This year, because I’ve previously dressed up Eva as my favorite food (hot dog), our family theme was my favorite cuisine. The girls were tuna nigiri, a California roll, a smaller soy sauce. Spouse wore a shirt that said, “No sushi, no life” and a headband that says, “Fighting,” because I thought it was funny, okay?
This is my 14th Halloween with Matty. We had just started dating before Halloween 2004 and for a costume party, we did an Ari and Uzi Tenenbaum get up in those classic red Adidas tracksuits. Took second place in the contest, as we were beat out by whoever dressed up as “Swing States” that year. (Back when there actually WERE swing states. THAT’s how long we’ve been together!)
One of the funniest running jokes of those early years was Friend Sudeep always too cheap to get a costume and he’d wrap himself in toilet paper to dress up as a mummy.
As y’all know, there are few things that delight me more than teasing my little brother, who at 33 years old and 6’2″ is not that little. I was at my parents house last week, where there are so many great pictures from yesteryear, like this Hu family shot from 2000, when Roger was clearly going through some stuff, as he admits.
(A Chinese translation of this is available below the English.)
My grandmother died early this morning, aged 94. She was so strong and full of grit that part of me believed she would never die.
When my mom called to tell me, she didn’t say grandma died, she said, “Grandma left.” As if grandma went out on an errand. But I knew what she meant.
My mother is 61 years old and a grandmother herself, four times over. But she said to me, her voice breaking, “It’s unimaginable navigating this world without a mother.”
Grandma lived in Taiwan, and I was born and raised in the U.S., so I didn’t really get to know her until I was a teenager and we traveled back and forth more often. My mom’s relationship with her mom is so deep that I remember sometime around first grade, feeling really envious of grandma. Who was this woman my mom loved so much? By the time I was old enough to understand, I only wanted to spend more time with Grandma Rock, the ultimate survivor. The kind of survivor that made me believe she’d never die.
Grandma’s surname is Shih, which literally translates to rock. And it’s fitting. She’s the oldest of six siblings, a well-known educator and later in life, one of Taiwan’s earliest female politicians.
She’s also two-times a war refugee — surviving the most devastating conflicts in recent Chinese history. When the Japanese invaded “Manchuria” in the Sino-Japanese War during WWII, she and her family were forced out of their home in Northeast China and migrated to central China. Decades later she had to flee again, many of her siblings in tow, during the brutal Chinese Civil War, when Mao’s communists defeated Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalists. She wound up in Taiwan until her death this morning.
She didn’t merely live. Grandma sucked the marrow out of life until the very end. She first worked as a teacher, but quickly became a principal and headmaster of the most elite women’s high schools in Taiwan. She was a working mom who never seemed to have any of our modern American angst about it. She had my aunt Linda, uncle Steve and her youngest, my momma, while also molding generations of young Taiwanese women at the schools she led. Those women have gone on to become artists and scientists and politicians and the brightest stars of Taiwan’s society. I remember visits to Taiwan and going out to eat with grandma in different cities. More often than not, we’d run into a former student who would recognize her and come by to say hello and thank you.
They recalled her being strict and exacting. I recall her being tough but warm, and how she found so many things delightful and humorous. She laughed with her whole body. One time when I was 12, we were in the backseat of a cab that was taking too long to get some place, and my externally sober grandma decided to show me her stupid human tricks to pass the time. Let’s just say she’s crazy flexible. She also showed me that you can do more than just roll your tongue in half — you can fold it three ways, like a flower. So now I too, can do this, if you ever want to see. (Apparently the ability to do this is genetic, so I guess grandma expected I’d be able to follow suit.)
While she expected excellence out of everyone, she reserved the toughest standards for herself. I have never seen her flub anything, especially when she spoke. When she came to my wedding in Amsterdam, she was 87 and still the sharpest one in the room. She spoke at the ceremony and at the reception in her native Mandarin Chinese. My friend Drew said afterward, “I couldn’t understand a word she said, but when Grandma speaks, we all know to shut up and listen!” She commanded the room like no one I’ve ever seen and probably will never see again.
The other thing I remember vividly about Grandma is her emphasis on 社會責任 (social and civic responsibility). She talked about it all the time. “Why’d you have three kids when you were so busy in your career?” 社會責任.” “Hey, why’d you retire so late?” “社會責任.”
After she retired from her education career in Taichung — her final posting as principal was at a top all-girl’s high school there — my grandma continued breaking glass ceilings and served as one of the only women representatives to her political party’s national congress. “Why’d you get involved in the rough-and-tumble of politics when you could have just enjoyed yourself?” “社會責任.”
