The first separation was at the end of the Sino Civil War, when my grandparents fled China for Taiwan, taking their two sons but leaving their six daughters—my father’s sisters—behind.
The second separation was when my father left his parents and brother in Taiwan as he headed for the United States to study at New York University. Those were the days when airfares and international phone calls were prohibitively expensive, and long distance relationships were conducted through the delicate medium of letter paper.
My father would never again see his own father, who died a few years later, around the time of my birth. My father sent his newborn baby— me—back to Taiwan to console his mother in her new widowhood. When my grandmother delivered me back to my parents in Queens, New York, two years later, she stayed on to care for me and my soon-to-be born younger sister while my parents went out to work and build an American life for us. My grandmother never did manage to learn how to speak English, even though the Price Is Right was her favorite show.
As soon as Richard Nixon established relations with Communist China, lifting the Bamboo Curtain, my father started writing letters and making phone calls to find out what had become of his sisters. He found them, miraculously intact, and in the summer of 1978 we flew to the other side of the world to see them.
I was a pretty typical American teenager at the time, a product of the New Jersey suburbs, focused on shopping, friends, and worried about starting high school. I could barely rise above the discomforts of visiting this poor, developing country of mosquitoes, unrelenting heat and humidity (there were no air conditioners), and pungent odors to witness and understand the emotional import of the reunion.
When the family separated all those years ago, the daughters were little more than children, the youngest just a toddler. Now, my grandmother was again surrounded by her six daughters, all adults now, with smiles and a strong family resemblance stamped across all their faces and the faces of their children. My grandmother, too, could not stop smiling, with occasional tears rolling down her face.
Now that Summer is almost here, please enjoy this most simple and delicious of Chinese side dishes!
Smashed Cucumber Salad
2 English cucumbers (Persian cucumbers will also do nicely)
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
Ground pepper to taste
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2-4 cloves smashed garlic
2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
2 -4 chopped scallions
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes or chili sauce to taste
For the salad dressing: Combine salt, freshly-ground pepper, sugar, sesame oil, soy sauce, garlic, and rice vinegar. Stir until the sugar and salt are completely dissolved. Set aside.
“Smash” the cucumber by taking a large knife and laying in flat against the cucumber and smacking it until it starts to crack apart. (Very therapeutic!) Once it is smashed all the way down its length, cut it into bite-sized pieces.
Pour the sauce over the cucumber and add red pepper flakes or chili sauce, whichever you prefer. Garnish with sesame seeds and chopped scallions.
Serves four. Enjoy!