Gong Gong

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You know when your parents tell you things when you are a child and you just don’t listen. Or you just don’t care?

Like when they tell you to learn a skill because it will help you in the future but when you’re 8 years old, being an adult seems so far away. I will have plenty of time to learn new things. Well, for me one of those things that my parents really wanted me to learn was how to speak Mandarin Chinese. They were so determined for me to learn Chinese that I went to Chinese school for 2 hours every Sunday while I also attended the American elementary school at the same time. That does not include all the Chinese homework and tests I had to study for as well.

With all of this, plus my parents speaking to me in Chinese at home, I’d say my Chinese is only good enough to get me by in everyday life. How much is this? Where is the bathroom? Sorry, I don’t understand. I’m from America.

But as I get older and the longer I have lived away from my parents, the worse my Chinese has gotten. I can’t have a full-on conversation like I’d liked to.

Regardless, in November 2019 my mom said she was going back to Taiwan to visit her father. I asked if I could go back with her. Her father, my Gong Gong (the way you say your mother’s father in Chinese) at the time was 103 years old. Who knows when I would have the opportunity to see him again so I wanted to take the time to spend some quality time with my mom and Gong Gong.

I was looking forward to seeing him. It had been 5 years since the last time I visited Taiwan and at that time, my Pou Pou (mother’s mom), his wife, was in the hospital.  At that time things were not looking good for her as she had been in the hospital for some time due to the spread of cancer, so I flew back to see her one last time.

Pou Pou and Gong Gong

There are two distinct moments that I remember from that 2015 trip.

The first morning I was in Taipei, my mom and I hopped on to the MRT (metro) to the hospital, but we stopped to get some breakfast along the way. Sao Bing Yo Tao had always been a childhood favorite so I knew that I had to have it sometime on this trip. Luckily, my mom knew that’s what I wanted to eat so we stopped for my first real meal in Taiwan. After a full belly, we started walking over to the hospital and my mom said “kan sai lai de?” (look who’s here). I looked up and it was like the heavens had shined a light on my Gong Gong. He was walking down the side of the street, with his cane and looked amazing for a 99-year-old man. Walking around, taking his time, stretching his legs from sitting in the hospital all day, every day with my grandma. I saw him and gave him a hug as he smiled back.

From 2015, an image my Yi Ma captured of me, Gong Gong, and my cousin Dennis as Pou Pou rested in the hospital bed.

The second distinct memory I have of him from the trip was one that I hope I never forget. My Gong Gong, my mom, Yi Ma (my mom’s sister), and I were all in the hospital room with Pou Pou. The doctor had just come in and I think delivered some bad news. I couldn’t understand exactly what he was saying but I could tell that it was bad news by the tones in his voice, the look on his face followed by the reactions of my mom and Yi Ma had.

My eyes went straight to Gong Gong. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of him as he hunched over the hospital bed, stroked Pou Pou’s hair, looking at his wife with watering eyes. The look of love he was giving her and asking her to get better was heartbreaking but an act of love I’ve never seen in real life.

taipei 101. taipei world financial center, xinyi district, taiwan, asia, skyscraper, elephant mountain, Nangang District Hiking Trail,

So this most recent time that I would go back to Taiwan was going to be different. Gong Gong has always been a little more stand off-is as I was growing up. He never really played with me when I was young, but I always knew he was watching me. Quietly smiling in the corner. Most of my childhood memories with my grandparents are just with my Pou Pou, but she’s not here anymore. And in his old age, I knew our visits with him would be just visiting him in the room of his retirement home and spending quiet time with him.

Gong Gong sitting on the couch reading a newspaper to pass time.

Gong Gong getting around with his walker

I’m so happy that one of those days we were able to take him to his favorite restaurant to eat lunch.

Waiting for a taxi to pick us up

Picking out the fried fish on the menu

iPhone image of Gong Gong looking at my camera. I always had it in my hand so he wanted to take a look and smiled with approval when he gave it back.

At the age of 103, his hearing had gone really bad. You basically have to scream in his ear in order for him to hear you. So on this trip, my communication with him was limited to my mom as a translator between the both of us. I wasn’t sure if he’d be able to understand my Chinese/American accent so I didn’t try. If we weren’t talking between my mom, we exchanged a lot of smiles and with a few hand gestures. This is a distinct moment that I wish my Chinese could be stronger and I could communicate to him more effectively.

