Regardless of where I find myself in the world, or what temperatures the thermometer reports, the holiday season is always a special time to me. Last year, I celebrated Thanksgiving in Baoding, China, a holiday that goes mostly unnoticed in Chinese culture. But this year, there was no going home mid-December. The entirety of the holidays would be spent in sleepy little Yilan, and although Christmas is certainly celebrated here, the normal Christmas traditions like putting up a tree or making cookies and candies over Christmas break were not feasible. For one thing, we didn’t have a Christmas break. And secondly, we don’t have an oven.
But, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, a week before Christmas Day, our kitchen smelled like mint, mistletoe, and Speculoos Cookie Butter. We were not making Mom’s famous Buckeyes, nor were we stringing Christmas lights (those are permanent decorations in Eric’s room). Our little Guorong apartment family was standing around a lit scented candle with a spoonful of cookie butter each, creating our own Advent service before we separated for the holiday festivities. The fourth Advent candle can represent Faith, but we focused on Reflection and Love as we gathered around our metal countertop, holding the plastic spoon-forks that a past ETA had left in the apartment, coated in sugary goodness.
I said a few words about the meaning of Advent, a preparation for Christmas. And then we went around the circle, each sharing a reflection to tide us over until we saw each other again. Charlotte, a past ETA, expressed gratitude that Eric and I had included her in our ETA journey and kept her on as a roommate. Eric, who had just recently visited another island on a service project, regretted that we would be split up again so quickly, and required a lazy movie/TV day when we all reunited. And then, I thanked these two wonderful people for being the constant, the consistent when my mother’s cancer shook me to the core. We then clunked our plastic utensils together and ate our cookie butter.
As I put head to pillow that night, I thought about the meaning of “home.” In a very real sense, this apartment on Guorong road is my home. It is where all of my belongings have been stashed since the first of August. It is where my bed is, and my stack of books, and my small collection of scarves that I brought from America, and my toothbrush. It is the place that I worry about forgetting to lock up when I leave for a weekend. It is where I pee with the door open on occasion. And, I also pay rent for this place.
But, at that very moment, a different kind of “home” was on its way to Yilan, strapped into a 747 and praying to Jesus that the plane wouldn’t go down. Someone should have given her drugs, or at the very least sleeping medication, but I suppose she wouldn’t have taken it. That didn’t make the thirteen-hour plane ride any easier on her, however. This type of home is mobile, and willing to travel several thousand miles to be with her only daughter for Christmas.
Yes, my family flew to Taiwan. #BrumleysTakeTaiwan.
And that hashtag, in three words, explains why I haven’t blogged in a month. I’ve been busy Taking Taiwan, okay?
I feel like I can joke about it because, even though my parents have come and gone back to America now, the proposition still seems laughable. My mother, cancer-ridden and limping due to degenerative arthritis in her hip, and my father, a 6’2” tower who has trouble bending into cars, let alone airplane seats, came to Taiwan for ten days. Ten days is a long time. In ten days, one eventually has to use a public restroom. With squatty potties. And no anti-bacterial soap. And one cannot eat pasta for ten days straight, in order to avoid trying other foods (although the waitresses at Nu Pasta in Jiaoxi did give my family a rewards card by the fourth day).
What an amazing spectacle! My two “homes,” created out of vastly different circumstances, coming together and merging for the most brief and fleeting of moments. On the first night that my parents were here in Taiwan, I invited them to dinner with my two roommates, to a nice Italian restaurant that was inevitably closed. Being the flexible individuals that we are, we decided to eat at another restaurant, aptly named Go Home. We ordered set meals for everyone, a nice bland chicken leg for my mother and spicy chicken for the rest of the clan. With our patchwork Chinese, my roommates and I explained the very specific food restrictions that my mother followed, a diet set in part by doctors and in part by culture shock. And I watched the drama unfold.
Eric has on his “meet the parents” face, the one where your expressions are just a touch grander than in everyday life. He laughed in the appropriate places. Charlotte told a story about being awkward to make my parents feel less awkward. She spoke with the soft, cooing tones of one who knows how to deal with the jet-lagged and travel-disgruntled. I offered my parents over to them gladly and took my first deep breath since their arrival. Because I had underestimated the effort required to transport four persons from Point A to Point B using a language that the other group members do not understand.
When our food arrived, I watched with baited breath, waiting for my family to sample their meal. But, sampling the meal was a level of skill that my parents had not yet attained. I realized that I had taken for granted my ability to eat with chopsticks. My father speared a piece of chicken and popped it into his mouth with a sort of apologetic grin after trying unsuccessfully to pick it up with two chopsticks. At least he could put sustenance in his body that way, although he did later admit that he had been eating the dried red peppers that came with the chicken as well, until his mouth was the surface of the Sun and he looked up to discover that everyone else was eating around them.
