A wall of dense, humid air hits my entire body, making my steps falter as I slowly exit the plane. It’s that initial blast after being immersed in the stale atmosphere within an aircraft for almost a full day of flying that I always dread after landing in Taiwan. It’s the type of heat that stays, even at night, so that when you step out of the shower and attempt to dry off, your skin still feels sticky all over.
At the gate entrance, I wait for the rest of my family to catch up before beginning the ritual of going through customs and baggage claim and getting picked up by my uncle. As exhausted as I am now, there’s only one thing keeping me awake at this point.
Mangoes. My ah-ma always has a bowl of freshly cut mangoes ready for me the moment I step into the family house. The first thing I do is plop onto the worn couch, snatch up the nearest fork, and stuff as many slices of decadent mango into my mouth as I can chew at a time. Ah-ma chuckles quietly, “Ai yo! How can someone love mangoes so much? Nothing has changed!”
Well, that’s not entirely true. Since our last visit two summers ago, my little sister Mary has surpassed me in height, my mother seems to have shrunk a little, my father has acquired quite a few more gray hairs—mainly my sister’s fault, not mine—and I’ve just accepted an admission offer to MIT. So some things have changed, but those are all just little details. As far as my beloved ah-ma and ah-gong are concerned, nothing really has changed; we’re just getting a tad older.
The next morning, I try my best to get up at a somewhat reasonable hour in order to fight off jet lag. I roll off the firm tatami mat, quickly dress, and hop on down to the kitchen, following that fragrant scent of ah-ma’s cooking.
“Ah! You’re up already? Come eat.” Ah-ma puts a sao-bing you-tiao with a cup of warm, sweet dou-jiang in front of me as I perch on a stool. The familiar Taiwanese breakfast is dirt cheap, and probably not very good for you, but I love it regardless. So I take advantage of the opportunity, since it is not well replicated in the States.
As I sink my teeth into the crispy dough and sip some of the fresh soymilk, I notice that my mother is already helping my ah-ma stir something in one of the many pots on the stove, an earthy smell finding its way to my nose. “Mama, what’s in that pot?”
Every morning, both of my grandparents go hiking in the small mountains nearby just as dawn breaks. Well into their 70’s now, they continue. Every time we return to Taiwan, my father tries to accompany his parents on their morning hikes. He always wears a sheer t-shirt and shorts in response to the sweltering heat to which my grandparents apparently are immune. They layer on long pants and long flannel shirts, topped off with a faded bucket hat with some nonsense English phrases embroidered across the brim. When they return home, my father is drenched head to toe in perspiration while my grandparents act like they’ve just been strolling through a park, barely a bead of sweat on their foreheads.
Sometimes on their hikes, my ah-ma decides to dig up some fresh bamboo shoots growing in the wild to bring home. My father says ah-ma and ah-gong usually get about five kilograms worth of shoots and lug them all the way back themselves. On those days, ah-ma throws them into a pot and immediately starts stewing them on the stove as soon as they hang up their hats.
Having finished my breakfast, I wander into the neighboring living room to find both my ah-gong and my father dozing off on the couches. They look amusingly alike: heads nodded to the right gently brushing the fabric, mouths wide open, arms spread out on either side of their bodies. The young wrinkles on my father’s face are practically an exact copy of ah-gong’s, except that ah-gong’s are much deeper; the droopy folds of skin gathered around his eyes and on either side of his mouth remind me of an old bloodhound.
As I start to walk back to the kitchen, I hear my ah-ma call, “Annie! Do you want to go to the market with me? I forgot an ingredient!”
I almost never turn down a chance to go to the market with ah-ma. Mainly because she’ll buy me all the delicious food I want, but also because of the experience. Just a few streets down from our house, a large, open-air market is set up in the middle of town. Vendors left and right, selling practically anything you could ever need, from dried fish to fresh fruit, cheap sandals to live chickens, there is always a bargain to be made.
