Xiao Liuqiu and a Seafood Medley

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If you ever find yourself traveling in rural Taiwan, you might want to bring someone who can tell you what you’re eating. Let me clarify: if you ever find yourself on the lovely little tropical island of Xiao Liuqiu (off the coast of Donngang), and you’d like to know what you’re eating, you’ll NEED to bring someone who can tell you what you’re eating. While many of the restaurants in Taipei have pictures of their food items or, if you’re lucky, an interesting English translation, nowhere in rural Taiwan will afford you this luxury. Save for my fruit juice extravaganza yesterday, this is where my culinary adventure has begun.

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In my soup this afternoon (there is a picture to your left), I found the following items: 2 fully-intact clam shells, one purple octopus leg, two balls of something-fishy-tasting (example to the bottom right of the picture there), a pile of ground meat (beef? pork? something else entirely?), three shrimp, a selection of scallop parts, some fried white meat-like substance that tasted more like beef than the other meaty stuff, three strips of hot pink tofu, some cubed brown pieces I imagine are a third kind of meat, one piece of fried tuna, and lots of noodles and green onion slices. The delightful chef, a sweet Taiwanese woman with a shy smile and a dear love for cooking, excitedly took me into the kitchen, which, yes, was actually a six-burner stove next to our table, and with flourish, pointed out every single item for me on the item, pointing to the Chinese characters and then pointing to the corresponding dish cooking on the stove. While this did give me a kind of ballpark, to be honest, I didn’t really have much of an idea of exactly what was what on the burner itself, but I did appreciate her very kind attempt to help me navigate her restaurant. Everything, by the way, smelled fantastic.

In a leap of faith, I pointed at one of the bowls, smiled, nodded, and sat down. Sipping my papaya-milk and waiting patiently for lunch, I hadn’t any idea that I’d just ordered an absolutely delightful soup–with just the right amount of chili pepper, just the right amount of noodles, and just the right amount of octopus legs and unidentifiable meat-like objects.

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What I’ve learned today is that sometimes, you’ve got to just close your eyes, point, and hope for the best. After all, when it comes to navigating culinary delights in countries with characters, you simply have to trust the experts.

Welcome to Xiao Liuqiu!

The Mona Lisa of the East

npm2As our English-speaking tour guide at the National Palace Museum, a nice docent who introduced herself as Rosalyn, walked our motley crew of 12 I-have-no-idea-how-to-read-Chinese tourists up three flights of stairs, she warned us that the lines to the museum’s most prized possession could be long, so if we could please cultivate a sense of patience, that would be great. She wouldn’t tell us any more than we were about to see the “Mona Lisa of the East” because she wanted our experience to be a wonderful surprise.

The lines, as she predicted, were long–but instead of resembling a mob scene with cameras flashing, people complaining about the wait, and elbows and arms all around (The Louvre, anyone?), the lines were, well, pleasant. Three nice, orderly lines of polite Taiwanese people, waiting patiently, arms by their sides, smiles on their faces. Two female docents timed each group’s stay in the special room and when the group’s time was up, the ladies politely asked each group to continue moving, which, no one seemed to have a problem doing. Like so much in Taiwan, this was the most pleasant line experience I could have ever imagined.

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As we waited, I thought about my visit to the Mona Lisa of the West, which is, yes, the actual Mona Lisa. The lines, as you might imagine, weren’t really lines at all, but rather mobs of people pushing and shoving their way toward this Western masterpiece, snapping their cameras furiously and getting visibly frustrated when they couldn’t see over some tall person who happened to step in their way. People were sweaty, angry, and frustrated, impatiently counting down the seconds until they could get their own few moments with that seductive smile. And when they finally did push their way to the front of the line, most people didn’t even look  at Da Vinci’s masterpiece–all they wanted to do was snap as many photos as they possibly could before being shoved out of the way again.The line was an obstacle–not part of the process–and the experience itself was more of a “hey-I’ve-seen-the-Mona-Lisa” documentary than a genuine moment with a masterpiece.

This was certainly not the case at the National Palace Museum (and I admit, having experienced both, I highly prefer the latter here). As the line moved forward, I started wondering: What could China and Taiwan’s most prized art possession be? A painting by an emperor? A stone carving of a famous person? An ancient artifact from the first empire? Rosalyn teased us with facts about it without revealing its true nature: this is our nation’s most prized possession, she said. It is seductive, it is an allegory for the relationship between man and nature, it is a metaphor for female purity, it is fertility, abundance, sexuality, sensuality, ancestral, delicate, beautiful.

