Spring Cleaning

A few days ago was Qing Ming Festival, when Chinese families visit their ancestor’s grave and give them a good scrub.

A Taiwanese cemetery.

A few years ago, this was actually necessary. Families would load up their cars with brooms, dustpans, pruning shears, etc. to tackle the natural growth that would eventually creep up over the tombs, which are much larger than standard American grave plots.

Where Grandma and Grandpa Ho are buried.

When the weeds had been pulled out, the bushes and grasses trimmed back, and fresh flowers, fruit, wine, and whatever other edible offerings set before, burning incense would be placed in a small pot before the tomb. Incense signifies a spiritual vigil. The living light incense for the dead, or for the Gods, to show that we still respect them. Incense also marks a sort of connection between the two worlds; once the incense is lit, we are in conversation with the dead and it is while the incense burns that we believe our ancestors are consuming our offerings. After the ancestors have eaten and drunk their fill, we burn paper money for them to use in the afterlife. At the markets, one must be sure to buy the right currency: Ghost or God money cannot be burned for Ancestors and vice versa.

Nowadays, at least in Taipei, grave cleaning is unnecessary. We were lucky to find a quiet cemetery with spacious plots and tiled floors. Once a month, we pay a maintenance fee, like you would in a high-end apartment complex and the caretakers come and do the cleaning for us. Some people forget to pay the fee, and their ancestors’ graves are noticeably neglected.

Whoever lies here is writhing in shame.

But in Taipei county, land is scarce and plot burials are now rare – reserved for those who had the foresight to buy a plot early on. If you didn’t make such an investment, its cremation for you. My grandfather was the last person in our family to have a traditional, whole-body burial – the plot was bought many years before, when his third wife (and my biological grandmother) passed away. When he lived, we came once a year to worship our grandmother and our father’s great grandmother, who is buried in the neighboring plot, but my grandfather never came along. And why would he? In the second photo, the characters on the tombstone are painted gold, but they’re only gold when the person has been buried. For many years, my grandfather’s name was still in red, signifying his status as a living man.

Also for many years, Grandpa would wait patiently for us to finish eating lunch so he could go home and take an afternoon nap. Now, we wait for him.

The adults talk about where to go for lunch. My uncle (seated) was eating vegetarian that day.
My uncle takes a work-related call.
My cousins complain about work. Melody (left) works at a bank. Karen works at PWC.

Almost there…not.
To kill more time, Karen resorts to playing Angry Birds (and then checking Facebook) on our great great Aunt’s grave.

Finally, our grandparents and the Gods alike have feasted and it is time to burn paper money.

May they shop in peace.

Last year’s grave cleaning marker is removed – a stack of red paper left on the tombs to signify that the relatives have come and paid their respects:

And replaced by a new marker.

Cleaned.

Until next year, Grandpa.

Little Cat

My aunt has two cats – a fat yellow cat and a less fat dark, striped one. They’re called, fittingly, Big Cat and Small Cat. My aunt never saw the need to give them other names. Big Cat’s problem is he mews whenever he wants to eat something. Which is always. He also doesn’t move. Like some people I know. Small Cat is more active. He’s also more jumpy – the first to disappear if a stranger comes into the house. Small Cat’s problem is he likes to pee on things: clothes, blankets, pillows, and once, my aunt’s head. He also has this weird thing where he likes to fit himself on a tiny platform. Because he pees a lot, no one puts him on a pedestal. So he does it himself.

Cat on a pseudo-Victorian novel.

Cat on a small woven box.

Cat dozing on my uncle’s laptop.
Cat stirring on my laptop.

Cat on a cookie box.

Cancer cat. (Shortly after this photo was taken my aunt shooed him away).

Cat in a box of junk.
Cat on a boxed vase/urn. I think.

Cat on a stack of finance magazines. Money cat!

Cat on my aunt. Happy cat 🙂

What an outrageously pointless post.

Grandfather’s Office

Every morning up until the month before he passed away, my grandfather went to the office with his two sons. For thirty years or so his official title was company president, his presence necessary at all company meetings and his opinion of utmost importance when it came to decision making, but sometime around his ninetieth birthday he decided to take a step back and let his sons take the reigns. He was still the man who signed the checks, an activity he delighted in, but he shortened his working day to four hours, eight to noon, when he would leave for lunch. As the years wore on, his “duties” became a lightweight medley of newspaper reading and reorganizing the whirligigs on his desk and matching lottery numbers. From time to time he would emerge from his office to see what his sons were up to, and they would look up from whatever they were working on to nod kindly at him.