By the time she died, she was the matriarch of a huge extended family. She was a mother of three, grandmother to six and a great-grandmother to five. (Thanks to her side of the family, I have about 70 cousins and second cousins and we all kinda know each other.)
Despite her age, it was unexpected when I got the news of her passing because she had just come out of a scary gall bladder surgery a month ago and was doing really well. I video-chatted with her last week and she was looking and sounding great. She spent all day yesterday playing mahjong, which she has enjoyed in her final years, after she stopped all the international travel, yoga practice and ballroom dancing of her seventies and eighties.
My newborn Luna was going to meet her great-grandma Rock on Monday — we’ve had tickets to Taipei for weeks. We missed her by mere days. But grandma went in peace, at her home, and with my mom by her side. She knew the love of family, which is what she wished for us, especially after her own siblings were split up during China’s external and internal wars. She spoke about it often. So I’ll end this with what grandma said in her own words, from a speech she gave the family at a reunion in 2009:
“During China’s political turmoil our family was separated in an effort to flee to safety. Consequently, my siblings and I grew up during a very trying time where everyone was forced to fend for themselves. We lost contact with one another. Our biggest regret was not being able to enjoy the blessings of family warmth and sibling love.
Since we endured childhood loneliness without family, it is our wish that the future generations will see the value and enjoy the blessings of one another’s love and support. It is our hope the ties of our family love will be our legacy that is passed on to all future generations.”
To be honest, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Harper’s Bazaar Junior, and I have some real reservations about haute couture for kids (because it’s really for the adults, isn’t it?). Anyway a writer reached out to me after finding me on Instagram and asked for some recommendations of places we like to take the kids to eat and play, in Seoul. Here’s my contribution, which features my go-to “Chicken Cauldron Place,” which as it turns out, has a real name.
Just as it was in my own childhood, we make a point to sit down together for dinner as a family every night when I’m not traveling. (This family gathering happens at around 5:30pm, which means I often have first dinner and second dinner, because I eat again when I go out with friends.) Anyway, it’s been pretty funny lately because Eva gets impatient with listening to her dad and I blather on about things like American politics. So we started taking turns telling each other about what we did each day which ensures Eva gets a prominent role.
Eva loves her turn to talk about her day, and she’s added some flair to it. Sometimes she says, “First, I will start with a song” and proceed to sing an entire song before going through her day chronologically and fielding our questions about it. Last night, when it was Matty’s turn, he goes, “First, I will begin with a song.”
“I miss the days where we would hit empty bubble tape cases wrapped with duct tape with hockey sticks against the garage, or go to the creek and catch the fish that were washed out of the creek during the heavy rains.”
–My brother Roger, feeling nostalgia for childhood now that he’s #adulting
I was feeling quite weepy about it and started bringing it up all the time (as I do when I obsess on a certain topic. Current obsession: nuclear annihilation). Here’s the key graf and art:
“Being in their mid-60s, let’s continue to be super optimistic and say I’m one of the incredibly lucky people to have both parents alive into my 60s. That would give us about 30 more years of coexistence. If the ten days a year thing holds, that’s 300 days left to hang with mom and dad. Less time than I spent with them in any one of my 18 childhood years.
When you look at that reality, you realize that despite not being at the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time with some of the most important people in your life. If I lay out the total days I’ll ever spend with each of my parents—assuming I’m as lucky as can be—this becomes starkly clear …
It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end.”
I was melancholy about this back then because I am one of those adults who doesn’t feel like she has grown up and therefore is over-reliant on my parents. I talk to them several times a week but even more so when I am cranky or have a cold or am homesick or really, any slew of reasons. I am terrified about losing them and brought up the above visualization with Chris. His response?
This is “problematic,” because it implies every unit of time you spend with a loved one has equal weight, when it’s not true. Frankly, you might be having a lot more meaningful moments with your parents now that you are older and more appreciative of them. So even though the BULK of your time (in quantity) with them is already spent, there’s still plenty of time for quality time, which is suffused with more meaning. Chris and I revisited this topic this week in a chat:
Christopher: My current thinking on that would be that it’s also about perspective. I think I have much more productive and fulfilling interactions with my parents now than I did a few years ago. And I just refuse to go through life with angst about what I am missing or running out of. Better to be intentional about spending it with quality people doing things you love.
Me: Do you think being cognizant of the limited nature of time helps you with that intentionality though?
Christopher: Absolutely. I wonder what i would do if i was immortal and knew it.
Me: I wonder what the default age we all THINK we are living until. I would say, probably our expectation is we will live past retirement.
Me: And we operate in that mode.
Christopher: We might not though.
