Postcards from Taiwan, no. 4: Childhood Journeys and Alternate Realities in Taichung

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Greater Taichung (pop. 2.6 million) is where my mom spent her childhood, and where her family has lived for generations. Over two nights and two days, we visit dozens of relatives – cousins, 2nd cousins, my grandpa’s sister, a few I know by face, fewer I know by name – for tea or for fruit in their homes, for dinner at local restaurants.

Day 1: Da Nan Village – Mom’s birthplace and childhood home

On Wednesday morning, we visit a woman I know as Huang Ah-Yi, my mom’s childhood best friend and next-door neighbor. I first met Huang Ah-Yi during her visits to the US, first when I was ~4 and again about 3 years ago. She lives a five-minute drive away from Da Nan village, where her elderly mother still lives next door to the house my mom did growing up.

Huang Ah-Yi is an award-winning horticulturalist. She gives us a tour of her greenhouse, replete even in January with row after row of flowers, organic vegetables, herbs, and shrubbery. Then she takes the 5 of us inside for tea. As Huang Ah-Yi and my mom chat, I think of roads not taken – of alternate realities, had my mom stayed in Taiwan, or had Huang Ah-Yi come to America.

It’s breezy and ~60 degrees outside. We make the short drive to Da Nan, which sits in the hills of Xinshe District on the outskirts of Taichung. We pay a brief visit to greet Huang Ah-Yi’s mom, then walk around the neighborhood, past villagers tending a small community garden, and wooden, Japanese-style houses. They were built for Taiwanese locals, including my Ah-Gong (grandpa), who was employed by the Seed Improvement and Propagation Station, under the agricultural bureau of the Japanese government in Formosa.

As we turn a street corner, Huang Ah-Yi points at some towels and t-shirts hanging out to dry on a clothesline. “Your mom and I used to hide and play there when we were little,” she says. Underneath, I see a locked metal door. It leads to what used to be a bomb shelter during World War II.

Finally, we reach a small, wooded park with a small memorial in the corner. Ah-Ma and Ah-Gong were married here in early 1945. She was 21; he was 24. The memorial was originally Shinto shrine, but the text of the stone monument in the center has been painted over, and now commemorates the return of Taiwan from Japan to China.

Day 2: Chung Hsing New Village and Nantou County – Mom’s home after middle school

On Thursday, my cousin takes us to Nantou County, where we visit the 921 Earthquake Museum of Taiwan. At 1:47am on September 21, 1999, an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale shook the island of Taiwan, killing 2,415 people and injuring over 11,305. The damage was worst in Taichung and Nantou County, where a fault line runs past Ah-Ma’s house.

At the time, Ah-Ma was staying with us in New Jersey, where it was early afternoon. When my mom heard the news, she told me and my brother to distract Ah-Ma and keep her from turning on the TV. My mom was able to reach all of our relatives in Taiwan and confirm they were OK before she told Ah-Ma what had happened. I remember sitting in her room as she watched the news coverage, often in tears, for many days later.

1999 was also the last time I visited Ah-ma’s house, 7 months before the 921 earthquake. I was 9 years old. Since my mom was in middle school, Ah-Ma and Ah-Gong lived in Chung Hsing New Village, Nantou County (pop. 25,000), which also serves as the provincial capital of Taiwan (ROC). We drive through the village gate, lined with palm trees on the side and a row of Taiwanese flags on top.

Memories start flooding back to me as soon as we pull up to Ah-Ma’s house, which has been uninhabited since she died 3 years ago: the laundry once hanging in the front yard, the lime green tiles of the front step that continue into the house, a lone osmanthus shrub whose scent I’d recognized in Hualien.

Then more memories: riding a bike around the cul-de-sac with my cousins when I was 7 (and crashing it), watching Pinocchio for the first time (it was Mandarin-dubbed), eating Domino’s pizza, hiding from the stray dogs that shared the neighborhood. As my parents, my brother, and my cousin head back to the car, content with the photos they’d taken, I sit and linger on the front step, savoring the brief journey back to my childhood.

More from Taiwan:

Part 3: Wanderlust and Introspection in Taitung and Kaohsiung
Part 2: The Hualien I Will Remember
Part 1: Disorientation and Jetlag in Taipei

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