I first met Auntie Ah-din when I was 18, on my first visit to Taiwan. It had been a very long flight from New York and I wasn’t expecting anyone to meet me when I checked into my dorm. But this gentle woman touched me on my arm and said, “芸 思?” 芸 思 is my Chinese name and up until that minute, nobody had ever called me by my Chinese name. I barely recognized it. And then I noticed this gentle woman looked a lot like my mother. She must be related to me. And she must have recognized me because I look like my mother too.
Back then, Auntie Ah-din didn’t speak a word of English and I didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, but we managed to communicate somehow. I could understand her Taiwanese and Uncle Sean could speak enough English to get through to me. My cousin, Sally, 13 years old and a foot taller than me, was starting to learn English in her middle school. Tina was then only eight years old, loud and opinionated—she could be understood in any language. Auntie and her family welcomed me into their home, where I felt warm and invited. They were a family that laughed a lot together, and that made me feel at home.
What I remembered about my aunt when I met her that summer was how gentle she was. There was a softness and grace to her, even if she was just doing chores around the house. This remained true through all the years I’ve known her. Auntie Ah-din was my gentle aunt.
Even if she was correcting you, she was gentle about it. I have a memory of Auntie Ah-din teaching me how to play mahjongg. (This was after they had come to America.) I was really bad at mahjongg, and Auntie had to correct me a lot. Don’t play that tile, play this one. See? But she did so with a laugh that made me feel okay about making mistakes.
Within a year of my visit to Taiwan, the family was moving to America. A few years after that, Uncle Sean passed away. It was such a sad time. I remember thinking that Auntie Ah-din was very brave. She had to have a lot of courage to come to America and make a life here for herself and her daughters, without Uncle Sean. She had to be very strong.
I know it wasn’t easy for Auntie here. I’m sure there were times she thought about returning to Taiwan. But she chose to stay to be near her daughters and to be closer to her sisters. I don’t think she regretted this decision. I say this because I watched her at family gatherings (my wedding and Tina’s wedding) and it was clear she enjoyed being with her sisters and her family.
Sally and Tina, I know your mom was proud of the women you have become. I could see it every time she talked about you. It’s not just about the college education and the good-salaried jobs, but about the people you have become.
I remember once, soon after Sally had become vegan, Auntie had clucked her tongue and said, “Bu guai!” And maybe the veganism was a little inconvenient. But Auntie had this smile behind her words that told me how proud she was of her daughter, that you had made your own principled decision and become your own person.
And Tina, it was always clear to me how proud your mother—and your father—were of your strength, even when you were an 8 year old girl. You were always a survivor.
It’s been a very difficult time for our family. We lost Auntie Yassu just six months ago. Everybody is crazy with grief.
You know, the interesting thing about being American in this Taiwanese family is that I only understand when people are speaking English. Call me a stupid American, but I believe this gave me some advantages. Both Auntie Ah-din and Auntie Yassu had to communicate with me in ways other than language. I believe they did so with their kindness and gentleness, their genuine smiles, their courage and their strength. They communicated with their spirit. And this part of them—their spirit, the best part of us that makes us human—this part lives on in those of us who loved them.