By Sun Lee Chang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Have you ever listened to that Tony Bennett song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”? Understandably, that quirky city, with personality to spare, has left an indelible impression on those who have ventured there. Like San Francisco, the densely populated and bustling city of Taipei, Taiwan has also captured a spot in my heart. I have been there three times now. My first trip was as a newlywed, meeting my husband’s huge extended family. We visited again to introduce our first child, before she could even walk. Now, we are back a third time with our second child and my in-laws. This is a triumphant visit of sorts to celebrate this point of our lives and also to see my husband’s nearly 100-year-old grandfather.
Being a child of immigrants, albeit from a different Asian nation, this trip is deeply gratifying on a level that I could not have anticipated. I find myself wondering if visiting my own homeland of South Korea, which I haven’t been to since my family moved to the state of Washington, would trigger those same feelings as making this sojourn to a country that is an ocean away from Seattle. I have been in the United States for almost 40 years. And due to circumstances beyond my control, I could not make it back to South Korea. Many of my older relatives have long since passed on and it is unfortunate that my side of the family has lost touch with the younger generations across the ocean from us. Now that I have children of my own, I am grateful that my husband’s side of the family has maintained regular contact.
Despite the distance, I see that the people here have concerns that very much mirror my own. In conversing with my husband’s adult cousins, we found ourselves talking about trying to get our children in the best schools, comparing the many activities our children are involved in, and also acknowledging the challenge of getting them to practice playing the piano, or keeping them off electronic devices. I was also grateful that so many of my husband’s kinfolk, both adults and children, speak fluent English. As one might imagine, it greatly facilitated the strengthening of our connection. Our broken Mandarin doesn’t even come close to their fluency in English. Although I have picked up the rudimentary “thank you,” “you’re welcome,” “good morning,” and “yes” and “no,” I realized how lucky I am that my mother-in-law is passing on her native tongue to my children, as they certainly aren’t learning Mandarin from me. So much for that “Learn to Speak Mandarin” tape that I bought many years ago!
Okay, so back to the tooth reference. It wasn’t my tooth that was left behind. Rather, my eldest daughter, who just turned 6, lost her first tooth on this trip. I joked that maybe she should leave it behind in Taiwan to signify how much she loved noshing on all the food. From the pork soup dumplings, sticky rice, and pork-steamed dumplings at the world famous Din Tai Fung, the cold milk teas with boba, delicate pastries from the many street corner shops, and the rich beef broth noodles — it’s no wonder my daughter whispered to me, as she was falling asleep in the first few days of our trip, that she loved this gastronomic paradise. We even had an eye popping bakery loaded with mouth-watering cakes and sweet breads in the lobby of our hotel, The Landis, called Liz Gastronamie. I could tell that she could hardly wait to see what would unfold over the next few days. Taiwan did not disappoint, especially as I recall the endless stalls of flavorful meats and seafood cooking at the Shilin Night Market (one of the many night markets that open late and stay open into the wee hours of the morning).
Just as Seattle has undergone its own transformation over the last few years, Taipei has also evolved. It is a nation of earnest, hardworking people who are pragmatic to the core. They are surrounded by the beauty of the mountains and the bounty of the sea that borders it on all sides. Driving down from a hot springs resort in the mountains at Tien-Lai, we happened to run across a field of white calla lilies that simply took my breath away. I love callas so much, I wanted to use them exclusively for my wedding years ago. That is, until I discovered how exorbitantly expensive they were out of season. To see the lilies growing in such glorious profusion was a wondrous sight to behold and almost torturous to find out that a beautiful, long stemmed bunch was being sold for the equivalent of three U.S. dollars at a roadside stand.
It hasn’t been all roses, or callas as it were, on this trip. The Taiwanese like bidets (you know those toilets that are heated and wash your backside) here in the better hotels and restaurants, so it took me quite a while to figure out just how to flush, as I can’t read Chinese. I press a couple of buttons, stand back, and hope that I didn’t just turn the darn thing off. What a concept, right? A toilet with an on/off button!
Back in the heart of the city, as I jumped out of the way of motorcycles and cars zooming by in impossibly narrow alleys, and busy folks going about their business, I couldn’t help but admire the enterprising spirit and drive to push through any open channel. Gazing up at what was once the tallest building in the world, Taipei 101, I wonder at the power of human ingenuity. It fit in neatly with my own philosophy of life — going through the path of least resistance and, at the same time, striving for something greater in certain areas. The results haven’t always been pretty, but it makes sense in its own logical way. There is a graciousness in this very real city that seems at odds with what it should be.
We somehow packed about two weeks’ worth of adventures into one very busy week, thanks to the budget friendly taxis, the subway, and family members who shuttled us around. As expensive as it is to take the whole family to Taiwan from Seattle, I don’t know when we will be able to go back again. I will be sad to leave this wealth of dishes I have come to savor and cherish, as well as the family I have shared them with. They say food is the way to the soul and in so much as your teeth are the gatekeepers, like my eldest daughter, maybe I too left a tooth in Taiwan.
Sun Lee Chang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.