and rummaged around the first floor bathroom. On my way back up the staircase, I paused in the stairwell, looking at the shelves that lined them. I’ve always loved looking at the odd assemblage of their belongings. The small shelf of expensive gifted wines, the occasional brand name watch, my uncle’s diploma from Northeastern University, and the calligraphy hung on the walls could suggest the life of an old money family––in the upper echelons of Kaohsiung. But they lay next to scarves from some small rundown shop in China, a tarnished but rearing bronze horse from who-knows-where, a collection of dirty foreign coins in a jar, a conch shell from some unknown beach among other knick-knacks from decades of traveling on behalf of China Steel.
When 公公 joined China Steel, he was automatically appointed to a management position as soon as he stepped foot in the door. He consequently often jetted off to train in other countries, including, as he would later say to me proudly, for a couple months at MIT. On his business trips, he would purchase items that he thought the family would love. During his Japan trips, he bought peaches for 婆婆. During US trips, he scoured the stores for the newest toys, bringing back a robot for my uncle and a huge stuffed bear that occupied its own suitcase for my aunt. His love came packaged in gifts. Less so in words. As a non-native Mandarin speaker, he often slipped into the accent of his hometown dialect rather than the Taiwanese one. His words were simple. Straight to the point and pared down.
婆婆, on the other hand, was a teacher who, as part of her job, taught Mandarin. She wrote when she could, words siphoned from mind onto paper. Her goal was to write about her family and her own life. She didn’t quite care for material objects. When they went to Beijing for my grandfather’s post-retirement side project in consulting steel company workers, being abroad spurred her creativity. She wandered the streets, incessantly writing slice-of-life narratives about nature and the people. She submitted pieces to China Steel’s magazine issues and Taiwanese newspapers, and even had her work commissioned. Her language was fine and precise, detail-heavy to ensure the tapestry of the story was vibrant and full. Words belonged to her. A little corner of the world that she solely owned.
Their relationship to words and to each other has since changed. 公公 no longer travels, but props the house up by cooking dinner, cleaning, doing laundry, buying groceries, and combating the entropy that trails behind my grandmother like the train of a bridal dress. He comforts her (and to some extent my parents) that as long as I’m passionate about my own writing, with the right attitude, I’ll land on my feet somewhere without broken bones.
My grandmother now dwells on the lawsuit. Her mind is not quite in a space to write the book she always wanted. She envies her co-worker who published one and reminds me writing is not to be depended upon as a career. She still struggles to fall asleep at night. She doesn’t quite eat the breakfast my grandfather cooks, but she’ll also refuse to ask him for something different and just nod along. She no longer trusts people as easily, a constant reminder at the end of any phone call with her, “晴晴”, she sighs, “你知道人其實都不是我們想像中的那麼好。 (Claire, you know that people are not as good as we think they are.)”
My grandmother’s slow descent began after the official took the fake nail away. They’d taken back 5 centimeters on the ground, but had 8 centimeters in the air. They tried for a settlement. It fell apart. Someone sued, someone may have counter-sued. There was a contention that their 9 centimeter segment wasn’t the same as our 9 centimeters. (What? I don’t think that’s how math works. I said to my mom, who scrutinized her roughly sketched diagram. I am also confused. But that was definitely an argument at some point in time.)
婆婆 went over again and again what went wrong. My uncle made a model to explain to her. She misplaced it. She asked my grandfather to print 10 copies of this picture, 20 copies of that picture. They developed thousands of photos. She scattered them around the house and got upset if anyone (i.e. my grandfather or my uncle) moved them. She insisted she knew where everything was, that organizing threw her off. But even when they left everything untouched, she still couldn’t remember for the life of her where she’d placed anything. My frayed grandfather organized everything in a folder and gave it to her. What I saw in her room was not the worst, it was merely a vestige. Sometimes, my parents said, the house looked like a warzone.
The descent accelerated further when the rumors started. The neighbors had planted seeds of their story in the communities they shared with my grandparents, starting with the others living nearby and the school they’d taught at. They took over the reins of the narrative and the language that 婆婆 always felt belonged to her was wrested from her fingers. She fought back with what she knew best–– writing. Left scraps of paper with scribbled sentences scattered, filled pages with her truth. Drew posters and posted flyers on those high metal walls. Went to school events to not-so-subtly confide in the teachers there, slipping in the corrected story that would unveil the villain. Still, no words seemed enough to combat what’d already been spread.
This loss of language threw my grandmother into a frenzy. She already had insomnia, but this worsened it. This was a complete ruining of her faith in people. And there was no way to hold them accountable. No real evidence of wrongdoing or collusion. She stopped eating meals. Thoughts looped around her head. She constantly called my mom, my aunt, my uncle. But she blamed everything on my grandfather. It wasn’t just his fault that he let them tear down the wall, it was his fault that they signed the papers. But that wasn’t enough. Every time, she started off with all her grudges from the very beginning of their marriage and worked her way through their five decades together to reach the present. For three years, barely would a day go by where she didn’t yell or recount every single thing about him that had ever bothered her.
My grandfather stopped telling my mother and her siblings what was happening. He would just say that 婆婆 was too nice, too trusting. At most, he said she was sick. They all got tired of picking up the phone and hearing her same phrases. We know Mom, you’ve told us before.
They hid it well in front of us kids. Our presence tempered her. But bits came through. My mother later told me that a month or two before I went back that winter, my grandfather had become half blind in one eye. My grandmother had called my uncle to drive him to the hospital. They all suspect it’s not just old age. He already had high blood pressure but the stress may have taken an extra toll. Maybe it’d been in the middle of her yelling at him and he’d had about enough.
