Travel | Crossing the language barrier

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For most of my childhood, "Taiwan" was simply the answer to a question my short mushroom haircut inevitably solicited from classmates parents, whose own daughters hair were plaited with long shiny pigtails:

WHERE ARE YOU REALLY FROM?

Many people didn't even know what or where Taiwan is. There were even times some would try to correct me: "You mean Thailand." 

But I couldn't do much to inform beyond the name of the place. I honestly didn’t know much about Taiwan, other than that my parents moved from there. The few things I did know was in the context of our family traditions. From celebrating New Years with red envelopes and large plates of food rotating around the lazy susan, I became acquainted with the culture. I knew the basics of the political situation with China, but had yet to understand the full context of its history. (I'm still not sure if I'm technically allowed to call it country.) The edu system I grew up in sort of glossed over the entire topic of Asian history. Thousands of years were roughly abbreviated into the Silk Road, the Great Wall, the World Wars, Vietnam War. Taiwan (Formosa) was a merely footnote to Dutch imperialism in Asia.


The last time I visited Taiwan was during my early elementary school years. It's hard to believe that it's been nearly 20 years. I somehow still remember the food (delicious), the traffic (atrocious), and the woodsy smell of incense burning at local market streets and temples.

I had often thought about returning for a visit as an adult, but to be honest, Taiwan seemed too foreign for me to navigate on my own. I wasn't eager to tackle the challenge of communicating with my terrible Mandarin skills. 

Fun fact: As a young child, I spoke mostly Mandarin.

Then I started elementary school and (in an attempt to seem as norm-core as possible) I swiftly abandoned any knowledge of the language. Trying to fit into surburbia is rough, man. From that point on, my family would speak to me in Mandarin and I'd reply in English. We still communicate like this today.

I never thought it was odd that my parents and I speak completely different languages.

I merely found it frustrating that we’re mutually incapable of clearly expressing our thoughts to the other side. This led to a lot of teenage angst. And, subsequently, a wide array of emo & pop punk mix CDs.

My main exposure to the Taiwanese language was my grandparents: ah-ma & ah-gong.

In lieu of a plump, top-bunned smiley woman greeting me with a plate of chocolate chip cookies (like I'd seen in so many nursery rhymes) my ah-ma was short, sassy lady with lightly permed hair. She was always armed with plates of steaming hot pork and chive dumplings for my sister and me. Her English was limited to key phrases: "hello" "thank you" "bye."

My ah-gong spoke even less English. He was a lanky gentleman who wore a suit nearly everyday well into his 90s. With his arthritis-gnarled hands, he'd deftly slice fruit with a fisherman's knife with one hand and offer you a piece of his favorite caramel milk candy with the other. He spoke to me in a mixture of Taiwanese and Mandarin. If it wasn't for them, I'd probably wouldn't understand much of either language at all. 


This year, my dad and sister spontaneously booked flights during an airline promo sale. Somehow their arbitrarily selected dates lined up perfectly with spring break from language school. The decision to piggyback on their trip was a no-brainer. I missed my family, and the language barrier would be much less of a hurdle with them by my side.

The city center was just as energetic as I remembered. Everything is stacked upwards: store on the ground floor, homes piled on above. At any time of day, you can hear the buzzy hum of motor scooters weaving between the traffic of congested streets. Scooters are definitely the preferred mode of transport. It wasn't just fun, but also super functional. At the local train stations outside Taipei, dozens of commuters get dropped off and picked up via scooter.

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I was suprised to find how many people commute long distances to travel into Taipei city each day. From the outskirts of Taipei, we squeezed alongside local commuters on a rapid long distance train. All the seats are reserved, so we all stood in the aisles between the seats. With nothing to hold onto (these were commuter trains, not subways), we did our best to avoid squashing strangers and simply swayed with the train. 

My dad apparently commuted like this all the time. Starting from a young age, he used several modes of transportation to get to class every day. He woke up before sunrise to catch the first bus into the city, then walked 45 mins from the main station to school. Meanwhile, I barely made it on time when my school was a mere 5 minutes away.

