I press play, and the voice of my wipe, my maternal grandmother, comes from the speaker of my computer; she seems to be in the room with me.
“I came to Taiwan when I was 18 years old. Now I am 75 years old, ”my wipo says.
A long and prolonged silence. The sound of her food. Viewing the record. “What did mom cook for you?” I hear my voice, shrill and awkward, trying to fill in the gaps.
“I don’t remember. Then it was hard. When I was a kid, we just ate everything. ”
“How was it when the nationalist government came from China and seized Taiwan?”
“I don’t know. I never paid attention to politics. “
I can count the number of interactions I’ve had with my wipe on two hands. Several times when I was a kid, I visited Taiwan from California, once I was on a family vacation in China a couple of years ago, and the last time was twice at her home in southern Taiwan, when I recorded her and her recipe for Zongzi – Pyramid- rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves – for my future cookbook about Taiwanese cuisine.
I haven’t seen her since.
All of my interactions with her have been stilted and awkward, in part because my family has never had a special relationship with her. My grandmother was about 20 years old when she was forced to give her children – my mother and my aunt – to her ex-husband’s family as a condition for divorce. He was an absent and terrible husband; she did not want to live her young life on his terms. But because his parents were wealthy, they had leverage, and my wipe was quickly banished from the lives of her own daughters. My mother was raised by my paternal grandparents, wealthy doctors who spoke fluent Japanese, Hakien, and Mandarin, and had their own clinic. Trilingualism was a sign of prosperity in their era. On the contrary, my wipe was a hairdresser and earned a living for people to cut their hair. She mostly spoke Hakian and only later in her life learned Mandarin.
“When your mom was at school, I waited outside to give her candy,” she says sadly. Her voice gets louder as I place the dictaphone closer to her. “But they didn’t let me see her for long.”
This 25-minute recording of my conversation with my wipe is now on my external hard drive, mostly filled with daily conversations and long silences. I recorded her voice under the guise of work – I wanted her recipe and story for my book – but in fact I did it for posterity.
When I left her house after interviewing her, I made a remark to myself to go to her more often. And over the next few days she started sending me a stream of photos and videos of her cooking that were taken by her partner. She stands over the stove, browning a pork belly in a big eye with rusty brown carbon steel, next to a ceramic mustard-yellow jar of lard with pink flowers. She sits at the table, slicing a bunch of bright purple shallots. She holds in her hands a fresh piece of pork belly, proud and shining into the camera. Although she did not express it openly, I could say that she was happy to contact me.
Soon the messages stopped. A couple of months after my conversation with her she died.
It was an aggressive cancer that started in her liver and eventually engulfed her entire body. I was unable to get to the hospital due to COVID-19 restrictions. I did not go to the funeral because no one told me about it.
“I’m sorry I didn’t ask more questions. I’m sorry I didn’t visit again before it was too late. “
Reproducing her voice and our shared conversation remain an extremely awkward experience not because of its content, but because it is an inner reminder of the first, last, and only true connection I had with her. I’m sorry I didn’t ask more questions. I’m sorry I didn’t visit again until it was too late.
As a journalist, I spent many hours in front of other people’s grandparents, recording their stories for work. Usually the descendants are next to me and express admiration for all the previously untold and hidden stories that break out of their elders when asked the right questions.
It was the first time I recorded my own.
“And what did your parents do at work?” I hear him ask his wipe.
“They owned a rice factory,” she says.
“Did you help?”
“Did you grow rice?” I was excited at that moment; I spent the last year researching rice for my book, and had no idea anyone in my family knew anything about it.
“No. We did not grow it. They took rice and processed it. “
Although blood ties are not a prerequisite for a family, and although we ourselves are responsible for shaping and creating our own destiny, nevertheless, hearing about our pedigree directly from our ancestors, no matter how a distant, alienated or rich relationship is exciting. there is. Because, whether we like it or not, the decisions they make in their lives – whether daily or insignificant – have had a direct impact on our existence.
Because of this, over the years I have made a more conscious effort to learn about my family’s history, despite my parents ’apathy towards their past. From what little I have collected, I know I come from a couple of stubborn single mothers. My maternal and paternal grandmothers were poor, uneducated women who grew up on the brink of regime change in Taiwan when the island was ceded to the Republic of China. They spent most of their youth in martial law. They saw Taiwan move from an impoverished, war-torn country to the economic power of East Asia.
When my wipe first learned to cut her hair as a teenager, her starting salary was just $ 1 a month. When she was 18, a charismatic handsome young man came to her salon to get a haircut. They got to know each other; she conceived his child. This baby turned out to be my mom. If he hadn’t been to her barber shop, if she hadn’t met him, I wouldn’t be here.
“Your aunt reminds me of him,” her voice says in the recording. “Bad mood.”
In several neighborhoods in the same city, my paternal grandmother alone raised five young children. To make ends meet, she ran a secret beauty clinic on the top floor of her home, where she administered cosmetic injections to wealthy housewives and eventually saved enough money to send her children – my father and his siblings – to the United States. States. to live. I also interviewed her before she died a couple of years ago, but then I didn’t have the foresight to record her voice. “We were so poor we couldn’t afford shoes. We had to get shoes, ”she told me. “Most schoolchildren didn’t have shoes.”
If she hadn’t opened that secret beauty clinic and made as much money as she did, I wouldn’t have been born in America. I would not write in English.
These two women, with all their flaws and strengths, are the reason I am here, along with a constellation of other ancestors whose stories I will never know or hear.
I grew up with my paternal grandmother and have years of memories, photos and videos of her. Unfortunately, my maternal grandmother and I did not have such a luxury. Instead, I have her recipe and this audio recording is a digital copy of her voice that can survive even me. While it’s not a replacement for lifelong memories, it’s a priceless relic.
So the next time you see your grandparents or old loved ones, get your phone dictaphone. In a world where almost anything can be recorded, documented and photographed instantly, sometimes we forget to record the same people and noises we take for granted because we believe we will always have more time.
When my wipe died, I asked relatives if I could keep her rusty big wok and mustard-yellow jar of lard. She showed me how to make zongzi with these tools, but when I asked her about them, she didn’t find them completely unusual.
Even though she’s been cooking in the wok for over 20 years, I don’t think she’s ever learned to properly season it. As its new owner, I cleansed it, cleansed it and baptized it over a great fire to give it life. Brilliant and with a whole new patina, he now sits behind me in my apartment in Taipei, perched on a shelf above her ceramic jar of bacon while an audio recording of her voice is heard on my speakers – her sound waves reflected from the same objects as they were from us when I first recorded, a physical and auditory fragment of her life that I will pass down from generation to generation.
Clarissa Wei is a freelance journalist in Taipei. Born in Los Angeles but raised on Taiwanese food, she is currently writing her first cookbook, Made in Taiwan (Simon Element), due out in the fall of 2023.