Expatriate Preserve

The neighborhood south of Shita University is where young, fresh faced students from abroad come to study Chinese, immerse themselves in local culture, and prepare themselves for a life of hair-tearing frustration in the world of East-meets-West business.  It is here that we find in great abundance members of the expatriate species, engaged in the various rites and rituals peculiar to them and their ilk.  An afternoon spent in the Shita Expatriate Preserve is indeed an elucidating experience to those who wish to understand the species.  Taiwanese are advised to follow certain common sense precautions to help ensure that their trip to the preserve is both a pleasurable and educational experience.

If one follows you, do not panic.  The attention span of average expatriates is notoriously short, and they will most likely lose interest when more attractive members of any bipedal species catch their notice.

An expatriate may approach you offering a “language exchange.” Do not, under any circumstances, accept the offer; decline politely, but firmly.  Such arrangements are never without strings.

Should an expatriate follow you outside of the confines of the preserve, duck into one of the many conveniently located McDonald’s, buy a cheeseburger, and leave it unwrapped on a nearby curb.  This will usually distract the expatriate long enough for you to make your escape.

Of course, under no circumstances should you take them home with you, no matter how cute they may seem at the time.  Many are the tales of naïve locals who have taken expatriates home, only to be reduced to flushing them down the toilet once they realize just how much trouble they are.

While these are most likely urban myths, it may account for some of the strange sounds one often hears emanating from deep within the sewers of Taipei.


The Night Market Has No Class

Once upon a time Formosa was a poor place, and the majority of the island's inhabitants were farmers, merchants and craftspeople. In those days, a meal out for those lucky enough to afford such an extravagance, was often taken al fresco, and consisted of a bowl of rice with some vegetables, and maybe some pork or seafood.  But nowadays, Taiwan's humble roots are a thing of the distant past, and in the capital of Taipei, restaurants catering to all social and economic classes can be found in great abundance.   But at the night market, meals are still eaten in the open air, and all class distinctions are transcended in the national pursuit of gastronomic pleasure.

Taipei is filled with night markets, some bigger than others, but even the smallest of these boasts food carts in the dozens.  There’s scant room for parking in the blocks surrounding a night market, so cars, along with class distinctions, are left outside.  On any given evening at the Shita Night Market, named for the nearby Shita University, the casual observer is likely to find harried mid-level salary men bumping elbows with taxi drivers at the metal counter of a stand serving stinky tofu, a national delicacy the flavor of which is both distinctly Taiwanese and definitely an acquired taste.

Further down the street you might see students slurping down bowls of bing sha (sweetened shaved ice with fruit) alongside secretaries from nearby office blocks letting their hair down after hours.

Across the river in Shilin, home of Taipei’s oldest and most well known night market, it isn’t surprising to come across a group of well-dressed CEO types sitting alongside denim clad scooter mechanics at a greasy counter eating greasy oyster pancakes smothered in sweet sauce.  To the outsider it may seem odd, this convergence of dissimilar strata of society, but to a Taiwanese there’s nothing at all strange about seeing the elite rubbing shoulders with the hoi-polloi.  The night market does not discriminate; it is the closest thing to an egalitarian meeting ground to be found on this island of 21 million, an oasis of authenticity in an increasingly materialistic, face-based society.


The Fruit Lady of Shita

In the afternoon she opens shop, chopping mangos, papayas, cantaloupe, honeydew melons, strawberries, along with various other esoteric Taiwanese fruits, and laying the chunks out on blocks of ice.  In the hours before sunset, her customer base is comprised mainly of students from the nearby university.  When the sun goes down, the fruit lady sells plastic bags filled with chopped fruit to people from all walks of Taipei life, from taxi drivers to well dressed executives, mid-level salary men to inebriated foreign students out on the town.  She’s perpetually merry and bright, offering free samples to all takers and never batting an eye.

For years, I knew her only as the fruit lady, having never learned her proper name despite the fact that she’s long been among my favorite people in Taipei.  Face to face I address her as Jie-jie, or older sister, which infuriates her as she's only a year older than me.  But I’m not comfortable calling her Mei-mei, or younger sister; it sounds flirtatious, and she’s a married woman.  Her stand occupies a prime chunk of corner real estate in the outdoor food market on the south end of Shita University.

Strangely enough, our first conversation ended in an argument.  I don’t remember the details exactly, a misunderstanding probably, mistaken communication between a native and newly-studied student of Mandarin both having bad days.  But her fruit was some of the best to be found in Taipei, and though I initially returned for the fruit, as my Mandarin improved, I found myself increasingly drawn into lengthy conversations with my fruit lady.  At first our conversations mostly consisted of her questions and my answers.  Queries about salary, over chunks of honeydew.  What about my girlfriend, and did her parents know their daughter had a Westerner, over strawberries.

