My grandfather (ah gong, or 外公, but we call him gong gong), driven by winds of Communist change, arrived in Taiwan in the 1940s. He was a Fuzhou businessman, 26 at the time. He was a businessman, relatively wealthy and educated, and fled from the incoming Communists.
He met my grandmother (ah ma, or 外媽 — but we’ve grown up calling her puo puo) while they both worked as schoolteachers at the same elementary school.
“Your ah gong was a handsome man” my grandmother says with a chuckle and a glimmer in her eye. She is dignified, ladylike, and precise. She bears eyes with depth, holding her teacup with deliberate old-world delicacy. My early memories are sprinkled with her constant presence in our house, making fantastic food and reading me chinese fables for bedtime stories.
They met in the years in between the world wars, when the world was changing. My grandma was native Taiwanese, telling me about the world she grew up in, hearing American bombers fly overhead, when alarms would sound and they would have to head to the mountains to hide in the hills. Taiwan was different then, they were raised to believe they were Japanese.
They fell in love, but they don’t speak much about it nowadays. I wonder how it was back then. She was trained as a schoolteacher, and he must have been good with the kids given his gregarious charm. It’s not hard to imagine why they fell in love, but how? I wonder if they can still remember.
These days, they live in Taipei in a modern apartment, paneled in marble and dark wood. His hands tremble when they reach for the dishes on the table. She reaches for the dish and steadies it for him. After each meal he silently shuffles to the couch and picks his teeth with a toothpick and looks out the window at the glassy beams of the Taipei 101 tower.
Her family would have nothing to do with him. He was an outsider, one of the KMT occupiers. Stories ran rampant about KMT men looking for Taiwanese wives while keeping a wife back in China. What did my great-grandfather think of him? Did they ever meet? Or did he forbid their love from the outside?
So they eloped.
Annie asks if puo-puo gets tired of cooking for us. My dad laughs. “I bet she loves it that we’re here. She loves to cook.”
The spread is enormous. Taro fish ball soup, fresh steamed fish from the market, boiled chicken, dumplings, radish salad, an array of steamed vegetables and guavas and wax apples for dessert. We lay there after each meal, stunned and deliriously happy.
My mom would tell me about how in the years down the road after their marriage, gong-gong would eventually win over my grandmother’s family with his kindness, generosity, and charm and twinkle in his eye. I wonder what it was like, a slow, gradual warming, a reconciliation that may have taken years to mend.
My uncle calls us when we’re there, asking if they want to come with them on their upcoming vacation to Japan. Puo-puo hesitates, smiling a bit, thinking. When she is thinking, she knits her brow and blinks slowly. It’s her reserved nature that defines her elegance, I decide. But she is like a wall, difficult to read. I want to ask her about her young love.
“No,” she finally says, “I should stay here. It’s cold in Japan. And I need to be with your dad.”
Later as we sit around the living room sharing our hopes for the new year (my dad puts us through these things) gong-gong makes an innocent face and tells us that his hope is that “your puo-puo should visit Japan and get out of the house and not have to take care of me.” She smiles.
Gong-gong is always dressed well: suede jackets, pressed wool, a sleek Kangol cap and shiny loafers. These days, he’s still dapper but much less mobile. His walk is reduced to a shuffle.
He’s shrunk over the years, but his charm is still there, shrouded by ailing health. As we leave, he grabs my arm and tells me he’d like to attend my wedding soon and leaves me a kiss on the neck.