Often, he would tap on his middle son’s window and ask how the stock market was doing.
“It’s doing fine, Father,” his middle son would say, “Just fine.” And my grandfather would nod and shuffle along, a stooped figure gliding past the glass.

It is good fortune, the Chinese say, to be emotionally close to one’s family and even greater fortune to be physically close. Ask any elderly Chinese what it is they want most and most likely, they will say, “To have my children all around me.” My grandfather was blessed by living in the same building as two of his sons and their families, and doubly so in that he worked with them as well, without incident. My grandfather’s sons were the light of his life, the company they had built together a great source of pride. That his sons respected him is an understatement – they showered him with love and adoration, but of the quiet type. There was never any fawning, only a steady stream of support and acquiescence for whatever it is the father wanted to do.

It seems silly to point this out, but they let grandfather have the biggest room. That expansive back office with long windows overlooking the neighboring airport.

 Once, when I went with grandma to pick grandpa up for lunch, I found him dressed and ready to leave, standing before the window, watching the planes take off.
“He likes to do that,” my uncle told me.

When my grandfather passed away, there was no question as to whether the room would be cleaned out for either uncle – it wouldn’t. His sons would leave it just as it was. Visited the office last week, I found it unchanged since the last time I went to pick grandfather up for lunch. The room was slightly colder, but clean and orderly, with the desk chair pushed back and a pen left uncapped on the desk, as though grandfather had left briefly and would be returning any moment.

I examined his things, though I had seen them all before. It was like rereading a favorite book.
My grandfather was a shameless collector of cheap toys.

And clocks, of any type.

His shelves were  decorated with gifts from friends, including this stone rooster, complete with pebble grains. My grandfather was born in the year of the Rooster, as was my brother, my grandmother, and two aunts.

Behind a small table set from the seventies, a collection of Chinese paintings, also gifts from friends and business partners.

There were also many mirrors to be found, as even more than airplanes my grandfather loved to look at himself.

In the small wardrobe, a large safe, a crisp white shirt and a portrait of his father. Once, while helping my grandfather with his coat, he saw me looking at the photograph. He smiled and slowly lifted his hand up to point at the picture; he was nearing one hundred years old then. “My father,” he said, “my father.” Fittingly, in each of my uncle’s offices, there are portraits of their father.

And on the adjacent shelves, more recent photographs:

From a company/family outing with the office ladies and grandchildren.
With Grandma on the left (peeling shrimp for Grandpa), Betty and Grandpa at one of many restaurants, circa 2007.

In the Company of Single Women

Forty-six years ago, my grandfather retired from his position as a customs officer and with fortune’s second wind, established a small company, the workings of which to this day, remain somewhat of a mystery to me. I once asked my second uncle what it was the company did. Looking up briefly from his computer screen which, as usual, was covered with blinking red and green numbers, he shrugged and said, “I know what I do for the company, but other people, I’m not quite sure. A smattering of things, I guess.” 

First Uncle Kwang-Hong, the middle brother, in his office.

At its inception it was a medical supply trading company and only later, with my grandmother’s death, began its foray into real estate development. She had wisely bought random parcels of land throughout Taipei, leaving it to her sons who in turned built office buildings and tall condominiums upon it when they were grown and joined the company’s ranks.

Project drawings from the company’s heyday.

Why, people ask the children in our family, don’t we just “take over” the family business? It was and remains modestly successful and, were we to infuse it with youthful innovations, surely it could rise to become even greater?

Where important meetings once took place, old files and boxes of supplies pile up.

Fat chance, we reply, not least because the office exudes a musty smell and a blanketed quiet – all signs of a company in decline. The boys are off hunting bigger fish (i.e. companies that occupy more than just a single floor) and the girls, well, we can’t help but think of all the office ladies who in the company’s heyday, were still pretty young blossoms waiting to be plucked from white collar obscurity. Now however, they are old maids. Family lore has it thus: if you are a single woman entering the company’ work force then you will leave a single woman. It’s the company curse, and a notably sexist one at that. Men who work at the company will eventually find themselves happily married to wonderful wives who bear even more wonderful children (case in point: me). This is precisely what happened to my grandpa, uncles and father and a smattering of other men who have come and gone. Women however, risk an eternity of spinsterhood. 