So what could this thing actually be?

Our turn for the room came, and I saw it, propped up on a wooden easel in a glass box in the center of the room. The Mona Lisa’s eastern counterpart is slightly more unusual than a cross-dressed self-portrait: it is a teeny tiny carving of a piece of cabbage with a bug on it.

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Now, I’m all for cabbage–toss some on my salad anytime!–but as I stood there, looking at this delicately carved precious piece of semi-fine stone with the softly ruffled leaves, the smooth lines down the body of the vegetable, the cracks and imperfections used to emphasize the veins in the stalks and leaves, the grasshopper carved right out of a leaf, I couldn’t help but realize just how foreign I actually am here. Weird portraits by strange men? No problem. Replication of a vegetable? I’m definitely new to this.

Learning Mandarin…And A Slip of the Tongue

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I have just discovered, after a full day of being so proud of myself for jumping in and attempting to speak Chinese from the very first moment I arrived in Taiwan, that I have actually been telling everyone I meet, everywhere, that I have to urinate.

You can imagine my mortification, especially since I didn’t realize this until I’d already spread the word to, oh, probably about half of Taipei. I would have preferred to remain blissfully ignorant, but my traveling partner thought it’d be best to inform me of my linguistic error today after the nice little old Chinese juice lady nearly fainted onto her blender after she handed me my freshly-squeezed beverage. Her friend, another nice little old Chinese juice lady, had immediately covered her mouth in surprise and started giggling in the very sweet and unobtrusive way that Asian ladies seem to do here–polite, soft, and subdued.

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At the time, I hadn’t any idea what I’d done: after all, I’d just braved entirely new territory by ordering a fresh fruit juice of, well, everything on the menu (since I couldn’t read the menu, not because I was feeling particularly bold and exciting or anything). Tomatoes, bananas, and strawberries–all horrifically chopped and dumped into a bowl, whirred up in a blender, and handed to me in a paper cup. I’d thought I’ve paved new ground in other ways, boldly sticking the plastic straw into a lumpy concoction of fruits that make the at-home Kristin shudder in disgust (adult selective eater, anyone?). And yet, I turned those tables almost immediately when instead of saying a little thank you, I instead shocked two little old ladies in an off-the-beaten path juice shop by telling them how much I really had to pee.

The secret, I’d later learn, was this: xie-xie is not, as you might think, pronounced she-she. It in, in fact, a bit more like shia-shia (and even that’s not right….). The differences, you see, are somewhat substantial.

28 Hours Later….and Dumplings!

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My watch is telling me it’s 8:15 a.m. My cell phone, however, which just performed its automatic update, is telling me it’s 11:14 p.m. This means, if I’m calculating correctly, that except for an accidental twenty minute nap while watching a hopefully pointless romantic comedy on the airplane, I have now been awake for 28 hours. I can’t remember the last time I did this (wait, have I ever done that?).

I’ve been awake longer than I can ever remember and yet: I’m sitting in my surprise upgraded room in the superbly spiffy Dandy Hotel in downtown Taipei eating the Hershey’s kisses that were sitting pleasantly on my pillow. (From what I gathered at the reception from the hopelessly sweet but nonetheless impossible to understand concierge, the hotel upgraded my room to a suite because they didn’t have time to prepare the room I was supposed to have. How my room wasn’t ready at 10:30 p.m. is baffling to me, since checkout is 12 noon…?) Anyway, I’m not sure how to use any of the four digital remote controls sitting next to the bed, and I’m not exactly sure how to flush the toilet or how to turn on the light in the bathroom (still working on that), but I’m smiling, I’m awake, and I’m exhausted. My knees are sore for sitting still for 15 hours, and despite drinking about 6 bottles of water on the plane, there’s a dull pain between my eyes. I went next door to the infamous 7/11 mart, the mart company that has literally taken over Taiwan with its lure of all-in-one shopping, and attempted to buy an ibuprofen, but after combing through the aisles and having literally no idea what any of the pill bottles were actually advertising, I settled for a warm pork dumpling (from a microwave, no less!) and another bottle of water. What a relief to discover that bottled water looks the same everywhere.

