BY EVA LIAO TAIPEI — Most people probably think of Taiwan as some freaky place way over there in Asia where all their shit is made. And by and large, that is true. Your favorite sweater from Urban Outfitters? The 24-piece Tupperware set you got on sale at Costco? The bike seat you had to replace ’cause yours got stolen last weekend? In all probability they are “Made in Taiwan.” But this tiny little island holds a great personal significance to me for it also happens to be the place where my parents were born and bred, long before they immigrated to California in the ’70s. It’s the place I visited every summer as a kid until I hit college. It’s a place where many of my talented, kooky and often overwhelming family members continue to live amazing lives. In fact, I would argue with overt pride and little modesty that my family is more interesting than yours.
Take for instance my great, great grandfather who grew up filthy rich, having inherited the family business of selling tea in bulk to Westerners. As a sign of his status, he never once cut his fingernails on his left hand as a symbol that he was not of the working class. Every time he changed his clothes, dude had to soak his fingernails in water for 20 minutes prior so they’d be soft enough as not to break or crack in the process. As it was, the longer the fingernails, the wealthier you were, and if this photograph indicates anything, it’s that he was effin’ loaded. Unfortunately, he was also loaded on opium for most of his adult life as well, which is what eventually lead to his demise.
My great grandmother had 16 children in total — not including the two who died at birth. My grandfather was a smart but simple country boy who couldn’t manage to stay out of trouble and could only afford to wear shoes on national holidays (it was the law). Somehow this small-time kid managed to land a babe way out of his league- the prettiest and wealthiest girl in his town, who would eventually become my grandmother. Together they started a warm and loving family — he was a chemist and writer and she as an artist — together they knew nothing about business. As a result, they were swindled out of the family fortune. They declared themselves bankrupt and moved from the countryside into the big city of Taipei. They spent most of their married lives raising six children in extreme poverty. He continued working as a chemist while she taught piano and sewed clothes. Today, my grandfather is a published author who’s written seven books on his family’s history. He spends his retirement writing haikus and practicing Japanese sword fighting in his front yard. He also continues to experiment with chemistry — all the soap in his house are the end products of recent basement experiments.
Most of my time here thus far has been spent catching up with people I haven’t seen in five years, which is, like, really fucking tiring. They say the Taiwanese are as big on family and food as the Italians and it’s pretty much true. My clan is a little bit like The Sopranos with chopsticks, but minus the whacking. And it is as the dinner table that we catch up on each other. My uncle Alex just left for Australia to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot (which will prove to be a challenge since all the lessons are in English, a language he has yet to master). My cousin Eric is continuing his career as a kick boxer in Thailand. My younger cousin Ray is currently in the middle of a bike expedition around the entire island of Taiwan. My 80 year old uncle fell off a chair the other day trying to change a light bulb and lost all of his teeth on the way down. He told me this story while slurping a bowl of porridge. My favorite cousin Fairy, when not working her nine-to-five at an environmental research company, spends her weekends up on some mountain, living in huts with indigenous tribesmen. My uncle, the first person to introduce white water rafting in Taiwan, is now trying to save the very river he feels responsible for inadvertently destroying in the process. And a dear friend of mine was beat up by the Chinese mafia outside of a club a few nights ago. Apparently they got the wrong guy. He’s in the hospital with a cracked skull. And that’s just some of the stuff going down on my mom’s side! I haven’t even begun to tell the story about how my father’s father was assassinated in an uprising against China’s communist rule. But that’s a story for another time.
ABOUT THIS COLUMN: Phawker Assistant Editor EVA LIAO is currently visiting family and friends along the Pacific Rim. TAO OF EVA is a collection of her semi-regular dispatches back to the home office.