Doomed.

Of the six women who have begun their careers with us, only one is married, and this occurred prior to her employment. The other five have given up looking for love, it seems, though I can’t say for sure. I doubt women ever stop looking. They dress up to come to work, though there are no men to impress but my two married uncles, one of whom is almost hermit-like. The company’s one man financial analyst, he closes the office door each morning, hiding behind four giant computer screens until lunchtime, when he steams his home-packed lunch, inhales it, then settles in for a nap. He rarely speaks to anyone, bidding only good morning and good night to the office ladies.

An artist at work.

 My other uncle, my father’s youngest brother, is a bit of a workaholic. When he is kind he is very kind, but when he is angry, the entire office cowers beneath his oppressive anger. The women fear him, but they also cannot leave him. It is a strange dynamic, one that puzzles me to no end.

The only photograph in Second Uncle Kwang-Hwa’s office: a somewhat cruel reminder to all the office ladies who enter that while they may not like him very much, there is someone at home who does, very much.

But I have written it off as one of those karmic enigmas – perhaps in another life these women betrayed my uncle in some way so that now, they’re repaying him with their allegiance.

Speaking of Karma, the company has its own altar room. Perhaps the office ladies don’t use it enough.

Every time I visit the office and see these women, some still quite young looking (though I feel this has more to do with a mental projection of their reluctance to leave a certain stage of life than with any skincare regime), I wonder, “Why don’t they leave? Why don’t they quit?” It’s a depressing sight, but I can only keep this to myself or speak in whispers, to my cousin who feels the same way.

We can fear them right now because we are young.

But who knows, one day we may know exactly how they feel when a young woman on the cusp of career or love or both, walks into the room. Or perhaps it’s just my superstitions talking. In companies all over the world (though it seems most visibly in Asia) women are trading job security for marriage. They work late hours, making it hard to socialize after work, and when the weekends come, they have barely any energy leftover to meet new people not to mention spend time with friends and family. Men go through the same thing too, but the alarmingly imbalanced ratio of women to men (the article is for Hong Kong, but Taiwan’s numbers are not too different) means that men can be far less proactive and still, some grateful young woman is likely to fall in his lap.

Regardless, I’ve vowed to never seek employment in the family business. In medical equipment and real estate, the company has made a comfortable living for all those associated. Where it has no business is Love. At least not for the office ladies.

Post-op

My grandmother had her left breast removed yesterday afternoon and is now camping out at the Taipei Veterans General Hospital, a towering behemoth of health care as well as neglect (though because of population and shortage of health staff, there is not much to be done). My grandma was lucky and went under the knife far more quickly than anticipated, as it seems much of Taiwan seems to be waiting for some procedure or other, but the doctor came and informed her that she is to be discharged this afternoon. They need the bed, he said, you’re going to be in pain either way, so why not choose home?

Though I could see my grandmother’s fill with doubt and fear – what does she know about nursing her own gaping wound, I see his point. The hospital – all hospitals, it seems – is filled with people. My grandma is on the tenth floor, yet on my way down in the elevator, we stopped on every floor and always, a crush of people waited to get in, to get out. Walking down the corridors, I couldn’t help but peak in every room, and just like a run-down hotel in a good location, they were all filled. People both old and young, upbeat and down-trodden. Life and not so much life.

   The hospital’s main building.

The hospital’s seal. The word is rong and it means “glory and honor.” Rongming (榮民) is the phrase for “veterans,” meaning, honorable people who served their country.

The hospital’s lobby with a giant Taiwanese flag, just in case patients wake up on their way in or out and forget where they are.

I got a kick out of the young nurses in their clean, white uniforms and their little hats, pinned to their hair. They are all very nice, soft-spoken young women, often cowed by the doctors.

The motto on the nurses’ carts. Is this true? I think so.

                       Chinese IV.

