Saturday, June 20, 2009

My Call Back Interview

The third morning of the Chinese New Year 1986, I decided to sleep in. I was lazing in bed when the housemother knocked on the door of our room and called me to come answer the phone. I asked who it was, and she said, “Liu Hsiuchen.” I racked my brains trying to figure out who that was, but I thought I should answer it because I did not have the faintest idea who would be calling me on a day when the stores were still not opened and most people were out visiting relatives to wish them happy new year.

When I got to the phone, the voice on the other end told me she was one of Liu Yuni’s younger sisters. She said that her father had really liked me, so the entire family wanted to take me out to the beach and then to meet their eldest sister. The previous day, Liu Yuni’s mother and siblings had not spoken to me very much. They were polite at lunch, but they let the father do the talking. Now that he had given me his seal of approval, the others in the family wanted to get to know me. I told our housemother that Liu Yuni’s family wanted to take me to the beach and to meet their eldest sister. She was impressed and said that I really needed to go, if I truly liked Liu Yuni. So I told Liu Hsiuchen that I would be ready in thirty minutes. She said, “You need to hurry. My brother and I are downstairs at your door. We couldn’t find a parking place.” So I rushed to take a shower and get dressed.

Fifteen minutes later, we were on the road back to Chung-li to get the rest of the family. When we got to the Liu’s home, I was bustled into the main room to eat a little breakfast, while Liu Yuni and his younger brother put a metal frame and canvas cover over the back of the truck. It looked like a canvas camper. Next they began moving all the rattan arm chairs and sectional benches from the living room up into the back of the truck. Mrs. Liu and her daughters were bustling around in the kitchen packing large quantities of food for a picnic. They also had bags of fruit, dried tofu, watermelon seeds, and candy. It looked like they were packing provisions for several weeks.

While I was eating, Liu Yuni’s sisters came over one by one and sat with me for several minutes, introducing themselves and making small talk. Mrs. Liu kept smiling at me and pushing me to eat more and more meat buns. After seeing what they were doing to the truck, I was afraid to eat too much. I didn’t know if riding in the back would make me car sick. I really did not want that to happen.

Within a very short time, all things were ready. Mr. Liu had been cleaning out the front of the truck while his sons had fixed up the back. Mrs. Liu got in the middle front seat next to him, and I was told to sit next to her. The six Liu children all piled into the back. They handed fruit and snacks up to us through the window in the back of the truck’s cab. And we started off. We drove up the freeway to the North and got onto the coast road out to Ilan on the northeastern side of the island. The coastal highway was a twisting two-lane road between the craggy mountains to the West and the ocean to the right. There really wasn’t a “beach” on that side of the island. It was all rocky seashore with crashing waves. The scenery was spectacular. Mrs. Liu and I could not communicate very well. We would point at things, and I would teach her the Mandarin word while she taught me the word in Hakka. Mr. Liu was preoccupied with driving and did not add much to the conversation.

Part way to Ilan, we drove up into the mountains to see a waterfall. We got out of the truck and hiked a short distance to the falls. It was spectacular. At that point, Liu Yuntian had a petit mal epileptic seizure, and we had to rest for awhile before going on. When we got back in the truck, I was put into the back while Yuntian rode in the front with his parents. At the time, I did not know what had happened because I was ahead of him on the trail when the seizure happened. In the back of the truck, all his sisters were talking to me at once trying to explain his illness and to assure me that it was probably not hereditary. I was able to understand that Yuntian had developed this condition suddenly in the fifth grade on a stormy night when he was home alone after recently attending a ceremony to move his grandfather’s bones to the family crypt. When he first developed the problem he saw ghosts just before the seizures began. The family thought he had picked up a ghost in the graveyard and took him to Taoist priests before taking him to a doctor. He had had grand mal seizures for over a year before they found a doctor in Taipei who was able to correctly diagnose and treat the problem. He had missed a year and a half of school with the illness. This was why he was still in junior high instead of high school. It wasn’t until after I had married into the family and had seen the medical records that I knew the name of the illness.

As the Liu girls chattered away, they were constantly eating. They ate fruit and then passed around a bag of beef jerky. Then they broke out the candy. A few minutes later, they all started chewing on watermelon seeds. Liu Yuni said nothing; he just watched them talk while he ate. He did laugh at all their jokes. The time passed much more quickly in the back of the truck, and I was so fascinated by the family stories that I even forgot about getting car sick.

