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The Once and Future Nanny

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Aya Katz has a PhD in linguistics from Rice University. She is an ape language researcher and the author of Vacuum County and other novels.

Map of Taiwan


I met her on the bus on my way to Taichung. I had to get out at Tsao Ma. Or was that Chao Ma? Or Zhao Ma? No two Taiwanese that I met seemed to pronounce that place name the same way, but they all knew where it was. No matter how I pronounced it, nobody understood, but it was okay, because, clutched in my fist I had a scrap of paper on which the two characters were scrawled: the first one meant "toward" and the second one meant "horse". So I was to get off at the stop called "Toward a Horse."

At the bus station in Taipei, I bought a snack to take with me on my journey: sushi in a little transparent plastic container. I know, sushi is Japanese, but somehow of the snacks they were selling, it seemed the most appetizing,

The woman who sat down beside me was older, but it was hard to tell exactly how old. Fifty? Sixty? Local people seemed ageless. She was well groomed and well mannered. And the oddest thing happened. When she turned to talk to me, and I answered back, she understood what I said! It was a miracle.


I had been taking Chinese lessons for nearly nine months now, and my teacher had been encouraging, but the moment she stopped being a teacher and went back to her regular personality, her Chinese changed, too! It was no longer Beizhing Mandarin. It was the special brand of Mandarin spoken by native Taiwanese. I found that extremely confusing.

Min Nan -- Southern Min


Most people in Taiwan are fluent in at least two languages: Mandarin and Southern Min or Mandarin and Hakka. Mandarin is the official language, used for governmental and educational purposes. It is the language of the Mainland, and the language of the KMT that kept a tight grip on things from the 1950s through the 1970s. Most people in Taiwan, however, have a different language spoken at home. For many, it is Southern Min, because their ancestors came from Fujian Province in China, where Min is spoken.

Up in the hills, you can still find some of the indigenous people of the Island, who speak an Austronesian language, distantly related to Tagalog.

When people meet on the street to do business with other people they don't know, Mandarin is the language they will use. However, the Mandarin they use is flavored by their home language, and you can definitely make out different accents, even if you are not a native speaker yourself.

I am a creature of habit, so in Tamsui, where I lived and worked, I tended to take the same routes over and over again and to stop at the same shops. People came to know me.They would smile and they were kind, but they soon found that conversation with me was not easy. In fact, at the local Seven-Eleven (yes, they had those!), if anyone new tried to make conversation with me, the manager would tell them: "Don't talk to her. Ta ting bu dong!" (She doesn't understand.)

I wanted to shout out: "But I do understand! I understand at least a third of what you say! It's you who are completely unable to understand what I say!"

However, when I opened my mouth, nothing came out. It was very frustrating.

Up until that point in my life, I had considered myself pretty good at acquiring new languages. I wasn't even one of those people who stayed in a single language family. It doesn't take much of stretch for a French speaker to learn Spanish or Italian, or for someone who speaks German to learn Dutch. But I went from Hebrew, a Semitic language, to English, an Indo-European one, and I'd studied a number of other languages along the way. Unfortunately, none of them were tone languages. I had a slot in my mind for consonants and for vowels, but no place to store tone. And I wasn't young any more. I was thirty-eight going on thirty-nine.

Mind you, I wasn't tone deaf. I could imitate the sound of words as spoken to me by my teacher, and I was often praised for how close I came, including the tone. The only problem was, the next time I wanted to use the word, I remembered everything about it except the tone.

Chinese speakers listen primarily for the tone. They can be very forgiving if you get the consonants wrong. Mess up on place or manner of articulation, and you can still be understood. Get the tone wrong, and you've said something completely different from what you intended.

My father, whose grammar in English was excellent, but whose accent was Israeli, used to complain that English speakers listen only for the vowels. You could get everything else right, but if the vowel was just a little off , Americans had no idea which word you meant. This was more true the less educated the speaker was. A college educated speaker might be able to make out that the word was being pronounced as written. For the speaker who never even thought of the written word, this was impossible.

I found the same with native Taiwanese, for slightly different reasons. The better educated a person was, the more likely was he to understand what I was trying to say. So, unbeknownst to me, I had already developed a preference for Beizhing Mandarin. It wasn't that I intended to be a snob. It was just that I liked being understood. The better educated the speaker, the more likely he was to get what I was saying. So, even though I couldn't speak properly msyelf,  I learned to recognize from their accents and their manner which people belonged to a higher social class. 

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I may have been as tongue-tied as Moses before Pharaoh, but these people weren't fooling me! They weren't all using the same set of consonants.

Satellite Image of Taiwan

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

And here was this woman, on the bus, who could understand what I was saying. She asked me where I was from, and I said "Mei Guo", and then I told her that I was teaching at Tamsui, and that I was looking for an apartment in Taichung, because I would be teaching there next year. She told me that she was going to visit her daughter and son-in-law who had a noodle shop in Taichung, She asked me about my family. I told her both my parents were still alive and living in the U.S. and that I had a younger brother. She asked me whether my younger brother was married, and I said "not yet." And then she told me that she actually had three children, two daughters and a son. Her son had some kind of business which she described but I didn't quite understand. Both daughters were married. One was living in Taichung. The other was living in Japan.

Now there was nothing very remarkable about this conversation, except for the fact that it took place entirely in Mandarin (with some body language added). Now, with anybody else, on the entire island of Taiwan, this would have been impossible!

That wasn't everything. I suddenly felt very, very calm. Everything was going to be okay. I stopped clutching at the scrap of paper with the words Tsao Ma on it. I mentioned to her that that was where I was getting off. I was all ready to show her the characters, in case she had no idea what I was saying. But she indicated that she didn't need to see it. Of course, she knew where Tsao Ma was. She was getting out there herself.

