Before I had heard of blogs, I kept a website at Tunghai University starting on December 17, 1995. (The earliest available version of that site is from late 1998.) In 1997 I wrote the following "photo-essay (of sorts)" about my trip to my then-girlfriend's house for Chinese New Year. (We'll have been married 20 years this December!)
Chinese New Year, 1997
A Photo-Essay (of sorts) by Jonathan Benda
On December 29, 1997, after dating for four and a half years, Linda Chiu and I were married. This is the story of how I met her parents at the beginning of that year...
February 2, 1997: Ack! Linda just called and told me that when she called home, her sister told her that I was invited over to their place for New Year's Dinner on Thursday. Ack! Ack! Emergency! Now the stress levels go up 1000%... I've got to shave of f my lovely beard (well, it wasn't much to look at anyway) and memorize appropriate sentences in Chinese and Hakka so I don't look like an idiot when I'm there. I'm beginning to shake already, just thinking about it...
It's quite a change, and something we've been kind of ... well, dreaming about? for almost 4 1/2 years, ever since Linda's dad said she and I shouldn't be together. I guess I owe a lot to Linda's sister, who must have really said some nice things about me in order to get me invited over...
On the afternoon of February 6, I took Linda and her sister Yi-Hwa (or Eva) to Hsin-She. Hsin-She is a "village" in eastern Taichung county, on the way to the central mountain ranges. February sixth was New Year's Eve by the lunar calendar, so we were going to eat the traditional family dinner that takes place at that time. I was pretty nervous, of course. I didn't want to give Linda's parents a bad impression--after all, this was what we'd been waiting for for four years. Her parents had always been quite leery about the idea of Linda having a "foreigner" for a boyfriend. So when they each gave me a "red envelope" after dinner, I was surprised! "Red envelopes" containing money are traditionally given during Chinese New Year (they're also given at weddings). Usually members of an older generation give them to members of a younger generation. I was a little bit surprised to get a New Year's gift from Linda's parents, since I'm not their son (yet) and I've got a job. Nevertheless, I accepted the red envelopes (hee hee hee).
Linda's father also taught me (or tried to teach me) a traditional Hakka song that, translated, goes something like this:
Two stalks of sugarcane have grown to the same length,
I wonder which stalk is sweeter?
Two young girls have grown to look similar,
I wonder who loves me more?
(It sounds better in Hakka, but you'll have to take my word for that...) We stayed up until midnight, waiting for the new year (the Year of the Ox) to arrive, chatting, eating snacks, and drinking tea. I won't say that I became perfectly at ease at this point in the visit--I'm not naturally an "at-ease" person, anyway. But I was a lot less nervous than I had been a few days before.
Saturday morning we went up to the home of Linda's maternal grandparents. They live in a traditional-style house in Miaoli county. I drove the family there; it was quite an adventure--it was raining, and the trip took us up tiny mountain roads wide enough for only one vehicle to cross. Linda's mother's family lives on a sort-of plateau.
There are several houses in their "compound," the oldest being the one Linda's mother grew up in. In fact, Linda told me that it was only recently that the house had a regular toilet. The houses face strawberry fields. Miaoli is well known for its strawberry plantations. During the strawberry season, people come from all over Taiwan to pick strawberries. (They pay good money to do it, too.) The strawberry fields in this picture don't belong to Linda's family, but to some neighbors. (You can't see it here, but the strawberries were ripe and ready to pick...)
Linda's maternal grandmother seemed to like me. She only speaks Hakka (and some Japanese), so we didn't have any long philosophical conversations. That'll have to wait until my Hakka gets better, I suppose. Nevertheless, she was very hospitable, as were all of Linda's relatives. We had a delicious lunch, and afterwards. we toasted one another back and forth (fortunately, as "designated driver," I wasn't required to imbibe).
After spending a few hours with Linda's mother's side of the family, we piled into the car and drove to another part of Miaoli, where Linda's father's side of the family resides. Linda's paternal grandfather died in 1996, before Chinese New Year. Then, in the summer, Typhoon Herb came along and destroyed the house where her grandmother and some other family members were living. Well, one can't put the blame entirely on Herb. The Taiwan government helped a lot. In the picture, you can see a road to the right of the house, behind it. That road was being built around the time Linda's paternal grandfather died. When the roadworkers were building it, they dug out the riverbank to level out the land so their trucks could get through. Then when the work was finished, they left without fixing the riverbank. In effect, they changed the path of the river so that when it flooded during Typhoon Herb, it flowed directly toward--and through--Linda's paternal grandparents' house. As you can see from this picture of the back of the house, there wasn't much left after the flood. Linda's father's oldest brother sued the government over the whole situation, and was compensated, but the family won't be rebuilding that house--the area will probably end up becoming a drainage ditch.
Linda's paternal grandmother died shortly before Chinese New Year, 1997, so we went to their house on the day traditionally set aside to visit the mother's parents, just to stop in and give our regards. I was introduced to Linda's father's siblings, the oldest brother of whom is pictured below, with his family of eight daughters and one son (!)--and their families. This picture was taken at Linda's parents' house. [Note: image lost]
The son is the young man standing in the middle in the back--he's the youngest of the nine siblings. Linda's uncle is standing fourth from the right, and his wife is behind him, to the left (his right). (Linda, by the way, is on the far left of the picture, sitting with the "little kids.")
When we were leaving Miaoli to head back to Hsin-She, one of Linda's aunts gave us two cartons of strawberries to take back with us. They were delicious!
The rest of my time with Linda's family was devoted to eating, visiting, and drinking tea (those last two items are virtually synonymous in Chinese culture). I had a great time with Linda's family--I stayed with them for a total of four days. When I had to go back to Taichung, they told me to treat their home as my home, and welcomed me to go back any time. I certainly will! I know there are people who are saying at this point, "If things worked out so well with Linda's folks, then why'd you wait four and a half years to meet them? Why didn't you just go up to their house in 1993 or so, and introduce yourself?" Actually, this kind of approach was sometimes mentioned, both by other "foreigners" and by Chinese friends. And I guess it's possible that things would have gone well had we done that. But I think there's also something to be said for the patience that comes with waiting for a moment like the one at which I was invited. And there's definitely something to be said for the good feeling you get when you consider that you didn't have to force yourself on her parents, that they invited you to join them for what is traditionally a family holiday. Now that's a nice feeling...