Piggy dim sum buns

Taipei: Finding my cultural roots

betty ming liu Travel 6 Comments

With this post, I wrap up my epic, month-long Asian vacation. The final stop had a mission: finding my cultural roots in Taipei, Taiwan. I spent four fascinating days in the capitol city of this tiny island nation. Between the food, conversations and art, I went home feeling updated, with a more global sense of self.

Taipei gave me another chance to see the world alone. I went there right after dealing with my fear of traveling solo in Bangkok. Once again, I survived a paralyzing, first-night freakout over getting lost. And once again, I got past childhood abandonment issues to have a marvelous trip.

As the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, I wanted to experience a democratic country based on Chinese cultural roots. Most folks in Taiwan have either a grandparent or parent who fled China decades ago for political reasons. But do NOT call them “Chinese,” which will make them mad. They don’t identify with communist China. They are Taiwanese, doing their own thing, their own way.

Pix of finding my cultural roots in Taipei

Getting around was so easy. A lot of people understand or speak English. Everyone was nice, too. And unlike in China, there was no public hocking or spitting. Best of all, the shiny MRT subway ran fast and cheap ($8 for a three-day, unlimited pass). Taiwanese taxi drivers are super-honest, too.

Taipei's MRT

Some top tourist spots were meh. On Day 1, I hit the main sights. A cabbage carved from a solid chunk of white/green jade draws big crowds. It’a the Mona Lisa of the National Palace Museum. Taiwan’s famous hot springs offered me a soak in green sulfur water. Of course, I visited the popular night markets filled with street food. All interesting attractions. But honestly? I was going through the motions.Taipei top tourist destinations

Art tells the story. After Day 1, I decided to stop worrying about tourist attractions and started wandering as I pleased. The rest of my time in Taipei was fabulous as I strolled malls, historic neighborhoods and art exhibits. I even got a two-hour Thai massage. One of my favorite places was the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Filled with the work of living Taiwanese artists, I was inspired by their reflections on the environment, society and politics.

Taipei Museum of Fine Arts

Artwork based on found objects (otherwise known as trash) filled a red room. A display of bottled tea beverages, stripped of their labels and arranged from pale to dark, made a statement about tea products as a data base of information about culture, capitalism and creativity. The retrospective on photographer Wang Hsin took me inside Taiwan’s aborigine tribes. They are the island’s original people. Like Native Americans in the U.S., they suffer poverty, racism and the loss of their land. This was deep stuff that has stayed with me.

Food truly does comfort. Taipei also amuses as a shopping- and food-obsessed city. Prices were so good. A plate of garlic chive dumplings set me back $1.75. Stuff that’s weird in America is normal here, like a food court stall selling white tree fungus soup with herbal jelly ($1). My Airbnb host took me to dim sum at the fancy Breeze Center mall, where everyone gets the piggy buns. Insert a chopstick tip into the piggy nostril and out drips a creamy, sweet snot sauce made of duck egg yolks.

Taipei food

And now, a week later, I’m back home with wicked jet lag. But, I’m happy. Finding my cultural roots in Taipei, Taiwan leaves me more relaxed about my ethnic identity. No rules! It’s a thought that keeps me smiling as I enjoy kitchen souvenirs from Taiwan: a fish-shaped rice scooper, a ceramic bowl for serving rice, and refrigerator magnets. In the weeks to come, they will keep me company as I sort through the whole trip that started in Hanoi, took me through Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangkok, and ended in Taipei. A lot to feel and think about.   :)

Comments 6

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  1. Glad you had fun in Taiwan! I did an exchange there a few years ago. I was also trying to find my roots. As a trans racial adoptee. It was great!

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      Wow, Liang. I’m glad you found your roots! I never thought of visiting Taipei as a roots experience. But just goes to show how deep my denial runs. I appreciate hearing things from your perspective — thanks! :)

  2. What a trip you’ve had! No matter how American we are, there is still a part of us that needs the connection to that long line of ancestors that stretches back into the dim past. It is an important part of defining who and what we are and it can be a source of inspiration in many ways. Back in 1971, when we had the first gay rights marches in NY and there were more police than marchers, it was quite scary. All the police hated us, having been humiliated at the Stonewall riots, and were just looking for a chance to wade in with billy clubs. I confess I was very nervous. I thought to myself “well, my ancestors stood with Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden and before that, with King Charles and that was a lot more dangerous than this, so I guess I can do this.” Roots gave me strength. It wouldn’t do to seem a coward in the eyes of the ancestral spirits, and I am fully in sympathy with the traditional Chinese idea that there are such things watching us.

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      Toby, what a beautiful description of the ancestors’ roll. I can see the scene, of standing up for gay rights and looking to your own past for strength! Until now, I haven’t had much use for the ancestors. But my feelings started to chance in Vietnam, when I saw how desperately everyone needed closure from the war, and to comfort their war dead. My thoughts on this are probably going to evolve quite a bit in the days to come. Thanks for weighing in. :)

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