As soon as I set foot into an aisle, I have to be quick and attentive in order to follow ah-ma through the bustling crowd. She walks briskly, passing tables filled with various cuts of meat and fish, nuts, vegetables, or fruits. All the aromas mix in the interlude between the tables, combining to make the characteristic smell I associate with the market: the smell of not just any food, but authentic Taiwanese food. From the meat vendors comes the pungent tang of fresh cuts of meats. From the seafood vendors, the saltiness of filets and dried fish. From the vegetables and fruits, the crisp smell of briskly washed produce and the earthy tone of lush soil. From the petite street food carts, the rich smell of peppery spices and oils. With each inhale of this familiar mixture comes an exhale that leaves you hungry.
There is never a quiet moment here. Everything starts to sound similar–the loud bellows of the vendors looking for customers and yelling prices of items repeatedly, and the bargainers who talk at a rapid fire pace for the best deal. But after a few minutes, you learn to tune out the continuous buzz of sellers and buyers despite its loud volume.
Ah-ma stops a few times to quickly greet some of the familiar faces she sees in the crowd and to introduce them to her granddaughter visiting from America. I usually get the same generic response most American grandchildren receive: “Wah! So tall and beautiful!” they say, in awe of my 5-foot 4-inch frame from a foot below me.
Finally ah-ma finds the last thing she needs: some spice I don’t recognize. The vendor quickly throws it into the generic pink-and-white striped plastic bag and hands it to ah-ma in one fluid motion. And then we squeeze back into the crowd and hurry on home to finish up lunch.
After filling our stomachs with rice, soft yet firm lotus root, slow-cooked beef just falling off the bone, and freshly picked squash leaves sautéed with a hint of garlic, we each find some time to rest.
I sit on the couch next to my ah-gong who is watching the news, as usual. Although I’m fluent in conversational Mandarin, I have some trouble understanding the more technical words the newscaster uses, so I ask ah-gong to explain some things to me. But when we aren’t talking, sometimes I’ll just pinch his foot.
On my father’s side of the family, we have inherited unusually dexterous feet. We can pick up pencils lying on the ground, or toss up a piece of dirty laundry to catch it in our hands, but our favorite thing is to pinch each other with our toes.
His reaction is always the same: “Ai yo! You pinched me!” He feigns surprise and pain, but then he retaliates, pinching me back harder. Finally, after a few rounds, he grabs my foot and puts it in his lap, patting it absentmindedly as his attention returns to the news, and the afternoon slowly drifts on.
On the weekends, as soon as darkness begins to settle on the horizon, the whole family piles into my uncle’s minivan, and my uncle drives us to the local ye-shi, or nightmarket.
In a closed-off street, many booths are set up one right after the other with hundreds of locals wandering through the crowd. The food vendors sell fragrant treats like fresh watermelon juice, shaved ice topped with fruit and condensed milk, deep fried sweet potato balls, grilled squid, and popcorn chicken seasoned with salt, pepper, and basil. Others peddle cheap knockoffs of designer purses, hundreds of iPhone cases, piles upon piles of hair clips and ties, jewelry, and shirts with English printed on them that doesn’t make any sense.
And then there are the games.
At every nightmarket, no matter the size, you can play the same simple games that cost some negligible fee. My favorite, though, is catching fish.
My sister and I each seat ourselves on one of the little plastic stools in front of shallow tubs filled with water and many goldfish, and wait to catch the vendor’s attention. We pay, and he hands us a few “nets” made of plastic rings with a sheet of tissue paper sandwiched in between, and a small plastic colander to float in the tub and put our prizes in.
The trick is to be very slow and gentle with the nets in the water, or else they’ll rip and you won’t be able to catch any fish. The slower you move to corner a fish, the less likely they are to attempt swimming away from capture. Mary rips a net before realizing this. I hear a squeal come from my side as water splashes over her arm, and the whole school of fish darts away from her sudden advance. Laughter erupts from our bellies simultaneously as we shake our heads at her amateur mistake, and our gazes return to the miniature worlds beneath our fingertips.
After we decide we have had enough of torturing the remaining fish, I wave over the vendor to get our fish put into plastic bags to take home.