My grandfather just repeated what he had said all along. Too nice, too trusting.
My next evening at the house was marked by the dinner for reconciliation. My presence, having been away so long, was the perfect excuse for everyone to tacitly admit mistakes were made. My uncle (my 舅舅) stopped by with my aunt (my 舅媽) and my youngest cousin (my 表 弟). My cousin tapped his fingers in his lap as a result of his drumming classes and recounted the best bits of sixth grade gossip. I marveled over how tall he’s grown and ruffled his soft thin hair.
The rice-cooker sang its little tune to alert us it was done. My grandfather laid out the dishes with both hands and my grandmother put down her English textbook. We all crowded around the dusty pale pink table, which stayed reliably sturdy under the weight of dinner. Of bowls of rice, chopsticks, an entire steamed fish (eyeballs saved for my grandfather), sweet and sour pork ribs, stir-fried cabbage, faux shark fin soup, and paper towels (for fish bones). I will give my relatives this–– they are skilled at keeping their emotions hidden. In a community where subtext underlies almost all conversation, I adjusted my ears to tune into the lower strata. Talk of the lawsuit was noticeably absent. Everyone addressed each other normally. Perhaps a beat of hesitance before speaking, slightly muted sentences, but if I didn’t know any better, I might not have caught on. I wouldn’t have known that this was where, before storming out, my uncle had slammed a broomstick against the table so hard it broke. But here they all were, sitting at the very same table, mending their divide.
The broomstick had met its untimely demise when my uncle made his regular weekly visit to the house and the lawsuit came up yet again. My grandmother was clutching a stone that she said was from the other shared wall–– the one with the neighbor uninvolved in the lawsuit. All is peaceful now, but who knows what might happen. She had gone over and knocked on the other neighbor’s door and explained.
My uncle said something about calming down. The other neighbor wasn’t relevant. My grandfather agreed.
“是你早死還是我早死也不一定 (WHO’S GOING TO DIE FIRST? YOU OR ME?) 你 不要再講了，不然你血壓一高，另外一隻眼睛也瞎掉！(STOP TALKING OR YOUR OTHER EYE JUST MIGHT GO BLIND TOO.)
My uncle left, got in his car, and drove. When he found a place to park at the shoulder of a road, he called my mom and cried.
“她的生活被四公分綁架了。 (These 4 centimeters are holding her life hostage).”
My mother sighed. “忍一時，風平浪靜。退一步，海闊天空。 (Endure for a moment, and the wind and the waves will settle. Take a step back, and the sea and the sky will broaden.)”
At that point, I didn’t know quite what had happened. But I approached the dinner determined to make merriment if there was none, determined to continue the sense of normalcy I depended on from this house. So in typical fashion, my cousin and I decided to play a few rounds of mahjong with plastic poker chips. We walked to the elevator next to my great-grandfather’s land deeds, the very ones he died for. They hung, almost inconspicuously, with no hint of the significance they carry.
I stopped by the third floor to grab my phone and lingered at my grandfather’s calligraphy table. Brushes dangled to dry from a wooden stand. In a neat pile were his books of cursive and packets of thin paper whose fibers you can feel between your fingers. He once told me that it wasn’t where the ink was being set down on the page that mattered. Rather, it was the blank space in between each stroke. They determined the proportions, the distance between each word, but above all they determined the elegance and grace of characters. I wasn’t sure what he meant then, but I think I do now.
I often think about my uncle, who, after the dinner, began visiting the house again. His character. The mental and physical space in the house that he cleans whenever he stops by. The duty he fulfills as a son.
I think about my own character, caught in the space between Taiwan and America. Sometimes I think the gap will be shortened by my grandmother, who attends English class every day. I explain where her textbook uses overly formal vocabulary and rigid syntax, record pronunciations, and run my fingers over her rivulets of blue-inked notes. But it’s hard work that should be my burden to bear. Language is supposed to be my tool even as it binds my tongue. Whether I ask them what a particular phrase means in Mandarin or I struggle to convey a Western concept that doesn’t exist in Chinese thought, language has become the third entity–– the intermediary–– in my relationship with them.
And yet, I write on and on about their story in a language they don’t quite read because I know no other real way to honor them. I write for my grandfather’s acts of love. I write for my grandmother, who no longer can. To write their story is how I preserve where they’ve made their mark. Where they’ve moved forward. Where they’ve stepped back to create space. I try to document a love that is greater and more complex than anything I can imagine. One that is bound by duty and companionship; property and language; three children and five grandchildren who will remember them.
But that winter, I hadn’t a clue how to tell them all this. Or how to tell them I would be sure to go back to the old house during my next vacation even though they must have already known I would. When I said goodbye to my grandmother at the door of the house and parted with my grandfather at the train station, I opened my mouth. Both times, I searched for the right Mandarin words, but failed to find any. So I just waved.
“再見. (See you.)”
Claire Kuo, though born in California, grew up in Hsinchu, Taiwan where she calls home. She is currently a senior at Columbia University majoring in Creative Writing (nonfiction & poetry) and concentrating in Political Science. Most of her work draws upon her Taiwanese background, her family, and the multifaceted nature of water.
From Claire: “公公婆婆 is an ode to my grandparents–– an attempt to preserve them and a piece of their complicated relationship in the best way I know how. To all grandparents out there: thank you.”