In this reminiscence:
- a vegetarian buffet;
- airport with a koi pond;
Families one generation (away) is close, two generations gets distanced, three makes complete strangers.
My Singapore Airline’s flight took a solid 12 hours to make its way to Singapore, and then I spent 5 hours in Changi airport waiting for my next flight to Taipei. I would have gone into the city if I had more space in my passport, but sadly I was running out of empty pages (truly only a world class traveler problem), and had to hold short of my Singaporean adventures for a later time. Luckily, Changi airport is consistently ranked as the best airport in the entire world, and I had a full list of things to enjoy.
I walked around the lush gardens, and took a look of the butterflies in an enclosure, and munched on some classic fish ball noodle in the foot court. I even watched a bit of movies in the movie theater. Yes, there is actually a free theatre that airs popular movies 24/7 in Singapore’s airport. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles LAX airport, you would be happy to see an unqualified emotional support dog taking a dump on the people mover as entertainment. Oh yeah, did I mention the fact that I lied down on a napping chair next to a koi pond? Because that is Singaporean airport standards, koi pond!
Time passed quickly when you have such beautiful gardens as your transit stop, and within a blink of eye I was beung whisked to my home, Taipei. My father picked me up in a new car that I did not realize we have, and quickly we returned to our family house.
However, this is the part I warn you that this post is not my typical travel journal. It is a bit hard for me to look at Taiwan the same as me being in a country for the first time. Even if I had not been back for years at a time, visiting somewhere new here in Taiwan always felt more like an inward journey of self-discovery than typical sightseeing. Thus, I am going to tell you my history with this marvelous piece of land, while showing you some of the things closest to me. So think of this post being more of a nostalgic trip down memory lane, rather than an aspirational trip to an exotic island.
I was born to a mother from Shanghai of mainland China and a father from Taiwan, and that defined me for my entire youth: a product of opposites that is not supposed to exist. I have encountered many troubles growing up in both China and Taiwan, as I was seen as the boy from “the other side” no matter which side I go with. People loved teasing me about my allegiance. Asking me “which side do you prefer” was almost a national pasttime while I was around, and I would always awkwardly dodge around these questions. Honestly, I don’t even know the answer myself. Which side am I on? As a child, I never thought about politics or history. I solely judged my world base on how long I could watch TV for, what kind of food could I get for snacks, and what playmates I had, and even by these standards of naiveté, the two places were sometimes too drastically different to compare. In China, I watched imported Japanese cartoons that are just about to explode in popularity, ate dumplings for breakfast, and played with my tons of toys. In Taiwan, I watched hours of documentary on the Discovery channel (before they went full conspiracy theorists), chewed on dirt in the mountains for afternoon tea, and roamed around the mountain throwing fruits for fun. Even asking me to compare now, it is still like comparing oranges to Bombardier Global 6000 jets.
Despite my identity crisis, I enjoyed my half-childhood in Taiwan. We lived in the old family house just outside Taipei, situated in the small village of Yingge. Famous for pottery and ceramics, the village is just quaint and quiet. Our house sat on the foot of a small mountain that the family owns. In order to access the place, you gotta turn off into a small alley from the main thoroughfare of the village, turn a few times as the alley gets narrower and narrower, and eventually hop onto an unpaved path that terminates at the gigantic house. A big pond full of fish used to sit next to the house, but recently it was dried mostly and bottomed out with cement. And right above the pond was a gigantic wax apple tree, which would be filled with large red fruits every year in the fall. Now, the tree has been cut and only a large stud remains. It is almost like time is intentionally killing off my memories.
The house was unfathomably large, probably about 2000m², almost an entire world by the standards of a young me. It has to be a huge concrete block, though: my father had 10 siblings. Yes, 11 kids under the same roof. Yet when my father, the youngest one of the dozen, was born, this house was made of mud, and was much smaller. It only got more sizeable and structurally stable once some of the kids started making money in the booming economy of the late 60s. The oldest sibling had his section cut off from the rest of the 2-story house, as he and his family live there together in a semi-separate home.