And then we kept talking, and as we talked, I realized this wasn't just a conversation. Enunciating very clearly, she would point out the sights on the way, and soon I was repeating after her, and it suddenly dawned on me that she and I weren't just talking. She was teaching me! But her teaching method was so gentle, that she drew the Mandarin right out of me, as if it had been there inside me all along. She emphasized everything that I was doing right, instead of focusing on everything that was wrong. In the process, she was correcting me, ever so gently!

She was a natural born teacher. She was like ... well, like Mary Poppins!

Then the thought flew into my mind: "She would make a great nanny!"

Because, even though this wasn't obvious, I was expecting a baby. And even though I thought I had the logistics all worked out in terms of the new job, and the move and the apartment, I was really worried.

How could I raise a baby here, if I couldn't even talk to strangers?

The History of Taiwan

Japanese Soldiers Entering Kao Shung, Taiwan -1895


It was the best bus ride I had ever had. It went by very quickly. We shared our snacks. She offered me some of her tea, and as we approached our stop, she wanted to invite me to her son-in-law's noodle shop. I explained that somebody was meeting me, and so I couldn't come. She took out a little blank rectangle of card stock, like a business card, only nothing was printed on it, and she wrote out her name and two phone numbers, one for the noodle shop and the other for her daughter's home in Taichung. She told me that I could drop by for free noodles any time!

And that's how we parted. It was only later that I looked at the card and realized to my delight that I was able to read all three of the characters of which her name consisted.

Reading traditional Chinese is pretty much a hit and miss kind of thing. You either know the character or you don't. I happened to know all three of hers, because they were very common words that occured in my first year Chinese primer.

I have since forgotten her surname, but the given name was something like hua zi --話子. The zi 子was the character for "child." The "hua" wasn't the kind of hua you might have expected. It wasn't the hua that means flower, and it wasn't the hua at the end of the word for China, either. It was the hua 話 that means language. I translated her name in my mind as "child of language."

I kept that card in my pocket calendar for months, before I attempted to contact her again.

The person meeting me at my stop was an adjunct teacher from Providence University who had volunteered to help me find an apartment for next year. Jeanette Jiu had a Masters Degree in English Literature. Her English was impeccable, if a tad formal. She was a hard worker and very conscientious in everything she did. The only problem was that she was as hard on others as she was on herself, and she never held back a negative opinion.

One of the reasons my Chinese had remained as abysmal as it was was the fact that I could always fall back on the help of people from the university where I worked, all of whom were much more fluent in English than I could ever hope to be in Chinese. Even complete strangers who had studied English preferred to practice their English with me, rather than allow me to practice my Chinese on them. As a result of this, my only real hope of learning Chinese was to speak to people who were less educated -- people in the shops I frequented. However, those people were not native speakers of Mandarin, and they had had only a rudimentary education .

Hua zi was the frist really cultured person that I had met who didn't speak a word of English. This was not because she knew no language besides Mandarin. Like most cultured people, she did know a foreign language. It's just that the foreign language she knew happened to be Japanese.

Jeanette Jio had compiled a list of seven apartments for me to look at during that one day visit to Taichung. I needed to be back in Tamsui that very evening.

"If you don't see something you like today, then maybe you can come back in a week or two and we can try again," she said helpfully. "There's still plenty of time till the fall. We were all surprised that you wanted to rent an apartment right away. Why, the spring semester is only half way through...And there's all summer."

"I have to be in the U.S, as soon as the semester is over, and I won't be able to come back till fall. So this is my one chance to find an apartment," I said.

"It doesn't do to be hasty," Jeanette insisted. "A stitch in time saves nine." She was really up on her English aphorisms.

"That means that you should act hastily," I said.

But Jeanette was busy parking her car in a tiny space in front of the gate of the first apartment house. "This one is furnished," she said.

When we knocked on the apartment door, the voice inside told us to go away, in both Mandarin, and in then English. For my sake, Jeanette spoke English to the woman: "But Mrs. Guo, we have come for the apartment!"

Someone approached the spyhole, inspected us, and eventually unlocked the door. I fell in love with the apartment at once. It was tastefully furnished and gave off exactlly the vibe I wanted.

Gloria Guo, the landlady was a tall, skinny, almost famished individual in her late forties. She watched me appreciating the furnishings, and said: "You like? I have an even better apartment, if you want to see..."

However, Jeanette was nudging me on. "We have many more on our list," she said. "We can't possibly stop..."

Once we were in the car, she said: "That woman was strange. She can't be trusted. Better find another apartment.

"But I kind of liked this one..."

"It is unwise to decide on the first apartment you see. Besides, there is something wrong with that woman. You are not Taiwanese, so you do not know. But you must believe me. I am a good judge of character."


Jeanette proceeded to show me one unfurnished apartment after another. Some of them were filthy, others were just dirty. and one or two were fairly clean, but daunting in their emptiness.

"You can clean it, you know," she would say about the dirty ones. "You can buy furniture, I can help you," she said about the vast expanse of empty floor space. "There are DIY stores where the furniture is quite reasonably priced."

"I don't have time," I said. But since she didn't understand why I didn't have time, Jeanette ignored this. It was clear that she thought I was not thinking objectively. It would be months and months before my duties at Providence would begin, and so it did not make sense to her that I only had one day to find an apartment. However, I had timed everything to the last minute, and I had determined that if I did not find the apartment today, I would never be able to get everything done on time.

I had already been through the experience of renting a completely unfurnished apartment at the beginning of the current school year, and even without a baby, it had been exhausting. Trips to distant furniture dealers on the back of a colleague's moped came to mind.

At one point, I had gotten it into my head that I wanted to furnish my Tamsui apartment in all traditional bamboo furniture. A colleague assured me that this could be gotten for a reasonable price at a dealer's warehouse in Miao Li. It turned out to be a wild goose chase and a complete waste of my non-existent leisure time. Bamboo furniture was entirely out of my price range, As for the warehouse in Miao-Li: we never found it.

