Category Archives: Family History

The old man at the wedding

1985, I came to America.

The following week was my birthday, and it was also the very first time I put on makeup, making myself look pretty–Because I can now, I’m in America. There was no birthday celebration–It coincided Cousin Robert’s wedding.

At the dinner reception, I quietly sat and watched people dancing with music, laughing through the night… Wishing a handsome boy would come to ask me for a dance. But, instead, there was a strange old man with a very long white beard sitting next to me, smiling. I smiled back. His wrinkled face bore a pair of white eyes… I mean his irises were white, he had white hair, and was all in white. But somehow he knew me, so he came to me. I didn’t know him, but I did not feel threatened, nor did I feel I was in danger. There we sat, and though he was blind (or was he?) He knew where I was, and he was facing me. Then he asked:

“剛到嗎?” (Just got here?)

“是,上禮拜剛到。” (Yes, just got here last week.)

“歡迎來美國,有沒有對相了?” (Welcome to America, do you have a boyfriend?)

Suddenly I felt my entire body’s blood rushed into my head. How did he know I was wishing for a guy to pick me up for a dance? I couldn’t say a word, wanted so bad to have a place to hide. By then I was convinced he was not blind, because he knew I was embarrassed… He laughed, so heartily, like Santa Claus, “Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho… 不要緊,我逗妳的!” (No worries, I was teasing you!)  Then, with a long pause, he seemed to be studying me. He penetrated my eyes with his white irises, leaned closer and said slowly with a sincere and steady voice:

“妳遠從台灣來,是為了遇見妳未來的丈夫。但妳必須要爭取他、才能得到真正的辛福。” (You’ve come a long way from Taiwan, to meet your future husband here. But you must compete for him, in order to be truly happy.)

“但是媽媽說女生不應該追求男生呢… ” (But mama said a good girl shouldn’t be chasing a boy…)

Before I finished my sentence, a dancing couple lost control, and came fast towards us. They crashed between me and the old man. Luckily they didn’t knock over the whole table. By the time the couple got back on their feet, the old man was gone. I looked around, he was nowhere to be found.

Years gone by, his words were forgotten, through a brand new American western culture, a new language to learn, a new life to live, to fit in, to get by… But, no matter how much I changed, how well I spoke the English language, how much I became “Americanized,” how many boys I “chased,” deep down, I felt guilty to have chased boys, to have been intimate with too many friends who were not my type, to have been wild, bold and outspoken… Deep down I still love Mother’s cooking, still am humble for my achievements, still believe in fung-shui, still pray to Buddha during Chinese New Year, still believe my grandparents are watching over me, and I still believe there are people among us who are messengers of the gods, who can see the future, like the old man at the wedding.

About fifteen years later, I fell madly in love with a man whom I shouldn’t have been in love with, and he shouldn’t have been in love with me. But eventually, seven years after the fall, we got married. And through all of this rollercoaster ride, the old man never surfaced in my memory… Until almost thirty years later, I vividly recall–the old man at the wedding.

I can type, I have Mother to be thankful for…

It was late summer of 1985. We just moved from Flushing, NY to Harrington Park, NJ. First time alone, without my cousins and Chinese-speaking friends around, in a completely homogeneously white neighborhood… I turned on the TV, tried to make sense of American television, but it was hard. I went back to my room, turned on the radio, and started to setup for a drawing…

Mother came in and gave me a large book. I cannot recall whether it was in English or Chinese, but it was certainly a book on learning to use a standard typewriter. She said, “When you go to school, you are going to need to know how to type. So here’s a book for you to learn from.” The next day, Mother bought me a typewriter, and immediately I began to play with the keys.

I started learning by memorizing each alphabet’s location. My exercise was to type all 26 alphabets in its order in as little as a few seconds. By doing so, each alphabet’s location is permanently engrained in my brain, and set the foundation for my capability to type-write words and sentences without looking at the keyboard. Often I practiced with the radio on Power 95. The songs on the radio piqued my interest to know what they mean. Then I would somehow find lyrics of songs I like, and practiced typing out the lyrics. There were Duran Duran, Hearts, Joan Jets, and Tears for Fears among them.

Through the learning process, my little hand had a hard time reaching for the numbers on the top row. So I always “cheated” with typing numbers by using extended keyboard… Later I got good with extended numeral keyboard by doing a few part-time jobs as a cashier.

Today I can type, even better than my co-workers. 🙂 Thanks mom!

The “Dry” Relations in Chinese Culture

I remember one time long ago, Mother introduced her best friend as my “Gan-ma”, and insisted for me to address Auntie Huang by that title. That was a bit weird because I had been accustomed to call her “Auntie Huang.”

Another time, well into my adulthood, my older brother introduced a woman friend to me as my “Gan-jie” (older sister)… That was even weirder because I never met, even heard of her before… And I thought why on earth did he need a younger sister? What am I, chopped liver? (In a hind sight, she turned out to be a great pal on Facebook, lol…)

So what is “Gan” exactly?