Perhaps it was because my Mandarin improved, or maybe it was because the relationship had just progressed, but before long my fruit lady was telling me things about herself.  She was from down south, but came to Taipei with her identical twin sister to open up shops.  Her twin had also opened up a fruit stand, in a night market across town.  She had two daughters, and was concerned because they didn’t seem to enjoy studying English.  She wanted to travel, but was too busy making money to think about anything but business.  When the children were a bit older, she thought she and her husband might do some traveling, but that was a long way off yet.  Eventually, she stopped taking money from me altogether, and any time I came by, she would give me a clear plastic bag stuffed full of assorted fruit chunks for which a regular customer might have paid 200 NT. She refused to take my money no matter what I said, and still does to this day.

The one topic my fruit lady had always been reticent to discuss with me was politics, usually a hot button topic among Taiwanese.  Recently, I found myself chatting with her in the early evening hours following a massive rally held in response to Beijing’s anti-secession law.  It had been the largest political rally in years, and I thought that with emotions still running high and the market unusually crowded with marchers filtering from the rally, I might be able to draw her out.

“Surely, you must have some feelings about which party has Taiwan’s best interest in mind,” I ventured. She just laughed.

 “Nationalist party…New Party…Democratic Progressive Party,” she laughed, going down the list of prominent Taiwanese political factions.  “I belong to the ‘Me Party.’  I’m the only member, and my platform is get on with my business.”

A group of bedraggled looking marchers passed by, all wearing green caps bearing the DPP logo.  “Taiwan Independence,” one of them yelled, and my friend smiled and handed him a toothpick with a chunk of melon on the end.  Though it didn’t happen, I believe that had a second group wearing caps with Kuomintang logos passed ten minutes later, shouting, “Long live one China!” my friend the fruit lady would have done the same, never batting an eye.


Betel Nut Ingénue

Binglan xiaojiemen (betel nut girls) are ubiquitous in cities and towns throughout Taiwan.  These scantily clad women sit on the side of the road in transparent glass booths, from which they dispense baggies of betel nut, a mildly narcotic locally grown substance ingested primarily by men, usually taxi drivers, truckers and so forth.  Though every so often some government official looking to score points with the high-minded morality crowd will lead a crusade to get betel nuts banned (or at least to get betel nut girls to dress more modestly), little has come from these efforts.  This story was inspired by a friend of mine who spent time getting to know some of these women.  The first words, meaning ‘tell me’, are in the Taiwanese dialect.

Ga wu gong-a!” Ah-wei laughed, slapping Ah-nei’s bare white shoulder with her palm.  “Was it romantic? I hear foreigner men are so romantic.  Tell me! Tell me!”

“Hmmmm…let me think.”  Ah-nei ran long fingers through her hair as if trying to conjure up moments past, prolonging her friend’s suspense.  “Yes, definitely.”

“Lucky! I can’t stand you!”

A blue Hyundai announced itself before the glass booth, tires crunching on gravel.  “This one is mine.”  Ah-nei grabbed two baggies of betel nut and walked to the car, flamingo-like on high heels.  Ah-nei bent down at the waist and presented the driver with a full view of the goods offered and those about which he could only dream.

“Two bags leaf-wrapped, right handsome?”

The driver was in his early forties by the looks of him; he’d bought from the stand a few times before, always on Monday mornings.  He was, by the looks of his car, a family man, and Ah-nei assumed he was a businessman.  The small struggles and low-grade disappointments of his life were just beginning to etch their map on the skin of his face.  Ah-nei imagined the man leaving a doting tai-tai at home in a big apartment in Ilan on Monday mornings, leaving her to raise their child in a healthier environment while he drove into Taipei to manage whatever his business was during the week.  She imagined that he had a small, non-descript efficiency apartment somewhere in Taipei not far from the office; he tried to drive back at least once or twice mid-week to spend the night with his wife and child.  He loved his wife, or so he told himself, but couldn’t deny that he felt as if he’d compromised somewhere along the line.  These thoughts he dealt with through drink, and the occasional debauch.  Though she did not know his name, Ah-nei knew that she represented to him just a small taste of the latter.  She smiled inwardly at the realization that in some small way she had a place in the environment of the man’s marriage.

Ganxie,” said the man, smiling.  “Thank you for remembering me.”

“Not so many handsome men buying from me, mostly pock-marked truckers.”

The driver held a 200 kuai note just inches out of the window.  Ah-nei leaned in closer; strands of long black hair, soft as corn silk, tickled the man’s wrist as he handed her the money.  “Keep the change,” he said, and slowly accelerated back onto the road.  She tucked the note into the purse dangling from her hip as she walked back into the glass booth.

“Why didn’t you just put your tongue in his ear?” Ah-wei was amused.  “You got close enough.”

“You’re such a prude! Besides, I didn’t have to.  It’s all about the implication.”