Eventually, I acquired a rattan dining table with a glass top and chairs to match, a big rattan rocking chair, and all the rest of the furniture was either DIY furniture that I had to put together with great difficulty, in my living room, or unadorned mattresses in the bedrooms.

Now I had been told that shipping all that furniture from Tamsui to Taichung would not be a possibility, so the majority would have to be re-sold at a reduced price in order to vacate my apartment as per the lease at the end of the semester.

If I didn't find the apartment today, I would not be able to return to look for one until the end of the semester. I had classes to teach and exams and papers to grade. I had my belongings to transport, and I had to uninstall my airconditioning/heating unit in Tamsui and have it re-installed in Taichung. (Taiwanese apartments were made of concrete and did not include central heat and air. Each tenant was responsible for providing his own.)

I had to be in the States well in advance of the birth, and I had to get my daughter a passport as soon as she was born, so I could apply for her visa. When we arrived in Taichung, the first order of business would be to spend hours on end in a police station, filling out forms so that my baby could have the required "Resident Alien Certificate." And then the semester would begin.

There would be no time for scrubbing floors or searching for furniture. Everything had to timed just right or it would be a complete disaster.

I also reasoned that it would be useful to have a landlady who spoke English. None of the other landlords that we met spoke a word of English. A couple of them didn't even speak much Mandarin. Jeanette conversed with them in Taiwanese. I began to feel that maybe I was studying the wrong language. Southern Min would be much more useful to me. Most people who spoke Mandarin well also knew English. The people I needed to address in Chinese were most fluent in Taiwanese.

But just as there was no time to redecorate a new apartment, there was no time to learn a brand new language. And while Mandarin has only four tones, Southern Min has eight!

So in view of all that, my last, best hope was Gloria Guo.

Much against her better judgment, and lecturing me on my foolishness all the way there, Jeanette Jio drove me back to the first apartment. Gloria Guo was not in the apartment when we knocked, or at least, if she was, she was lying low. Jeanette conversed with the guard at the gate in Taiwanese to determine her whereabouts. After many lively exchanges, during which some unflattering information about my future landlady was exchanged, we were directed to a different tower of the same apartment complex. There, on the tenth floor, in a sort of penthouse suite, we were greeted by Gloria Guo.

"Come in, come in," she said, as if she had long been expecting us."Have some tea. You like my apartment?"

The place was littered with startling objets d'art. In one corner, a gigantic turtle, big enough to sit on, and carved all from a single piece of wood, commanded my attention. There were other carvings of ships and ancient Chinese elders. I took a look around. "Yes, it's very nice!"

"It could be yours," she said. "I give it to you -- for the right price!"

Jeanette gave me a meaningful glance, as if to say, what did I tell you?

"No, I'm sure I wouldn't want to take your apartment away from you."

"Oh, it's no problem. I always can get another. Everything here can be yours." She narrowed her eyes. "In fact, anything you want can be yours! You see something somewhere else in Taichung that you like, I get it for you!"

I laughed.

"No, don't laugh. Anything anywhere in all of Taiwan -- you like it, I get it for you. Only charge small fee. Get you good bargain."

"Wow. I didn't know you could do that."

Jeanette, who was still standing in the entrance, had her arms folded and was tapping her foot. She was ready to leave as soon as I'd had enough of this.

"Of course, I can do that. I am a great businesswoman!" When I didn't say anything to this, she added: "I have made and lost billions in Hong Kong. Very big deals."

I didn't know whether to congratulate her on making billions or commiserate on their loss, so I just stood there.

"Come, come," she said. "Have a seat. I make tea."

Jeanette insisted on drinking her tea standing up. I sat where Mrs. Guo indicated, and as I sipped, she leaned forward confidentially: "Do you know what the secret is to succes in business?"

I shook my head.

"I will tell you then."

I laughed. "For a small fee?"

She waved her hands dismissingly. "No. No fee. I offer you this true piece of advice, in friendship, The secret -- the only secret -- to success in business is this: Don't stop!"

I stared at her. She was silent for a good long minute, to allow this piece of wisdom to sink in.

"Don't stop?"

"Whatever you are doing, don't stop!" she said. "This is what I learned from bitter experience. As long as you keep moving, everything is great! But just stop for a minute, then everything comes crashing down."

"I'll keep that in mind," I said. Jeanette was making faces.

"Take sleep, for instance," she said. "You like to sleep?"

I nodded. I was sleeping extra these days.

"Complete waste of time! Let other people sleep. I make money while they sleep!"

She offered me a cookie. "You like to eat?"

I nodded and reached for it. Before I could take a bite, she was expounding on how that might not be such a good idea.

"Eating -- also waste of time. I gave it up a long time ago. I make money while people eat."

I looked at her. She was emaciated. I could well believe it.

Then she told me the story of her life, only very, very fast. I don't remember most of it. Somewhere in the middle of it all, she had married an American drifter, and they had had a child, and then divorced. The American ex-husband was still living somewhere in Taichung, but the child was being brought up by the grandparents in the States.

I took out a printed lease form from my backpack. "About the apartment, " I said.

"What's this?"

"It's a lease."

She glanced at it. "It's in English."

"Yes. I drafted it myself...."

Gloria Guo gave me a big smile. "I can see that you are a businesswoman, too. Then there's a pair of us!"

Jeanette, observing us from the hallway, rolled her eyes, as if thinking to herself that there was indeed a pair of us, but "businesswomen" would not be the term she would use.

When she drove me back to the bus station, I thanked Jeanette Jio for all her help.

"I am just sorry I wasn't able to stop you from doing business with that woman. You are not Taiwanese, so you probably can't tell, but she is ... not reliable." 

I wasn't Taiwanese, but, yes, I could tell. I just thought I could handle it.