“Gan” (乾) by its literal meaning is “dry.” With that, for the sake of explanation, blood relation is “wet.” When the word “Gan” is placed in front of an immediate family title, for example, Gan-ba, Gan-ma, etc., would make the set of words become “Father or Mother ‘without blood relations.'” The closest English usage translates these words to Godfather or Godmother.

However, the Chinese do not get a Gan-ba or a Gan-ma by getting baptized. Instead, they go through a ritual…

I remember witnessing my brother’s friend becoming my mother’s Gan-son. We had a tea offering ritual, and my brother was the Moderator of Ceremony. Mother was sitting in her chair, with a huge grin on her face throughout the entire event. The new son knelt down and offered her a cup of tea. Then the MC chanted “一鞠躬…” (Yi-ju-gong…) The new son, following the MC’s cue, knocked his head once on the floor, facing Mother. MC then chanted again, “再鞠躬… 三鞠躬…” (Zai-ju-gong… San-ju-gong…) as the new son continued to knock his head two more times, before the ritual would be over.

The tea offering ritual signifies promises to each other. The deep bow or head-knocking ritual was added here because it was for a Gan-mother-and-child relation. Head knocking ritual is the utmost respect one can pay to his/her elders, or to a person of higher ranking or generation. For Gan-sibling formation, therefore, for example, the head knocking may be omitted by choice.

Once the ritual was through, two people formed a spiritual tie, and promised to regard each other as if they were related by blood. By witnessing the ceremony, I was comfortable enough to call the new son “Gan-ge” (older brother.) As for my other Gan relatives, I never verified nor witnessed the the Gan formations with Auntie Huang, nor with Gan-jie. Perhaps that’s why, deep down, I never recognized them in the way I was told.

The Gan Relation often interestingly satisfies an individual’s missing part in his/her circle. For example, I knew Auntie Huang didn’t have a daughter, which was likely why I became her “Gan-daughter”, I felt weird calling her “Gan-ma” because I already have a mom… So that didn’t stick.

In short: The Chinese would always have a way to complicate their lives, in the name of simplifying their lives.

From the break room.

Taiwan and its Cuisine

During Christmas party, a newly wed couple told me about their upcoming foodie adventure to experience soup dumplings in Chinatown. Besides giving them some of my recommendations, this topic has lit my creative fire… I went on to tell them about Taiwan, where I came from… I said,

“If you want good Chinese food, go to Taiwan… Once you are there, you could eat your way–north to south, top to bottom–no kidding! Because… ”

I then briefly told the history of Taiwan and why such a small island about the size of New Jersey has a variety of Chinese cuisine. Later, as I reminisce the conversation, I decided to write it down and craft it better, here:

Between 1895 and 1945, Taiwan was ruled by the Empirial Japan. The Japanese built infrastructure and economy in Taiwan, to setup foundation for its intended expansion plan. At the time, native Taiwanese were deemed as savages and slaves by the Japanese. They had to learn the Japanese culture and traditions in order to survive.

At the end of Sino-Japan War in 1945, Japan surrendered Taiwan to the ROC (The Republic of China,) ruled by the KMT Party (Kuo Ming Tang.) When the Communist Mao took over KMT-ruled China, KMT exiled and settled in Taiwan. The KMT people, composed of mostly educated and talented aristocrats from all over Mainland, brought with them their knowledge, culture and traditions. They set up businesses over the Japanese infrastructure; shops, restaurants, spawned all over Taiwan…

Today, Taiwan has become a great cultural hub, that incompasses a variety of Chinese cuisines, music, arts and crafts, with occasional Japanese flare. People there are friendly and welcoming. In my childhood memories, I always recall seeing one or two westerners walking down the streets of Taipei City, with smiles on their faces… Because we smile at them.


Here is my favorite Taiwan tourism video on YouTube:


ID this!

Recently I started to draw a family tree, of both sides of my parents, trying to make sense of who is who in my family. Then I suddenly realized: I have cousins whom I haven’t spoken to or seen in more than 20 years!

So, prior to my annual trip to California, I had a mission: To visit as many relatives in California as I can and to collect as many family stories as possible.

With an open mind, not only would I catch up with everyone with their life and career, I would try to uncover their stories that they usually don’t share with a stranger… (Hey I’m family!) And, of course, this was a chance to be a spectator to look into these relatives lives like I have never done before.

After more than 10 years being “conditioned” by Bob, my husband–the ultimate opposite of me–I was lost for a while. Internally struggling to be a better person for many years, at times I would drive myself crazy because I could never be good enough! This is another reason why I decided to venture out to visit distant family relatives, to search my soul and reclaim my identity.

As a result, I discovered many things-good, bad, and dysfunctional-and it’s OK! I was extremely enlightened from this trip. I’ve become more accepting and have come to a deeper understanding of why and how I am who I am… A certain way––

Because it’s all in my blood. 🙂