My parents and I have come to Taipei to visit my grandmother. Since we live in Houston, Texas, this is no small occasion. After an 18-hour, $1000-per-person flight across the Pacific, my mother and father feel drained and want to rest. I, on the other hand, am strangely awake.
At the airport we are met by my uncle and his wife. They have hired a town car to take us back to their home. My father and I remain quiet as my mother catches up on family news and neighborhood gossip. Outside our windows, high-rises streak by. We are speeding into the city center, sometimes on the wrong side of the street, which draws angry beeps from the oncoming cars. The first time I came to Taiwan, at age four, I was terrified by this unruly way of driving. Now, at sixteen, I know this is just how things are done here.
When we arrive at the house, I drag my suitcase upstairs to my cousin’s room, which is mine for the next two weeks. My parents unpack next door. Their noises drift over the dividers that separate this floor into three bedrooms and a study. We do not have real walls here.
While my parents nap and my uncle and his wife go back to work, I head downstairs through the garage-turned-living room. I stop outside my grandmother’s open door.
She is asleep in the middle of her queen-sized mattress, swallowed up by a big flowery comforter. Everyone else, including me, sleeps on stiff bamboo mats with only a few thin sheets. We all have fans though, and hers rotates back and forth on its stand, blowing cool air across the soft skin of my grandmother’s forehead. I sit in one of the wooden chairs in the hallway and look in on her through the doorway.
Sometimes she doesn’t know who we are.
She asks, “Ni shi shei?” Who are you?
“Ama, wo shi Maggie.” Grandma, I am Maggie. She looks confused, so I try again. “Ego de nu er.” Ego’s daughter.
She relaxes a bit, recognizing her youngest daughter’s name. She remembers and nods. “You are Maggie?” she confirms in her crumbly English.
“Duei, wo shi Maggie.” Yes, I am Maggie.
Other times, I can see in her eyes that she doesn’t want to ask. She’s scared, maybe. Embarrassed, more likely. She realizes that she has all the pieces, she just can’t put them together.
Most of the time we just smile at each other, for lack of anything to say. Really, there is so much I would like to tell her, so much more I want to ask, but I can’t, because I don’t know how. I don’t know the words. This is one of my failings, in respect to her. This one is the root of all the others.
Born to an American father and a Taiwanese mother, I grew up without a “first” language. I learned and spoke English and Mandarin simultaneously. But when I began preschool, all those funny-sounding syllables and their annoying, impossible tones fell right out of my head.
As I hold my grandmother’s soft, wrinkled hand, I know I would give anything to get them back.
I’m afraid to be alone with her. How silly that sounds, to be afraid of your own grandmother. But I am. Because if she speaks to me, there is a fifty-fifty chance that I won’t have the foggiest idea what she’s saying. No, more like eighty-twenty. Against me.
And she knows this. Even when she’s not sure who I am, she knows that with me, with this strange, somewhat Western-looking young girl, she must speak slowly and only in Mandarin. Communicating in Chinese is hard enough, but in Taiwanese? Impossible. Her instinctive recognition of my limitations is a double-edged sword: it is a sign that her presence of mind, while muddied, remains intact. But it is also a reminder of my own inability to use my mother’s native tongue.
So I have lived my whole life with the unspeakable pain of not being able to communicate with my own family. With my own grandmother. And while I am trying to learn, time is quickly running out.
I know that she isn’t well. I can only hope she isn’t in pain, but after many health scares, including a stroke which temporarily paralyzed one side of her body, I suspect that she suffers emotionally, if nothing else. Once a strong, capable doctor, she now requires help for basic daily functions. Her sense of pride, I know, is extremely wounded. Before we came, she asked my mother over the phone, “Won’t it be embarrassing for your family to know I wear a diaper?” Of course we don’t care, but she does.
My uncle’s wife takes good care of my grandmother. A retired nurse, she devotes hours to dressing, feeding, bathing, and exercising her mother-in-law, patiently answering questions when my grandmother gets confused, or taking abusive tirades when she gets upset. Words cannot express to my aunt how thankful we are, but then again, she wouldn’t want them. This is her family, her duty.
I try not to think about all that as I sit with my grandmother. After all, it’s only our first night here. I have two more weeks to ponder and worry and grieve. For now, I focus on the remnants of beauty still visible through the wrinkles and the too skinny body in the pink pajamas. She wakes up, and I smile into her large eyes as she asks me the usual questions.
“Fei ji hao ma?” How was the plane?
“Du zi uh ma?” Are you hungry?
“Bu uh.” No.
“Lei ma?” Tired?
“Yi dian dian.” A little.
“Ni kan dao A-Gong le mei you?” Have you seen your Grandpa yet?
I pause and find myself unable to think of an answer as the threat of tears stings behind my eyes. I wonder if I should tell her that Grandpa has been dead for six years.
For once, I’m glad I don’t know how.