Three days before the earthquake

My daughter and I in front of our apartment complex in Taichung three days before the earthquake

My daughter and I in front of our apartment complex in Taichung three days before the earthquake

Jia le Fu on Flickr

When I next saw Gloria Guo, many moons later, she commented on how cute my daughter was and asked whether she was sleeping through the night. My daughter was not quite two months old now. We had been through a transpacific flight. My mother had accompanied us to Taiwan. This was her first grandchild, and she volunteered to help out during my first semester in Taichung. I couldn't have made it without her.My mother was doing me a huge favor. But we were all exhausted, and no, my daughter wasn't sleeping through the night yet. We didn't even have a crib.

Gloria Guo was nice. She volunteered to take me to Jia Le Fu (otherwise known as Carrefour) so that I could buy some inexpensive baby furniture. I got a crib and a playpen.

None of us could figure out how the playpen worked, and the baby was fussing. I picked her up and started rocking back and forth to calm her down.

"Your baby cries too much," Gloria Guo said. "Maybe you spoil her. Do you know why babies cry? Because they want something. You give it to them, they cry again. Don't give it, no more crying. Let me tell you the secret to obedient children." Nobody said anything, so she continued: "The secret to having obedient children is: never give in. I had my daughter sleeping through the night from her second night home. Do you know how I did it? When she cried at night, I didn't pick her up. She cried all night, but I didn't give in. The next night, she knew better. No more crying."

"Where is your daughter now?" my mother asked.

"She's living with her grandparents. We all agreed it would be best."

My mother and I exchanged meaningful glances.

Earthquake of Sept. 21, 1999

Fast forward to September 21, 1999. Around 2:30 am the walls started shaking. My daughter's crib began sliding across the floor that was now at a slant... My mother and I both rushed toward the crib at the same time and kept it from rolling away. I picked up my daughter, who fussed a little, but went right back to sleep as soon as I had her in the Infantino baby carrier strapped to my belly. We went on foot down nine flights of stairs in the dark, while the ground shook and the walls swayed.

Then we stood with a lot of other tenants of the apartment complex in the open courtyard and waited for the ground to stop shaking. At one point, I was looking at a little Taiwanese old lady, and the ground shook and we were all about to fall, but she very calmly folded her legs beneath her into a lotus position, and avoided falling over that way. I followed her example, the baby still strapped to my belly, asleep. Then we waited. Eventually, the ground stopped shaking, and we all went back to our apartments.

I was really tired, so I put the baby back to bed, and we both slept till morning.

Not so my mother. She posted herself in the armchair by the door and stayed there all night, fully clothed. To me, the earthquake was an inconvenience, but nothing major. After all, we weren't hurt, nothing was broken, so basically, nothing had happened.

But to my mother, the earthquake was huge.

School was canceled. Because of the earthquake, there was no electricity. There was no running water. The elevator didn't run. We couldn't flush the toilet, The phone didn't work. No, wait! My phone didn't work, but everybody elses's phones worked. It wasn't because of the earthquake. It was because Gloria Guo hadn't paid the phone bill! It took me some time to figure this out. Since nothing else was working it, it seemed perfectly natural for the phone not to work, too.

My department chair invited us over to her house and let me make a long distance call to let my father know that we were still alive. My mother was especially grateful for this gracious hospitality.

I am a bit of a loner, and I am used to trying to solve problems by myself. My mother is gregarious and she feels safer when other people are around. My department chair even wanted to let us stay at her apartment, but I wouldn't hear of it. We had all we needed at my place: the water boiling machine, the bottle sterilizers, the year's supply of dry formula, the diapers. The crib and the playpen, the washer and dryer, and the myriad other technological wonders that made taking care of a baby possible. It would take a truck to move everything. Nothing worked, of course, but this was only temporary, and I wanted to get back to a routine as soon as possible.

The first thing to do was to find out what was wrong with the phone account, which was in Gloria Guo's name.

I tried to get in touch with Gloria Guo, but she was nowhere to be found. After a few days, we started to worry that she might have been killed in the earthquake. In the meanwhile, I called Jeanette Jio to see what could be done.

"Didn't I tell you that woman was unreliable?" Jeanette Jio asked.

"Yes, you did. But ... maybe it's because of the earthquake. Can you help me find out what's happened to her?"

Jeanette Jio promised to make some inquiries. She came back with bad news. Nobody at the apartment complex had seen Gloria Guo in over a week. She was behind in her own rent payments. The phone account at my apartment had been closed, because she had failed to pay the basic monthly fee for over a month. (I had paid her for five months rent and utilities in advance when I first rented the place, and I had since paid her for an additional month after returning to Taiwan at the beginning of September. All utilities, including the phone, were to be paid by her under the lease.)

Upon further inquiry, Jeanette Jio discovered that the apartment I was occupying belonged to a couple who lived in Kaoshung. Gloria Guo was leasing it from them, but she was a couple of months behind on her rent.

Nobody knew where she was, and there was no way to reach her.

"Don't worry," Jeanette said. "You made a bad decision, but it will be okay. I will help you find another apartment."

"No! I don't want another apartment. I like this apartment. This building is structurally sound. It survived an earthquake with no damage! I want you to help me negotitiate with the owners."

Jeanette did not share my taste in apartments, but she  agreed to do what she could.

By the time Gloria Guo resurfaced three weeks later, everything had been taken care of without her. The owners agreed to let me stay there for the same rent that Gloria Guo had been paying them. I had the number of their bank account, and I wired them the money they were owed, and each succeeding month I wired them that month's rent, as per their lease with Gloria Guo. The utitlities were still in the owners' names, but they were to forward them to me, and I was to pay them in cash at the local Seven-Eleven. A new phone account was opened in my name, but the number remained the same.

