Goodbye To My Grandma Rock

(A Chinese translation of this is available below the English.)

My grandmother died early this morning, aged 94. She was so strong and full of grit that part of me believed she would never die.

When my mom called to tell me, she didn’t say grandma died, she said, “Grandma left.” As if grandma went out on an errand. But I knew what she meant.

My mother is 61 years old and a grandmother herself, four times over. But she said to me, her voice breaking, “It’s unimaginable navigating this world without a mother.”

Grandma lived in Taiwan, and I was born and raised in the U.S., so I didn’t really get to know her until I was a teenager and we traveled back and forth more often. My mom’s relationship with her mom is so deep that I remember sometime around first grade, feeling really envious of grandma. Who was this woman my mom loved so much? By the time I was old enough to understand, I only wanted to spend more time with Grandma Rock, the ultimate survivor. The kind of survivor that made me believe she’d never die.

Grandma’s surname is Shih, which literally translates to rock. And it’s fitting. She’s the oldest of six siblings, a well-known educator and later in life, one of Taiwan’s earliest female politicians.

She’s also two-times a war refugee — surviving the most devastating conflicts in recent Chinese history. When the Japanese invaded “Manchuria” in the Sino-Japanese War during WWII, she and her family were forced out of their home in Northeast China and migrated to central China. Decades later she had to flee again, many of her siblings in tow, during the brutal Chinese Civil War, when Mao’s communists defeated Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalists. She wound up in Taiwan until her death this morning.

She didn’t merely live. Grandma sucked the marrow out of life until the very end. She first worked as a teacher, but quickly became a principal and headmaster of the most elite women’s high schools in Taiwan. She was a working mom who never seemed to have any of our modern American angst about it. She had my aunt Linda, uncle Steve and her youngest, my momma, while also molding generations of young Taiwanese women at the schools she led. Those women have gone on to become artists and scientists and politicians and the brightest stars of Taiwan’s society. I remember visits to Taiwan and going out to eat with grandma in different cities. More often than not, we’d run into a former student who would recognize her and come by to say hello and thank you.

They recalled her being strict and exacting. I recall her being tough but warm, and how she found so many things delightful and humorous. She laughed with her whole body. One time when I was 12, we were in the backseat of a cab that was taking too long to get some place, and my externally sober grandma decided to show me her stupid human tricks to pass the time. Let’s just say she’s crazy flexible. She also showed me that you can do more than just roll your tongue in half — you can fold it three ways, like a flower. So now I too, can do this, if you ever want to see. (Apparently the ability to do this is genetic, so I guess grandma expected I’d be able to follow suit.)

While she expected excellence out of everyone, she reserved the toughest standards for herself. I have never seen her flub anything, especially when she spoke. When she came to my wedding in Amsterdam, she was 87 and still the sharpest one in the room. She spoke at the ceremony and at the reception in her native Mandarin Chinese. My friend Drew said afterward, “I couldn’t understand a word she said, but when Grandma speaks, we all know to shut up and listen!” She commanded the room like no one I’ve ever seen and probably will never see again.

The other thing I remember vividly about Grandma is her emphasis on (social and civic responsibility). She talked about it all the time. “Why’d you have three kids when you were so busy in your career?” .” “Hey, why’d you retire so late?” “.”

After she retired from her education career in Taichung — her final posting as principal was at a top all-girl’s high school there — my grandma continued breaking glass ceilings and served as one of the only women representatives to her political party’s national congress. “Why’d you get involved in the rough-and-tumble of politics when you could have just enjoyed yourself?” “.”

By the time she died, she was the matriarch of a huge extended family. She was a mother of three, grandmother to six and a great-grandmother to five. (Thanks to her side of the family, I have about 70 cousins and second cousins and we all kinda know each other.)

Despite her age, it was unexpected when I got the news of her passing because she had just come out of a scary gall bladder surgery a month ago and was doing really well. I video-chatted with her last week and she was looking and sounding great. She spent all day yesterday playing mahjong, which she has enjoyed in her final years, after she stopped all the international travel, yoga practice and ballroom dancing of her seventies and eighties.

My newborn Luna was going to meet her great-grandma Rock on Monday — we’ve had tickets to Taipei for weeks. We missed her by mere days. But grandma went in peace, at her home, and with my mom by her side. She knew the love of family, which is what she wished for us, especially after her own siblings were split up during China’s external and internal wars. She spoke about it often. So I’ll end this with what grandma said in her own words, from a speech she gave the family at a reunion in 2009:

“During China’s political turmoil our family was separated in an effort to flee to safety. Consequently, my siblings and I grew up during a very trying time where everyone was forced to fend for themselves. We lost contact with one another. Our biggest regret was not being able to enjoy the blessings of family warmth and sibling love.