My grandma’s older sister, bending over to whisper something. When I asked U.S. medical students interning in Taiwanese hospitals what the biggest difference was between health care in the U.S. and in Taiwan was, they replied, “The role of family.” Taiwanese hospitals let families take a much bigger role in a patient’s wellness – but I think this has more to do with the culture as well.

A Sunny Day in Taipei

My first week here was extremely cold and I found myself regretting my decision to visit Taipei during the winter. Houses here – or our house at least – have no heat. Couple that with our new tile floors and with my aunt’s ardent belief that all windows must be kept open for constant circulation, well, you’ve got yourself a veritable ice box.

Somewhere in the middle of the second week however, temperatures became bearable (15 to 17 degrees Celsius) and then, a few days later, almost warm. The sun made its first appearance since my arrival at the tail end of Chinese New Year celebrations and my aunt, uncle and cats were eager to soak up the warmth. Now, the temperatures have dropped again and I am shivering, wondering if I’ll ever come back around this time of year. No matter, I can still revisit some recent, warmer memories…

               My uncle, reading on the balcony. On weekends he prefers Buddhist scriptures and meditation to finance books and magazines.

On the balcony over, my aunt spreads our blankets out to sun, believing with the rest of Asia (regardless of how smoggy their cities are, Asians prefer air-drying to dryers) that the sun’s rays kill germs.

And at my uncle’s feet, Fat Cat (there are two cats – one fat, the other less so and called, unsurprisingly, Small Cat) suns in a cardboard box.

Mrs. Pang

For as long as I can remember, my aunt’s home on the sixth floor has been cleaned each Monday, Wednesday and Friday by Mrs. Pang. Every year when I come back, Mrs. Pang opens the door and in her rough, deep voice, calls out, “Is Betty back? I see an extra pair of shoes in the hallway.” And I, still sleepy, rise and say, “Yes Mrs. Pang, I’m back.”

“Ah…that means I’m another year older!”

She is as integral to my experiences here as any other member of my family, not least because for many years, she and I have shared the mornings. With my uncle at work, my aunt at her womens’ club and my cousins either at cram school or now, at work as well, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays mornings would be quiet, the apartment filled with my solitary, unproductive actions if Mrs. Pang did not come and work her magic. When she is here, there is a sense of industry and because she is working, I too, try to “work.” I read and write – for that, even when I’m not at school, is what I consider “work,” but it’s nothing compared to what she accomplishes.

She begins in the kitchen, sorting out last night’s (the weekend’s too, if it is a Monday) trash, washing dishes, wiping down the stove and counter tops, boiling water to drink and then, before moving onto the balcony, collects the laundry and starts load number one. Next she hoses down the balcony and scrubs the floor with a long scrub brush. The bathrooms are next, along with the bedrooms, where she dusts, changes linens, puts things away, and restores general order for my aunt, uncle and cousins, who can messy a tidy room in an astonishingly short time. When she’s not scrubbing, she’s ironing my uncle’s work shirts or, if the occasion arises, darning socks and patching holes in my cousin’s favorite sweaters. My aunt is not an untidy woman, but next to Mrs. Pang, she seems almost hapless, as would most women. Having recently moved back to their newly refurbished building, my aunt told me that if it were not for Mrs. Pang, who helped pack and store and unpack and replace nearly everything in the house, they would never have been able to move back as quickly as they did.

“I don’t think I could live without Mrs. Pang,” she said.

Uneducated and almost comically simple-minded, Mrs. Pang is an unlikely role model, but I look forward to hearing her key at the door because in her person and in her work she reminds me hardships are a part of life.

Seventeen years ago her husband was diagnosed with colon cancer. He underwent surgery, which was deemed successful and to celebrate his new found health, asked his son to buy him a noodle soup from a local shop. He ate the noodle soup, got an infection and was dead within the month. He left her with two children, whom she raised on her meager cleaning income. To hear her talk about her husband’s death is to hear a woman narrate the facts of life – there is nothing to contemplate – no hint of, “Why me?” or even a heavy sigh that denotes the hard times that came afterward – she scrubs, wipes, mops as she says, “A month later he was dead.” My face is filled with polite horror as I wait for her to continue, but there is nothing else to say. She continued working and living, each day at a time, through her children’s college educations and marriages and now, even as a grandmother, she works.

