my grandmother was 10 years old when her father sold her, for 300 dollars, to my grandfather to pay off a debt. she moved from zhejiang, an eastern province in mainland china, to taipei (many, many li away, as tan would say), where my grandfather already lived with his wife and her daughters. she did not speak any taiwanese and presumably knew no one. she worked in their household as a servant until it was clear that my grandfather’s wife would not bear him any sons. he then decided to marry my grandmother (as well — yes, there were two wives in this household). my grandmother did them all proud, producing 6 sons (including my father) and 2 daughters. (taiwan did not ever have china’s 1-child-per-household policy, clearly.)
my grandfather died in 1982, i think. he was in his nineties. i really don’t remember him at all, but he seems to have been well-liked and highly respected, and he’s the one i should probably thank for the study habits my father passed on to me — and, i’m told, for my aptitude for chemistry.
my grandmother (on the left, with a neighbor) will be 90 years old next year. she moved to douliou, a little town (of 100,000) down in the middle of taiwan when she started running a shipping operation. they live in a residential/farming area with about 100 other families. this area is considered rural, so a food truck, carrying provisions (from fruit and vegetables to cookies and sausage) makes the rounds, and she likes to eat as much as the rest of us, so she’ll go out and meet it. like she’s doing here. ah-ma’s got a nimble mind and she’s still pretty active on her feet. she’s funny as hell and not a little mischievous.
she lives with my uncle david, his wife and 3 kids. my aunt cooks all the meals (with some help from ah-ma sometimes), which all, like this one, usually include 6 or 7 different dishes, plus soup. from the left, there’s a cold poached chicken in the back, squid with some kind of asian leafy green, another leafy green, some tempura (either shrimp or zucchini, i forget now), probably winter melon and a whole pan-fried fish. the soup in the middle might be miso (which people eat in taiwan all the time, it seems), or it might be winter melon soup, fish soup or something like this
with a black chicken foot and everything. i think there are pork bits and daikon in there too.
here, on a different night, we’ve got shrimp tempura, braised chinese cabbage, some pickled bamboo shoots in the back, maybe some pork or something on the far left. pickled cucumbers on the right, foreground.
and a different night, counterclockwise from top left: there’s soy sauce-star anise pig intestines (one of my favorite dishes there), tofu (maybe?), pressed, dried tofu with seaweed, a whole fish, snow peas with mushrooms, soup, turkey/chicken/duck (not sure), some sautéed veg, and shrimp in the middle, of course.
my mom always has to serve everyone, wherever we are. my grandma, in her old age, has become very particular about what she eats and tends to go for the saltiest things — many of which she makes herself. one night, she was enjoying some broccoli stems she had pickled and my mom insisted that she take some pork, let’s say it was. and then when my mom had her head turned and was busy serving someone else, ah-ma quickly put the pork back on the serving plate and continued eating as before. my grandma is very much like an 8-year-old. and i mean that in the best way. another night, we were all (uncle david’s family, my grandma, my parents, me and my sister) happily munching away on dinner when my father reached for some chicken and everyone stopped eating and looked up when he took a piece. ah-ma scowled at him. my aunt and uncle both said (in taiwanese), ‘chen, that’s ah-ma’s piece. only ah-ma gets to eat the chicken butt.’ ah-ma snatched the chicken butt from his chopsticks with hers and placed it in her bowl. dad apologized and looked embarrassed.