Everyone in the large family dealt with some form of clay or glazing, or something supporting the local economy. As a result, a small factory making sanitary ceramics is still buzzing around this day, firing up the kiln to churn out hundreds of toilet bowls, wash basins and what not. It is the family business of a few siblings and their children, which went surprisingly well. Some others, on the other hand, never gave up on the roots of our family, farming. This is not glamorous, as farming is still one of the most time-consuming and labor-intensive work one can get, if you do not mind the discrimination. Two brothers, now both aged over 70, still go to the tiny patch of flat land we have on the mountain wee early in the morning to work on the vegetables. After finishing by 6, they carry them to the local market by the train station a kilometer away to sell. It has been the norm for them for 50 years.
A sister of my dad, who I affectionately call 姑姑/gugu, has been running a small confectionary stand for god-knows how long. She was the first to ever introduce Yakult, a kind of Japanese probiotic drink that became all the rage in the 90s, into the region, and she still boasts about that today. And yes, she still sells Yakult at the same place because that is the only thing she knows, or maybe the only thing that brings her joy. She still rides on her motorcycle every month to get the comparably tiny amount of goods from her sources, and that bike, boy oh boy how can I forget about it. It seemed to be older than me, and prominently features the world “Yakult” in the back. Every time, my Gugu would proudly introduce the bike to her visitors that she got the badging from a manager in the late 90s as an honor of selling the most products in one year. Despite the fact that she was no longer the energetic young girl in those old award photos, this story never gets old for her.
However, times have changed. She is now just one of the thousands who sell the sweet beverage that people are slowly categorizing as “nostalgic childhood memories”. Hundreds of competitions have sprung up over the decades, and my aunts and uncles just kept on chugging the same way. I can walk to my gugu’s stand with my eyes closed ever since I was 5, and I could easily spot my uncles’ vegetable stand from a mile away. Time had no effect on them, as if they reject the flow of 4th dimension, and stubbornly live in their own market of paradise. Hundreds of buildings have sprang up and have collapsed, and the market has changed hands multiple times, yet their places are still the same as always: vegetable vendor, and confectionary boss. They could have made something out of those careers, but it was like they were never willing to entertain the idea. For a simple life, you need to have a simple goal: happiness. I am not sure if I am luckier or less fortunate than them, knowing so much of this world yet at the same time so lost with that unholy amount of information. None of them ever married, and none of them seems to be bothered by it. “Who cares?” Gugu would always say when someone brought up the idea of marrying. She was in love with Yakult and who dares to say that was not enough?
My memories with these three siblings are the most profound. Even though I have been teased of my energetic screams and running around the house to my grandma’s dismay and amusement many times, I cannot remember her, or those faded memories, at all. The only thing I remembered about my grandma was heading downstairs to her room as she called my nickname out in Taiwanese: “阿龍!阿龍!” And then she would say nothing as I sat by her bed and she would just smile. She only spoke Taiwanese, and I could barely speak at all, so there was not much communication except her gentle patting of my head. She came from an era before the division of the two sides. Hell, she was born when Qing Dynasty was still drawing difficult breaths! Maybe I was a glimer of hope for her, as a little part of the other side that she was always fonded of, or maybe just because her slowly disintegrating body did not allow anything else. The only other memory I have of her was her funeral. I remember as I finished kowtowing amongst tons of other adults all wearing black and white, my father told the 4-year-old me: “today, papa lost his mother.” And that was the first time, and maybe only time, I see him crying. As a result, I felt a disconnected nostalgia whenever I pass by grandma’s photo on her altar, as we Chinese keep photos of our passed loved ones on an altar as a form of ancestor worship. Yet for my uncles and aunts, because of their lack of marriages, they had been around my childhood almost daily.
I remember clearly going back to Taiwan during school breaks in China just to help my gugu sell candies. Having to remember all the different price levels to mix and match was the painful part, but getting to eat all the candies I could ever wanted for free was the real goal. Or when I was even younger, I “helped” by yelling into the crowded street market how delicious Yakult is, and proceeded to demonstrate the infallible proof by downing three cups straight. Or maybe that time my mother and I made egg dumplings during the big shopping spree season right before spring festival, and we virtually took over her storefront by setting up a workstation and hundreds of boxes of dumplings, piling high like a wall. That was a great year, as my gugu happily drank beer with my mom, bonding like sisters, while I was just happy that she gave me the largest red packet I had ever dreamed, and also a full block of Yakult about to expire. That is 100 of them!
