Recording your grandparents is important for family history

I hit play, and my grandmother’s voice, my grandmother’s, came through my computer speakers; Looks like she’s in the room with me.

“I came to Tainan when I was 18 years old. I am 75 years old now,” said my giver.

A long and long silence. The sound of her eating. I looked over the recording. “What did your mother cook for you?” I heard my own voice, shrill and awkward, trying to fill in the gaps.

“I do not remember. It was difficult then. When I was little, we just ate everything.”

“What was it like when the Kuomintang government from China took over Taiwan?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never been interested in politics.”

I can count the number of interactions I’ve made with my Waipo on two hands. Several times when I was a child I visited Taiwan from California, once during a family vacation to China a few years ago, and the most recent two times at her home in southern Taiwan while I was recording. give her and hers the recipe for zongzi – a pyramid-shaped cake wrapped in bamboo leaves – for my upcoming cookbook on Taiwanese cuisine.

A woman uses chopsticks to make zongzi

Waipo’s Clarissa Wei makes zongzi at her home in southern Taiwan.

(Ryan Chen)

I haven’t seen her since.

All of my interactions with her were interrupted and confusing, in part because my family never had much of a relationship with her. My grandmother was in her early 20s when she was forced to leave her children – my mother and my aunt – for her ex-husband’s family as a condition for divorce. He is an absent and bad husband; she didn’t want to live her young life on his terms. But because his parents were wealthy, they had financial leverage, and my abandonment was quickly removed from her daughter’s own life. My mother was raised by my paternal grandparents – wealthy doctors who spoke fluent Japanese, Hokkien and Mandarin and owned their own clinic. Trilingualism was a sign of affluence in their day. In contrast, my Waipo is a barber and cuts people’s hair for a living. She mainly speaks Hokkien and only learned Mandarin later when she was growing up.

“When your mother was at school, I waited outside to give her candy,” she said sadly. Her voice got louder when I put the tape recorder closer to her. “But they won’t let me see her for long.”

This recording of my 25-minute conversation with my Waipo is now sitting on my external hard drive, mostly small talk and prolonged silence. I’m recording her voice under the guise of work – I want her recipe and plot for my book – but really, I’m doing it for posterity’s sake.

When I left her house after my interview with her, I told myself to visit her more often. And over the next few days, she started sending me a bunch of photos and videos of her cooking that her partner took for her. She was standing on the stove, pork belly golden brown in a large rusty brown carbon steel pan, a ceramic mustard yellow lard pot, beside her a pink flower. She sat at the table, slicing a bunch of vibrant purple chives. She holds a piece of fresh pork, proud and beaming in front of the camera. Although she doesn’t express it outright, I can tell she’s happy to connect with me.

Soon, the messages stopped. A few months after my conversation with her, she passed away.

It was a raging cancer that started in her liver and eventually engulfed her entire body. I cannot go to the hospital because of COVID-19 restrictions. I didn’t go to the funeral because no one told me about it.

An image break

“I regret not asking more questions. I regret not visiting again before it is too late.”

An image break.

Replaying her voice and our conversation together remains an extremely frustrating experience, not because of its content but because it is a visual reminder of a real connection. the first, the last and the only thing that I had with her. I’m sorry I didn’t ask more questions. I regret not visiting again before it is too late.

As a journalist, I’ve spent many hours in front of other people’s grandparents documenting their stories for the sake of work. Usually, the children are there with me and express their fascination at all the previously untold and hidden stories that come from their elders when the right questions are asked.

This is my first time recording my own.

Clarissa Wei and her Waipo do zongzi

Clarissa Wei and her Waipo make zongzi.

(Ryan Chen)

“What did your parents do for work?” I heard myself asking to give up.

“They own a rice factory.

“Did you help?”


“Do you plant rice?” I was very excited at the moment; I spent the last year researching rice for my book and don’t know if anyone in my family knows anything about it.

“No. We didn’t develop it. They take the rice and process it.”

“What kind?”


While blood ties are not a prerequisite for family, and while we ourselves are responsible for shaping and creating our own destiny, it is a moving experience to hear directly about our lineage from our ancestors, regardless of distant relationships, estrangements or friction. To be. Because like it or not, the decisions they make in life – whether trivial or mundane – have a direct impact on our existence.

Because of this, over the years I have made a more conscious effort to learn my family history despite my parents’ indifference to their past. From what little I know, I am the descendant of a pair of stubborn, single Taiwanese mothers. Both my grandmother and paternal grandmother were poor, uneducated women who grew up at the height of regime change in Taiwan, when the island was handed over from Japan to the Republic of China. They spent most of their youth under martial law. They have seen Taiwan transform from a war-torn impoverished nation into an East Asian economic powerhouse.

When I first learned to cut hair as a teenager, her starting salary was just $1 a month. When she was 18 years old, an attractive young man came to her barbershop. They were acquainted; She was pregnant with his child. That child turned out to be my mother’s. If he hadn’t entered her barbershop, if she hadn’t met him, I wouldn’t have existed.

Clarissa Wei's Waipo cuts her hair.

Clarissa Wei’s Waipo cuts her hair.

(Courtesy of Clarissa Wei)

“Your aunt reminds me of him,” her voice says in the recording. “Impatient.”

A few blocks away in the same city, my grandmother had to single-handedly raise five young children. To make a living, she runs a secret cosmetic clinic on the upper floor of the house, where she provides cosmetic injections to wealthy housewives and ends up saving enough money to send her children. she – my father and his siblings – came to the United States. direct. I also interviewed her before her death a few years ago, but back then I lacked the foresight to record her voice. “We are so poor that we cannot afford shoes. We have to borrow shoes,” she told me. “Most students don’t have shoes.”

Clarissa Wei's grandmother.

Clarissa Wei’s grandmother.

(Courtesy of Clarissa Wei)

If she hadn’t opened that secret cosmetic clinic and made as much money as she does, I wouldn’t have been born in America. I will not write in English.

These two women, with all their flaws and strengths, are why I am here, along with a constellation of other ancestors whose stories I will never know or hear.

I grew up with my grandmother and have many years of memories, pictures and videos of her. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that luxury with my grandmother. Instead, I have her recipe and this recording – a digital copy of her voice that could outlast me. Although it is no substitute for a lifetime memory, it is nonetheless a priceless heirloom.

Wei and her grandmother.

Wei and her grandmother.

(Courtesy of Clarissa Wei)

So the next time you see your grandparents or aging loved ones, take out your phone recorder. In a world where almost anything can be instantly recorded, recorded and photographed, sometimes we forget to capture the people and noises we take for granted because we take them for granted. that we will always have more time.

When my grandmother passed away, I asked my loved ones if I could keep her big rusty pan and mustard yellow lard pot. She showed me how to make zongzi with these tools, although when I asked her about them she didn’t find them extraordinary at all.

Although she has been cooking in a pan for over 20 years, I don’t think she ever learned to season properly. As its new owner, I scrubbed it clean, put it back on and baptized it over a high flame to give it life. Sparkling and brand new, it’s now behind me in my apartment in Taipei, nestled on a shelf above her lard jar as a recording of her voice plays over my speakers. – her sound waves bounce off the very same objects that were there with us when I made the first recording, a physical and auditory codebase of her life that I will transmit over many generations.

Clarissa Wei is a freelance journalist based in Taipei. Born in Los Angeles but raised with Taiwanese food, she is currently writing her first cookbook, Made in Taiwan (Simon Element), which will be out in the fall of 2023. Recording your grandparents is important for family history

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