Since we endured childhood loneliness without family, it is our wish that the future generations will see the value and enjoy the blessings of one another’s love and support. It is our hope the ties of our family love will be our legacy that is passed on to all future generations.”

With grandma and mom after I got hitched in Amsterdam, in 2010. She was 87!

You can read this in Chinese, after the jump.

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The Egg Roll/Rolling Egg Tradition

Today is what my friend Anna calls “The Day After The Day Of The Shining Star,” because my birthday follows former North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il’s. (Kim’s birthday is the “Day of the Shining Star,” so I get “The Day After,” naturally. Along with Michael Jordan, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Paris Hilton and my birthday besties John and April.)

I can’t believe I’ve never written about my family’s birthday tradition! I guess now’s a good time. The tradition is the egg roll, or an egg rolling, to be precise. Not the fried appetizer, but an actual rolling of a hard-boiled egg down the birthday girl’s body, from head to toe and down each limb, to roll away any negativity or bad vibes from the year before. Then you crack open the egg and eat it for birthday breakfast.

Here’s my mom doing it for me in Taipei a couple years ago. While rolling the egg, the elder talks the whole time, wishing away all the sadness or badness. I always get emotional when I happen to be with my mom and she can actually roll the egg for me like when I was little.

In my adulthood, sometimes I’m not with mom or dad or grandma on my birthday, and so my husband has to roll the egg for me, which causes him great anxiety. On my 28th birthday, his egg-rolling-anxiety caused a GIANT FIGHT between us that lasted for two or three days.

There is a lot of superstition tied to egg rolling, too. On my 19th birthday, everyone forgot to roll my egg for me. It was then one of the worst years of my life, to this day. Before my 32nd birthday, I happened to be in Taipei a few weeks ahead of Feb 17 so my mom planned to roll my egg for me before I headed to the airport. But the eggs didn’t boil in time, so we had to go downstairs to the 7-11 and improvise with a tea-egg (the shells of which are already cracked, since they’re braising in tea). Mom rolled me with the tea egg, but tea eggs don’t work! I went home and had a miscarriage and my au pair quit in some high drama involving her OK Cupid boyfriend and it was just Not. A. Great. Start. To. My. Year. So my dad came to DC and re-rolled my egg, and instantly things turned a corner.

That is the power of the egg roll.

If I’m REALLY lucky, I happen to be with my 94-year old grandma around my birthday, and SHE can do the egg roll, which is the luckiest egg roll of all. But her primary egg roll responsibilities are her own kids: Aunt Linda, Uncle Steve and my momma.

This year Matty had my egg ready for rolling first thing in the morning, and my daughter Eva was so psyched to see this weird thing happening that she insisted on being lifted up so she, too, could help roll the egg. Later my Seoul girlfriends joined me for a day at the spa, since I’m a little limited in my partying this year due to being eight-months preggo. Buy my sweet friend Sarah flew her ass in from Singapore to spend the day and weekend with me, which means a whole lot. I missed our times together and we’re doing some quality catching-up.

NOTE: I have no idea where this tradition comes from. It’s just been passed down my mom’s side of the family. I have yet to start doing it for my daughters, but I think I will this fall when Eva turns five.

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2016 Year In Review: What Just Happened Here?

In July, with my fixer Akane, in the Japanese Alps reporting on a traditional naked festival.

Ah, 2016. A year so seemingly bad that it became its own internet meme. Not only was the soul-sucking U.S. presidential election rather horrifying, but artistic icons kept dying — Bowie, Prince, now George Michael. Mix in another hottest year on record, Brexit, the ongoing refugee crisis, rising nativism all over the world, nuclear tests by North Korea and it’s easy to get a girl down, you know?

In the micro sense, my 2016 was a tornado of travel and jet lag but rather charmed and full of surprises, like the new baby in my belly. (WHAT!? Still processing, but running out of time for it to sink in.) It was a year for much Japan exploration, and full of friends and weekend getaways all over the place — Cebu, Bangkok, Okinawa, New York, London, Seattle and more.

Notable Firsts: The G7 summit, airport transportation by high-speed boat, flight with the U.S. Treasury Secretary, police-escorted motorcade through Beijing, aka, experiencing Beijing without its infamous traffic, gong bath (it is a thing), Go tournament, hosting an NPR show, getting a compliment from the president, kabuki show, naked man festival. (Some details below.)