Yet, none of these come as close to heart as whenever a shopper approaches, gugu would drag me out to parade me around: “Here is my brother’s son! He is born on the mainland!” I used to be ashamed of it, as I was shown around as a zoo animal, but later I came to an understanding. This is her way of feeling proud. She has barely left the village, and for her, going to Taipei just 20 minutes’ train ride away would be an adventure, of course she would be proud of my father, or me. In fact, now thinking about it, most of these siblings surround my father as a core of this family for a reason. My father was the youngest of the eleven, and in turn got the best treatment of everyone as all the older siblings helped raising him up to age. He was the first in the family to obtain a university degree, first to work in the city, and still the only one to move out of Taiwan. He started a company on mainland just as China opened up its economy, and he married a mainlander and eventually immigrated to Canada. What a success story of the Yang family! No wonder my aunts and uncles admired him, and by extension, me, a product of such success.
One of my aunts married into a family about twenty minutes from Yingge, into the city of Sanxia. Despite the fact that I no longer carried a pure Taiwanese accent, nor do I like pig intestine rice noodles, she treated me as her own son, giving me almost anything I wanted: food, place to stay, and advice. And she is not alone. The 6th sibling, according to my mom, gave me thousands of dollars of supplies while his business was booming. Later he lost almost all his money gambling and squabbling with other investors, so now he does small seasonal jobs to make ends meet. The oldest brother used to take me up the mountain to chop down the freshest sprouts of bamboo in the bamboo grove, so that he could cook the best bamboo soup my father could never manage. He passed away a few years ago, and ever since then, his side of family had disappeared from my information circle. I hope my cousins, nephews, and nieces are doing fine. I cannot thank my family enough, and that is why I am writing about it here, in this little safe space of mine, where I can do everything I can to pay them tribute. Because ultimately, they will be forgotten.
A bunch of Taiwanese mountain villagers who never married bear no importance to this modern world, and within a few generations, they will be nothing but dust. However, they are important to me, and the least I can do is to help the world remember them. My family that I never got to understand, and will never understand. But that is okay, because family do not need to be understood. A lover demands satisfaction, and a friend demands company; even I sometimes try to squeeze out every drop of happiness out of myself. But my family here in Taiwan? They never asked for anything, because my very existence is a gift enough. Though awkward at times, I cannot help but feel joy when I see them trying so hard to learn what China is like nowadays, or whether Canada has trains or not.
The standard diet in the old house of Taiwan is vegetarian. Mostly not by choice, my Taiwanese uncles and aunts were too poor during their entire early lives to even see meat, let alone trying. As a result, they, along with my father, have never touched meat in their entire life. My father only tasted milk for the first time in his life when he was 25! However, this is not too big of an issue here in Taiwan, where it has one of the highest proportions of vegetarians in the world. You can find virtually any kind of restaurant in vegetarian form, and every packaging lists if they are vegan, lacto- or ovo- vegetarian, or not. We paid a visit to a famous high-end vegetarian buffet restaurant in Taipei, where you can find literally hundreds of types of food all made without meat. Monks are regular diners here in the restaurant, and you can see that in Taiwan, vegetarianism is not what westerners think as hippie traditions or environmentalist propaganda, but an ancient and sometimes sacred tradition that is casually honored on a daily basis. A lot of people, even though they do not identify as vegans or vegetarians, or god forbid announce them to every person they meet, actually eat vegetarian at least once or twice daily. With such a rich history in the background, I am happily part-time vegetarian whenever I am in Taiwan, as there are tons of variety in food choices and restaurant styles. It is not vegan-burger or bust here, as monotonousness is the only thing that kills me faster than economy flights.
Thanks to their vegetarianism, my family would go to all those temples dotted around the northern Taiwanese mountains. This particular temple near 白雞/Baiji is probably the place they visit most frequently, second only to the market. Perched high above the clouds and built by a billionaire who wanted to put on some karma, it truly cannot be mistaken for anything else. I am not an overly-religious person, as my logic and scientific education forbids me to mentally attach my successes and failures to anything but myself, and my travels forbids me to pledge allegiances that would not allow me to enter mosques, churches, temples or synagogues. I have seen thousands of marvelous churches, and prayed in many mosques; many incenses around Asia were planted with my wishful hands, as I have also observed the history in synagogues spread around 5 continents of the world. To be frank, I especially liked Baiji temple because of the food.