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Our drive through Taipei was, surprisingly, a lot like I imagined: flashing billboards, huge Chinese characters advertising all sorts of products, ideas, and slogans I can’t read, sleek skyscrapers and ultra-fast highways, mini-marts and grocery stores with animal parts hanging from the windows, women holding umbrellas and hustling down the streets in the drizzly rain, men on motorcycles, a near-death experience when my taxi had a stand-off with another taxi on the windy, one-lane cobblestone road leading to our hotel….you know, the traveling usual 🙂

So now, having been awake for 28 (is it 29 now?) hours and having had my fill of pork dumplings, I am going to try and lie in bed, close my eyes, and dream of tomorrow. The mountain biking tour was cancelled because of the impending rain, so I’m going to sleep in, have a wonderful buffet breakfast, and take a bus to the fantastic National Palace Museum. For lunch, I’m going to order something off a menu I can’t read, and after lunch, I think I’ll be going with Matt, the fellow writer I’m traveling with, to a graffiti/street art festival (celebration? honoring?). I hope to top off my day in Taipei with a visit to one of the renowned night markets, which, I’m told, take a brave stomach and an open mind. Bring on the squid parts and stinky tofu!

Planning a Trip to Taiwan: Tips From the Girl Who Hasn’t Been There Yet

Downtown Taipei
Downtown Taipei

Starting tomorrow, I will be in Taiwan for one week on a special FAM trip. I am being sponsored by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau and will be traveling, blogging, and writing about my experiences in an effort to promote Taiwan to twenty-and-thirty-something travelers who are less familiar with Taiwan and its culture, cuisine, landscape, and outdoor activities. What I hope to do–in addition to learning a little bit of Mandarin, trying not to get lost, eating something I’ve never eaten before and resisting the temptation to ask what it is, buying something in a street market, taking a picture of something unusual, and writing my brains out–is to discover a place I know very little about. And what I will do, what I will do with all of my heart, is write about this place to the point my pens run dry and the three mini-journals I bought fill up. And I will post, post, post, and submit, submit, submit, and I will make the Bureau proud to have sponsored me on this hopefully-not-once-in-a-lifetime experience but rather, I hope, this first-in-a-lifetime of experiences.

So far, even the experience of planning this trip has been a much-needed lesson in cultural sensitivity. Navigating a website, communicating over email, making reservations, and planning side trips–everything has forced me to reconsider these tasks as culturally-situated, literate acts that are not, as we sometimes forget, intuitive. Instead, they are always, always learned. Take a look at the TTB’s website and the way they are crafting their image, for instance: http://eng.taiwan.net.tw/ Look at the adorable animated figures giggling amicably while they slurp boba on the left-hand column. Look at EVA airlines site, which is currently promoting its Hello Kitty-themed aircraft: http://evakitty.evaair.com/en/ Try booking a hotel room for a night on a website that doesn’t have an English translation: http://www.ueu.com.tw/ (The trick I’ve learned is to tab over a collection of characters and wait for the website link to pop up at the bottom of the screen–they’re written in English!) What do I, as a Westerner who only traveled the States, Europe, a teeny part of the Caribbean, and the northern part of South America, make of these differences? What can I make of them, other than to smile and remember that I am now the foreigner? What can I make of this weird obsession to be the foreigner, to slip into the role of the social “other,” to play as a child just learning to spell all over again?

More Taipei
More Taipei

Honestly, I won’t say I’m not a little bit scared. A little bit worried I’ve become a rusty traveler. After all, this is about as out-of-my-comfort-zone as it gets. And yet, a part of me is thrilled, is jumping up and down while she packs, is jamming to music on her computer while she packs, unpacks, and packs again items of clothing she’ll probably never wear in the week she’s there. (Can I get away with shorts and a t-shirt? Is that too sloppy? Should I wear heels? A dress at night? Ack.)

Even more honestly? I love this. I love not knowing what to wear, how to speak, where to find the bathroom. It’s a thrill unparalleled to anything else I’ve found in this world.

Thank you, TTB and Intertrend Communications, for making this dream a reality for me. To travel and write, to discover the world, to remember my muse….I’ll be back with hundreds of new words for you!

一帆風順 (That’s Mandarin for Bon Voyage….I think :)),
Kristin