Recurring Theme: Jet lag. Naps. Longing for booze and not being able to drink it.

Favorite Selfie: My brother Roger Hu goofing off with daughter Eva (and a magnifying glass) when we were all in Taipei for the Lunar New Year.

New Person: A new Hu was born on December 1, after 48 hours of labor. My little brother Roger is now a dad, to baby boy Ethan Hu. Another E-Hu in the family makes me so proud. I can’t wait to meet him.

Eva and Uncle Roger’s giant nose

Regrets: I didn’t call my friends who I don’t meet up with in random cities. Going to make a more concerted effort in 2017.

Randomness: Pineapple Park, y’all. Hostile environment training. Dairy Queen in Laos.

Notable New Friend: CNN International’s Saima Moshin, who I technically met in 2015. But we really solidified our friendship this year, and I’m better for it.

New countries: Philippines, Thailand, Laos

And in no particular order…
Asked the Deputy US Secretary of State about North Korea’s hangover free booze
Watched traditional kabuki performed by children up in the mountains
Attended first Japanese naked man festival, featuring not men but boys (yikes)
Got attacked by a raccoon, who then STOLE my mic
Slept through Taiwan’s big February earthquake, had to do a bunch of TV to talk about it
Learned enough cab Korean to get around
Gave Isabel a Korean first birthday party
Ran out of passport pages
Went back and forth to Japan 11 times
Went to Hawaii for work … twice
Thought a lot about smog
Watched artificial intelligence beat a 9-time world champ at Go
Covered the President’s historic (and moving) visit to Hiroshima
Passed up a chance to live in Shanghai
(Went back-and-forth for awhile before making a decision)
Guest hosted Weekend Edition
Interviewed Omarosa
Had soooo many karaoke (or in Korea, norebang) nights
Played The Sunday Puzzle with NYT Crossword Editor Will Shortz
Somehow got knocked up again, hrmmm
Learned how to tie a tourniquet really quickly, and to make one
Achieved objective of reading a lot more books than last year
Asked President B-H-O about North Korea on his final Asia trip
Got a presidential compliment: “Those are good questions”
Finally saw Sir Ian McKellen IN THE FLESH
Learned how to make a pig face out of a rice ball
Drove on left side of road and right side of car for the first time, didn’t die
Witnessed Obama and Shinzo Abe’s quiet tribute to Pearl Harbor victims at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial

Free from nursing by July (but pregnant again in August), logged 128,367 miles in the air (resulting in jet lag for many days of 2016), going to nine countries and spending 145 days away from home. I need a nap. Bye.

Previous Years in Review:
2015201420132012 | 20112010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004

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So Much Taiwan. So Much Awesome.

When I was 20, I spent six months in a vortex. (Not a polar vortex.) It jumbled me up and made me see the world and relationships and food in a whole different (and more appreciative) way. That vortex was one of the world’s best food cities and just an endlessly fun, urban place — Taipei. Friendships from the vortex lasted, so any time I’m back — even if many of us have children now — we make it out to see each other, reuniting over bowls of Taiwan’s religion (beef noodle soup), partying it up in the smoke-filled clubs and lounges (no smoking ban), and wandering the gritty alleys which are naturally full of food vendors selling buns and soups and Taiwan’s second most popular religion, bubble tea. The only key Taipei activity that we didn’t do this trip was karaoke until 5am and then hit the all-you-can-eat congee bars, but I’ve done enough of that for a lifetime. And with Mandopop stars, naturally.

After five years in Holland, my parents just moved to Taipei. Mom bought a place up near Tamsui, which is a beach town with a boardwalk where women sing karaoke covers of Alanis Morrisette’s mid-nineties hits. So we spent Christmas and rang in the New Year with lots of family — many of my forty or so cousins made the trek for a big family reunion trip. Hadn’t been back since the halcyon days of 2011, before I went to NPR and the CEO quit two days after I started. (Correlation is not causation.)

Getting there and back is the worst. Let’s just get that out of the way. It’s a 14 hour flight plus another three hours after a layover in Tokyo. Or it’s broken up differently and also horrendous. The plane goes from fresh and full of promise to a filthy, lived in, farted-in trash tube. (The flight back, which included our toddler, head colds and an inhuman experience at Dulles in which the agriculture cops busted us for bringing back grapes in Eva’s food bag and not declaring it, was hands down one of my most difficult days.)