Me: I’m constantly feeling like I don’t make enough use of my days though. Like, I am pretty lazy. Also, what is ‘quality’ time with ones parents? I don’t get into deep philosophical conversations with my dad, for instance. But i still consider us close.
Christopher: I think that’s a good question. I feel it is about self definition. I also think your family is what you want it to be. Many people have tough issues with biological family. i don’t see any obligation people have to that unless they choose that.
Me: You mentioned you’ve been spending more quality time with your parents lately than before. What does that mean to you?
Christopher: What I mean is that I think we are both more aware of why we enjoy spending time with each other, and when we spend time with each other, it brings us more joy because we understand each other better than we used to. And I’m an adult, where as 10 years ago i was still figuring out what I was about.
Me: Anyway I felt much better last Christmas when you rebutted that post. But I also feel unsure about ‘quality time’ and what that means
Christopher: You have to define that for yourself, I think. I’m not sure I know either. If I sit around and watch a movie with my parents, does that count?
Me: Not sure! I think we know AFTER. Like, I remember our time at the bar talking about this [very topic], and our relationships and other things, as being meaningful. (Me and you, not me and my parents.)
Me: So that’s an example of knowing in retrospect that time together had meaning to us.
Christopher:But you didn’t set out to ‘have an interaction with meaning’ at the time. You just set out to have drinks.
Me: Hahaha. Do you want me to do my google invites like that going forward?
Me: “Invite: Interaction with meaning time with Elise,” Yes/No/Maybe/Propose New Time
I’m always thankful for family, and mine is particularly badass partly because it’s huge and includes a lot of foodies and eaters. So Thanksgiving with my extended family in Maryland always involves a lot of serious eating but it’s really more like a giant face-stuffing scrum than it is a “lunch” or a “dinner.” Part of the reason is because we have about 30 family members plus kids involved each year, so we don’t sit around one giant table, and we eat in phases starting at the lunch hour but powering on through til dinner. It generally includes our hyper-physical four-year-old cousin Luc beating and wailing on Stiles for a good chunk of time, and Cousin Clarence reliably brings Turducken — the Louisiana favorite involving a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey. (Note: My cousins the Ho brothers enjoy some cult fame in a tiny corner of the Star Wars and kung fu choreography-loving internet for their 2002 fight video, Art of the Saber. True story.)
Our meat selections felt endless — Suk, my cousin’s wife Diem’s sister’s husband — got himself a smoker and making brisket has become a new hobby of his. So on top of two fried turkeys, the Turducken, a ham and endless sides, we had two choices of brisket — spicy and sweet. Our pals Audrey and Patrick have spent so much time flying back and forth to family this year that they stayed in town for Turkey Day, so they joined us at the Maryland festival of meat, armed with Audrey’s signature brussel sprout salad, which disappeared quickly. Gobble, gobble.
Someday when I am old, I will look back on these days of new mommahood, when at least four times during the workday I find myself in a windowless 3’x5′ room, on the other side of the wall from our national security correspondents, attached reluctantly to an electric breast pump while overhearing conversations about the ramifications of unilateral disarmament.
To be clear, I think nursing is awesome. I truly enjoy providing both physical and emotional sustenance for Baby E in one loving act. It’s really no sweat, either, since Eva is my only baby. My Chinese great-grandmother nursed seven (7) babies in total, earning her the respect of many generations and lasting evidence of her hard work — mom tells me my great-grannie could actually fling her drooping boobs over her shoulders. Impressive on many levels, that lady.
But the difference between nursing a baby and pumping milk for a baby is like the difference between visiting Venice and going to the Olive Garden. Pumping is tedious and soulless and in my case, always really awkward when I emerge from the lactation station and make eye contact with the national security guys who surely overheard my pump as they were discussing war and Syria and what not.
I am glad I had a daughter, because maybe one day she will have a baby of her own, and she, too, can experience the wonder and the weirdness that is motherhood.
We lost constant internet connectedness for the last week as we traveled Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary by cruising down the Danube River. While we managed to check our emails once a day, not being tethered to the iPhone and other communications devices was a welcome break. I instead relished human connectedness – the kind with my family, the kind all too rare now that my mom, dad and brother are spread out across the globe.
The flights proved exhausting and frustrating as usual (but at least I didn’t have to spend the night in a baggage claim like that one night on the way back from China in 2007). Loved the Hungarians. One of our guides explained that being on the losing side of every war since the 17th century makes the people quite authentic and realistic — something that made us want to go back to Budapest, or as the locals say, Budapescht, quite soon.
Wachau Valley, Austria (includes cities of Melk and Dunstein)
Sturovo, Slovak Republic (just across the border from Esztergom)
Bratislava, Slovak Republic