My Motherland

I first visited Taiwan in second grade. It was the most exotic place anyone in my school had been to–even the kid who moved from Australia. Then, to my great fortune, after I graduated from high school I was lucky enough to stumble upon the opportunity to study at National Taiwan University at their Chinese Language Program. But directly after graduation, as I was scrambling to make the decision to defer and apply to NTU, my grandparents sent me to Formosa Youth Camp, which is basically the Taiwanese version of Israeli Birthright. It’s been around for forty some odd years and has been affectionately nicknamed Loveboat, for the tendency of Taiwanese parents sending their daughters in hopes they’ll find a nice Taiwanese boy. My grandparents sent my youngest aunt (she met a nice white boy in Taiwan). My roommate at the camp had parents who met at Loveboat. It’s a lot of fun–a month with 400 other kids between the ages of 18 and 24, going to workshops, doing tourist Taiwan stuff and traveling around. And eating delicious food. And drinking. After that month, I spent the next 10 months living there on my own (a daunting feat for a 17 year old), and was able to get back again last summer for a conference.

My early memories are a blur, a long ago vacation that left certain indelible imprints on a young mind but have been worn down over the decades.

Heat, big bold colors, annoyance at being made to wear pants by nagging grandmothers, the dusty-sharp smell of the apothecary shop, the crunch of sugar cane between my teeth and the juice seeping out. The sweet burning scent of sugar caramelizing on a road side lollipop maker’s griddle. The claw machine game and my new favorite stuffed kangaroo. The taste of clover, French frogs legs, and swirls of pastel skirts sweeping in front of my dazed eyes as I struggled to stay awake. The pain of my fingers caught in the van door, my cherished copy of Mossflower falling apart as I reread it over and over, the vast and impressive greenery of Taroko, the gleam of a thousand gold Buddha statues. Crisp slices of pears in my great aunt’s apartment and the stink of sulfur rolling in steamy clouds down Yang Min Shan.

Then again as a seventeen year old, fresh out of high school, not a clue of what I wanted the future to hold. Painfully shy. I arrived early in the morning, a gray dawn, vaguely recognized my great aunt waiting, sat in the back of her car yawning. Taipei is a grim looking city, it hit modernity a few decades too soon. Weather worn, grimy, unrelenting, I watched as giant signs on all the buildings flashed by– some I recognized; Sony, Asio, Mitsubishi. Other just a blur of Chinese characters. It had quite sunk in, the enormity of my decision.

My aunt’s apartment was in a bustling little area just waking up as we pulled in, full of soup and sandwich carts, juice and congee stalls. Great Aunt ushered me up the stairs where I sat, slightly stunned from the sensory overload. Great Uncle came up moments later with a sandwich and fruit. I numbly ate a few slices of Asian pear and guava, the three layer triangular sandwich of sweet, soft white bread, a fried egg, cucumber and a little sauce, and chewy ham and dried shredded pork, before crawling into the lacy covered bed in the guest room, not even bothering to take off my jeans or turn on the lights, and sinking blissfully into sleep.

I was awoken a few hours later by the sounds and smell of cooking. Barley and whole grains mixed in with steamed rice, a bowlful of vegetables, more fruit. I ate several bowls. Days passed, my existence revolved around sleeping, eating, and being taken around to meet friends of Great Aunt, and to eat more, always to eat more. I was shy, unable to speak, even if I knew any Chinese it wouldn’t have come out, sat where I was told and stared out at everyone with my shoulders hunched like wings up to my ears. I forgot what hunger felt like. I sat out on Great Uncle’s rooftop garden, it was lush and full and green. I padded silently around the apartment, poking around at stuff. And then camp started.
A whirlwind of making friends, tourism. This was the most Asian Americans I had ever been around, and there were even a few halfies to boot, although this didn’t stop a few ignorant souls from asking me what a white girl was doing in an Taiwanese heritage camp. We took morning workshops–Southern martial arts, learning the art of Chinese knots, and spent the afternoons on field trips. We spent our evenings eating delicious food at the night markets, sneaking out to bars and KTV, collapsing exhausted onto hard mattresses with the AC blasting and wrapped up in downy soft comforters to protect from our bare skin from the mosquitoes. I was introduced to jipai, bubble tea, cosmos, zhuroufan, and typhoons. I came out of my shell long enough to impress an auditorium with some spoken word, and unfortunately garnered a few creepy admirers who sent me anonymous notes. We set things on fire and dodged demerits, grew tired of the corn soup served at every meal, were bused to every tourist site accessible in a two week time, including a beach where I got stung by jellyfish immediately upon entering the water.

I spent days looking for apartments with my father and mom’s cousin. My skin crawled just thinking about living in most of them–illegal rooftop shack slapped together out of sheets of corrugated tin roofing, places with no internet, no air conditioning, a sublet with an 80 year lady, tiny hard beds, no mattresses, all purpose spaces with shower and toilet and plug-in electric stoves in the same 3 feet..A typhoon struck, giving my dad an excuse to stay an extra day, walk around campus with me, lecture me a few last times. Standing, waiting for the airport shuttle to arrive, my dad sweating in the tropical summer heat, he looks away but I could see the tears in his eyes. Strangely, until this point, I hadn’t realized I’d be basically by myself in a country where I didn’t speak the language or know the culture, far away from all my friends and the family I knew. The very sudden realization almost made me want to cry, but I refused. A strange, hollow, empty, almost terrified feeling swept over me. I had no idea what to do with the rest of my day. I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life. For the first time I could remember, I had no plans, no schedule, no activities to rush to. I walked slowly back to my new apartment, overwhelmed. My upstairs neighbor, bless her wonderful heart, gave me a hand-drawn, detailed map of our neighborhood, with adorable stickers pointing out the grocery store, the bus stop, and different useful stores and stalls in the nearby night market. I clung to it and ventured out into the open when hunger got the better of me.

My first meal in independence: a roadside stall had attracted a long line. Like most Asians, I took that to mean whatever they were selling was worth eating. I waited in line, pointed at the golden rounds of dough frying in the bubbling vat of oil when my turn came, and fumbled for heavy 50 NTD coin for two. They were stuffed with shredded turnip. I remember it being hot, savory, perfectly salted, delicious. I devoured them on the walk back to my apartment.

Maybe nostalgia is why I think so fondly of Taiwan, or maybe it’s just really awesome and everyone should visit because it’s fantastic and the food is amazing and the people are incredibly nice. A while ago the subject of a week of vacation came up between Sawyer and me. Since he’s been all over Asia I figured he’d have some good recommendations for what I should do. We ended up deciding that it would be awesome to go to Taiwan–I’ve been trying to get back to visit since I got to China, and he had never been. So we did, and it was awesome–a really relaxing, food and adventure filled 9 days.

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