Instead of family photos, I’ll show you some of the atmospherics that make Taipei so much fun for us. Like WHITEMEN toothpaste, guardian of tooth:

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Taiwanese signs are accompanied by great images. I love the bump on the armless woman:

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And hey, don’t fail at speaking:

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My cousin got my grandma 3D printed. She said her fake head fell off after a recent earthquake and one of her aides found the head had jumped and landed on a table. She rushed her 3D-printed self to a jeweler to get her head re-attached. You can’t even tell it was missing:

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What the F. Doctor Drill ‘N Fill is the scariest toy I’ve ever seen:

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This traffic warning guy had moving arms. Amazing:

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Why was there a baby with a scary perm on the side of a building? These are the mysteries one encounters when one can’t read Chinese.

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And I discovered a great new party game/app through my old roommate (Joe) and his buddy Mike (at right, with phone on his head). Don’t know the name of it, but it’s the electronic version of the board game Taboo or Catchphrase, where your team has to give you clues for the item shown on your forehead, without actually saying the item. Great fun. Let me know if you know what the app is called.

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Y’all know how important I think Taiwanese news animations are. So naturally I set up a visit for an upcoming piece. And naturally I found a bunch of motion capture actors just sitting around in leotards, waiting for an assignment:

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Thanks for the memories (again), Taiwan. I’m a huge fan.

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Eating Like Professional Football Players Is Awesome

I am a proud eater. My grandma is an eater, my mom’s a foodie-slash-eater, I’m an eater, my daughter’s an eater. (I read somewhere that basically everyone from Taiwan is food-obsessed because that island is a delicious culinary taste of the rainbow.)

So my one issue with receptions and parties is that I never feel like there’s enough food. And when I want to eat more food from the limited selections available, I often hold back because it seems quite impolite to go eat four small plates of cheese.

The solution to this problem is actually quite obvious, but I didn’t discover it until tonight: Hang out with NFL ballers! They eat with abandon and they don’t think anything of it if you go for seconds. In fact, when I attended an event of theirs tonight they really encouraged me to follow a platter of chicken wings through the crowded room until I got a good plateful.

Then I watched as the buffet got set out and Shawne Merriman tore right into it without the whole waiting-for-someone-else-to-start dance. Finally, I felt no shame heaping giant quantities of mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, polenta, meat and salmon on my plate. Everyone was doing it!

The players were hanging out in DC tonight because they’re all part of an MBA program at George Washington University. We got a real in-depth explainer on the state of performance enhancing drugs testing by a guy named Don Davis who used to be a Patriot. We learned about Indianapolis from a Colts player. But our favorite new friend was former Longhorn tight end Bo Scaife, who was rocking such a tight suit ensemble that I had him model it for us.

Bo models his pink ensemble for us by doing a little dance. "That turned out so provocative," he said of the photo.

Bo models his pink ensemble for us by doing a little dance. “That turned out so provocative,” he said of the photo.

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Taipei: iPhone Photo Dump #3

Unable to decide between the two, Stiles chose both wet AND hard.

Since I booked three hours, I shared half my facial time with Roger. It was a smart call, as had that facial lasted any longer my face would have been zapped off (somehow I got subjected to “photo rejuvenation”??)

Genius.

Happy Year of the Rabbit, y\’all. Let\’s celebrate by eating some rabbit face-shaped bread.

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Family Ties

We’re near Washington, DC, for a massive family reunion. My maternal grandma flew all the way in from Taiwan to take part, so our one layover in Houston really doesn’t count as much travel. Grandma has five brothers and sisters and she’s the oldest surviving one. The fact there are six siblings in that generation mean that by the time you get to my generation, there are about 68 cousins and second cousins and cousins-in-law-once-removed. Or something. I still don’t know them all.

The family reunion agenda

The family reunion agenda

We’ve shared some moving moments – like the survival stories grandma told about triumphing over war (WWII), revolution (the Cultural one) and separation (time and distance).

But mostly this gathering has been about the lighter moments — eating way too much food in order to please our elders (a Chinese thing that feels like being slowly fed to death), joking about perhaps incorporating our family into some sort of LLC, and cousins connecting over which ‘realm’ or ‘guild’ they are in in the addictive computer game, World of Warcraft.

Which reminds me: Cousins Calvin and Cary, both grown-ups with families of their own, decided a few years ago to go out into the woods and fully embrace who they are as men. They choreographed an extensive Star Wars-themed kung fu light saber battle that my other cousin, Clarence, caught on tape. See below.

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