Whenever I think of Taiwan, certain images pop up for me – people, places, scenes, and of course food. These memories all hold meaning for me and represent the essence of Taiwan in my eyes. Even though I only spent the first few years of my life there, Taiwan still draws me back time and again. It’s not the touristy must-sees that make Taiwan special to me, although I love seeing them too. From the bustling city to the crickets chirping in the countryside, the street stands to the corner convenience store, and my childhood to now, I love the experience of being in Taiwan.
A street in Tianwei, Taiwan.
In the picture above, an old house made in the traditional Chinese style stands in between two residences made from cement and corrugated metal in a tiny town outside of Changhua. This kind of juxtaposition is played out in towns and cities all over Taiwan. While it’s obvious that no one lives in the house pictured above anymore, it’s not quite abandoned as evidenced by the plants decorating the front. Since this house is situated on the block that has been occupied by my extended family for hundreds of years, it probably belongs to a relative.
Below is another scene that is typical in the countryside in Central Taiwan.
A roadside scene in Central Taiwan.
A small truck sits next to a rusty shed surrounded by a field of crops and some tropical plants. At first glance, this is pretty ordinary. If you look more closely, however, you notice that the driver left the door to the truck open and there is wild dragonfruit growing all along the rusty shed. You can also see a gutter running next to the shed.
The rusty shed.
To me, this scene is so Taiwanese in so many ways. The driver was either in a hurry, or left his door open to air out the front of the truck since it’s so hot and humid. Since everyone knows each other out here in the middle of nowhere, he is unconcerned about leaving his truck unlocked. The shed is rusty because Taiwan is so wet that nothing that is metal remains pristine. The phone numbers on the side of the shed are numbers you should call if something is wrong with the field or shed. You have to be careful driving on the tiny narrow lanes in this town because they are surrounded on both sides by gutters for the rain.
Wild dragonfruit growing on the side of the shed. It was close enough to the side of the road you could lean over the gutter and pluck it once it’s ripe.
From the countryside we move onto the big city. I am not talking about Taipei, the northern capital, but Kaohsiung, the second city in the south. Whenever I tell other Taiwanese that I am from Kaohsiung, they are usually quite surprised. You see, most Taiwanese who immigrate to the the US are from the richer, more westernized city of Taipei. It’s almost unheard of to be from anywhere outside of Taipei, even Kaohsiung. It is true that not many people can speak English in Kaohsiung and it’s full of independence minded citizens, but it is hardly as unsophisticated or backwater as some believe. In fact, over the last few years Kaohsiung has come into a renaissance with the reclamation and transformation of the Love River (Ai He), the building of its own Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system, and the revitalization of many parts of downtown.
But I digress. Why do I love visiting Kaohsiung? Besides the fact that the other side of my family lives here, Kaohsiung has all the big city fun and convenience of Taipei without the glitz and pressure to impress. I love Asian cities and while I do appreciate the very largest cities like Taipei, Tokyo, and Singapore, sometimes I just want to experience a city without all the fuss. In other cities, I am a tourist because of all the must-sees and must-dos. In Kaohsiung, I get to be a local.
I can go out on a night on the town with my aunts. A night out in Kaohsiung might include shopping, eating out, KTV, or a night market. There are fun things to do 24 hours a day.
Notice I sneaked a photo of KFC into this post.
What is Taiwan without my favorite cold treat – shaved ice!
This particular stand was as big as a movie theater. Air conditioned too!
I can go to the market with my aunt:
The fish at this stand were really fresh – they were still flapping around on the ice block!
I can go shopping for household goods with my other aunt. Here we went to Hola, the Bed Bath & Beyond of Taiwan. This may not seem very exciting to some, but I love finding household gadgets that I cannot get in the US, like fold-able travel chopsticks, a chopstick stand, a cute soy sauce dispenser, and rice bowls. In the US, you have buy from the slim picking of the Asian grocery store.
A small shopping center for household goods and furniture in Kaohsiung.
As you can see, it looks exactly like a Bed Bath & Beyond or the soon to be defunct Linens N Things.
On the way home, we can stop by and buy some raw sugarcane to snack on. Here the old lady cuts off the hard shell of the sugarcane with a machete.
Finally, we get back to my aunt’s place and we can enjoy some the fruits of our labor at the market. My absolute favorite part of Taiwan is definitely the fresh fruit you cannot find anywhere else (outside of Asia). This and chatting and catching up with my aunts and cousins are pretty much the best parts of visiting Taiwan.
Clockwise from top: Custard Fruit (shik kwia), Apple Pears (len mu), raw sugarcane (gum jia). These are seasonal fruits that are found in October.
Green oranges, which are actually sweet.
What do I definitely not like about Taiwan? The huge tropical insects. I saw this gigantic spider in the bathroom of my grandparents’ house. Luckily it was so huge I could keep an eye on it. <shudder>
Despite my fondness of Taiwan, I know my view of daily life here is idealistic since I don’t actually live here. I’m sure that if I did live in Taiwan, I would find plenty of things that annoy me. It’s a fact that the standard of living in Taiwan is lower than the United States and I don’t know if I could actually deal with this in my adulthood, not to mention the pressures of living in a Taiwanese society. Despite these thoughts, I will always have good memories of the visits to the country of my birth.