The First Meal (Of Many): Creative Nonfiction by Ruth Lee

Finalist, College Category

Numbed by the thirty-hour travel warp of three connecting flights, I gaze out the car window with muffled fascination at the world before me. I grew up here, but it doesn’t feel quite real. Window views transient like movie scenes pass as my father drives down winding alleys: a cozy corner church; a wall of papery fuchsia flowers, sunlight filtering through their veins. I barely register my dad pulling into the driveway of his parents’ house and the engine rumbling to silence. I savor the hushed air. Resisting Newton’s first law of motion to be at rest, I stumble out of the car and breathe in the nearby osmanthus’ sweet, rich fragrance, mixed with Taichung’s characteristic humid and mildly polluted air. Ah yes, home at last. Home for now. I almost can’t believe that only a day earlier, I was in the gritty city of Philadelphia. 

阿嬤 [a ma, meaning grandma],” I yell through the screened front door. 

花兒,你們到了!” [Hua-er, ni men tao le] echoes her voice, stating with excitement the obvious fact that her son and I have arrived. My mother decided to stay at home a 20-minute car ride away to rest after a long day of prepping for my arrival. Hearing a ma, I feel a pang of longing for my brothers. Both of them just started working their first post-college jobs, Chris in California and Daniel in Florida, so they don’t have enough vacation days for a trip to Taiwan. I’m one semester away from the same fate. My preferred coping mechanism is eating out at my favorite West Philly restaurants with friends, bonding over the shared absurdity of us being (gasp) real adults so soon. 

A ma unlocks and pushes the door ajar. My brain registers, with a slight startle, that her pixie-length hair now reveals its natural silver hue and straight texture. Even in my earliest recollections of a ma, her hair was dyed black and permed—a poodle hairstyle most East Asian grandmas seem to sport with unspoken agreement after age 65. I often wondered why she dyed it black. She mentioned years ago that it made her look younger, but I loved the decades of wisdom and experience that grey hair symbolized—not to mention its satiny sheen. I had wished that a ma wouldn’t feel the need to darken her locks and hide these treasures, unattainable but through time. I promised to myself that I would never dye my hair when it sheds its dark brown pigment. 

With a sheepish smile, I return her embrace and murmur a greeting. My grandparents have only shown physical affection like this after my family moved to Arizona, in search of an education system less mired in rote memorization. As we spent less time in Taiwan, my grandparents couldn’t routinely show love through cooking and conversations. Learned actions like hugs then became one of the preferred methods to impart love during our short visits back. I’m still pleasantly surprised each time. My other 阿公 [a gonggrandpa] still hasn’t accepted this as a love language, preferring instead to stand stoically and wave as we bid goodbye each time I leave for the States. But it’s too early to think about that now. I just arrived. 

My father trails from behind into his childhood house. His medical textbooks still occupy his childhood room, dusty and yellowed from stillness. His desktop setup sits in another bedroom, where he spent six adult years living with his aging parents. During those years, we—his children and wife—lived in Tempe, Arizona. That room was converted months ago into a home care bedroom complete with an electric hospital bed for a gong, who became much frailer after renal cancer treatment. During his six years here, my father worked day to night, seven days a week, to provide for my mother, brothers, and me. We moved back a few years ago, during my sophomore year of high school, to be with him again and continue less expensive thyroid cancer treatment for my mother. Relieved to be home together, we moved into an apartment closer to the city center and tried our best to reclaim a sense of lost time, lost memories. Now that I spend most months in my Philadelphia apartment, the web between us has stretched again. At this point, I’m used to it. Five-way group calls every Sunday night attempt to shrink the distance. 

Back in the familiar house of my grandparents, I’m dumbfounded again by how my dad could have survived those six years apart. Though we were fortunate enough to see each other every half-year, whether in Taiwan or in Arizona, he still lost the experience of being physically present during his three children’s formative childhood years. Every tiny milestone was received a day late: teachers’ comments during parent-teacher meetings, completed science fair tri-fold posters, results from tennis matches and flute contests. Did he even hear about these mini-victories and failures in his videocalls with my mom, restricted by a 13-hour time zone difference? 

“If you could choose again, would you still have sent us to the U.S.?” I probed my dad a few years ago, as a part of my customary series of annoying questions during lunch. A few quiet seconds passed as he chewed. 

“I would have kept you all in Taiwan.” 

I stopped asking related questions after that. 

When we lived in Arizona, we spent summers in Taiwan. Without fail each year, a ma insisted on having my brothers and me sleep over for as many days as my mother allowed, replicating what we used to do before we left for America. She always had my favorite bunny-print blanket washed and dried on the rooftop with 太陽的香味 [tai yang te hsiang wei, the sun’s aroma], ready for me to curl up and listen to her reminisce her childhood days, catching tadpoles to eat during World War II.

Little about the house has changed since my childhood recollections, other than walls repainted a crisp white. It has the same terrazzo flooring as it had decades ago—muted pink and blue stones outlined in copper and embedded in concrete, characteristic of old Taiwanese houses. The same couches, woven from dark wood, sit on the perimeter of the room, across from the television. The same newspaper swan that a gong meticulously folded sits proudly atop a shelf above the television. The same bamboo mats that baby-me laid on are rolled and stored behind the shelf. A ma still unfurls these mats for taking afternoon naps and sorting receipts. 

