In August, we bring a set of new full-time writers to the blog. Covering the 20th of each month, please welcome Chad Westra (’15). Chad lives in Dearborn, Michigan where he writes grants for a Detroit-area Chinese-American nonprofit. He recently completed a masters in Chinese studies and has spent time abroad studying and working in Taiwan. He enjoys chess, racquetball, caring for the overgrowth of plants in his apartment, and is nurturing a budding interest in astronomy.
There is a four-character Chinese idiom, àiwū jíwū (愛屋及烏), that means “love for a person extends even to the crows on their roof.” The saying expresses the idea of a broad hospitality: if you love someone, you also love the crows that perch on his or her roof.
I learned this phrase during the summer of 2019 when I was living with the He family (pronounced “huh”) in Taipei, Taiwan on a short-term work assignment. My Taiwanese friend from Michigan, Yawell, had graciously imposed upon her family to provide a room for me at her aunt’s apartment, where her cousin Stella and her Nainai (term for paternal grandmother) also lived.
As the summer progressed, I gradually observed that family life for the Hes revolved around taking care of Nainai. Baba He and Mama He, Yawell’s parents who lived nearby at a separate flat, were frequent visitors to the aunt’s apartment where I stayed, always coming and going to spend time with and care for Nainai. Others came and went as well—there was Yawell’s brother David and his girlfriend, and another aunt and her young granddaughter—for mahjong games, meals, and weekend excursions.
It was Mama He who taught me the phrase about loving the crows on one’s roof. She explained that because of my friendship with her daughter Yawell, and since I had helped her out in America, therefore I was counted as a crow on the family roof. Yawell had accepted me, and so the entire He family did as well; it was only natural.
Finding myself a member of the family, I naturally began to do my part to accompany Nainai. The two of us were a strange pair. She was born in mainland China and spoke with a thick, unfamiliar accent that I struggled to understand. She also showed early signs of dementia and would tell the same stories over and over. I was often the first one home in the evening after work, and the two of us would sit watching the television together. Her sense of hearing was waning, so she enjoyed loud shows with lots of action. Of all programs, she liked to watch American WWE wrestling broadcasts the most. We’d sit on the couch together, Nainai laughing as a wrestler was smashed over the head with a folding chair, and me attempting to follow the Chinese commentator’s lines that were dubbed over the original English broadcast. Like any good nainai worth her merit, whether she be American or Taiwanese, she was also a food pusher, and would repeatedly thrust a container of fresh fruit towards me. “You’re so skinny, have a little more!” she would say. “Bao le, bao le,” I would refuse, telling her I was full.
My presence that summer must have been a shock to Nainai, but oddly enough she never questioned why a tall, thin, white, American guy was living in her home. Despite our mutual communication difficulties, I enjoyed spending time with her. After a long day of work, my brain worn out from speaking Chinese all day, it was restful to sit with Nainai and watch TV. We made no demands on each other, simply accepting the other’s presence.
Her expressions of care were often found in simple gestures. Each morning I was usually the first to leave for work, and Nainai, if awake, would escort me to the door. It was something, I was told, she had done for her children, and now grandchildren, for many years. One day, toward the end of my stay in Taiwan, I was leaving to embark on a week-long trip around the island country. Though it was early in the morning, Nainai had woken up, intent to see me out. She accompanied me to the entrance of the first-floor apartment, led me through the porch, and motioned me out the gated door. After walking perhaps fifty paces down the alley, with sweat beads already forming on the back of my neck from the hot Taiwanese sun, I turned around and glanced back to the He family home. To my surprise, I could make out the small outline of Nainai’s form in the distance, half her body peering around the porch door, lingering there as she saw me off with her eyes. Knowing I was leaving for an extended departure, she made sure that I, the strange foreigner who had made my nest with her family that summer, would fly safely off into the distance.