The place where I almost lost my love for seafood? Taiwan.
Also the place where I had some of the most awesome street food ever? Also Taiwan.
Surprised to see real curved swords reverently wielded around by old men for daily exercise in the form of martial arts? Yep, you guessed the place. Taiwan.
Taipei to be exact.
What my experience in the world had taught me, after a lifetime of examining “Made in” manufacturing tags, my best guess as to what Taiwan might look like would be a conglomerate of dirty manufacturing warehouses. After all, everything is Made in Taiwan (okay that’s a hyperbole). There may have been a little bit of industry life hiding out in the sweatshops of some Taipei backstreets, but that wasn’t part of my overall impression of the place. Truth is, it was ANYTHING BUT. The country had done a better job of holding onto its cultural identity than other large and red nearby Asian countries. [Can I say that here without being detained the next time I connect through the Sleeping Giant?]. In Taipei you’re just as likely to shuffle amongst business suits talking into their smartphones on the sparkling Metro as you are to marvel at little elderly men playing traditional two stringed Erhu and grandmothers fingering generations old recipes of steaming dumplings with arthritic fingers.
I walked for what felt like fifty miles examining every market, every pot of soup, holding eye contact with every stern but friendly granny, ducking into dark alleyways, tracing the bright red, blue, and green sparkle of dragons and temples whose names I couldn’t pronounce even if I did remember them. Grandeur. I shrunk in the shadow of Taipei 101. I appreciated every minute detail of each tiled roof with curving slants and lion dog statue. All of these tiny details combined into an overall bigger picture of what Taiwan represented, sitting metaphors in the street that represented the big idea of what this tiny island stands for.
Baffled at the sight of Buddhist monks who rode in a crowded open backed bus-trucks parading their calls into the street, I sat under a pavilion for what seemed like hours. Mist from nearby fountains hung in the air. I watched men gather in Menxia Park to play a two player strategy board game. The game was once thought to be an essential skill by Chinese Scholars and some call it the hardest board game to master in the world. Ironically enough the players use stones to conquer empty land. (The English word for the game is “Go”.) At Longshan Temple I learned that original settlers to Taiwan built the Temple which was later bombed by, sigh, the U.S. The temple was thought to house Japanese weapons, which was never proven.
My favorite market was in the neighborhood by the hotel: the day Shuanglian Market. Every morning I ate Taiwaneise fried dough folded into an egg. All of the flavor options were good. Onion was traditional. My favorite was sweet potato. I walked the block to shop for ceramics at an obscure vendor using hand signs to communicate price. At night I scoured the markets. Lost to time, I couldn’t tell you which night market I liked best.
No visit to Taipei is complete without wondering around town into the wee hours of the night getting lost at the Night Markets: Tainan Night Markets, Ta-Tung, Flower Nt Mkt, Linjiang Nt. Mkt, Raohe, Dihua Street . . . I’d researched online all of the best foods to try. I’d always been a brave food investigator, especially at Asian markets. But it was in Taipei that I reached my proverbial safe word. Too many animal entrails lined the stalls. I heaved cheesy lobster while knee deep in a garbage pile. Evidence to never believe what you read online from bloggers like us (because someone out there recommended the cheesy lobster as the best in their life!) Disclaimer: I never get sick. I have a stomach of steel! I tried to distract myself with something unique that I’d only seen in Taiwan . . . the love for obscure carnival games. Young adults giggled over duckies and rifle games. Ma-Jong tables sat out on sidewalks. Fortune tellers sat with tarot cards and small white sparrows in cages. Later in the week, still sick from Lobster I opted for Pizza Hut instead.
Small but mighty, it’s no secret that Taiwan had wrestled itself free from mainland China during the turn of Communism. Most of the inhabitants of Taiwan fled from mainland China generations ago, seeking freedom from oppression. Many of China’s wealthy families packed up their treasures and fled to Taiwan. These treasures can be seen at the National Palace Museum (whose architecture is worth the hour long bus ride alone). Nestled in the rolling green hills, officials worry about attacks by China on the museum to destroy these cultural treasures. They’re so worried, in fact, that the museum has a system of underground tunnels and bunkers to house the artifacts should such an incident occur. Taiwanese claim independence, but China has never been able to let go. I visited during the uprisings in Hong Kong, which were happening directly across the thin Formosa Strait, leaving big questions about what geopolitics in the region were going to look like in the future. [God I hope I don’t get arrested in China later on for writing this! I suppose that this is the spot where I should write that mainland China has some great policies, heritage, and culture too. I hope to peacefully voyage through Western China later on. Note to self to archive this post later. ] Even though ethnically the people are Chinese and politically still under the UN classification of China, I controversially added a new tally to my country count for Taiwan.
It sits there right next to Kosovo, Kurdistan, and Somaliland.
Hey I’m noticing a recent theme here. I think I’ve developed a recent taste for disputed lands.