Around big temples like this, there is almost always a large market full of delicious vegetarian food. Marinated soy bean curds, deep fried taro pancakes, soy sauce stewed items, as long as it is not stinky tofu, I welcome them into my bottomless stomach. One large gripe I have with western vegetarian food is the fact that they are very salty and usually made of solely soy. Here in Taiwan, you can get nearly a year’s food without realizing that they are vegetarian after all.
And finally, let’s bring it all the way back to where it all started, the family mountain. My fondest memories are always the ones that involved me running up and down the steep muddy steps after being banned from watching any more TV for the day. That usually means I can go look for the papaya trees and check, usually on a twice-daily basis, whether any fruit had ripened or not. The best ones are the fruits that are being picked apart by birds. I would usually grab a stick, and smack around so hard that a few unfortunate bystander papayas would fall before my target did. After devouring the subject of interest and playing around its fallen comrades, I would move on to climbing starfruit trees, messing around near the pond, or digging up bamboo roots. Usually it would not be too big of a mess before my dad or my mom called up the hills, telling me it was time for dinner.
At night, it was totally different. I usually would just hang out on dad’s oldest brother’s side of the house. His grandson was one year older than me (yes, my cousin’s son, it is messy) and he would just play video games once he was done school. Usually I was allowed to watch but sometimes he was too busy fighting with his sister and that would prove to be a difficult day to watch anything other than WWE domestic Taiwan edition, so I would just watch strange Taiwanese dramas with my aunts and uncles. When falling asleep, I would feel particularly tranquil as my room faces the slopes of the mountain, and hundreds of fireflies would drift across my window every minute. My absolute favorite, however, was that you could hear a gust coming before it reached my window, because the leaves rubbing each other formed a sound wave from quiet to loud down different sides of the slopes. And hearing the noise slowly die down, I usually would just pass out before my dad’s educational English casettes finish up the A sides.
Nowadays, it is all gone. The pond is turned into a cement bottomed one; the bamboo grove is growing out of control with nobody to cut the bamboo shoots; light pollution chased away the fireflies; my cousin’s son and his sister had long moved into Taipei city, eschewing the old family house like a shame; half of the rooms now lie full of dust-collecting junk; and the papayas now fall by themsleves with barely a mark dented by the birds. I am nostalgic, but also a bit sad, as life has passed us by so quickly that we barely remembered to appreciate it, or remembered it at all.
I wish I had more opportunities to come back. When I got into middle school in Shanghai, it got extremely intense. I suddenly became inundated by literally hundreds of pages of homework whenever I went on break, if you do not count the rap sheet of extracurricular courses I had to take. Ever since then, I had been back to Taiwan fewer times than a hand can count. I felt ashamed, honestly, as I became a stranger in my own hometown, unsure how to cope with the progressing times. Luckily, I slowly recovered from my self-imbued hatred, and now am working hard for a more frequent visit schedule. I am not going to be the type of person to miss something once it is gone, but the type to never let it go in the first place.
Here you go. A small recollection of scattered memories I have about a place that shaped a large part of me. This is as much of a recollection for me as a glimpse into my identity crisis for you. I have always wanted to write about it, since I have been personally struggling as well. I am glad that I have the opportunity to put it down here, and I hope that you enjoyed it equally. But that is enough trip down memory lane for now, because if we keep reminiscing about the past, an idealized and romanticized good place for our hearts to be, we forget the true good place, which is right here, right now, with the people we love and things we want to do. If death gives life meaning, then the past should give the future a purpose. Let’s move on, as the future holds so much for us, while the past can guide us through it.
I boarded my flight in Taoyuan airport, and departed for Japan. This is a special little stop in my trip, as I have always wanted to visit Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. However, I decided against the capital of Sapporo, but instead Hakodate, the second largest city of immense importance to Japanese history. The ride took me over the large mountains of Japanese alps, and eventually past the volcanic northern hills. Quickly, snow started appearing outside my window, and I knew, it is time to continue the adventure. The good place, is everyone, on the road, in the plane, outside a dilapidated 7-11 convenience store; the good place is where I am, which is where I belong.
三分天註定，七分靠打拼Taiwanese folk saying
Thirty percent is predetermined by the heavens; seventy percent is earned with hardship.