While soaring over the blackness earlier this morning (or night? who really knows), and after crossing the international dateline, my knee locked up. 12 hours in the scheme of things really isn’t too long, but for someone as fidgety as me (pretty sure inherited from Ma), not being able to move very freely for some time makes me a little grumpy. Needless to say, I was extremely grateful to get off the plane at 5:45am at Taoyuan International Airport.
The last time I step foot into Taiwan was the first and only time I visited Taiwan, back when I was roughly 8 years old. You’d think the details would be sketchier because I was much younger, but I distinctively remember that trip that would set the tone of my relationship with my paternal grandfather, Angkong, from there on out. And believe it or not, the minute I was back in that airport, the memory of Angkong and the TW trip washed right over me.
We stayed at an older, partially renovated Howard Johnson, back when smoking was permitted in hotels. Jetlagged, Ahya, Ma, and I were up at odd hours of the morning watching TW broadcasted sports, particularly local baseball because Ahya was sooo into it. Same trip that Pops surprised me by showing up: cue chubby rolly kid with mouth in the shape of an o as she desperately attempts to book it across the lobby floor to the open arms of her pops. Same trip Ahya discovered loved for ma-pa, beef jerky. Same trip Angkong humoured Ahya’s love for beef noodles by taking us to some hole in the wall (so worth it!) Same trip that I was running down a nightmarket alley way and slipped, fell on my butt and got mud all over my white shorts. Same trip.
Back in his day, Angkong had some pretty close ties to the KMT, and I learned this during our trip through the many dinners with aunties and uncles and dignitaries where I practiced my ambidextrous chopstick usage. Not sure how it happened, but we were touring this museum landmark palace, and Angkong decides that we’d go for lunch at the facilities’ restaurant on the 3rd floor. Of course this place had maintained its original structure and only had a lavish staircase that led to the 3rd floor. I recall 2 palace guards came and lifted Angkong and his wheelchair up to the resto, as I was happily climbing the stairs to keep pace. But it was just the two of us, and I had always been somewhat intimidated and extremely respectful of my grandfather, who while an extreme trickster, also had a serious nature and didn’t talk much. After ordering some appys and while waiting for the rest of our family to join us, we sat in silence. Appy’s came – jellyfish, jellied meat, seaweed (your typical TW delicacies), Angkong put some food on my plate and asked me: “ho jia bo?” (Does it taste good?) And to my surprise to this day, I still so clearly and without hesitation replied: “pai jia!!” (Tastes bad!!) Immediately regretting that I forgot my filter, who I was speaking to, and that I had uttered something correctly Hokkien. Totally let that one slip, woops! But to my surprise he laughed and laughed, patted me on the head calling me ‘guai’ and said I didn’t have to eat anything I didn’t want to. That was the first meaningful conversation I would have with Angkong, content and language considered.
I recall this story so clearly today, even as the jet-lag has begun to hit me and the world is spinning beneath me from exhaustion. Angkong passed during the winter of grade 8, and still I am lately becoming so cognizant of how he is with me today. I’m learning more about him now than I did when I had the chance. His story, Pa’s story, my story, it continues… it’s an extension. So many of his choices have led to me, and will lead to others. So if one place, even if it is Taoyuan International Airport, can evoke such a memory, then so be it– light up the corners of my mind. I knew it before, but this confirmed it: I’ll be back for you, Taiwan.