“Not as much as I used to,” she says, “Just your aunt’s house and one other lady’s. But I should keep working for as long as I can. A person has to work. What are they going to do otherwise?”

Taipei International Book Expo

Sorry for the long absence – I was wondering why (and smirking at) so many people were dressed like bandits and surgeons when I first got off the plane so it was only natural that I find out the hard way. I contracted the flu that’s been going around and while I didn’t get it as bad as my cousin (who’s been sick no less than three times in two months) feverish headaches are the surest way to neglect one’s blog. But the fever’s gone and my desire to walk about and be a part of the community has returned – though no doubt by refusing to wear a surgical mask I risk picking up another one of many flu strands that are going around…My visit to the Taipei International Book Expo yesterday, a Sunday, was probably going right to the disease’s center, but I love books – and I like to live on the edge.

 Chinese/Taiwanese people love cheesy animal mascots – but I did like the artwork on this particular poster.

Ladies chatting on bright orange stools – not really reading. This was the booth for LiveABC, one of Taiwan’s largest publishers of English language learning materials.

 As I was flipping through this book a young sales girl came up to me and marketed rather aggressively, not giving me a chance to impress her with my English. I left with a brochure and the inability to socialize in English with confidence.

 The expo was packed – except for a few of the international booths (India and Turkey looked especially desolate while France and Japan were equally as crammed as Chinese language booths).

                       I have never heard of this magazine. Good luck to them and their stylist.

                       The expo atrium.

                      Never figured out what they were promoting.

The booth for Studio Classroom, an immensely popular and effective English language learning magazine. I have no idea what the stuffed animals are doing in the middle…

 …nor any idea what tap dancers are doing promoting government publications…

                       …or what this guy was talking about to attract the large crowd that stood before him, but these were just a few of the thousand plus booths I walked past.

I ended up buying just one novel at an English books booth after deliberating for more than ten minutes and reading for twenty. I’m a sucker for Victorian murder stories.

Just Another Day in Taipei…

Only in Taipei would I ever spend the morning at the temple and go straight to karaoke with my cousins. My grandfather’s name, along with those of our ancestors, are placed at Zhao Ming Temple in the outskirts of Taipei City. It’s a low-key temple, nestled in hills of Yang Ming Mountain.When I say “name,” I mean a placard that is meant to represent the spirit of these ancestors. A family buys the placard from the temple, which promises to keep it until the temple itself is demolished or destroyed. If it is not there materially, the name exists in spirit.

And when I say “low-key,” I mean, it’s not a garish temple outfitted in gold and marble. The nuns don’t all have their own laptops nor do they have a queen bee nun that is driven around in a bullet proof Mercedes (there are plenty of these “humble” religious leaders about in Asia). The temple is run by a handful of elderly nuns and their fresh-faced disciples, and all share in the household duties and worship services. They cook and serve meals on special occasions such as funerary ceremonies or on the first day of the new year, during which many families choose to eat vegetarian. After lighting incense for our ancestors and the deities that watch over them, we dined at the temple. We can choose, if for some reason the temple no longer pleases us, to move the placard to another temple, but at present we are very pleased with this one. Its name, Zhao Ming, means “Divine light.”

 The temple’s exterior.

It is the swastika, a word derived from the Sanskrit word “svastika” meaning any lucky or auspicious object. Buddhists believe it was stamped upon Buddha’s chest when he died and they call it the heart seal. You’ll find it on temples all over Asia – the Nazis have nothing to do with it. Hitler, after much deliberation, decided to use the Swastika on his flag to convey “the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man, and, by the same token, the victory of the idea of creative work.” Whatever.

My uncle, holding his incense and waiting for his turn at the altar.

The altar for ancestors. Each placard represents one family. The food on the middle table is prepared by the nuns. After it is offered, they eat it. The side tables are meant for families to place fruit and other goods. Normally, after the fruit is offered, it is left there for the nuns to eat, but on the new year, they make an exception. Families take the fruit home for themselves because it’s lucky to eat on this day.

And because some kids don’t like fruit, no matter how lucky it is, parents make the most out of the situation…

Volunteers cooking in the temple kitchen. No animals killed or cut in this kitchen ever. Truly vegan.

