My great-grandmother on my mother’s side was a short woman, round, keen, and street-smart. She had a boisterous laugh, and came from the countryside. She’d always wear loose flowered print button-up shirts and shorts or a skirt that would inevitably reveal the tell-tale roll of her knee-highs around her calves when she sat down.

One afternoon, she and I sat around the round dining room table eating long-yen (dragon eye)– a round fruit with a brown shell that cracks to reveal translucent white flesh wrapped around a smooth black pit. My grandfather would bring bunches of them, like huge bunches of grapes on stiff brown branches in from his walks. We had a long-yen tree in the garden as well.

She was cracking the shells (you kind of have to press the top together until it cracks open to release the fruit), and talking to me in Taiwanese. She didn’t understand Mandarin– though she used to read the Chinese subtitles of the television shows. She’d always be nudging someone around that round table to translate into Taiwanese what was being bandied about in Mandarin.

Of course, my understanding of Taiwanese was limited to words like “hurry” hakin! (often said by my father as we were flying out of the house to careen late somewhere in his Toyota), or potty-training baby words from when I was being potty trained (not useful at all in polite conversation).

Anyway, the usual practice of smiling and nodding didn’t wash with my great-grandmother, who was very kind to me. She gave us use of her tatami room, which had the smell of grass when we slept on the rectangles of tatami edged with embroidered ribbon, though I was never tempted to try her ceramic tile pillow (it was a wire frame with tiles strung across the top to form a flat cool surface with a slight give from the strings). She offered me a jeweled butterfly hairpin once, but I had the uncomfortable feeling that something that lovely, obviously old, and precious would be broken or lost by me (I’ve always been a bit of a stumbling disaster).

It was late summer, hot, and yet the cool (was it stone?) floors of the kitchen and blue-green walls made it a rather peaceful afternoon. I think the grown-ups had gone out. My mother was probably meeting childhood friends. I remember sitting with my great-grandmother and popping fresh, cool, long-yen into my mouth.

Jok dinh she said with her high, slightly shrill voice. (forgive my personal romanization). I smiled and nodded. And she repeated herself Jok dinh! She gestured to me with her wrinkled hand. So I repeated dinh! She shook her head, grinning, and for the rest of the afternoon, she patiently said dinh! to me, shaking her head when I murdered the word– not nasal enough this time, not the right tone that time. We did this the entire afternoon as the considerable bunch of long yen dwindled.

By evening, I could say it correctly. When I asked my mother what it meant, she laughed and said “sweet.” Jok dinh means “very sweet.”

And now, dinh is one of the only Taiwanese words that I have confidence in saying correctly. Out of all the gifts my great-grandmother could have given me, I think that word is pretty cool.


2 Responses to “Sweet”

  1. May 29, 2007 at 3:13 am

    that’s a beautiful and beautifully written story….

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Free Rice

May 2007
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