His university campus was perched up on a hill. To reach the entrance of the campus, you tackle a tall set of steep (and uneven) stairs. Then you're only at the front gate! The students here must have really toned calves. The campus itself was really beautiful, blending naturally with the backdrop of green mountains. The liberal arts college in particular was gorgeous. The traditional architecture had been maintained over time. The classrooms and courtyard looked like they'd been transported from another era. 

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His high school was right in the heart of Taipei City. Standing on the play field, you could see Taipei 101 towering a short distance away. I felt tiny human wandering between the consecutive rows of large classrooms buildings and wide courtyards in between. We dropped by on a school day, so each corner we turned we saw students practicing sports, dance routines, color guard. It was interesting to see high school students on the other side of globe just being teens in high school. I obviously didn't speak the same language, but could definitely relate to running around and laughing with my teammates. 


If you didn't know already, the food in Taiwan is incredible. If you ever find yourself here, eat anything and everything you can get your grubby little hands on.

The bar for food was set pretty high from the first day. My aunt prepared an incredible spread of homemade Taiwanese food for breakfast on my first morning in Taipei. There were dumplings, baos, freshmade soy milk, seasonal bamboo shoots, braised pork, and an array of fresh local fruit—to cleanse the palette, yanno? 

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One of my favorite meals of the trip was in Keelung Night Market. Both Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern explored this famous night market in their individual episodes of travel-eating in Taiwan. So it's popular with tourists as well as locals. We arrive around dinner time and it's packed. 

There are a ton of stalls lining the street—some more permanent-looking than others. The eats range from large bowls of savory noodles to made-to-order oyster pancakes to sticks of hand-dipped sweets. You can find traditional Taiwanese food as well as adapted versions of eats from elsewhere (kabobs and takoyaki). The servings are portioned so you can eat and walk, explore as many different stalls as you like. 

We wander and eat a bit, then my dad takes us to stall no. 16. He used to come here with my ah-ma when he was a kid. They would take the long bus ride into the city to visit her family and stop by Keelung Night Market along the way. At this stall, they would eat fresh made tien-bu-la (甜不辣), a Taiwanese street food dish that translates to 'sweet not spicy'. It consists of fried fishcake, usually served with a spicy-sweet sauce. Like a lot of Chinese cuisine, it's translation sounds terrible but it's fucking delicious.

We were excited to see they're still making the same dish—more than 50 years later—at this stall.

 


My ah-ma passed away just a few months ago. Because of visa stuff, I wasn't able to fly back to the States to attend the funeral. I miss her and regret never truly thanking her for helping raise me. I think about her a lot, especially being in Japan because so much of the food I eat and the genki little grandmas I see remind me of her. Born in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, both her and my ah-gong maintained a reverence for Japanese food and culture for their entire lives. I think they would've really liked that I decided to live in Japan for a bit.

There's no time like the present to explore the past.

Spending time in Asia sparked my interest in understanding how and where my parents grew up. As a kid, I assumed my parents grew up just like me: in a house, on a cul-de-sac, by a park, in a suburb. I never bothered to ask otherwise because it seemed like there was an obvious answer. I figured their childhood hobbies also included drawing, piano, tennis lessons every weekend—catching episodes of Sesame Street and Magic School Bus in between.

My dad completed a bit of his higher education in Taiwan. His textbooks were in English, his lectures in Mandarin. This is how he learned English. He arrived in America with a tiny bit of work experience, even less savings, and the sheer will to make it work. 30+ years later, he's raised a family, maintained a successful career, while maneuvering through a few bumps along the way. 

I can't imagine away from everything familiar to live, work, and grow in a country so vastly different. I admire every single immigrant in a way that I don't think I was able to until now. It's incredibly brave. People don't get enough credit for it. It makes me proud to be the child of immigrants: Asian-American. Taiwanese-American. 

Though I always thought of it as a place so foreign and distant, Taipei helped me cross a language barrier to better connect with my family and, well, myself. 

 

Lessa Chung