Author’s Note: These conversations took place in a mix of Mandarin and English. For the sake of this process not taking 600 years, I have translated everything into English except for instances where we are discussing the meanings of Mandarin words. I have also tried to preserve some of the nuances of Mandarin so some translations may be more literal than what is standard. And I learned pinyin in a very haphazard way as an adult so there are probably going to be a lot of misspellings.
JDF: Can I ask you some interview questions about your life?
Dad (D): Sure.
Mom (M): Do I get a…a survey bonus at the end?
JDF: Fifty dollar Amazon gift card.
M: Or Starbucks.
JDF: Okay. I’ll use the Mandarin translations. When you were young, what was your favorite food?
M: Chua bing.
JDF: What’s chua bing?
M: It’s a type of…grind…
D: Shaved ice. Shaved ice with…
M: Red bean.
D: Red bean. When I was little, the food I most loved to eat was…
M: You loved to eat everything.
D: Zhajiangmian! Nai-nai’s [referring to his mother] zhajiangmian.
M: So you just read the Chinese words just by following the pinyin?
JDF: On this card I can read the Mandarin characters, but it also has pinyin. On the back is the English translation.
M: Can you understand it? Is it Chinese written for laomei [term of…endearment…? referring to white Americans]?
J: What is something that always brings you joy?
D: Talking to L [his grandson], Jennifer, and D[his son-in-law]!
M: A very fake answer!
D: No, no, no, it’s true. And also, watching The Crown with Mommy.
M: You just have one answer, okay?
JDF: How about you, mom?
M: Hmmm, being able to exercise.
JDF: Okay, yeah, me too.
M: Let me see the words, let me see the words. If you say them wrong, points off!
(laughter as JDF attempts to decipher the Mandarin characters)
JDF: When you were young…what was…your favorite thing to do?
M: Going with Ah Gong [referring to her father] to watch movies.
JDF: What kind of movies?
M: Any kind, 007, any kind, as long as it was free.
D: Oh. When I was young, my favorite thing to do was…read the newspaper. (general laughter) No, seriously! When I was little, I was already reading the newspaper. Probably elementary school, fifth or sixth grade.
M: What did you read, Guoyu Ribao [a newspaper written for school-age students]?
D: No! Zhongyang Ribao [the official newspaper of the Kuomintang, which he later describes as government propaganda]!
M: Aiyou, no wonder you’re so nearsighted. Okay, that’s good, that’s good. All right, let’s have another.
[interlude with 4yo]
JDF: (selecting another card) Aiyou.
M: Let’s have the most difficult one. There should be different difficulty levels…
JDF: There’s level one and level two.
M: Was this one level one? Try one of the level twos and let me see. Where did you buy this? Ay, this is fantizi [traditional Chinese characters]i, not jiantizi [simplified Chinese characters]?
JDF: Okay, funny story, I found this on the Internet. At first there was only jiantizi, and I refused to buy it.
[interlude with 4yo bringing in paper X-wing fighter model]
JDF: Now there’s fantizi. I think it’s probably pretty popular with ABCs [American-born Chinese] like me, because it has the language piece, so it’s easier to communicate.
M: Do a level two. In the future, will there be level three?
JDF: I don’t know. What is the most difficult decision in your life?
M: Jiannan means difficult, difficult choice. Let me see the words. Wah, you know the word xuanzhe?
M: Well, Baba, yours is probably your surgery, right?
D: No. It’s…Melissa’s dad invited us to dinner, should we go?
M: The most difficult decision…hmmm.
[4yo brings binoculars to show grandparents]
M: Let’s have another.
JDF: No, you didn’t answer!
D: Oh, difficult decision. Let me see.
M: I’ll say mine first. My difficulty…after giving birth to you, in between [you and your brother] there were three miscarriages. Deciding whether we wanted to have another child, this was one of my tougher decisions. How about you?
D: Yeah, I think that’s a tough decision too.
M: For you, lah!
D: Yeah, I think that’s a tough decision for me too.
M: You’re not even the one giving birth!
D: I’m not giving birth, but we still had to decide whether to have another child. But I think by God’s grace, we don’t even need to make that decision. Because it turns out you were pregnant again.
M: I think your most difficult decision was whether to have your surgery. Most difficult for you personally. That’s why you went to Baltimore, to Johns Hopkins, carrying a big folder of documentation.
[interlude with 4yo and puzzle]
JDF: Okay, maybe last one. What is your favorite memory of your parents?
M: Your…your recollections of your parents, right?
M: [northern Chinese phrase that very roughly translates to, “You damn kid!”]
JDF: That wasn’t your mom!
D: A lot of memories, I think. Regarding Yeh Yeh [his father]…Yeh Yeh actually liked to travel. He liked to take us traveling. Even though at the time we didn’t have much money, we were pretty poor, when the opportunity arose, we traveled. We went to see museums and such.
JDF: Did Nai Nai [referring to my paternal grandmother] like it? I’m guessing Nai Nai didn’t like it.
D: Nai Nai didn’t like traveling. Now my memories of Nai Nai are many, but perhaps the deepest are from when Nai Nai was old, we went together to–
D: To the fresh market to buy food.
M: Could she still speak Taiwanese [Hokkien]?
D: Not really. After she moved to Taipei, she didn’t really speak Taiwanese.
M: Okay, so my deepest memory of my father, is that he used to rap me on the head with his knuckle. Kou, it sounded like that. Now my memory of my mother, she would always make the foods I liked to eat, ground pork, very delicious. Another deep memory is when my brothers hit me, she would say, “You hit her, I’ll hit you!” It’s very live.
JDF: Did your brothers bully you?
M: Sometimes. They didn’t really hit me, they would just gesture like they were going to. And then my mother would say, “You hit her, I’ll hit you!”
[interlude about Sixth Uncle going to a Turkish restaurant in Tainan]
JDF: When you were young, you spoke Henanese at home?
D: Right, right, right. Nai Nai isn’t Henanese, she learned the dialect later.
M: Their family is funny. When talking to others, they use Mandarin, but the moment they see their siblings, PYAH! They switch to Henanese.
JDF: If you live in Taiwan, you have to speak Taiwanese, right?
M & D: Not necessarily.
[interlude about church friends who are waishengren vs. benshengren and who speaks Taiwanese Hokkien and who doesn’t]
JDF: Then, Baba, how did you learn?
D: Because when I was born, we lived in a more rural area. In the rural areas, my classmates and neighbors all spoke Taiwanese. The people who grew up in Taipei, where the government and business were, they mostly didn’t learn Taiwanese.
M: Like Mr. Chou originally lived in Taipei, but he went to college in Tainan, National Cheng Kung University, so he probably understands a bit.
[interlude about Taiwanese church friends]
[discussion of Taiwanese history and linguistics]
[end of conversation]