The Changs in Kaoshiung

Every trip to Taiwan also means a visit down south to Kaoshiung, a port city at Taiwan’s southernmost tip. Distant relatives live there, and by ‘distant’ I mean my grandfather’s uncle and his children, a warm and energetic young couple whose kids are supposedly my aunt and uncle…or something like that. But they are by no means ‘distant’ in the emotional sense of the word. I watched their children Wayne and Jenny grow up just as they watched me grow up and now, with Jenny on the cusp of graduating from high school, I am beginning to feel the wistfulness that comes with seeing someone younger and more hopeful.

Distantly related though we are, it makes me happy when people look at us and assume we are sisters. According to her parents, Jenny admires me, learns much from me, but when I look at her, I see a young girl more self-assured and generous in heart than I was at that age. Now nearing twenty-five, I feel there is much I can learn from her. Her eyes are bright, her smile wide, and her hopes great but not so that she should be unwittingly crushed beneath their weight. I seldom hear her complain about her impossible workload (it is whatever I underwent during high school multiplied by one hundred) and when she hits a road block, she says, “I can figure it out. I can find a way.” If these are qualities she learned from me, let me rifle through my memory and revisit that young girl.

Jenny and I. See the resemblance?

Jenny attends Kaoshiung American School, an impoverished but acceptable counterpart to Taipei’s more financially robust version, and is contemplating spending her senior year abroad at Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire (where Mark Zuckerberg went). Wayne graduated from KAS two years ago and is now studying electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, whose cold and demographics are a far cry from the balmy tip of Southern Taipei, where diversity equals a handful of Chinese Mainlanders.

They are a simple family, in some ways very similar to the Taiwanese folks they’re surrounded by, and in some ways very different. Nearly six years ago I visited the United Kingdom with them and all together, we fell in love with the rolling green hills of Edinburgh and the bustling metropolitan of London. Wayne was about to start high school then and Jenny was a sixth grader – both, under their parents support and encouragement, were strong students with many talents and lofty academic dreams. I was a college dropout still trying to figure things out.

On a ferry ride to a place I remember by sight but have forgotten by name, I stood at the railing with Mr. Chang (for simplicity’s sake, I’ll call him Mr. Chang, when really he’s something like a great uncle or cousin), watching houses and ducks glide past as he told me, in his own way, that it doesn’t help to plan what we can’t know. “I was just beginning medical school when my father sold his watch-making business and bought a hospital,” he said, “The expectation was that I would graduate and head the hospital. It was a huge responsibility that came with enormous pressure. More than I could bear. When I graduated, I told my father no, I couldn’t accept the hospital. I wanted to start a small clinic and lead a simple life.” He did just that. He owns and operates a small, brightly lit clinic just steps away from where they live and because he sees his clients with a surgical mask, his patients stare at him blankly on the street when he waves to them and only come alive when he speaks. It is still hard work – he works from eight am to nine pm each day, and only takes vacations every other year or so when he can find a trustworthy and willing physician to take his place – but it is what he loves.

Mrs. Chang is a psychologist, a relatively new science in Taiwan. She specializes in sand therapy, which in the realms of psychology, is also relatively new. Her clinic occupies the floor above her husband’s and in the brightly lit space, one will find shallow boxes filled with sand and cabinets that open to reveal hundreds upon hundreds of miniatures: dolls, furniture, plastic shrubbery, cars, etc. Anything that you can think of, she has, only in miniature. The therapy consists of patients starting with an untouched box of sand and being encouraged to shape the sand anyway they want and to place upon it carefully selected miniatures that reflect, supposedly, their state of mind. Meanwhile, my aunt stands quietly by, scribbling notes and nodding and, when the patient is through, taking a photograph of your “work.” The sandscape changes when you are making progress, or regressing even, and only when you’ve plateaued emotionally does the sandscape remain static. (This last bit is my conjecturing). In 2005 I visited her clinic for the first time and made my own sandscape. A year later, I made another. I remember placing tiny plastic palm trees alongside sitting room furniture – whether this scene occurred in the first or second sandscape, I’ve forgotten. The photographs are stored somewhere on Mrs. Chang’s hard drive alongside her abundant notes and, I hope, her diagnosis that I have achieved emotional stability. Though she struggled to find clients in the beginning, is now steadily seeing five or six patients per week as Taiwan begins to accept the fact that yes, their society, like all societies around the world, is filled with crazies.

Mr. and Mrs. Chang.

