Taipei Notebook – Jean Ho
In Taipei, I pay a visit to my grandmother, who is ninety-three years old and lives in a fifth floor apartment in the XinYi district, near the skyscraper Taipei 101. Before she turned ninety, Nai-Nai was still able to move around with the help of a walker and got out of the house sometimes, aided by her nurse. These days, she is homebound and receives visitors in the living room, ladies from her church and the former students of my deceased grandfather.
The apartment belongs to Dad’s brother, Eldest Uncle, and his wife. He opens the front door and waves me inside. Nai-Nai sits on the sofa with a pile of newspapers in her lap.
I stoop down and scoop up one of her hands in mine. She stares at me with bald anticipation in her eyes.
“Nai-Nai,” I say. “Are you well today?”
Eldest Uncle sinks down on the sofa next to her. “You have to shout,” he says. He demonstrates, bellowing into her left ear. “Shan-Hui’s daughter. From the States! To visit you!”
Nai-Nai squeezes my hand. In a normal volume, she says, “Long time no see.”
“Two years,” I reply.
I do not mention I was here a week ago, sitting in this same chair adjacent to her on the sofa.
Uncle continues hollering into Nai-Nai’s good ear. “She lives in the US! She’s here on summer vacation!”
Nai-Nai nods in Uncle’s direction then turns her attention back to me. “Where’s your sister?” she asks.
Over her head, Uncle and I exchange a glance.
“She’s your second son’s daughter,” Uncle cries. “She thinks you’re one of my daughters.”
Uncle has two daughters, both in their thirties, like me. My cousins have lived in this apartment with their parents and Nai-Nai since childhood, until they married and took up residence with their husbands. Since I moved to the States when I was eight, I have seen Nai-Nai only four times.
“Show her the pictures from last time,” Uncle instructs.
I take out my phone from my pocket and pull up the pictures of Nai-Nai and me taken last Monday, my second evening in Taipei. In the photos, she is dressed in a crimson red printed silk shirt and her silver hair is brushed and parted neatly on one side.
This morning, she wears white cotton pajamas and a clear plastic tube strapped under her nose and looped over her ears, the end of which is attached to an oxygen tank.
Uncle jabs a finger at the phone’s screen. He shouts, “Who’s that? You know who that is?”
Nai-Nai nods. “I know who it is,” she says, irritation edging her voice. “That’s me.”
She picks up the folded newspaper on the cushion next to her and snaps it open. She’s done with this interrogation. I slip the phone back in my pocket. Uncle flips on the television and we watch the news broadcast about the typhoon predicted to strike the island tomorrow night. Nai-Nai lowers the newspaper to her lap and tilts closer to the TV. Uncle turns up the volume to blaring.
Later, when Uncle walks me downstairs, he says, “It’s good you came to see her. To be honest, I think this might be your last chance.”
I’m unsure of the appropriate response here. Is it more respectful to put on a show of contradicting loudly, insist that Nai-Nai has many years left yet? Or do I concede to his matter-of-fact assessment of her dwindling days?
Before I can choose a course, Uncle says, “She took a turn for the worse this week. In the afternoons, we hook up the oxygen machine, because she has too much CO2 in the blood. She thinks we’re bullying her, she gets paranoid.” He pauses, then adds, “Don’t feel badly she didn’t recognize you. Her mind is going.”
“I’ll come back to see her again before I go back to the US.” I tell him I’m going to Kenting next week, the southernmost tip of Taiwan island, with my mother’s side of the family.
“Yesterday, she woke up from a nap and she wailed, ‘I want to go home, I want to go home.’ I told her she is home. She said no. She wants to go back to her old home, in Beijing, before the Cultural Revolution.” Uncle shakes his head.
I say goodbye and head north toward the subway station. Taipei 101 looms over the city, glinting blue-green as a piece of sea glass.
The next week, I travel to Kenting. The beach behind the hotel is studded with rocks, big boulders jutting out of the ocean and littles stones carried ashore by each breaking wave, then picked up again with the retreating tide. To avoid being pelted, I sit on the water’s edge. I think about returning home, to the States. My time in Taiwan is more than halfway up. I haven’t spoken English in weeks and though my Mandarin is improving, words I didn’t realize I had known surfacing from the murky corners of my mind, I still feel as if I am living on the fringes, never fully participating. Here, I am a lesser version of myself, someone with second-grade reading comprehension skills who laughs too loud at the wrong place in the joke or doesn’t understand the punchline at all.
I think about my grandmother’s eyes, milky with cataracts. Why should she recognize me? Each time I crash back on the island, I am eroded. Standing up from the sand, I pick up a small smooth stone, turn it over a few times in the palm of my hand before I draw back my arm and let it fly into the water.
Jean Ho was born in Taiwan and grew up in southern California. She currently lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, where she is an MFA student in fiction at UNLV. Read her tweets at @jeanho.