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At Home with the In-Laws

We are staying with my in-laws in East Taipei in the Xinyi district, just a few blocks from Taipei 101, one of the tallest buildings in the world. My husband grew up in Taiwan, and his folks still live in the last place he called home before they sent him to the States in the mid ’80s. He hasn’t been back until now, and it has changed dramatically.
According to The Rough Guide to Taiwan, this area used to be a “wasteland”, butting up to a field of sugar cane. When he left, his twelve-story building was the highest around. Now Xinyi is the most modern business center in the country, known for its high-end shopping centers and plethora of restaurants. It would be comparable to living in SOMA in San Francisco when it was a no man’s land and suddenly being able to walk out your door to the upscale Embarcadero. A few blocks from their place a huge stadium called the Taipei Dome is under construction. There is a Starbucks around the corner. Across the street, you can buy an Hermes tie or diamonds at Cartier or whatever you desire from a giant upscale mall.
The neighborhood may have changed, but his parent’s place has not. First of all, their building is now a dwarf among giants. The concrete block style fashionable when it was built now seems out of place next to all the shiny new buildings with electronic signs a la Times Square. The lobby is big enough to house the mailboxes, a gregarious guard, and the claustrophobic elevators. Their apartment is on the ninth floor along with a mix of residences and a few businesses, like the one at the end of their dark hall bearing a sign saying Fancy Joint Enterprise.
The apartment itself has the typical older Chinese family interior decorating aesthetic I have grown accustomed to after visiting many a household with my husband. There are stacks of things everywhere – jars, boxes, and all manner of reused containers, cute plastic trinkets, and odds and ends collected along the way, like a free paper fan with an ad on it from 1999. Chinese people, especially the older generations, value frugality and disdain wastefulness (it is always dangerous to make generalizations, so know this is based on my limited experience of my husband’s family), so nothing is thrown away until it can no longer serve a purpose. Also, function trumps fashion every time, so it’s not important that things match or follow trends or are put in place with concern for overall balance. Not much has been updated since it was built in the ’70s. Little star stickers remain on the wall since my husband affixed them as a kid. The light fixtures are faux crystal flowery masses with new energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs protruding out of them. Rivers of cords pour out of every light socket. A toaster oven sits on the ground next to the refrigerator. Every space is used with no superficial attempt to make it look like a magazine spread, or to baby proof it for that matter.
Except they did lay down a new layer of thin, pink carpet in the living room because they heard their grandson was crawling. And the photos crowding every shelf in a haphazard collection of frames (or simply taped up) have some obvious new additions. Alongside the treasure trove of yellowing family pictures and snapshots of my husband as an adorable child in way too short shorts and Mary Janes, there are tons of pictures of us. Every room bears our image at our wedding or on vacation somewhere. But taking up the most picture real estate is our son.
My husband is an only child, so our baby is the one and only grandson. My father-in-law is nearing seventy and my mother-in-law is not far behind, proudly bearing her retirement certificate (like American’s senior citizen card) to get in free all over Taiwan. Seeing their place, it is evident that their grandson has become priority number one.
On the flight from Tokyo to Taipei, with our exhausted baby clinging to me, I was convinced we were crazy to drag him to the other side of the world, disrupting his routine for a trip he won’t even remember. But seeing the joy on his grandparent’s faces as they carry him proudly around their home turf, I realize this trip is not for us, it’s for them. As trying as the trip may be and as awkward as it is to be in your in-law’s space for three weeks, I am glad for the chance to give back in what is a small way compared to all they have given me.

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3 thoughts on “At Home with the In-Laws

  1. Oh, yes, Cas, I heard you right, dear. This trip IS for your father and mother in law for sure, as soon as you see what they see in you, your hubby and your little man.
    Precious, I suppose?
    Not even close.
    Speaking of the time left for them to enjoy such time with you three.
    And, may I suggest something you can take back home as a souvenir?
    How about digging (may not be a proper word, but, well, we Chinese kept LOT of reused boxes of treasures, include pictures we already forgot we had ) in Chimmy’s parents collection of pictures of your hubby when still a boy there, and scan them. As he is their only child, no one will take care of the memories, sadly.
    But I am sure you will. And Mo will treasure that someday. Trust me.

    1. Great idea! I picked out a whole stack to scan. Can’t believe we are going home already. Feeling lucky to be part of such a big, close family. Hope we get to see you next time!

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