Chiang Kai Shek’s Memorial was breathtaking. It reminded me of taking my first step into the Vatican City in Rome. The pure majesty of the edifice when you first lay eyes on the vista is captivating. The Memorial is captivating in a similar way, although probably with less splendor of sanctity. The walls of the quad are painted the same blue and white of Greece as I mentioned before when describing Kenting Street. My aunt explained that blue and white is used when honoring someone who is no longer alive while the traditional red and gold colors associated with things Chinese are used for things in the present. At least, this is so in Taiwan. For example, in the CKS Memorial, while all buildings associated with honoring CKS are blue and white, the concert hall and theatre in the Memorial quad embody traditional imperial Chinese architecture using red and gold because it represents activities in the present.
The building where the monument of CKS stands features art galleries, a calligraphy room, and an exhibit that that recounts the events of World War II. While walking through the exhibit, reading the descriptions of the paintings, my aunt excitedly shared her memory of what my grandma, her mother, told her about living in those times. I always knew that my family emigrated to Taiwan with CKS and KMT to escape Communist China and the atrocities of the Revolution, but I had no idea what that meant – escape.
In 2007, I met one of my aunt’s for the first time. Actually, that year, a lot of my family met that aunt for the first time. That aunt, who is addressed as Aunt Number 2 (consequently bumping my aunt from Taiwan from her rank as #2 to #3 in the family hierarchy) was left in mainland China with my grandma’s mom while the rest of the family emigrated to Taiwan. Aunt #2 lived her life in rural China, eventually moving to a city in her adult years. She looks different than the rest of the family, her face more weathered, smaller in stature, and slightly darker than her siblings. Her carriage and mannerisms are different. When I met her, it was unreal – I felt like I was living in a scene of Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club but this was real. The reality of Aunt #2 is that she was meeting some of her siblings for the first time in her life, and reuniting with her mother after nearly 40 years of separation. As if this was not impressive enough, I learned more.
Much like the picture showed on the right, my grandma, at a young age of 18, escaped from her village being bombed by the Japanese by squishing atop a train. My uncle spoke of women traveling to caves in China to give birth so as to avoid the dangers of doing so in the city. He, himself, was born in a cave while outside his mom could hear the bombs being dropped, a daily reality for her for many months. To see my family recount these stories while visiting the Memorial was unreal. I have never known the kind of suffering that my grandparents had to endure, that many have to endure today. I was humbled by this experience. It also gave me context from which to view my family.
Although I self proclaimed to be the wild horse in the family, marching to the beat of my own drum and learning how to exist in this world of multicultural confusion, I have never had to experience what my family did. My complaints are trivial compared to what they have lived through. My family after arriving to Taiwan in 1949, lived among soldiers and their families, and others known as “wai sheng ren”. There were times where there was not enough food. No privacy. They saved and recycled everything.
My grandparents really had to work hard to support their family. They made difficult decisions; some with irreparable consequences. But they managed to move themselves out of refugee poverty and raised children who were successful and protected. I can admire more what has always seemed to me was extreme filial piety. I understand why my family values survival the way they do, their emphasis on education, and the motivation behind ensuring financial security.
Intergenerational transmissions run deep. I watched a movie on the flight back from Taiwan called “Gangster Squad” about the days of Mickey Cohen. One of the lines in the movie was spoken by one gangster to another, both previously soldiers of WWII, “we don’t have to fight anymore… the war is over”. I think surviving a war is the same. It is over, you do not have to struggle so much anymore…
My parents, aunts and uncles do not live with the exact same mentality of their parents, but what they learned in their childhood passed on by their parents is still very present. Our parents realities are not the same as that of their parents, nor are mine the same as my parents. But knowing the history is important to understanding their context, and hence my own. This always made sense when reading it in a psychology book, but to have experienced this by staying with my aunt a few nights in the neighborhood where they grew up, learning the history while visiting historical sites, spending time breaking bread with my family makes it concrete. And thus, it is more easily a part of my own personal history now in a way that I have never imagined possible.
I am writing this now from home, stateside. I am glad to be home and I look forward to seeing how my time in Taiwan will continue to impact my life as I reflect and make efforts to have different, closer relationships with my family. I am humbled and grateful and excited for what is