As a little kid, this was the only game I wanted to play. I could’ve sat there for hours trying to get more fish if my parents had let me. But there’s only so long that anyone could stand watching a little girl chasing poor fish around with a net.
There’s something so mesmerizing about it. Even with all the hustle and bustle going on behind you, there’s this pleasant silence that surrounds you as you slowly dip your hand and net into the cool water to try to catch even one. Around and around you maneuver the net towards one fish before it darts away, and again you try. It’s a strange sensation, the power of controlling these fishes’ lives.
As I flip through some cheap dresses, my sister stops my hand and points to the simple black shift I currently am holding.
“Don’t you think that one’s cute?” Mary whispers, scared the vendor will hear her.
Sure enough, the vendor suddenly pops up next to us.“It’s cute, isn’t it? We also have it in other colors if you would like to see them!”
Mary nudges me because she’s shy about speaking in Mandarin.
“I think we’re ok for now. We’re just going to look around some more! Thank you!”
To my relief, it doesn’t appear that the vendor recognizes we’re from America while I’m speaking.
But then Mary decides to open her mouth.
“How much… money is this… dress?”
Immediately, the seller slowly asks, “Oh, are you two from America?”
It feels like a small triumph to me when natives don’t recognize that I’m American from the way I speak. Something about feeling foreign in the place where I ethnically belong really bothers me because I feel like I should be able to fit right in. In the past I was more inclined to stick around my uncle and cousins so I could avoid using my Mandarin. I used to be more like my younger sister, slow to process and respond with a heavy, clunky American accent that made it evident that we were foreigners. However, being aware of this pushed me to speak better, constantly asking my mother how to say this or that in colloquial terms and practicing with my parents so that I could speak at a normal speed. Now, even my grandparents have noticed how much more fluently I speak.
I lie down on the firm tatami mat for the last time this summer and rest my head on the worn pillow. Thoughts always flood my mind the last night of each trip. A desperate jumble of memories take turns, playing snippets of the vacation, switching so quickly that everything becomes a blur behind my closed eyelids.
I steadily inhale. Exhale.
My ah-ma and ah-gong have a very distinct scent. Actually, it might be common to all Taiwanese elders, but I associate it with my grandparents. It’s that familiar scent on everything they wear—faint enough that you cannot smell it across the room, but noticeable enough that if you pay attention when you sit next to them, or in their room, you can distinguish it. It’s medicinal, almost like ground-up aspirin, rather neutral, not loud but still present even if it slips in under your nose tenderly.
It’s the comforting scent that I smell on my pillow right before I fall asleep.
There is always one moment the morning we have to leave for the airport to fly home when my ah-gong will come find me wherever I am in the house. Every last day I’ve had, when our stay comes to an end, I cry.
When I was a little kid, I used to think that I was just sad to leave my grandparents, uncle and aunt, cousins, and the whole bunch of extended family I have in Taiwan But when I reached a certain age, it suddenly dawned on me that we all find death at some point in our lives. I started thinking about what life would be like if my mother or father weren’t around, if Mary weren’t around, if ah-gong and ah-ma weren’t around anymore.
Since we can’t afford to go back to Taiwan every summer and my grandparents are getting older, fear always rushes into my mind that that they won’t be able to see me get married, that they won’t be able to meet their great-grandchildren as I had the chance to meet my great-grandma, that this might be the last time I’ll get to see ah-gong and ah-ma.
Ah-gong always manages to comfort me with his calm gaze and touch, reassuring me each time that we will see each other again soon—even though I have never once expressed these fears before.
But by this particular last day in Taiwan, I have decided not to dwell on these fears. To live in the present is now my only concern, thinking and believing that I will see ah-gong and ah-ma again very soon.
“Annie, you’ll come back next summer to see us again, right?” Ah-gong asks.
“Dang lang hui ah, ah-gong!” I confirm with a confident smile, tearless eyes bright.
His droopy eyes turn up at the corners and a low chuckle rumbles from his chest.