Then, one day, Gloria Guo phoned. "Hi, do you remember me? I am your landlady. Did you enjoy the earthquake?"


"An earthquake like that is very rare. You and your mother and your little baby were lucky to be able to see one."

"Where have you been?!"

"I got a little tired," she said. "So I took a nap."

Her nap must have lasted at least three weeks. "My phone was disconnected because you didn't pay the bill."

"Was I supposed to?"

"Yes. It was in the lease."


"The contract we signed when I gave you all that money for the apartment." My voice was on edge.

"Oh, yes. The contract. I read it. It is very beautiful. You use such lovely English words in there. It was a joy to read. Have you ever considered writing contracts for a living?"

Since yelling at her did not produce the results I wanted, I had no choice but to call Jeanette Jio again.

Jeanette Jio was amazingly effective as a negotiator. After one brief call to Gloria Guo, she worked out the solution. I was to recoup the extra rent I had had to pay the owners by withholding Gloria's fee for a few months, after which, I would the pay her her cut in cash and wire the rest of the rent to  owners. I didn't lose a dime on this transaction, and Gloria Guo was happy, too, because she didn't have to cough up the money she had already spent, and she would continue to get her finder's fee for the apartment as long as I stayed there.

"Thank you, Jeanette! I don't know how I would have done this without you!"

"Well, it's not really your fault that you are so naive," Jeanette Jio said. "And besides, you're not Taiwanese. You didn't listen to me when I warned you, but next time you'll know that I understand these things better than you, and you'll do exactly what I say."

"Yes, you were right and I was wrong," I said. I was feeling suddenly not so grateful for her help.

"And next time you'll do what I say?"

"Of course." But what I was really thinking was: next time I need to find a different go-between.

I knew already that there was one piece of major negotiating that I did not want to assign to Jeanette Jio. I needed to find a nanny. My mother was not happy in Taiwan. Although originally she had agreed to stay for one semester, and we had talked about the possibility of extending for the entire school year, she had not bargained with the difficult conditions that we currently found ourselves in after the earthquake.

The earthquake itself, and the series of aftershocks, were much harder on my mother than they were on me. To me, all that was a piece of cake, compared to the power outages and water shortages that we had to face in the month following the eathquake. Because we never knew when the power would go out, it was not safe to use the elevator, even if the power happened to be on at the moment. I had to carry groceries up nine flights of stairs on a daily basis for nearly a month.

Tap water was not safe to drink, even before the earthquake, but like all residents of Taiwan, I had a special water boiling machine. You filled the tank with water, and it kept boiling and reboiling the water throughout the day, so that anything that came out of the spigots was safe to drink. There were three spigots: boiling hot, lukewarm, and room temperature. When I first got that machine, back in Tamsui, I thought that it was tedious to have to refill the tank every day. Why couldn't it just hook up to the tap? Now that I had to carry water upstairs in buckets, and then boil it over the gas range, I saw the water boiling machine as the height of luxury.

Our building had its own generator, which was run every once in a while, to allow us a limited amount of electricity. Sometimes there was water running through the taps. Sometimes there wasn't. Maybe all of this was on a schedule, but since I didn't understand the announcements,  for me it seemed completely unpredictable. Sometimes the custodian for our buildding would hand out water to anyone who wanted it. We would bring buckets and pots and pans and fill them with water. This was not water to drink. It was for flushing the toilets.

Bottled water was available in the stores. However, it was mostly mineral water, and babies are not supposed to drink mineral water. I needed to find distilled water to make formula. Sometimes I found some in a random Seven-Eleven. Most of the time, there was none to be had.

During the first month after the earthquake, I lost fifteen pounds, lugging groceries and water up the stairs. (I regained all of it as soon as the elevator was working again.) My mother also lost weight. But her weight loss wasn't from exercise. It was from worrying.

My mother let me know that she would really prefer to return to the United States right away, but she would stay long enough to allow me to find a nanny. If I did not find a nanny by the end of the semester, she would leave, anyway. She thought I should leave, too.

I knew who I wanted for a nanny. I wanted Hua Zi . If my mother couldn't stay, then I couldn't think of anyone else who could possibly take her place. In my pocket, I had the card she had given me when we parted at Tsao Ma all those months ago. But I needed someone to help me contact her daughter in Taichung.

The person I chose for this delicate task was a colleague at work, a smart and ambitious young woman who taught literature. Though she was still in her twenties, she was already an associate professor, and I could tell she would go far. She was energetic and had a positive attitude, and I felt she would be open to the possibilities of what I wanted, instead of harping only on why it was unrealistic and couldn't possibly happen. Her name was Lilac Li, and she was unmarried and still living at home with her mother and two sisters.

I invited Lilac Li to my office during my office hour, and I told her the whole story about Hua Zi and our meeting on the bus and how I thought she would make a perfect nanny. We discussed it at length and decided that the best thing to do would be to say that I remembered her fondly and since she was my only really reliable acquaintance in Taichung, and I respected her judgment, I wondered if she could recommend a good nanny for my daughter. We reasoned that this way, if the position of nanny was beneath her station in life, she would not take offense. I realized she was a very well educated woman, and I wanted to make sure she understood that I knew this.

Lilac Li was all set to make the call for me, but just then the phone rang.


It was my mother. "There are two strange men banging on the door and I don't know what they want!" she said, all in one breath.

I thought for a moment. "Oh, those must be the cable installers. Remember, Gloria Guo said she would help me get cable. She said they would come today."

"They look like murderers."

"What do murderers look like?"

"They don't have a uniform. Shouldn't they have a uniform?"

"I don't know if cable company employees wear a uniform in Taiwan." By the same token, I wasn't totally sure they worked for the cable company. Gloria Guo could get me anything for a small fee. Whether it was legitimate or contraband was an entirely different question.

"So you don't think they're murderers?" my mother asked.

"Probably not," I said.

