Lee Family Goes East: Part 1

It was never going to be Spring in New England. The dashboard thermostat read 47 degrees at 5am as I packed the car for the Lee Family trip to Taiwan. I could see my breath as I lugged four roller boards into the SUV to brave all of the morning traffic from Boston to JFK on a workday. We Lees are very talented packers, get to airports early, can navigate a foreign city, and even barter with its weird coins. But travel planning? We suck at that.

Drive from Boston to fly to Taipei from NYC all in one day? Somehow we landed on that plan. It might have had something to do with trying to find seats with AMa and AGong and arranging return travel that could accommodate my sister-in-law’s family who would be joining the gang in July. It took hours of swearing at screens to figure out how to coordinate everyone. I lamented the good old days when people hired some gum-smacking gal in a glass cubicle on Main Street to arrange the whole thing with click clacking shellacked nails and bossy phone calls to the airport. (Not sure if that’s a fair assessment of 80’s era travel planners, or something I totally just made up.)

I had been warned it was going to be… hot. I couldn’t wait. Those who live in these parts know that Memorial Day Weekend was too chilly for any pool, and last day of school parties were thwarted by frigid temps and threatening skies. I had to remember to turn off the goddamn heat before we left. On June 8th. It was dinnertime the following day by the time we got to the Grand Hotel and unloaded into gigantic rooms with huge terraces that we quickly learned should NOT be used. Opening the doors to the elements on a summery eve in Taipei we met a wall of unbreathable heat and subsequently invited every blood-sucking insect into our sleeping spaces. Future panoramic pics were taken through the glass.

Nearly everyone in Taipei knew some English. Bernie spent 5th and 6th grade there learning Mandarin while his classmates were dutifully slogging through our impossible English verb conjugations. The locals were all sweet enough to brave a few sentences before my in laws took over in Mandarin or Taiwanese to make sure we got the spinach-y greens with garlic (NOT TOO SALTY!). I know y’all want the skinny on White Girl in the Orient. Some of you sent private messages to wonder how I was handling the immersion. It would be just like me to start making fun of everything right now. But my biggest take home from travel to see the people we (!) call family was this: it’s all about the food.

After we got married, Bernie and I lived in Manhattan, just a jog away from his parents in Flushing. If our schedules aligned and we weren’t on call, we often went to dinner with them. Over the years, these meals have been very similar… for me. To them, it’s possible the variety of restaurants we frequented were as vast as Chipotle to Peter Lugar’s. But I always experienced the same sort of Lazy Susan evening of shared dishes, many pots of tea, and a meal that started and ended with soup.

Those who have known me forever are familiar with a life long peccadillo I’ve never truly shaken: I don’t like sharing food. Clearly, this was going to be an issue going forward as a Lee. Before I became accustomed to the cold, fatty chicken appetizer, the mini fish with the heads still on, the bony knuckles of pork, or the occasional plate of jellyfish or liver or tongue, I would sit through these meals and pray for noodles. Oh, please let there be noodles– or those medallions of soy marinated fried pork. I always wanted to snatch a whole plate of recognizable food off of the spinning tray and gobble it up myself. But that’s not how it’s done.

“Have you eaten?”

This is how aunties and mothers and grandmothers often greet their (grown) children. It baffled me as a newly married. Finally I asked Bernie why his mother would call at 11pm and ask if we had had dinner. Did she think we’d forgotten to eat? Was it a late night invitation? He laughed and said that is the equivalent of “hello.” And now I get it. Like it is in many cultures, I suppose, food is love.

To be honest, I always thought my in laws were a bit exasperating with restaurant wait staff. I mean, if we were essentially ordering the same kinds of things every time (one chicken, two or more vegetables, a beef, a seafood, noodles or rice, never both) why was there so much discussion? It was always happening in another language, so I didn’t see that they were trying to curate a beautiful, coordinated meal. Didn’t matter if it was lunch on a Tuesday or AGong’s retirement dinner. When you assemble with people at that Lazy Susan there is an endearing respect for the process. And those choices were made like this could be our last meal together… or at all. I endlessly made fun of it in my head. But now I see it differently. And I love them for knowing all of these amazing foods and remembering which ones I like, ordering extra portions of those, and spinning them my way.

The spinach-y garlicky dish is so delicious it deserves its own paragraph. So does any gigantic platter of snapper swimming in gingered broth (even though someone always eats the eye). The beef falls apart in salty, fatty mouthfuls. Beans are snappy and spicy. We moaned over the dumplings. A simple chicken soup is a smooth, winy concoction that takes like it cures things. And across all of this wonderful food—a nourishing togetherness. Bernie’s parents came to this country in their early 20s, leaving behind a multitude of cousins and aunties and uncles, parents, grandparents, friends, teachers, and probably a few beloved restaurants. Having grown up with all of those people and logging thousands of hours over shared meals of savory foods, I cannot fathom the homesickness they endured encountering Roy Rogers and Pizza Hut.

During the week we were there, we ate with a multitude of relatives. There are many pictures that look just like this:

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So. Many. Lees.

Some of them were impressed at how very un-American my boys’ stomachs seemed to be. I hope AMa and AGong got the credit for their culinary bravery. We realized that the myriad restaurants they have dragged us to over the years here in the states are the ones that best mimic the classic dishes made in the homeland. The fact that my kids love dow guan (no idea how to spell that) is only slightly less surprising than the fact that their white mom knows how to cook it. Nothing was terribly unusual… except maybe the liver masquerading as “beef.” But the boys gobbled it up even after the menu was translated into English.

Brodie and Teddy were really excited about the famous Night Markets of Taiwan. Many streets are lined with dollar stores that peddle bubble teas, fried squid, horny fruits on sticks, oddly delicious candies, weirdly dusty cakes, and some very unfortunate clothing.

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We begged him not to buy it. And now every travel photo is besmirched with Teddy in a Pikachu hat.

We had been warned by local friends that no matter how much dow guan the boys had eaten in their little lives, their virgin stomachs would not be quite ready for street food. They were right. I’m not writing the paragraph about those moments.

We were absolutely spoiled by every single person we encountered, whether they were old friends or close family. I hope we show visitors to our home a fraction of the generous hospitality we were given. Friends we hadn’t seen since our wedding now had their own children. I’m not sure what they told them about us, but this one climbed into my lap to say hello. We’d only known each other for five minutes before this picture was taken:

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Instant friends.

 

When I asked her if I looked like her Queen Elsa Barbie, she masked a giggle with her tiny, perfect hand. Subsequent pictures have shown Brodie with this cutie on his hip all over town.

After a week, it was time for Bernie and me to leave. The impetus to make the Lee Family Trip East was the World Society of Reconstructive Microsurgery meeting, taking place in Seoul. And so quite bravely and impossibly, we left our children in the very capable and loving care of their AMa and AGong to attend a meeting that deserves its own essay. And then we flew home. To the states. Without the boys. Where it is finally… hot.

More to come, friends. xoxo