It was raining in Northern Taiwan the day our plane landed at Taoyuan Airport. The blue pall that hung in the sky contrasted with the harsh yellow glow of the terminal.
My mother, unsure of the direction to customs, walked to a maintenance woman and meekly asked in Taiwanese, “Where do we go?” They engaged in a conversation with many hand gestures until my mom profusely thanked her. To-siā, To-siā.
Walking briskly, I asked my mom if she had understood what the lady was saying. “Not a word,” she responded as we headed towards the wrong terminal.
Our cousins Jack and Edith drove us to Taipei. On the ride, my mother and they fervently discussed family, economics and education as I gazed out the window at the lush mountains between us and Taipei, where we would spend the next five days before heading down to Tainan, where our family had lived for generations.
Jack and Edith took us to a scenic vista from which we looked over Taipei, and we saw the many high-rises and concert halls that made up the commercial district of Shilin. These were the mountains of which Ahma had spoken, the skylines she had traced with her Taiwanese. The thick mist hid the rest of the city beyond the Tamsui River, obscuring our sight of Zhongzheng, the governmental center of Taipei.
The next day, we visited the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, a monumental structure that houses a gargantuan seated statue of the dubiously-legitimate former leader of Taiwan, himself. My mother was simultaneously impressed and nonchalant. As I understood it, Taiwan was under Japanese colonial control until World War II, when Taiwan was returned to China. Taiwanese resentment of the return to Chinese rule only worsened when Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomintang moved the Republic of China to Taipei to escape the Communists.
During the 1950s, the KMT brutally subjugated ethnic Taiwanese, especially those of the intellectual elite. It was almost terrific, the oppressor of my people calmly surveying them from his ornate palace — a beautiful, lily-white, sterile building. The rain clamored down upon us as we walked across Liberty Square towards 228 Peace Memorial Park.
One of the most haunting events in Taiwanese history is the 2/28 Massacre, in which a Taiwanese woman was brutalized by police for illegally selling cigarettes, eventually leading to weeks-long riots and a 38-year period of martial law known as the “White Terror.” My grandfather, an architect who moonlighted as a political dissident, fled the country with his family to escape the KMT’s regime. My mother — and me, to a lesser extent — grew up hearing stories about the 2/28 Massacre: the revulsion, the tragedy.
When we finally visited the 228 Peace Memorial Park, it was an oppressive, sunny day. It was imperative that we visited the Taipei 228 Memorial Museum.
The air outside the museum was as still as the air inside. I found myself dropped into the macabre history: things my grandmother had never told me, things my mother had only explained second-hand. My mother was absorbed in the exhibit, progressing much slower than I, dragging her eyes over every word, every symbol, every image.
There were pictures of children in the streets; wailing, wet faces; hands reaching into piles of rubble. They horrified me, but the events horrified her doubly; they had driven her out of her land and, now, were bringing her back. We left the museum that afternoon with a greater appreciation of the great sacrifice her parents made.
That evening, we wandered through the historic district of Ximending, passing durian stands and stereo stores. Neon signs glowed from puddles in the street and gasoline perfumed the air. The night was peppered with urban noise: nothing of note until I hear a loud scream from far away — not a desperate call, but a dramatic one.
My mother and I turned the corner to enter a park; the middle of the park held a bright stage with multicolored lights, singing women dressed in flowing robes with intricate patterns, long hair pinned up with flowers. Imagine my surprise when one of the singers flew into the air, suspended by wires from the top of the stage, fawning from feet off the floor, squealing something unparsable.
What could she be saying? “I can fly, I can fly,” my mother whispered to me. As it turned out, we had caught an authentic Taiwanese Opera, a modern rendition of a tradition as old as the language. It was exciting and unexpected; we hadn’t expected to find Taiwanese in predominantly Mandarin Taipei. With great skill, my mother translated the comedy to me, switching between Taiwanese and English quicker than I had ever seen.
Early in the morning, we took the High Speed Rail down to Tainan. While Taipei is the modern capital of Taiwan, Tainan is the historical capital of Taiwan; it was the first settlement on the island and had the first temples, first forts, first everythings. We were welcomed by more cousins, Coco and Tony, who housed us for the time we stayed there. Coco had arranged for us to go on an English walking tour around Tainan, so we met a guide at a Confucian temple and saw the many historical sites that had either been converted into museums or are still used by the community.
The guide explained her perspective on Taiwanese identity: she and many others never felt even the slightest bit Chinese, especially in light of the ethnically Taiwanese people’s treatment under the KMT. Having been raised in America, completely divorced from Chinese culture, my mother emphatically agreed.
On the day before we left Tainan and Taiwan, we went to my mother’s childhood home. It had housed my great-grandfather, and some of my grand-uncles and their wives. My mother lived there before she left for America at the age of three. She’d never known this house existed. I had heard that our family was once one of relative wealth — I had imagined some majestic mansion on a hill, some shining palace, some dynastic home.
The house was a tragic, dilapidated thing tucked between two garages and buried under itself. The metal awnings and bomb shelter walls had fallen over; the stairs were steep and precarious. Looking into the room in which my mom had slept, it was difficult to imagine my mother there as an infant — or really anyone there — since the room was filled with ceiling beams, torn wicker chairs, cheap vases, and metal siding. Looking through one of the cabinets, we found a stack of photos, mostly of my great-grandfather, but one of my grandfather as a young man.
We spent the rest of the day catching up with some aunts. It was a pleasantly windy day and we went to Anping Fort, an ancient Dutch settlement. Looking over the surrounding market from the brick fortifications, my mother enthusiastically gossiped in Taiwanese. They discussed family and scandal, people I had never met and would never meet; un-understanding, I lay back and let my mind wander.
My mother and I had no idea what we would find in Taiwan. She had never felt connected to her family; I never even knew I had one. Yet here she was, here they were, here we were, as if we had never known anything different.
I didn’t used to have an image in my mind when people talked about Taiwan. It was brushstrokes, it was characters in a magazine. Taiwan was just smiling farmers and terraced rice paddies, a green dumpling, a white whale.
Now, when I close my eyes, I see the bustle of the night markets. I see the sun hiding behind Taipei 101 and motorcycles in the street. I see large, bronze statues and small handprint memorials. I see my family, the one I’d never had. And, most of all, I see the look on my mother’s face when she stepped off the plane and into the Taoyuan Airport; my mother’s face from the top of the scenic vista, looking over Taipei; my mother’s face seeing the country of her birth for the first time in 50 years.
“Thank you for bringing me back.”