"What makes you so sure? What are you basing this on?"

"I'm not sure, but most people aren't murderers, so chances are these men aren't either."

"So you think I should open the door?"

"Well, you're the one who is there. The decision is entirely up to you. However, I think if you don't open the door, we may never have cable."

Luckily this conversation took place in Hebrew, so it didn't derail Lilac Li's train of thought. As soon as I got off the phone with my mother, Lilac called Hua Zi's daughter. The conversation was energetic and animated and punctuated with exclamations. When she got off the phone, Lilac smiled at me: "The good news is that she is a nanny!"

"What do you mean?"

"The daughter said that her mother has a nanny certificate, she's a genuine bao mu, and she has experience working as a nanny for many years."

I practically jumped up and down for joy. "So I was right! My instinct about her was correct!"

Lilac Li was genuinely happy for me. "Yes, yes. You were right. Maybe it was fate that brought you together!"

"So, she'll contact her mother and tell her about my daughter?"

"Yes. She thinks her mother would be interested. There is just one problem."

"What's that?"

"Her mother is not in Taiwan right now. She's in Japan." 

Dr. Sun Yat Sen

It turned out that Hua Zi's other daughter, the one living in Japan, had just had a baby boy, and Hua Zi was staying there to help out. She would be back next month. In the meanwhile, her daughter in Taichung would relay my message. The Taichung daughter was not at all surprised by Lilac Li's call. It was almost as if she had been expecting it. She said that her mother told her all about me. She even knew that I had a younger brother in the States. "Aha!" I exclaimed to myself in triumph, when I was alone with my thoughts. "And everyone here is convinced I can't speak a word of Mandarin! This proves that Hua Zi really did understand what I told her."

I went home and told my mother all about Hua Zi and how all we had to do was wait for her to return from Japan.

"Good," my mother said. "I can't wait to tell Jeanette. Jeanette was so sure you could never find a nanny."

"No! Don't tell Jeanette!"

"Why not?"

"She'll ruin it." 

"What do you mean?" my mother asked. "Didn't you say yourself that she was a great judge of character?"

"Yes, she is a great judge of character. The problem is, all she ever does is judge. She doesn't just judge other people. She judges you. She judges me. She judges the baby. Hua Zi deserves a level playing field. I don't want her pre-judged."

"So, you're planning to hire this woman that you met on the bus and never tell Jeanette a thing about it?"

"That's a good idea," I laughed. "I'll make Hua Zi hide in the closet every time Jeanette comes by to inspect the premises." My mother gave me a look, so I changed my tack. "Of course, I'm going to tell her. Besides, we don't actually have a closet." (In Taiwan, apartments do not come with built-in closets. I had had one garderobe -- part of the furniture that Gloria Guo had selected for the bedroom.)

The problem with Jeanette Jio was that she saw everybody's flaws very clearly, but she didn't seem equally aware of their good qualities. Take Gloria Guo, for instance. Despite everything that she had done, or failed to do, like Nixon, Gloria Guo was not a crook. She was unreliable, as Jeanette Jio had remarked. She was also artistic and had a strange knack for coming up with pithy philosophical maxims. Once I understood her limitations, we got along fine. She was a misunderstood artist. She had so much to offer, if only you didn't ask her to do the one thing she couldn't: keep a long term commitment.

"Of course, I'll tell Jeanette about it. After Hua Zi and I come to terms. I'm just not going to let Jeanette jinx it."

My mother said: "But  Aya, what do you really know about this woman that you met on the bus?"

"I know that she's a certified nanny!"

Lilac Li kept intermittent contact with Hua Zi's daughter in Taichung, and one day she announced to me that my future nanny had returned to Taiwan.

Very excited, I asked when she was coming to see us. Lililac Li laughed. "Please be patient. She is not in Taichung yet, Give her time to rest. She is in Hsin Chu."

"What's she doing in Hsin Chu?" I asked, as if I expected her to have nothing to do but come straightaway to see my daughter.

Friday November the twelfth was a national holiday: Dr. Sun Yat Sen's birthday. Hua Zi's interview was duly scheduled for the next day: Saturday the 13th. It was the first bad omen.

It just so happened that we were expecting two other guests that day, friends from Tamsui. Ariel Ai and Charlotte Chou were colleagues from Tamsui who had heard I'd had a baby and were anxious to come see. We were expecting them first, at around nine, then Hua Zi was to come at eleven.

The doorbell rang. It was Jeanette Jio. 

"I was just passing by on my way to my hairdresser's," Jeanette said. "I thought I would stop by and see how you were doing." On her way into the living room, she surreptiously passed her hand on the coffee table, to check for dust. (As long as my mother was still living with me, we always passed the dust check, but after my mother returned home, Jeanette's suspicions that I was a poor housekeeper were confirmed.)

My daughter was in the playpen. Jeanette made coventional high pitched cooing noises at her. This produced the inevitable crying fit in my daughter. "What is wrong with her?" Jeanette asked.

I picked my daughter up and rocked back and forth. "She needs a nap," I said.

My mother and I had taken to hiding the baby whenever a visit from Jeanette was expected. My daughter was beginning to develop an aversion to strangers, and Jeanette cooing right into her face usually had her screaming within seconds. It was either that, or she sensed the tension in the air.

"She really needs a nap," I said, as my efforts to calm my daughter were only partially successful.

"Oh, all right," Jeanette said. "I'll see you later. I have to go get my hair done. It's really a mess." (There was not a hair out of place; I can't imagine what she thought of me and my mother; neither of us had our hair done or wore any makeup.)

My friends from Tamsui arrived soon after Jeanette left. They were laden with gifts and full of good wishes. They had had no idea I was going to have a baby, and they were very curious, but they radiated good will. They were both about the same age, but Ariel Ai had married early, so her two children were already teenagers, while Charlotte Chou's kids were still in elementary school.