“So you say! So what did you imply with your handsome ahdogha? Tell me everything.  Where did you meet him?”

“At a pub in Ilan.  I think he is an English teacher.  He speaks good Mandarin, but only a little Taiwanese.”

“Was he nice to you?”

“Mmmm…after we left the pub, he took me dancing, and then to sing karaoke.  He could really sing in Mandarin.”

“And then? What did you do after you left the KTV?”

Ai-ya, what do you think? And you know what they say about foreign men being bigger? It’s really true.”

“Pervert!” shrieked Ah-wei, blushing. “I knew you were bian-tai!”

“Jealous!” Ah-nei said, and perched herself on one of the booth’s two high, elegant stools and set back to work spreading white paste onto green leaves while her friend occupied herself with the task of wrapping the leaves around whole betel-nuts.  Ah-nei thought about her foreigner.  After they’d made love, she lay in his arms and told him about her life, about being a betel nut girl, having to dress up and smile for strange men all day long.  Such a shameful profession, her mother said, only one step above prostitute.  But the foreign man didn’t find it shameful at all.  She hoped he would come by, hoped she would see him again.

For a few minutes, the two worked together in silence, two beautiful flamingos in a glass booth on the side of a provincial highway.  Another car pulled up.  Ah-wei was the first to look up from her bowl of betel nuts.

“Wassa…a Westerner.”

The driver, a thirty something white man with thinning hair and a pockmarked face was looking through the glass booth, staring at the two women.  His eyes rested momentarily on Ah-nei.  The man said something and laughed.  The woman in the passenger seat, a Taiwanese, laughed and said something.  The man laughed and said something back to her, then rolled down the window.

“Hey, give us four sarsaparillas,” the man shouted in Mandarin at the booth.  When Ah-nei looked up, she saw that the man was now staring straight at her and smirking with a rough familiarity.  For a moment, she stared back, feeling her skin flush before breaking the gaze off.  She spoke tersely to Ah-wei.

“This one is yours.  Go and give them the sodas.”

“But I can’t…I don’t know what to say to foreign…”

“Don’t say anything, just give him four cans of soda and take the money.”  Ah-nei kept her head down, eyes in fixed determination on her long fingers spreading white narcotic jelly onto green leaves.  Ah-wei pulled four cans of sarsaparilla out of the cooler and put them into a transparent plastic bag.

“I want to say something to him in English! Um, hello is ‘hao du yu du,’ right?”

“Don’t bother. He can speak Mandarin.  Just give him the sodas and take his money.”

Ah-wei slid open the door of the glass booth and walked gingerly towards the car, stiletto heels on gravel shoulder.  In the back seat was an older couple.  They looked like they must be the foreigner’s parents.  The father looked at Ah-wei, powerful Taiwan sunshine shining off her tight black skirt almost blinding him.  The mother stared straight ahead, and was not smiling.  Ah-wei had forgotten how to make the sounds in English for ‘hello.’  She gave the driver the sack of sodas.

Xie xie nimen,” the man said, handing her exact change. “Thanks to you both.”

The car pulled back onto the road.  Ah-wei watched it, and thought she saw from the corner of her eye the man turn and wink.  She teetered back into the booth.  She understood now.

Ah-nei’s fingers were still working furiously; now she was rolling pasted leaves tightly around the betel nuts.  Ah-wei sat down on the high stool, crossed her long legs, and took up the job of pasting green leaves.  The two women worked in silence as the sun rose higher in the sky.  A few cars stopped, and Ah-wei made deliveries and chatted with customers while her friend continued working, fingers rolling pasted leaves around nuts, squeezing them tightly.

“We have enough now,” Ah-wei said when she saw that the pile of rolled betel nuts threatened to spill from the plastic basket.

“OK.”  Ah-nei wiped her hands, and for the first time since the foreign man had come, she looked up, eyes blinking in the sunshine.  The two women sat listening to the humming of the air conditioner as the sun hovered over the mountains like a ball of jellied fire.

At last, Ah-wei broke the silence.

“Was he at least, you know…more romantic?” she asked quietly.

“No,” answered Ah-nei.  “He was only bigger.”


Buddha Box

I acquired the blessed thing on an express train from Hsinchu to Taichung.  A middle aged man with shaven head, orange robes, serene smile and half closed eyes, pulled it from an orange satchel and pressed it into my hands.  I thanked him and smiled for a moment before realizing, newly arrived and still perplexed by the ways of the East, that some contribution was in order.  Pulling a fifty kuai note from my pocket, I smoothed it reverently before placing it into his bowl.  He smiled, bowed his head and continued down the aisle.

Jet black and made of plastic, the box was clearly made to fit the average palm of an average hand.  It looked like an old style transistor radio, one with strange markings all along the front and an image of a charcoal brazier printed in gold ink alongside its single round speaker.  On the top edge of the box was a grooved volume knob, which I switched on.  Melodic feminine voices sprung forth.