But on the other hand, I was able to create images of him without him even knowing because he couldn’t hear any camera clicks.

This image, in particular, is my favorite. He’s sitting at his desk watching a movie on his iPad and he had no idea my mom and I had already entered the room to see him. He was so focused on what he was watching, that we left him alone for a bit before announcing our arrival. Although you just see the back of his head, you also see that he’s surrounded by images of him and his family. These images were images I’d see all the time growing up. Either they were in my grandparent’s house whenever I visited them growing up or I’d see them in my own parent’s house or aunts and uncles. The largest, most prominent image is of him and Chiang Kai Shek, former president of the Republic of China. The smaller images are of him and Pou Pou and one of my cousins, Dennis, and his wife during their engagement shoot.

Gong Gong had fought in Sino/Japan war for eight years and many other battles against communist China. He became a Lieutenant General at the age of 40 because he was known for being a good disciplinary and fighter. He was an honorable man with great integrity and used to say the only two days in a year he would ever celebrate was military day and his wedding anniversary which pretty much summed up what kind of person he is.

My typical day in the city was to wake up early. I couldn’t help it, I was jet-lagged but also so eager to go out and take pictures in the early morning light. Most of the time I found myself unconsciously waking up right before the sun would rise. I brushed my teeth, got dressed, and was out the door to wander the streets. I am grateful we stayed in an area that was so lively, even in the morning time.

When I started getting hungry, I went back to the hotel where I’d meet my mom for breakfast. After breakfast, we got ready and left to go see Gong Gong. However there were a few stops along the way, usually to run an errand or pick up some of Gong Gong’s favorite food to eat from the street market.

Spending a few hours with Gong Gong in the morning, he would tell us to go out and enjoy Taipei. So we would usually and me and my mom would go somewhere to take pictures, run more errands with her, or she would just go back to the hotel to rest while I just wandered the city again with my camera in hand.

But halfway into our trip, Gong Gong had a stroke.

My mom and I were in our hotel room just after we ate the hotel breakfast when she got a call that something happened. She hung up the phone and said “Baba is sick”. I immediately looked at her and said “who’s Baba”, but as soon as I said those words, I knew it was hers. We grabbed our things and immediately rushed over to the retirement home. Fortunately, we got there just in time to hop in the ambulance as Gong Gong was being rushed to the hospital. I sat in the ambulance not really knowing what was going on. I didn’t even know he had a stroke at that time. Again, my Chinese just isn’t that great and I certainly would not have been able to communicate to anyone what to do or where to go.

So I did the only thing I knew how to do. Take pictures. 

We went to the same exact hospital my Pou Pou was in 5 years ago.

The last image I was able to create before they told me to put away my camera and the last image of my Grandfather.

I’m grateful we planned the trip as we did. It was perfect timing. While we were in Taiwan and we were able to have a few meals with him, spend time in his room and watch tv, but also I got to see him when he was healthy. I’m glad I have those last memories of his life and can have those visuals instead of hearing about them from other family members. I even remember him cracking a joke at the restaurant we went to.

I am also grateful I was there so I could help and support my mom as she was going through a very difficult time with her father suddenly becoming extremely ill with no real chance of recovery.

Being a photographer, I am so used to be being behind the camera. One regret I have was that I didn’t even think about taking a picture with him. Unfortunately, the last image I have with him is the one above when we were in the hospital with Pao Pao back in 2015.

I flew back to America the day before Thanksgiving 2019. 3 days later he passed away. I was not able to attend his funeral, but I was able to say goodbye to him in the hospital. When I came back home I would tell people that I thought my grandfather was waiting for my mom to be there with him before he passed since she is the older daughter but in actuality, he was waiting for me too. I was his last grandchild he saw but I also happen to be the one who could have been there to document his last few days of life. 

Since his passing, Yi Ma told me that the Chinese media stated that he is the longest living general in Chinese history. Of course, there’s no record of ancient times but the longest living emperor was in his 80s. Average emperors didn’t make to age 60.

This past experience in Taiwan was a benchmarking trip. It marked the date that I lost my last living grandparent. It also marked the time when my mom said she has no real reason to go back to Taipei anymore and she would just stay in America.

But I personally can’t wait to go back. Next time I go, I look forward to exploring the city that my grandparents and parents lived with just my camera. I’m excited to roam the city, eat the delicious food, practice my Mandarin even more, and honor my grandparents memory by visiting places they used to take me when I was young.