We had a nice visit, but at one point Ariel took me aside and said: "Aya, don't take advantage of your mother. She is a wonderful grandmother, but you are expecting too much. Let her go home. She is tired. Don't expect her to raise your daughter for you."

This outburst surprised me. "But I'm not! I'm getting a nanny. In fact, she's coming for an interview this afternoon. If things work out, my mother will be able to go home next week. Why don't you stay and meet her? She's a wonderful person. I'm sure you'll like her."

Ariel and Charlotte stayed. When Hua Zi arrived, my eyes were only on her, so I was not able to gauge their reactions. 

Hua Zi was just as I remembered her: calm, dignified, not overly demonstrative, but she set everyone around her at ease. She picked up my daughter and there was not a peep out of the baby. My daughter was content with her head in the crook of this woman's arm, oblivious to all the other people in the room. I had been right. Hua Zi was a natural when it came to babies.

There were, in fact, quite a lot of people there to witness this scene: my mother, myself, Lilac Li, who had picked Hua Zi up from the station, and my two friends, Ariel Ai and Charlotte Chou.

When it came to negotiating over the salary, the only hitch was with regard to living arrangements. I had researched what a proper salary for a nanny would be, and Hua Zi agreed to my offer. But it turned out that she expected to live with me -- she even wanted to cook my meals! On the one hand, I never imagined that anything beyond childcare would be within the realm of her duties. On the other hand, I was afraid of what having her there would do to my personal autonomy and privacy. But I gave in. It was a price I would just have to pay in return for having the perfect nanny.

When I saw the baby's radiant face when she held her, I knew this was the one woman, besides my mother, that I could trust with my daughter's life. So I said yes.

Everyone left at about the same time, Lilac Li to drive Hua Zi back to the station, and my two friends from Tamsui to begin their long drive back. Because of this, we were not able to exchange impressions right away.

However, that evening, I got a call from Ariel. She sounded worried. "Aya, Charlotte and I talked it over, and we decided I should call. About that woman you were interviewing..."

"I hired her. Wasn't she great? Did you see her with the baby?"

"Aya, you cannot trust that woman!"


"Her Chinese is too good!" She blurted it out as if it were a terrible accusation.

"What?!" I was happy that my judgment about Hua Zi's Chinese was vidnicated. It was good! I wasn't just imagining it. But how could it be too good?

"And her manners," Ariel continued.

"What was wrong with her manners?" I asked. "I thought her manners were very good!"

"Too good. She does not act like a nanny."

"I don't understand."

"And that name: Hua Zi. That is not a Chinese name!"

"Not a Chinese name? But it's made up of Chinese characters."

"Aya, your name can be written in Chinese characters. Ai Ya. Does this make you Chinese?"

"Well, of course not."

"Women's names like that, ending in Zi , are just translations of Japanese names ending in ko."

"Oh. I didn't know that. So, you're saying that she's really Japanese?"

"No. I am not saying that."

"Well, then, what are you saying?"

"I am saying that she has a Japanese name."

"And having a Japanese name means I can't trust her?!"

"Do you know that the Japanese occupied Taiwan for many years?"

"Sure. During World War II."

"Longer than that. Even before the first world war. They were brutal. They did terrible things to people. Not just Taiwanese people. Westerners, too. Most Taiwanese hated them. But there were some people who hoped to find favor with the Japanese. They helped the Japanese hurt people. They really wanted to be Japanese, too. They hoped the Japanese would win the war. They gave their children Japanese names."

"But that was over fifty years ago. Are you saying that I should not hire Hua Zi because you suspect that her parents collaborated with the Japanese? She must have been only a baby then!"

"I am saying that her Chinese is too good. You cannot trust her."

The conversation ended and I still didn't understand what Ariel Ai was trying to tell me. What did Hua Zi's Japanese name have to do with the fact that her Chinese was too good? And how could anyone's Chinese be too good? What did that mean?

My mother was already making plans to leave Taiwan in a week's time. She was looking forward to her trip, and I didn't want to say anything that would upset her. I still thought Hua Zi was a good nanny. I found the conversation with Ariel Ai disturbing, but there was nothing in it that seemed like a logical reason to change my mind about Hua Zi.

The next morning was Sunday, and it was time for my weekly phone call with my father. I told him about everything that had happened that week, ending with the weird coversation with Ariel. "How can somebody's Chinese be too good?" I mused out loud.

"It's probably a class thing," my father speculated. "Apparently Chinese society is very stratified. It's just like the Dickens take on class relations in David Copperfield. People's English isn't supposed to be better than their station in life. If a nanny talks like a lady, maybe that's upsetting to some people. They think that taking care of babies is a menial position. But, of course, they're wrong. You stick to your guns. Hire the educated nanny, and someday your daughter may become empress of all of China. China has a glorious past and it may have a glorious future ahead of it. It will be united again someday -- hopefully not under the communists, but it will be united. And then it will be very important to speak proper Chinese."

I wasn't sure that my daughter had any chance whatever to become the next empress of China, but I was strengthened in my resolve by my father's words. After all, Hua Zi was kind to me. She listened to what I said and she understood. She met me more than half-way, but she was not trying to keep me ignorant and dependent, like some people I knew. She was willing to teach me to improve my Chinese, so that I could stand on my own two feet, without a go-between. My fussy, difficult daughter accepted her immediately. Isn't that all that mattered?

Soon after I finished the conversation with my father, the phone rang again. It was Lilac Li. She was not her cheerful, positive self. Her voice was strained. "Aya, I told my mother and my sisters everything that happened yesterday, and my mother says that it is my duty to tell you this."


"As I was taking Hua Zi to the bus station, she was talking about how happy she was to have this job. She said she really needed it, because her son is in trouble, and she wants to help him."

"Her son?"