 Their home in Kaoshiung bears her touch most distinctively. Like me, Mrs. Chang is neat. Not a freak about it, at least not by my standards, though her friends chide her and say she is “compulsive.”

Their family study center. Neat.

But fascinating to me, her person always seems slightly disheveled. Her clothes, though neat in the wardrobe, seem to wrinkle on her slight frame and her hair, despite the warm coaxing of an ionic Japanese hair dryer, remains wispy and unruly. She is the soft-spoken, clumsy wife of a rather severe looking doctor, but her brain is sharp, as are her eyes, from years of study and discipline. She adores Laura Ashley, lavender and Josh Groban and though her mother died two years ago, taking to the grave her secrets of Chinese northern-style cuisine, Mrs. Chang has recently discovered the joys of cooking. She lovingly prepares healthy meals for her husband, children and her father, now widowed, now eighty-nine.

Mr. Shen is my mother’s father’s uncle. Does that make sense? But they are roughly the same age. He too, is from Shandong Province in China and despite many years away from the mainland, he retains his hearty Shandong accent. Though his wife passed away two years ago, Mr. Shen adheres rigidly to his daily routine. To assert his independence, he lives in a converted studio above Mr. Chang’s clinic, though he dines and spends most of the day at his daughter’s home. Every morning, he is up at five, eats a simple breakfast of toast and milk (powder from a can because he likes it hot) and takes a thirty minute stroll around the park. Then he walks to the house, lets himself in and settles down in the living room where he reads the paper. Then he sits quietly as the family moves about him, getting ready for their own days. Mr. and Mrs. Chang leave for the clinic, Jenny for school, and then it is just him and Teswi, the Indonesian maid whose Chinese is poor and whom Mr. Shen addresses with a wave. “I don’t know her name,” he said to me, “I wave at her, and if she happens to see me, she’ll come.” In the afternoons after lunch, which is usually heated leftovers, he returns to the park to sit and chat with other retirees and grandmothers, many of them from Shandong like himself. Now a bachelor, he finds himself quite popular amongst the park’s older women, many of whom now widowed, see him as something of a catch. One of the women told Dr. Chang during a check up that she thought his father in law was “the most gentlemanly out of all the fellows” who frequented the park.

“They know I’m Dr. Chang’s father in law,” he told Mrs. Chang one evening, about a year after his wife passed, “They know that if they take up a companionship with someone like me, they’ll be in good hands.”

“Then why don’t you…” His daughter searched for the right word, “…date some of these women? It’s never too late to love another.”

“Ha!” Mr. shen said, “At my age, it’s more costly to enter into one serious relationship than it is to entertain a hundred acquaintances at the park. I’ll keep things as they are, thank you very much.”

When he’s finished with the paper, he sits quietly in the living room, staring at the opposite wall with his arms crossed. Two or three times a week the phone will ring during these quiet mornings and it will be his son on the other line, calling from Irvine, California with news of his grandson, Dennis, who is currently waiting to hear back from colleges. Mr. Shen eagerly waits to hear of Dennis.

I arrived in Kaoshiung on the night of his eighty-ninth birthday, for which his daughter made him braised pork knuckles and long-life noodles. He was already in bed, so I saw him late next morning. He was sitting, the paper already folded before him. I brought my toast to the living room to say hello. He greeted me warmly, just as my own grandfather would, and then the phone rang. It was Dennis’ father. I heard bits and pieces. “Illinois?…Is he going to go?… Ranked third, you say? Well that’s quite excellent, isn’t it? Third! In America!”

Later, as he sat eating his lunch – the last braised pork knuckle and knob of noodles – he asked me how much a small car costs in the United States. He was thinking about buying Dennis a car for his graduation. “He’s a good boy, you know, got himself into the third best electrical engineering department in the United States. Such a good boy. Many talents. Plays the saxophone and football and won the world championship for an art contest. Ranked third, that school in Illinois. No doubt he’ll need a car…”

Long life noodles. But not if you finish the whole plate…

I looked at the park’s most eligible bachelor, his lips gleaming with pork grease, his face glowing with pride. I tell him that a suitable car for a kid like Dennis should cost about 15K. Twenty, if he’s feeling generous. “You could even get him a nicer car, used,” I say, but he shakes his head. Probably not used, he says, Dennis is such a good kid. Did he tell me that school in Illinois is ranked third? Third! In the U.S! Believing that to live long one should only eat until seventy percent full, he proceeds to cleans the pork knuckle but leaves a bit of noodles on the plate.

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