January 18, 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. :)