Photo by Sam Chang on Unsplash

I lose myself in Taiwan. That’s why I hate going there, feeling like a deer in the headlights; perhaps this time the buzzing crowds, alien sounds of chitter-chatter, and layered characters on never-ending menus will feel more like home. It doesn’t. For sixteen years it didn’t. It’s a strange feeling: culturally and awkwardly homeless—a Californian body with Taiwanese skin. Knowing the language is not enough. The feeling of belonging takes on complex levels of nuance that I can’t go into right now. All that changes, though, when my mom breaks the news.

“Your great grandma had a stroke.”

As a kid, I always grunted when my parents would have to force me to enter her house, which reeked of an expired combination of ginger, steamed fish, and leftover sticky rice. Tai po now couldn’t speak much. While her mouth moved, she could utter something, but I couldn’t decipher. Now, I don’t remember how she used to greet me. I ask her a simple question.

“Do you remember me?”

I see her eyes, but the light does not reflect my face. I lose myself again, but enough is enough. Let’s not hide anymore. It’s time for Tai Po to know that I’m here, in the present, not invisible. I will prioritize school again, someday. Not to worry. I’m not falling behind in class, as long as we reclaim Tai Po’s history, my most urgent lesson in humanities. With the scrutiny of an ethnographer, I track all of Tai Po’s movements: her daily walks, physical therapy logs, and the soft, raspy grunts slowly morphing into a decipherable lexicon. I continue asking her questions, and each time, she brings some semblance of life into the interaction.

“Who is she?”

I point to my mom, her own granddaughter. She shows hesitation. Like eager audiences, we wait with great anticipation, fists clenching, but she just nods in a neutral direction.

“That’s okay. Well, who is he?”

With glee on her face, Tai Po recognizes my dad, her grandson-in-law. The response time is remarkably fast. She blurts out an endearing chen ying jie (father’s Chinese name). At this point, a totally justified sense of jealousy bubbles over from my mom.

“Popo, how come you like him more than me? When did this happen?”

My dad cannot contain his pride and excitement. My sister laughs at the adorable irony and, the chorus of joy fills the room. Tai Po smiles. Maybe it’s just her mirror neurons activating because everyone else is laughing. It doesn’t matter if she gets the situation or not. This memory can never be taken away from us.

I felt closer to her than I had in the past sixteen years of my life. A couple of days later, Tai Po can conjure sentences again. My sister wears a stuffed dog purse, and Tai Po takes quite a liking to it. She strokes the dog’s fur, noting that the “狗毛好好摸.” (Nice to touch). We take advantage of her new interest—since the stroke paralyzed her left side, we can now have her practice using her left hand to pet the plushie. Time to rush to the department store. We have to look for a stuffed dog to give to Tai Po. The requirement? Soft, almost like silk, but not the easy-to-shed kind. Medium length, not the buzzcut plush ones. Coming to the kid’s toys section, my sister and I start from one end and test-touch every stuffed dog. I enter a different dimension of concentration, like Daredevil, imagining the right image through the tactile radar. My sister starts with an interjection, followed by an onomatopoeia, followed by a shriek of excitement.

“OMG, this, THIS!”

A beige and brown-colored dog, a breed that looks like a warm labrador, with a blue spotted eye. When I pet her, I see Tai Po’s forever TV watch buddy. Tai Po never names her. She’s just happy to have a new friend to embrace, to feel secure and attached again. And this is the bittersweet moment knowing that we have to say goodbye. I see my parents and their eyes are welling up with tears.

“Are you okay, Mama?”

I ask my mom and she mentions to me how, with old people, we never know when we get to see them again. Even though I know the plush labrador will accompany Tai Po, I couldn’t suppress it. I, too, began to cry. On the flight back to San Francisco, I reminisced about all the good moments in Taiwan. The delicious soup wontons, conversations with the auntie hairdresser, and playing cards with my cousin. Strange, how Tai Po’s pain is the very thing that brought the whole family together. Even stranger, Tai Po’s never smelled that bad. I miss it. I miss the fact that her home was always there for me.

The jet lag hits me especially hard. I see the piles of homework waiting. Yes, I’m back. It is not until a couple more days later that my mom asks all of us to gather in the living room. She musters the words with all the weight of love behind them.

“Do you guys want to hear something sad?”

Without the need to explain, we embrace. We grieve, as a family. Despite losing Tai Po, I don’t feel lost. I wonder if Tai Po smiled thinking of us. I think she did. I most certainly believe she did. At least she knows that she was never alone. She lives on in the laughter that fills our home; the stories we share at the dinner table; the warmth of the hands we hold. She lives in every gentle touch of the plush dog we brought for her, now perched beside the window, catching the morning NorCal sun. She lives in the ginger and steamed fish that drift through our kitchen. Someday, I’ll become someone’s good memory, too, and that’s enough for me.

About the Author

Priscilla Chan

A proud linguistics nerd from the Castilleja School who'll discover the depths of language--whether preserving the endangered language of the Santiago Laxopa Zapotec with a record of >1000 speakers in Ixtlan, Oaxaca, Mexico or raising awareness about the unsung women who helped shape the Korean hangeul language. Outside of my love for deconstructing phonetics, syntax, or acquisition theories, I'm obsessed with ramen (trying out all types of variations) and volleyball.

Read more work by Priscilla Chan.