Why Japanese Food and Culture Make Me Feel Connected to My Taiwanese Grandmother
I started watching The Makanai: Cooking for the Makai House on Netflix, which is a Japanese series about a young girl who moves to Kyoto to train as a cook for the Maiko (apprentice geishas), and I've found it oddly comforting. That's because, oftentimes, Japanese food and culture make me feel close and connected to my grandmother, even though she's Taiwanese. And if you understand the history of Taiwan, you may somewhat understand why I feel this way.
Japan occupied Taiwan for 50 years, from the end of the first Sino-Japanese War to the end of WWII. Therefore, my grandmother, who was born in 1933, grew up immersed in Japanese culture, speaking Japanese as her first language, and even being given a Japanese name upon birth. I've been told that even through old age, whenever my grandmother and her elder siblings were together, they always spoke Japanese together. Even their eldest sister who defected to China during WWII, first had to pretend to be mute during the war, because she didn't speak Mandarin, but then apparently continued to use her Japanese name, Yoshiko (at least amongst family). That seems really brave and interesting to me, and I would've liked to have met her.
So, growing up I heard Japanese almost as much as, if not as much as, I heard Mandarin and Taiwanese in the house. My grandmother even once scolded me in four languages, half of which I didn't understand haha. I never picked up Japanese, just a few phrases here and there, the same way I picked up only a few phrases here and there of Taiwanese. But I remember when I'd play with my Barbie dolls, I would sometimes try to emulate Japanese. I wanted to speak Japanese, but I couldn't.
We grew up with the stories of Momotaro, Japanese snacks (which was probably also common because I grew up where there are a lot of Japanese and Japanese Americans, so we have a lot of Japanese stores), and my grandma would bring us back kimonos from Japan. When she wanted to take my brother on a special trip, just her and him, she took him to Japan, not Taiwan. I'm glad I also got to go to Japan with her once - it was very special to see all the things she always told us about, in person with her...like the giant peaches that we'd joke were the same peaches out of which Momotaro was born.
I'm not sure if all Taiwanese people who grew up at the same time as my grandmother felt/feel the same way - I'm sure many of them don't - but Japanese culture was just very much a part of my grandmother's family and their identities. In fact, my great-grandfather - my grandmother's father - was a naturalized Japanese citizen. It's my understanding that my maternal grandmother also similarly identified with Japanese culture and had many Japanese mannerisms. My maternal grandmother's grandmother was actually Japanese, so that also makes me 1/16th Japanese.
Anyhow, it's been 2.5 years since both of my grandmothers made their heavenly journey home, and I miss them every day. So, I find myself eating the foods Nai Nai used to love or that we'd eat together, and finding comfort in things that make me think of her...like watching Japanese series, or going to the Japanese market and buying onigiri or bento for my son and I.
I also love taking my son to the park and hearing parents or kids speaking Japanese, because it reminds me of my childhood. There's a comfort in hearing the language that makes me feel warm and fuzzy on the inside.
I feel this way about hearing Taiwanese now, too. Isn't that funny? The two languages I don't actually speak, but that bring me the kind of comfort only the feeling of home can bring me.
I wonder if anyone else can relate to this. I wonder if any other Taiwanese people or Taiwanese descendants feel this way.
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