Mom, on the other hand, was picking around her food as if all of it was dried peppers. She was unaccustomed to these flavors, prevalent in all Taiwanese dishes, which made every dish an uncertainty. The noodles that she tasted were made with rice, so those were out of the question. The green beans were too crunchy, and she wanted nothing to do with the scrambled egg, served as one off-white blob in a separate dish. Thankfully, Eric did not let it go to waste. She was, however, a good sport through the entire thing, admitting that she had anticipated some difficulties with the food in another country. That just meant that ice cream would 100% happen after dinner.
Back in the hotel room that first night, I noted just how trying this experience would be for my Kentucky-raised, middle-aged parents. The struggles with food would continue for the length of their stay here, and I was starting to run out ideas for food options fast. At the Luodong Night Market the following evening, my mother ate a hot ham-and-cheese, while I frantically ran from stall to stall in an effort to find something she would be willing to try. My brother and I ate Cong You Bing burritos filled with pork while we waited in line for a Hong Kong pancake with blueberry jam. To hold her over, my mother caved and ate a McDonald’s French fry.
Mom had predicted her food dilemma even before the talk of visiting me turned into a reality, but that didn’t make her special accommodations any easier to satisfy, nor did it make watching her struggle any less painful. I projected a lot of this onto myself for not being able to provide them with restaurant after restaurant of Yilan delicacies that were pleasing to her palate. I planned, and planned, and over-planned, but a bulleted itinerary cannot save even the most prepared of travel groups from a restaurant’s odd serving hours or a late train. Once, after reading a blog, I metroed my family to a highly-reviewed American restaurant in Taipei, only to find that it was completely vegan and those delicious-looking burgers were made with black bean patties.
Black bean patties and chopsticks definitely pushed my parents out of their comfort zones. But I hadn’t realized until my family’s arrival that I was living in a comfort zone that I myself had created here in Taiwan. From the outside looking in, it might seem as if I am doing something quite daring, living abroad for an entire year. But, after the transitionary phase of moving in and getting our teaching assignments, I have developed a pattern of living that I hardly vary from, a routine that feels comforting to me.
Another crucial definition of “home” is a place that creates the idea of comfort, a safe space where one feels accepted regardless of circumstance. I have found that in Taiwan, for the person that I have become while living here. And while I am very close with my parents and brother, they had yet to see the woman that I have grown into during my time here, the version of me that has evolved from taking on responsibilities in the classroom and from reflecting on herself and others in new and different ways. I was showing them my comfortable, my ordinary, and for my parents, it was exciting and interesting and neat, but also unfamiliar. This home that I had forged was not theirs. It was something that they couldn’t even recognize.
As I led them through the streets and train stations of my world, I had the realization that my home here was something that just wouldn’t translate completely. My parents were vacationers here in my daily life. This meant that not every interaction with my family in this world would stir within me those warm, fuzzy feelings of being home. In fact, many of the moments were somewhat stressful and often tiring. Keeping track of four humans is way more difficult than keeping track of just one (**mental note for when I am thinking about procreating**).
A breakthrough came during our Christmas evening here, when Eric’s host family and mine combined with my real family to create a multi-family feast at a local restaurant outside of the city. The chicken was roasted as a full, intact bird and placed on our table to be divvied out to all those seated around it. Mom took her portion, and ate it contentedly. I watched in awe. My mother was enjoying a Taiwanese meal in Taiwan.
But the Christmas miracles were just getting started. Eric, arriving a little late, made it just in time to hear my mother say, “The fish is good.” I thought Eric was going to keel over on the spot. The fish!?!? Foreigners often struggle the most with fish and seafood in Taiwan and mainland China due to their practice of keeping the bones in fish while serving it. These small bones can be difficult to spot, let alone pick out, often leaving the experience of eating fish more an experience of eating with caution and spitting out things that aren’t edible.
Eric and I exchanged a glance across the table, and I took the second deep breath of my parents being here. My father, mother, and brother ate their fill of various meat and vegetable dishes, passed around the table family-style. My parents asked about how the children were doing in school and laughed along with Eric’s host father, who repeatedly asked for alcohol so that his spoken English would get better through the night. We exchanged presents, told stories, and went out for tea at a local café afterwards.
I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas. This moment, where my families converged and became one, satisfied a desire for cohesion, the mixing and sharing of worlds. I have often felt that I live with one foot in Taiwan and one in America, but in this moment, if only for a night, I was standing two feet together, solidly in the place that I would call home.
P.S. My mom brought my roommates buckeyes from America. You jealous.