I press play, and my wipo, my mother-grandmother’s voice comes out of my computer’s speaker; She seems to be in the room with me.
“I came to Tainan when I was 18 years old. I am now 75 years old, ‘says my nephew.
A long and drawn silence. The sound of her eating. I scrub the recording. “What did your mother cook for you?” I hear my own voice, sharp and awkward, trying to fill in the blanks.
“I don’t remember. It was hard then. When I was little, we all ate.
“What happened when the nationalist government came from China and occupied Taiwan?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never paid attention to politics.”
I can count the number of interactions with my wipo in two hands. Many times while visiting Taiwan from California, once on a family vacation in China a couple of years ago, and most recently twice at her home in southern Taiwan when I was recording her and her Zonji’s recipe – pyramid – bamboo leaf-wrapped rice dumplings – my next in Taiwanese food For cookbooks.
I haven’t seen him since.
All my interactions with him were chaotic and disgusting, partly because my family didn’t have much in common with him. My grandmother was 20 when she was forced to leave her children – my mother and my aunt – to her ex-husband’s family as a condition of divorce. He was an absent and terrible husband; He does not want to live his youth on his own terms. But since her parents were rich, they had an advantage, and my wipo was quickly removed from their own daughters’ lives. My mother was raised by her father and grandmother – rich doctors who spoke Japanese, Hokkiyan and Mandarin, and owned their own clinic. In their era, trilingualism was a sign of prosperity. By contrast, my wipo was a barber and would cut people’s hair for life. She spoke mostly Hokkien and learned only Mandarin in her life.
“When your mother was at school, I waited outside to give her sweets,” she says sadly. Her voice gets louder when I turn the recorder close to her. “But they didn’t let me see him for long.”
This 25-minute long recording of my conversation with Wipo now resides on my external hard drive, often filled with mundane small conversations and long silences. I was recording her voice at work – I needed her recipe and backstory for my book – but really, I was doing it for the future.
When I left her house after my interview with her, I noticed myself visiting her several times. And over the next two days, she started sending me a flood of photos and videos of her cooking taken by her friend. Standing on the stove beside her was a large, rusty brown carbon steel shell with pork belly gray, pink flowers blooming in a yellow ceramic mustard pot. She is sitting at the table, cutting a lot of vibrant purple skin. Grabbing a fresh slab of her pork belly, proud and beaming at the camera. Although she did not express it clearly, I can say that she is happy to be associated with me.
Soon, messages stopped. She died two months after my conversation with her.
It was an invasive cancer that started in her liver and eventually spread to her entire body. I could not go to the hospital because of the COVID-19 ban. I didn’t go to the funeral because nobody told me about it.
“I’m sorry to ask too many questions. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see you again before it was too late.”
Playing her voice and our conversation together is a very uncomfortable experience, not because of its content but it is a visceral reminder of my first, last and only real relationship with her. I’m sorry I didn’t get to ask any more questions. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see you again before it was too late.
As a journalist, I spent many hours at work recording the stories of other people’s grandparents. Usually the children are with me and when asked the right questions express an attraction to all the previously unspoken and hidden stories that come out of their elders.
This was the first time I had recorded my own.
“What did your parents do for a living?” I hear myself asking my wipo.
She says, ‘They had a rice factory.
“Did you help?”
“Did you grow rice?” I was excited at this moment; I spent the last year researching rice for my book and no one in my family knew anything about it.
“No. We did not increase it. They took the rice and processed it.
Blood ties are not a prerequisite for family, and while we are responsible for shaping and building our own destiny, no matter how distant, distant or filled this relationship may be, it is a dynamic experience to hear directly from our ancestors about our lineage. Is Because whether we like it or not, the decisions they make in their lives – no matter how mundane or trivial – have a direct impact on our very existence.
Because of this, in spite of my parents’ indifference in the past, I have made a conscious effort to know my family history. Ever since I was a child, I have known that I came from a pair of stubborn, single Taiwanese mothers. My mother and grandparents were both poor, uneducated women who grew up on the cornerstone of a regime change in Taiwan when the island was annexed from Japan to the Republic of China. He spent most of his youth under martial law. They saw Taiwan shift from a poor war-torn country to the economic power of East Asia.
When my wipo first learned how to cut hair as a teenager, his starting salary was only महिना 1 a month. When she was 18, a charismatic, handsome young man came to her salon to have her hair cut. They knew each other; She became pregnant with her baby. That baby became my mother. If she didn’t go to her barber shop, if she didn’t see me, I wouldn’t exist.
“Your aunt reminds me of her,” her voice says in the recording. “Bad temper.”
Some neighbors in the same town, my father and grandmother were responsible for raising five children alone. She ran a secret beauty clinic upstairs in her home, where she fed rich housewives cosmetic injectables and eventually saved enough money to send her children – my father and her siblings – to the United States. I also interviewed her a few years before she died, but she lacked the foresight to record her voice. “We were so poor we couldn’t afford shoes. We had to borrow shoes,” she told me. “Most school children did not have shoes.”
I wouldn’t have been born in America if she had made as much money as she did by opening that secret beauty clinic. I do not write in English.
These two women, with all their faults and strengths, I am here, with the constellations of other ancestors whose stories I have never known or heard.
I grew up with my grandparents and have years of memories, photos and videos. Unfortunately, I did not have that luxury with my mother and grandmother. Instead, I have her recipe and this audio recording – a digital replica of her voice that can keep me away. While this is not a replacement for a lifetime of memories, it is still an invaluable legacy.
So the next time you see your grandparents or old loved ones, pull out your phone recorder. In a world where almost everything can be recorded, documented and photographed instantly, sometimes we forget to record the many people and voices that we take for granted because we think we will always have plenty of time.
When my wipo passed, I asked my relatives if I could keep his large rusty crow and yellow pot of mustard. She showed me how to make jonji with these tools, although when I asked her about them, she did not find them exceptional.
Despite cooking with wok for over 20 years, I don’t think she learned how to season it properly. As its new owner, I cleaned and resuscitated it and baptized it in the high fire to give it life. With a bright and brand new Patina, she now sits behind me in my apartment in Taipei, sitting on the top shelf of her ceramic lord jar as audio recordings of her voice play through my speakers – her sound waves bouncing off the same objects. We had there when I first recorded, the physical and audible snippet of his life that I will pass down through the generations.
Clarissa Wei is a freelance journalist based in Taipei. Born in Los Angeles but raised in Taiwanese cuisine, she is currently writing her first cookbook, Made in Taiwan (Simon Element), which is set to fall in 2023.