The 1-year anniversary of my grandpa’s death passed a couple of weeks ago. I had wanted to write this story for a long time, ever since I first heard it, but as per usual, I procrastinated and didn’t get it out on the anniversary.
My grandpa was a war veteran, and fought on both sides of the China and Taiwan civil war.
He was born and raised in Taiwan, and at the tender age of 17 was drafted into the army when war broke out. He left Taiwan to fight in the war and never saw his family again.
Army life was hard. He and his fellow soldiers were homesick for their families and Taiwan. And when army food was especially distasteful, they missed the aromatic rice in Taiwan. They couldn’t get used to the food in China, where wheat-based products was more common. They often dreamed about that rice from back home.
At some point, he and a couple of army friends started to talk of escape back to Taiwan. But of course, they couldn’t just talk about “escaping”. So they came up with a code. “Eating rice” became their secret phrase when making their clandestine plans. So soon, eating rice became not only the literal desire for the fluffy white grain, but a symbol of their hopes and dreams to return home.
The short version of the story is that yes, they did carry out their escape, but they never made it home. My grandpa was captured by the other side and forced to convert. He finished out the rest of the war as a fighter in the Chinese army. He met my grandma in the army, married, and settled into a new life in Beijing. He still yearned for his family in Taiwan but was never able to return again.
Of course, I never knew all this while he was still alive. I knew he was born in Taiwan and served in the Chinese army and wondered how that came to be. But for some reason, it never really occurred to me to ask my grandpa. And by the time I was old enough to be more curious, he had already begun to lose his memory.
At first, it was just the small things. Like he’d ask the same question over and over because he honestly had no recollection of having asked. To help him improve his memory, we’d ask him questions about his day. What did you do this morning. What did you have for lunch.
“Oh, I ate… I ate…’ he’d say, eyes scrunched up in concentration. “I don’t remember,” he’d finally admit.
He never remembered his meals anymore. As soon as he took his last bite and the bowl was empty, he’d have already forgotten.
One thing though. He now ate whatever my grandma made, so that made things easier for her. Though my grandpa assimilated to life in Beijing, he never got used to our love for dough. He still loved his rice, so my grandma often had to make something separate just for him. But now, he no longer cared what he was eating. Buns? Great. Noodles? Slurp it up.
As his condition deteriorated further, he practically stopped talking altogether. We’d still ask the silly little questions, but there would be no answer.
And then he began losing recognition of the people dearest to him. On bad days, he no longer knew his children and wife. He’d sit with his family at the table, but he’s in his own little world, eyes unfocused and unseeing.
The last night he was awake, my aunt and uncle had gone over for the usual Friday night dinner. That day, they ate rice with a table-spread of dishes. This is a rare meal for a Beijing household that loved their wheat products. We have rice maybe once a month, if even that. But somehow that night, that’s what my grandma felt like making.
After dinner, like usual, my uncle asked my grandpa if he remembered what they ate.
This time, he smiled. And with perfectly clear and bright eyes, said “I ate rice.”
Those were his famous last words. That night, he slipped into a coma, from which he never woke. When the story was recounted later, everyone who was present marveled at how content and lucid he appeared at that moment. Perhaps he knew he was finally ready to return home.
Thanks for reading!