Naaaa - ma aaa - mi to-o-o fo, nama ami to fo, nama.

Naaaa - ma aaa - mi to-o-o fo, nama ami to fo, nama.

A woman sitting in the seat across the aisle smiled at me, and though I’d felt at peace before switching the box on, I now felt especially tranquil.  I held the box in my average sized palm as the melodic chant continued its loop eternal (or at least until the battery gave out).  I felt one with Taiwan, at one with the universe.  My only concern was how they’d gotten a choir of nuns into the box in the first place, and what might happen should they suddenly decide it was time to leave.


Love Hotel Etiquette

The short stretch of light rail that stretches between the Peitou and Hsin Peitou Stations is an anomaly.  Since it is not even long enough for the train to get up any speed and connects Peitou to a neighborhood that isn't populated enough to really warrant its own station, one tends to wonder just why this strange little appendage exists.  Suspicious souls might suspect that the ugly specter of political pork barreling in the extreme reared its head mightily in its construction, but such cynicism should be quickly dispelled by the realization that this amazingly expensive stretch of rail exists for one purpose alone – to make it that much more convenient for you, personally, to get to Hsin Peitou – Hot Spring Love Hotel Capital of the World.

A few hours at one of these places will set you back between 400 and 800 NT (the “take a rest rate”), and an evening will cost you and a loved one between 1200 and 2300.  A word of advice: go on a weeknight for the discounts, and spend the extra money; while the difference in price between the cheap and the chic may be an hour or two of pay, it'll be worth it just to see the look on your loved one's face upon seeing the 21-inch stereophonic TV and a natural hot-spring fed Jacuzzi big enough to float a small fishing boat.  And nothing says class like his-and-her individually wrapped toothpicks.

The hot spring love hotels of Hsin Peitou are your home away from home, except you won't have to clean up, and, unlike your nosy neighbors, the desk clerk will not judge you as you leave in the morning after a night of loving debauchery with the him, her or combination thereof of your choice.  The facilitation of your enjoyment is all that concerns them, and the strange, crooked smiles on their customers’ faces are the only thanks they require.  This leaves you free to shed your inhibitions to the fullest extent allowed by the law and/or your personal dogma.

Losing one’s inhibitions is easier said than done (except when drunk, when the opposite is often true).  As I walked out of one after a particularly decadent evening, I found myself wondering, "What will the cleaning lady think of the half eaten chunks of Laughing Cow Cheese scattered around the bed? Will the manager be informed about the quantity of cheap supermarket caviar floating in the Jacuzzi?" In my naiveté, I actually initiated conversation with the cleaning lady on the way to the elevator, to apologize for the extreme untidiness with which she was about to deal.

“Oh, na-li, na-li!” she laughed. “Our only concern is that you had a good time.  Leave the mess to us, and come back again soon.”  A far cry indeed from the words spoken by my parents the morning after my last sleepover party.

Of course, there are other activities available in Hsin Peitou for those disinclined to debauchery.  There are several public hot springs in and around the oddly named Anti-Calamity Park directly across from the station, and nestled as it is in the armpit of beautiful Yaming Mountain, Hsin Peitou is an excellent point from which to start any number of hikes.  Several of the bigger hotels in the neighborhood also offer both public and private hot springs, separated by gender or for the exclusive use of the paying customer and guest.  There is also a long-standing rumor that some of these seedier places will, for a fee, provide a bathing companion for the undiscriminating gentleman, but I'd advise against that.  Love, like advice, is best appreciated when freely given.


Stinky Tofu

Cho dofu, or “stinky tofu,” is the Taiwanese snack that separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls, and occasionally, the women from the men. Cho dofu is tofu that's been fermented to a nice degree of pungency, then deep-fried and served with pickled cabbage and hot sauce. Cho dofu is very much a Taiwanese delicacy. Carts selling it can be found at any night market, and in most neighborhoods and towns. Generally speaking, you can find the nearest cho dofu stall with your eyes closed, as the stuff is quite rank. Though tofu is usually thought of as a healthy alternative to meat, those making regular pilgrimages to the local cho dofu stand in the name of health are kidding themselves, since the stuff is as deep fried as deep fried gets, usually in animal fat, but some stalls catering to vegetarians use vegetable oil. Though I resisted it for the longest time, I finally gave in and had some with one of my students. (Taiwanese people enjoy bringing foreigners out for cho dofu, seeing it as a bonding ritual.) Eventually, I developed a taste for the stuff because it was cheap and filling. Though I knew it wasn’t exactly healthy, I justified eating it regularly by telling myself that it was served with pickles, and thus counted as both a vegetable and a protein. Describing the smell is difficult. To those who don’t like it, cho dofu is a cross between limburger cheese and fried sweat socks; to those who do, it's a whiff of pure heaven.