Seventh excerpt from my travel journal: Erik’s family

Read the previous journal excerpts, posted Oct 12 (and the day after), Oct 17 (and the day after), Oct 19last Thursday, Monday and Tuesday of this week.

Ban-yi = Erik’s youngest aunt (his mother’s sister)
Ban-yi Diuñ = Ban-yi’s husband (diuñ has a nasal sound on the n)
Ban-gu = Erik’s youngest uncle (his mother’s brother)
San-gu = Erik’s third uncle (another of his mother’s brothers)
These are all Taiwanese words, by the way. In Mandarin, aunts can also be called yi but the uncles would be jiu instead of gu.

Our trip was the first time I’d met these relatives, and I wasn’t sure how we would communicate or get along. But they could not have been sweeter to us… meeting them was one of the deep highlights of our visit.

From my travel journal, Thursday 29 September 2011

Yesterday Ban-gu drove us around (Sarah and Devin were in the other car with Ban-yi and Ban-yi Diuñ). I felt bad he had to do so much driving. When we finally got to Taichung before dinner, we hit traffic, and I saw him take one hand at a time off the wheel to stretch. We got into the city center and he got into the right and drove slowly by each lane, peering in, and finally muttered, “Zaogao!” (“Alas!”) and made a loop back to one of them — where we found the others standing on the corner.

When we pulled in I was so surprised (as was Erik) to hear Ban-gu say it was nice seeing us. After he found words again Erik asked wasn’t he coming with us? I had so much appreciation to express but the two of us could only stammer thanks; it was all we knew how to say. At first Ban-yi was going to leave us too, but San-gu talked her into staying for dinner… for it was San-gu’s house we had arrived at.

The little gate in the lane opened onto a courtyard and a house of at least two stories, which looked nothing like any house I’d ever seen. It was full of knickknacks (Christmas decorations, glass figurines with pop-eyed expressions) sitting side by side with enormous, costly geodes and veined stone planters — and when I say full, I mean full. The house looked like a Chinese-ornament store exploded in it. Oh, and there was a gigantic and beautiful painting hanging above the living-room sofa — mountains and trees which I could only hope to ever paint so well. Ban-yi Diuñ persuaded San-gu to show us the back garden too, which looked just as you’d expect… as did his car, which had dangling crystals everywhere and lace seat and headrest covers. I wish I could have taken pictures, but I didn’t want to seem rude!

We sat at San-gu’s house (on enormous, worn black leather chairs) for a short while, then headed out. In the entry courtyard, while putting our shoes back on (of course we took them off upon entering, and were met with an assortment of navy vinyl house slippers, all size XL), we noticed the little pond (highly ornamented, of course!) had several sizable koi in it. Turns out they get bigger as they age; these were the biggest I’ve ever seen. San-gu said they were 20 years old!– which makes them exactly the same fish Erik remembers from his last visit to Taiwan a decade ago!

We walked through a few streets (passing by a fancy hotel and an Issey Miyake store) and ended at another fancy hotel (I think it was the Hotel National), where the doors were held open for us by white- coated and -hatted doormen. Inside were a number of young people dressed in absurdly glitzy evening dress; when we left after the meal I saw a reception table in front of a private room, with bizarre teddy bear decorations all over the place and blown-up photos of a smiling couple. Signs around the lobby said “Wedding For You” and in an alcove in the restaurant I saw an elaborate white arch topped with purple fake flowers.

Before we left, Ban-yi remarked to me in Mandarin, “The next time you come to visit, I will be old.” At 68 this is no self-pitying lament, but a likely fact, and I had no words to express my hope that it will be otherwise. As we hugged her goodbye, I thought I saw tears when she turned away.

Erik's Taiwan relatives

L to R: Ban-yi Diuñ, Ban-gu, Erik, me, Ban-yi

Erik's Taichung family

L to R: San-gu, me, Erik, Oldest Uncle (forget how to say it in Taiwanese)