I have – and this may not be the medical term for it but it’s a direct translation from what doctors say in Chinese – an allergy-prone composition. Which means my eyes itch and run quite easily, and I’m prone to bouts of rapid-fire sneezing. When it comes to skin, mine reacts badly to the saliva of jerk-off Taiwanese mosquitoes who apparently prefer American-raised blood as my Taiwanese cousin never gets bitten if she walks with me. Currently, there are two monstrous mosquito bites on my left thigh. On other people, even other Americans, the bites remain pea-sized, itch a bit, then disappear in one or two days. Mine grow to the size of small islands. I could, if I wanted, stick a flag on each and make it its own itchy sovereign state whose sole purpose is to drive me insane and make me look terrible in shorts.
Now I understand why Taiwanese women suffer pants in this summer heat.
But that’s the price for visiting Taiwan in the summer. That and the astronomically priced plane-tickets, a full $600 more than what I’d paid in the winter months. That and the relentless hoards of other unwitting American raised Taiwanese fools who come back to visit relatives on their summer breaks and will undoubtedly provide fatty new feasting opportunities for millions of hungry mosquitoes. It’s a walk down memory lane for me, mosquitoes and all, a summer in Taipei.
The last time I spent a summer here was in 2010, the year my grandfather passed away. If I got bit that summer, I don’t remember. Most likely I did, but strange things happen when a beloved member of the family passes away. The gods are kinder than usual and make life easy in ways you least expect. Maybe I did get bitten and maybe the bites were even more monstrous than the ones I have now, but I’ve since erased it from my memory. What I remember instead is a lot of crying, laughing and talking and thinking. Folding hundreds of paper lotuses and taels in a narrow air-conditioned building that played Buddhist chanting on loop and held the temporary altars of other people’s deceased loved ones. I remember the faces of the dead and running into their left-behind living, other mourners who came once or twice a day to light incense or replace fruit and flowers. We shared plastic card tables with these people sometimes, but we never really talked to them.
I remember watching my grandmother from the corner of my eye when the rest of the family was kneeling before my grandfather’s coffin, and wondering what would happen to her.
She would move out and away to her own place in Tian Mu, travel to the States and visit me in Berkeley. She would spend Christmas with us at home and New Year’s in Las Vegas. She would return to Taipei and be diagnosed then undergo treatment for breast cancer. She would cut her hair short, stop dying it, and devote herself to enjoying life, which for her encompasses mastering Tai Chi and travel and shopping at Uniqlo where she once a hooded puffy vest in every color.
“Do you want one?” she asked, “It has pockets.”
At the memorial, I remember a giant card-board cutout of my grandfather, dressed to the nines in a three piece suit and pink tie, positioned right above his coffin. I remember grandma taking photos at the funeral, and thinking with an indiscernible chuckle because I was crying, “Okay grandma, that’s enough photos of the cardboard cutout.”
I remember his coffin, a massive, watertight lacquered vessel that could have held three stacked corpses but instead just held the one, around which we placed some of his favorite belongings. Two warm padded silk vests, a lambskin beanie, a woolen blanket, a suit or two, ties, a pair of shoes, a gold watch, his wallet, favorite tie pins and handkerchiefs. He arrived in style, wherever he went.
I remember a surprisingly clear-weather funeral because leading up to it were reports that the mother of all typhoons would hit Taipei. Our relatives from China cancelled their trip and we braced ourselves for a low turnout at both the memorial and the funeral – the city was on edge and about to shut down. Instead, over five hundred people showed up, packing the room and lining up outside to pay their respects. Instead, on the mountain gravesite, it drizzled a little before giving way to hazy sunshine and my grandfather was buried without incident. In other parts of Taipei, the typhoon landed anyway and people lost their homes and farms to torrential rains and wind, landslides.
I remember my aunt telling us to turn our backs when the coffin was lowered to not let our shadows fall into the grave because something sinister could pull our souls in with it. I remember waiting to hear the thud when the coffin hit the ground, but later, after I’d heard nothing, learned that they had lined the grave with charcoal to mute my grandfather’s final fall.
And after it all, I remember going back to the temple where my father once fell asleep during a Buddhist chanting service for my grandpa, much to my family’s embarrassment and climbing into the back of my uncle’s van, my cousins at my side. I remember being very tired, but still having the energy to go karaokeing with Karen and Melody. We had the blessings of our parents, who were also tired, and a bit dazed.
And after that, I don’t remember much else. I don’t remember what was said when I packed to leave nor the flight back home, who I sat next to or what I thought about. I may have played around with the phrase, “To come to terms with,” but in Chinese it sounds better, because it means something else entirely: to acknowledge life because life changes. Maybe I wrote something somewhere. Maybe I watched three movies in a row until my eyes hurt and to close them was the only reasonable thing to do. I definitely wondered about the future. About Grandma and our family as a whole. Maybe I scratched at mosquito bites in the dark and wondered when and where I’d gotten them. Wondered if they’d leave a mark.