Our vegetarian lunch – less exquisite than New Year’s Eve dinner, but no less delicious, and far more refreshing.

Karen and Melody – my cousins – singing in our tiny private room. Karen went from being one of those, “Oh I can’t sing, don’t make me sing,” girls to a mic hog that now jumps up and down sofas.

Taiwanese super idol. I have no idea who he is.

But I know who she is…

And that’s how I spent the first day of the Chinese New Year.

Goodbye Tiger, Hello Rabbit

Chinese New Year dinner was held earlier this year, and rather than two tables, we had just one. It is my first year in Taiwan without my grandfather, but looking around the table, I realized it wasn’t just my grandfather who was missing. Two great uncles had passed away shortly after my grandfather and my brother, my parents and two cousins were absent as well. At first I feared it would be one of those quiet, awkward dinners – with people keeping their heads bent low over their plates to avoid talking – but this is the Ho family dinner modus operandi: eat first, talk later. And as long as a few key players are present (namely, my aunt and two cousins), there will always be enough conversation to keep things rolling.

An hour before dinner, grandma and cousin Karen Skype with my brother, who is now in Shanghai. You can see his blog here.

My uncle, cousin and aunt’s younger sister, who is visiting from Taichung, a city in the middle of Taiwan.

On our way to the bus stop. Yes, we took the bus to dinner. It was just down the street.

First course: fruit salad with shrimp and crab.

The restaurant: Chao Jiang Yan (it was Chao Zhou style food).

Shark’s fin soup, which makes me sad. I would never order it. But if it’s cooked and served, I’ll eat it. Just don’t expect to see this at my wedding banquet.

One of my favorite seafood dishes ever: steamed Alaskan king crab legs with garlic, ginger and served atop the best tasting vermicelli noodles ever. Sam Woo’s in Irvine actually makes this too.

Grandma Zhang reaching for a crab leg. They are an interesting couple – thoroughly Americanized (they both speak impeccable English and have jobs at the American school – and their daughter teaches English in Ethiopia. Every year,  I exchange one or two sentences with them and learn something cool.
In the foreground is the menu, on display so that diners can read ahead and know how to pace themselves. I discovered the menu too late and by the time dessert came around, was really stuffed. Thank God for my extra stomach.

Stir-fried scallops, squid, and broccoli.

This is actually one of the small appetizer dishes that are just put out on the table. We had a debate about it until the manager came to settle it for us: half the table said it was some sort of jelly, made to look like fish skin while the other half insisted it was fish skin. The manager said, just as I put it into my mouth, “It’s fish skin.” Tasted like crunchy jelly… it was good.

I don’t know about the rest of my family, but this was the savory highlight of my evening: sweet and sour pork surrounded by prawn, walnut, and mayonnaise wraps, fried and topped with crispy almonds.

Steamed fish, of which I just took the head. A Chinese New Year dinner would not be complete without fish. Chinese people love puns and “fish” is also a homonym for “happiness.” So eat the fish for happiness. (I actually forgot to eat the fish, I was so absorbed by the pork).

What we thought was the last savory dish: abalone mushrooms over spinach – don’t be fooled, this stuff is amazing.

Then there was a mix-up in the kitchen and we received an extra dish – banana-leaf wrapped steamed chicken and rice. We assumed it was a gift from the manager and dug in. The manager rushed out and said, “Uh, oh…okay well yeah my gift to you guys…yeah, my gift. Happy New Year!” We were like, “Wow, great. Thanks!”

The group, smaller, but no less family – everyone’s visible except for my second uncle on the left.

Dessert: mochi with yam hearts in the middle and curry pastries on the outside. Similar to some dimsum dishes – I think Chao Zhou is also in the south, close to Guangzhou.

Posing with my favorite kind of paper. 100NTD = roughly 3USD. The manager, after giving us the chicken and rice, said, “You guys are a lucky table, you ought to buy lottery tickets!” There’s nothing like the lottery to get a bunch of Chinese people reaching for their purses and grinning big. Each one took out 100NT for a 1500 pot and we gave it to our great aunt to buy the tickets. Wish us luck 🙂

One of many toasts.

Another toast – to the New Year and to our lottery tickets. Just like that, another Lunar Year came to an end and we, grinning, welcomed the year of the Rabbit.