Hints of my pre-college self also peek out throughout the house. Hanging in a ma’s bedroom, a clock that I decorated during middle school summers in Taiwan keeps time over her when she sleeps. A wooden ship that my brother and I assembled a decade ago is anchored atop the microwave, its whirring glass plate reflecting sound of the lapping sea. I had almost forgotten about these handicrafts. Seeing them again brings waves of fragmented, hazy memories of my first eight years and subsequent summers back in Taiwan. As a child is, I was happily oblivious to what misery and joy the future would bring. I didn’t anticipate how I would be afraid to speak in the U.S. as a result of fragmented English and consequent social anxiety (or was it always there?). I didn’t expect to be away from my father for the majority of the six years. I didn’t expect to endure the relentless undercurrent of restlessness and rootlessness of being a third-culture kid for the rest of my life. Only fragments of memories from my pre-America years remain: ephemeral Chopin melodies when my mother taught piano lessons, car-window-framed scenes of mountains rising sleepily above clouds of fog, 古詩 [ku shih, traditional Chinese poetry] transcribed on the glass board in my second grade school’s designated poetry room. 

As I immigrated to the U.S., the raw celery and tacos and ranch dressing of American life baffled me. How was I supposed to call this foreign land home? Yet six years of my childhood—the years I can actually remember—were those spent in the United States. With each year that I learned from my American teacher, peers, and textbooks, I grew increasingly frustrated at my mental dissonance between this adopted culture and what I thought was my ‘true’ self. As if the self can’t change. Classmates confused Taiwan with Thailand, so much so that I’m still surprised when people know that Taiwan exists. I tried to make my Taiwanese self as inconspicuous as possible, trying instead to appear at home in Arizona when everything in my mind screams discord. 

Even now, after three-plus years of college in the States, I feel as though I’d fit in better in Taiwan. But each time I return to my motherland, I cringe at my oddly misplaced accent—not quite American yet not purely Taiwanese; my knowledge deficit of the most popular TV shows; my reliance on Google Maps to walk the streets. I still feel a similar dissonance when I’m in the States, like when people bond over childhood Nickelodeon shows. I also can’t find a common ground with most Asian Americans I meet, with my early Taiwan years producing a different experience of cultural heritage than theirs. If we hadn’t moved to Arizona, my life could have been so simple: I would have just been Taiwanese. Would that have been better? 

I shake these thoughts away. 

A ma finishes lovingly fussing with me, then plops onto the living room table a pot of chicken soup, a plate of thin, springy wheat noodles, and another plate of boiled vegetables with the minimal amount of salt and oil deemed healthy for flavor. A gong shuffles in and sits in his designated chair, careful not to fall. We pray, then my first meal back commences. 

“You must be hungry! How long did the flights back take? How was school? How long are you back in Taiwan?” These familiar questions barrage me as I try to eat, laughing as I attempt to answer to my grandparents’ satisfaction. Aware of my granddaughter role, I inquire after their health and what they have busied themselves with in the past half-year, what seems to me like a blip in their eight decades-long existences. I sometimes forget that they’ve lived under Japanese colonization to a 38-year-long martial law Chinese occupation to the current woman-led Taiwanese democracy. For them, this is just life. For me, it’s my heritage, a collective trauma. 

During the most recent six-month addition to our lives, they’ve continued the sweet andante cadence of a life lived intentionally. Meanwhile, I’ve gained five classes worth of knowledge and burgeoning friendships from across the Pacific. I’ve lived in a city unlike any they’ve lived in, with people and cuisines unseen in homogenous Taiwan. I’ve exalted in blissful highs of wondering how is my life so perfect, and waded in murky depths of self-deprecation and doubts of if I had any true friends. 

I’ve never talked to my grandparents about these thoughts. Maybe I should. Would they understand such experiences, set in a foreign land? But for now, a greater urgency awaits. Chopsticks down, we descend on a platter of freshly cut fruit. “You can’t eat this in America!” exclaims a ma, eyes crinkled with her smile. 

“You’re right, but if I find one it’ll be triple the price and half as good!” I laugh as I respond to her oft-repeated phrase, which I know I’ll hear at least daily in Taiwan. She pushes a fork into my hand, then a battle against my stomach capacity ensues. Against the wishes of my belly, full from a ma’s insistence to eat more chicken soup and noodles, I force down the still-delicious slices of white guava, wax apples, and Asian melons. We vacillate between me stating “I’m full,” proving it with pats on my belly, and her successful urges for me to eat more fruit. I shift my gaze to my dad for help. He grins and shrugs. He is no help. I forcefully munch a forkful of guava in pretend frustration. Finally, I succumb to physiological limits. I lean back and set the fork on the table in defeat. 

Pants tight and heart warmed, I close my eyes and take this first night back from school. I have just arrived, but I almost already miss it—the people and place my heart yearns for the most when away. Three weeks later, I’ll trudge up a plane for my twenty-two-hour journey back to Philadelphia, to my last expectation-laden semester in college. But for now, I power off my brain and relish the simple comfort of familiarity, with my dad, a ma, and a gong bantering around me.

From Ruth: Born to a family with multi-generational roots in Taiwan, I grew up in Taichung before immigrating to Arizona when I was in third grade. During my sophomore year of high school, I returned to Taichung. I moved to Pennsylvania for college three years later.

Leave a Reply