Soon we arrived at a strip of sea coast with hundreds of cars parked along both sides of the highway. We, too, found a place to park. Then we unloaded the hampers of picnic food and trudged a half mile or so down the road to a small area of sandy beach. There were rock formations beyond the sand, and large numbers of surf fishermen had their poles stuck into holes in the rock. They were catching plenty of fish. Soon a short woman and several young girls came running over to greet us. We had met the elder sister, Liu Hsiuyueh. She had brought several folding chairs and had staked out a spot for us on the sand. There was a toddler asleep on her blanket near the chairs. When asked about her husband, she pointed out to the furthermost point on the rocks where the hardiest people were fishing.

When the hampers of food were set down, everyone grabbed their favorite food and ran off to play. Some of the Liu girls went with the nieces to wade in the water. Mrs. Liu sat on the blanket with her eldest daughter and patted the baby’s back. Mr. Liu and his sons went out on the rocks to watch the fishermen. I started to follow them out onto the rocks, but I did not have the right shoes for rock hopping. So I went back to the blanket and started talking to Liu Yuni’s sisters. Eventually, we all took off our shoes, rolled up our pants and went chasing minnows with the little girls in the shallow water. Even Mrs. Liu joined in the fun. We had a great time.

After the tide turned, the men came back with Eldest Brother-in-law. He had caught a number of fish and was covered in scales from cleaning them. Eldest Sister bagged up the nicest fish for her parents, and then she invited us to her place for dinner. Everyone immediately set to work, and within five minutes all the things were packed and ready to go. We got back into the cars and drove over the mountains for dinner at Elder Sister’s house in Toufen. All the women worked together, and dinner was served in less than an hour after we got into her home. It was amazing how efficient they were. They were all chattering and laughing and working together. After dinner, they all cleaned up together. Then some of the girls stayed at their sister’s place for the night, while the rest of us went back to Chung-li. After dropping off his parents and siblings, Liu Yuni ran me home. I got back to Taipei after midnight. It had been an exhausting, but very interesting day. I really liked Liu Yuni’s sisters and mother.


murat11 said...

Teresa: All the food, food, food reminds me of my wife's family: they are Armenian, and food is also a very important aspect of their hospitality. Tina suspects that some of the drive behind this is genocide-related: the years of utter desolation and starvation carried in the cultural bones.

The ghosts related to the petit mal seizures were interesting.

I love the part about Liu Hsiuchen being right downstairs when she called. How wonderful that the entire family was open to you and supportive of your relationship with Liu Yuni.

Teresa said...

Hi Murat,

Yes, food is a big part of Chinese culture. I suspect because they have been hungry for so many generations now. In the Hakka dialect, they don't ask "How are you?", they ask "Did you eat until you're full?"

After I married into the family, I did some research on epilepsy, and I believe that when my brother-in-law first presented he had psychomotor epilepsy because he would see ghosts, talk to them, and then attack people prior to falling into a grand mal seizure. Of course, this made diagnosis particularly difficult, especially in a segment of the population that believes in ghosts and spirits and demon-possession. They exhausted those avenues of cure first before trying western medicine at the insistence of the older children.

Yes, the family has been wonderful. My own family is quite small, especially in my generation, but I certainly gained a whole passle of relatives by marriage. And I get along quite well with most of them.

Sepiru Chris said...

Hi Teresa,

These posts are interesting for anyone to read, and what a fantastic, and manageable way to create and preserve your portion of family history.

It is all these details that I lost with older relatives who died in the last decade.

These are great, and thanks for sharing with a wider audience.

Teresa said...

Dear Chris,

I am surprised at how many people outside the family are interested in my blog. It is fun for me to discuss my experiences and see them from the perspective of outsiders. Now that I look back on it, I may have been more than a little crazy to jump in as I did, but my life has never been boring!


murat11 said...

I'm all caught up. What a great saga - and more to come. A wonderful gift to yourself, your family, and your readers.

Teresa said...

Hi Murat,

Thanks for being such an interactive reader. I have appreciated your insights and comments. It has been fun to hear someone else's take on my experiences. And if I could give you a prize for perseverance I would!