"Yes. She says her son had a business. It was an interior decorating business, and it was doing very well until last year, when he was kidnapped."


"Yes. Kidnapped. By Japanese gangsters."

"Japanese gangsters?"

"Yes. They said they were going to kill him, unless he gave them the business."


"So, he signed over the business to them, because he didn't want to be killed..."

"Wait a minute. That doesn't make any sense."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, kidnappers usually want money -- in cash -- in unmarked bills. They don't want a trail leading back to them.  They don't want a deed to somebody's property. Don't you think it would be terribly easy to track down these gangsters if they were just running an interior decorating business that they got by force?"

"Aya, you do not understand. This is Taiwan. And, anyway, I don't know that it's true. It's just what she said."

"Why would she say that?" I was shocked. "Even if it were true, why would she say it? Doesn't she want this job?"

"Aya, my mother thinks there is something wrong with her..."

"Yes... Yes, I can see that."

"I am sorry to have to tell you this, but she says the gangsters are still pressing her son to come up with more money..."

"Oh. Then, I can't hire her! I have only one daughter, and I can't afford to have her kidnapped!" After that came out of my mouth, I realized how ridiculous it sounded. As if, if I had more children, it would be okay for some of them to be kidnapped. The conversation was getting surreal.

"What do you want me to tell her?" Lilac Li asked.

"Tell her that my mother has changed her mind. She's decided to stay. I don't need a nanny anymore."

"Yes," Lilac said. "That is the right thing to do."

To this very day, I do not know what really happened. Are there Japanese gangsters running amok in Taiwan, redecorating people's houses? Did Hua Zi actually tell that ridiculous story about her son and the Japanese gangsters? If she did, was it because she really didn't want to work for me? Or did Lilac Li and her mother come up with this story, because they realized that if they told me the truth, the way Ariel Ai had tried to, then I would never be able to understand it? And what was the truth? Was it that Hua Zi was a social climber who was educated above her station? Or were her parents collaborators during the war, and was this why everyone despised her? Or was it because, after the Japanese left, the KMT took over, and continued to bully the local populace in the same way? Now that the pendulum had swung, was it suddenly dangerous to have a posh accent? Was it like in Russia, when everybody had to pretend to talk like a peasant after the revolution?

I wasn't Taiwanese, so I didn't understand. I would have to ask my mother to stay longer. On Monday, I would have to call Jeanette Jio and admit that I was completely out of my depth. I could not possibly find a good nanny for my daughter without her help. I would be forever in her debt.

[Disclaimer: All the names have been changed to protect the innocent. While this story is based on actual events, some situations have been embellished to heighten the drama. Any resemblance to real people is only partial. Some of the characters have been pieced together from observing more than one person.]

(c) 2008 Aya Katz

All rights reserved. 


How to Choose a Nanny


Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on November 10, 2012:

Thanks, Sweetiepie, that means a lot to me.

The truth is, I don't read any travel magazines myself, so I would not know where to submit it. Can you recommend a magazine you think this piece would be a good fit for?

SweetiePie from Southern California, USA on November 10, 2012:

I was thinking you should try to submit the story to a magazine about travel. I had a hard time staying away from reading this this morning. I was supposed be doing other stuff, but I kept coming back to read.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on November 10, 2012:

Thanks, SweetiePie. Those were difficult times for me, but very interesting and full of meaning. I still think about all those people and wonder about what would have happened if I had made different choices.

SweetiePie from Southern California, USA on November 10, 2012:

What a fascinating story. I enjoyed all the details from the Seven Eleven with the character running the store, to the lady you met on the bus. I found myself very immersed in this hub, and almost felt like I was reading a chapter out of a memoir.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on January 17, 2009:

LondonGirl, thanks! It was complicated, at times heart breaking, but very stimulating. I learned a lot during those years.

LondonGirl from London on January 16, 2009:

what a wonderful hub! sounds like a complicated but exciting life.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on December 27, 2008:

Ngureco, thanks for your comment. Yes, sometimes it is hard to accept help when we need it. I know it was for me. And you are right, none of us can see into another person's mind, especially if they have not invited us in.

ngureco on December 27, 2008:

I have enjoyed reading this good story you have put here. Thank you.

Jeanette Jio offered all you may have needed but you refused to take it just because you didn't want to be in her debt.....All these people are not open for reasons best known to themselves only.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on December 26, 2008:

June, thanks! Glad I could help you pass the time!

Jerilee, hey, about the reincarnation thing, it could well be! After all, she said Hong Kong was where she made her billions. Yes, I do think the relationships that women have with other women are very complicated over there. But also, there's all this unspoken stuff that if you're not a native, you just don't get. Even when people are willing to take the time to try to explain it, it's still very difficult to understand. This particular story has haunted me for a long time. I still wonder if there was anything I could have done to make it turn out differently.

Jerilee Wei from United States on December 26, 2008:

Brilliant hub!  I so enjoyed reading it last night, I had to read it again this morning to savor every word.  It made me think of all the landlord woes my son and nephew have had in China.  I think Gloria Guo was reincarnated into the crazy landlord/business partner my Jeff encountered in HK.  LOL  and lots of aggrevation.

Then, it made me think of the complicated world of women in China.  I think their women to women relationships are far more complex culturally, than most Western women can understand.  I've observed some very strange things, watching my daughter-in-law and other women.  They are naturally much more judgmental and suspicious of each other.

It also made me laugh and think of my son lugging his couch down the street when he moved.  Most Americans could not cope with some of everyday life in Asia. 

Then, the earthquakes!  Born and raised in California, I've lived through a number of them.  The whole neighborhood would camp out in our yards after some of the bigger ones. 

Once again, great story Aya!

June Sun from Alberta, Canada on December 25, 2008:

Aya, thanks for this 'dramatic' story. It saved me from my boring Christmas. This is really a wonderful and exciting story. :)

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