At the end of the school year, I joined the senior class teachers on a trip to Taiwan. I’ve been meaning to go for a while, but knowing how there was going to be tons of good food, I figure it would be better to go with others. With a small group of teachers traveling within just a couple days, it was more convenient to hire a tour company. Normally I would plan a trip on a shoestring budget and my own schedule, but I also liked the idea of seeing how the teachers (and perhaps Japanese people, in general) travel.
For one thing, the female teachers who have kids don’t trust their partners enough to leave the kids alone for the weekend, so they opt to spend time with their kids, rather than go on the trip. So it was just me and the other single teacher. It’s noble of the mothers, really, but such a shame. Dads still need stepping up to do here.
I was really excited to get into the flavors of Taiwanese food again, and had the chance to go to Shilin Night Market, Din Tai Fung, and Jiu Feng, which inspired Spirited Away. We were able to see the National Palace Museum, the Chiang Kai Shek memorial and a couple of temples. There were also a couple stops for duty-free shopping and we even went to a fortune-telling street.
My biggest impression of Taipei was how modernity and fashion blended with the sort of old and grungy tackiness that I attribute to Chinatown. The city is dotted with modern buildings, like department stores, Taipei 101, and Taipei Arena. But in between and through the alleyways were grimy old buildings that were offices or apartments. Inside, though, were modern interiors, fit for hipsters.
We went to “the countryside” that is Jiu Feng, a sleepy mountain-side town that attracted a lot of visitors after Spirited Away became global, so its hawker streets began to populate with modern chain shops as well. A lot of the narrow alleyways were preserved, so we took a bit of an adventure and took whatever path that went up. Once we got to the top for a great view, we trekked down again through an extravagant graveyard, and many people’s homes, all shut with few windows, and closely packed together. You would think that with so many small and sharp alleyways, we’d find ourselves at a dead end at some point, but after wandering for a while, you would never expect one. It was surprisingly reassuring to know that there would always be a way out.
In Taipei, people drive cars, scooters, and they ride the train. The scooters reminded me of Vietnam, the cars reminded me of America, and the train reminded me of Japan.
Since our tour was focused towards Japanese tourists, which was evident because none of the shop attendants spoke English at all, we were taken to special tourist shops designed for tourists to pour all their money into gifts and symbols of status that included a 5% discount if you spent over 3000 Taiwan dollars.
The nice thing about going to a shop recommended by the tour is that it assures authenticity of Taiwanese-made products, but I can’t speak for the actual value and whether something is overpriced. However, I find that bargaining in this inflated economy only encourages people to cut even more corners anyway, like cheating workers of a fair wage, so I’m more conscious about what I can and can’t afford, and what I really need.
That aside, the tour also took us to duty-free brand name shops, which was a total waste of time. Our tour guide wisely cut that part of the tour short and took us to a fortune-telling alley that also catered to Japanese tourists. This was definitely a win because the one other female teacher had originally wanted to come to Taiwan to experience its fortune-tellers, but was shot down in a Japanese-esque way by the older male math teacher (who also assumes power because he’s from Aizu and she’s from the other side of the country).
In addition to our amazing tour guide’s sixth sense in knowing what we wanted to do, she explained the circumstances of Taiwanese society, how it’s got the lowest birth rate in the world, not because the people don’t want kids, but because the cost of living is incredibly expensive. Also, as our bus went toward the Japanese embassy, we saw a protest rally getting started, and she had no qualms about explaining the animosity between Taiwanese people of Chinese lineage and indigenous Taiwanese. I can’t say I understand the social situation in Taiwan, but having Taiwanese friends and family who are of Chinese and indigenous descent, as well as glossing over Taiwan’s history through Wikipedia, I realize that I’ve only hit the surface, and that there’s a lot more interesting things to discover.
I took a lot of notes in my Moleskin (whether I go back to review them is another thing…), and the shop attendants noticed that everything I wrote was in English. She assumed I was Japanese, and said, “How smart you are!” I responded by saying, “No no, I’m American (it’s expected).” I had explained I was Vietnamese-American to the tour guide beforehand, so for a minute, I had two aunties chit-chatting about me, and later was told, “You’re going to turn Japanese!”
Không không! Tôi là người góc Việt! Bố tôi lớn lên ở Đà Lạt, mẹ tôi sông ở Sài Gòn! Một trăm phần trăm người Việt!
A few food notes:
- Fried quail eggs on a stick is AMAZING. I want more!
- Pig’s blood encrusted with peanuts with hot sauce and cilantro was a bit boring. The hot sauce was overpowering and erased all the other flavors for me.
- I had chrysanthemum tea and it was soooo good! Really missed that.
- Taiwan has this “hot dog” where it’s a Chinese-style pork sausage, sweetened by marinating in rice wine that’s wrapped inside another sausage made of sticky rice. We waited in line for 30 minutes watching a middle-aged couple tag team in making them. They offer various kinds of toppings to go with your sausage.
- Didn’t have time to eat beef noodle soup. Sad.
- Din Tai Fung! Everyone had their fill of soup dumplings. My fave was the crab roe and pork. Really wanted to try the truffle dumplings, but I didn’t realize I could order my own basket until the social studies teacher had his own. But happiness returned when the sweet hot rice wine soup with dumplings came out. The menu didn’t say that the dumplings contained black sesame, so you can’t imagine how happy I was to take a bite and discover this sweet sweet black sesame oozing out. SO HAPPY.
- They sell sugar cane drinks! It’s called さとうきび. Noted.
- Couldn’t get myself to order stinky tofu with my travel companions. I hate the smell myself, but I love the texture. Now if I could do the same for durian…