It is hard to talk about Amah’s house without evoking clichéd images of rural Taiwan. The original family residence was made up of a simple courtyard, a rectangle space used to dry unhulled rice, which was flanked by three buildings.
There are no fences separating the old house from the surrounding rice fields, just a crooked line of bushes. Amah’s house is literally in an old paddy field. In later years, asphalt roads were put in and the family used their savings to build a modern house that met the new road.
I have been coming here since I was seventeen. The old house is now used for storage, the courtyard has been pulled up and vegetables planted in its place. Unless it is Mid-Autumn Festival, where tradition calls for barbequing and moon cakes, we rarely go out the back.
I say ‘we’ but if you saw a family photo you would pick me out immediately. I would be the one and only blonde sitting between Amah, Agong, my godfather, godmother, uncle, two aunties and the five grandkids. I moved to Taiwan after high school but then ended up staying and doing my undergraduate degree, spending six years there all up. During the summer holidays, university breaks and the occasional weekend I got out of the city and like any filially pious Chinese son, dinner at Amah’s was always the first port of call.
My uncle lived in Taipei like me, though we never met up in the city. As the youngest of three he was the only one who actually ever lived in the new house, by the time it was built my godfather and his younger sister were away at university. His room was on the first floor filled with CDs and books, while Amah and Agong’s room was on the second floor along with the altar table they used to pay respect to their ancestors.
It may seem strange when I say, I think I got along better with them than he did, but they weren’t just separated by a flight of stairs but by culture, a generation gap and secrets.
Amah never had a chance to learn to read and lived through the Japanese occupation of Taiwan. Her eldest son had two daughters but no sons and because her youngest son, my uncle, was still unmarried, in her eyes he was failing to live up to his responsibilities. My uncle had as much freedom as he could want in the city and rarely gave that up to come back and visit.
I was the blow-in without any pressure; I drank beer and smoked with Agong. I praised Amah on her cooking and made sure to offer to help even though I knew she would push me out of the kitchen. I was out to the entire family, and had brought boyfriends around to get the tick of approval. Admittedly, Amah never used the word ‘boyfriend,’ but she also substituted ‘you should eat more, you’re wasting away’ for ‘I love you,’ so you take what you can get.
I never had to deal with finding the right girl and starting a family, so I wonder what it was like sitting across the table from this Australian and his latest crush, knowing that Amah and especially Agong wouldn’t accept the fact I wasn’t going to be bringing home a bride-to-be anytime soon.
I guess that is why my uncle and I never really talked, my carefree existence probably looked a lot like gloating and that would have been hard to take. However, if I’m honest, I think our lack of closeness probably had a lot more to do with me outing him all those years ago than anything else.
In the beginning my Mandarin was pretty terrible and my Taiwanese was even worse, so after dinner when the family retired to the lounge room, I usually pulled out a book. I can’t remember if I had finished one or forgot to bring one altogether, but my godfather suggested I have a look in my uncle’s room for something to read. There wasn’t much left in there, some old textbooks, CDs and some clothes, the kind you wouldn’t be caught dead in if you were in Taipei, but don’t mind wearing on a cold night back home.
I pulled out the only novel that was in English, and I almost laughed when I flipped the book over, Maurice, by E. M. Forster. I imagine way back when, a second-hand penguin classic about repressed boys in love was the only thing available to smart, curious Taiwanese boys who lived in houses surrounded by rice fields.
It is ironic that before the Internet, before mail order porn, a dusty novel written just before World War I was the only glimpse into what the future may hold for boys like that. Boys like him, boys like me.
I had never read it, I never had to, all I ever had to do was turn on the TV or go online. The images I saw didn’t always resonate with me, but I can say I never felt alone. I never felt I was the only one. My coming out was easy, even my adoptive Taiwanese family were supportive. I guess I never dealt with half the stuff my uncle did, half of what he still deals with.
When I went back to the lounge room, everyone stopped watching TV and all eyes were on the book in my hand.
‘What did you find?’ my Godfather asked.