Taiwan: All That and Dim Sum!
We were only in Taiwan for 2 weeks and spent nearly all of our time in Taipei, but we did so much in such a small amount of time on this little island nation. We played "match the symbols" when we wanted to order food at a restaurant, we had family (Sarah!) come visit, we explored temples, hiked Elephant Mountain, looked down from the top of Taipei 101, foraged at the night markets, played Goshopon and the Monk Crane Game, and ate a lot of dumplings and green onion pancakes. While we did not go to a lot of tourist spots here, we got to engross ourselves in the culture in a more organic way.
It's the most "different" we have felt since India, but, unlike in India, hardly anyone we met spoke any substantial amount of English--at least to us. We weren't stared at like in India, people weren't rude or trying to scam us. It was quite the opposite really, everyone was quite friendly. It's more that the city was unapologetically not built to cater to English speaking tourists, something that both presented occasional (minor) problems for Matt and me as well as caused me to love it even more. Within our first 24 hours in Taipei, we experienced a few things that would set the tone for what the rest of our trip would feel like.
On our first day, Matt and I had to kill some time before we could check into our hostel, which we were very excited about since we hadn't gotten a ton of sleep on the plane the night before. We wandered around our new neighborhood trying to get some breakfast. The receptionist at the hostel had told us of this little shop just down the way that had a great "traditional Taiwanese breakfast", a "Chinese omelet". We wandered past a lot of new smells and new foods that we could not identify until we found a place we thought might've been what the woman had told us about. The little shop, maybe 4 square feet, was just a counter and a tiny kitchen with a few tables on the sidewalk, all of which had people eating at them. The food looked good. Like a little crepe rolled with delicious goodies inside of it that may have been some kinds of meat and cheese. We looked for some written clue as to what they were, but all the signs were in Chinese. The chef/cashier/only woman working there, gave us a once over and just said "No." Matt and I were flabbergasted. We hadn't even begun to flounder in our poorly prepared attempt to order food and we were already being turned away. Surely, she misspoke! So, we clarified eloquently, "No?". She smiled, shaking her hand and her head because we were clearly dense enough that one did not suffice and responded, "No." We thought, "Well, maybe the kitchen is closing soon," as we journeyed onward, hunger snarling in our stomachs. BUT! When we walked back later, she was still serving people! I think she just didn't want to deal with us and our inability to speak Chinese, which is the first time that had ever happened.
Turns out it was all for the best as Matt realized we hadn't even gotten cash out yet and her little shop would not have taken card! So, we got some cash—this also took a few tries before successfully getting money out--and wanted to throw out the receipt. A simple enough request you may think. But, that is surprisingly difficult to do in Taipei. The city is immaculate, but there just are not very many trash cans anywhere. It's kind of weird actually...like, why though? And what do people do with all of the trash? It's not that they don't generate as much trash as other places do, I mean, you can't buy anything at 7-11 without being handed a few straws and lots of prepackaged snacks actually contain smaller bags that wrap the individual snack itself; a bag of bags of food. But anyway, we found a round, metal cylindrical container on the corner of the street and thought, "Surely the food is different, the smells are foreign, we can't read a single word, but we can identify a trash can! Surely!" We were wrong.
"Hey Matt, there's one!" I said, laughing at how difficult finding a trash can in a major city was proving to be. "Oh great," my husband said, wind blowing his lovely hair and a twinkle in his eyes--which may have just been tears from how sleepy we were and the really aggressive wind, but I choose to see what I choose to see. He took the lid off of the small, metal cylindrical container and plumes of smoke and ash exploded out the top. I let out a very deep and manly scream as I bolted away as quickly as possible from what was surely the dead body of my beautiful ex-husband. Apparently, this was not a trash can, but one of these little incinerators that people use all over the city. Matt was alive and we both just started laughing because we truly knew nothing--not even how to find a trash can.
Later in the evening we went out to order dinner from another one of the tiny booth restaurants, but this one had a small dining room behind the kitchen where we sat down, eager to try Taiwanese food. When we sat down, one of the employees stopped cooking and brought us over two menus, a pen, and a notepad with the menu items listed on it and places for us to mark what we wanted and how many of each item. Luckily for us, the menus had pictures. Unluckily for us, not a word of it was in English. I don't know if you've ever tried to use Google translate to find food, but it often will translate things without understanding their context in English. What very well could've said, "A Warm Cup of Tea," might read "A Hot Urn of Boiled Leaf Water". We were able to piece together what things were in conjunction with the pictures, but next came the actual ordering part. Since neither Matt nor I can speak or read Chinese, we played "match the symbols". We would identify the first symbol in the dish and scan the menu for it. Then do the same with the second, third, and so on and so forth. It was a little tedious, but it worked! We ended up getting exactly what we thought we had ordered, and it was all delicious.
And that was just the first day! We did adapt, of course. We adjusted and found ways to communicate more clearly without English. Taipei is a big, bustling city that is just different enough from what else we've seen on the trip to cause some "Lost in Translation" moments. We both left Taipei with a strong desire to return and explore more of the island nation Taiwan.
I wish I could say that at the end of our two weeks in Taipei, we went back to that little breakfast shop with the old woman who had turned us away and successfully ordered a Chinese omelet. That she smiled with a look of recognition and, the faintest glimmer of respect. That in exploring Taipei, we found a different part of ourselves that changed us just slightly, but in a way that even those on the outside could see. But that didn't happen because I'm not Carrie Bradshaw and this isn't Sex and the City. We ate our Chinese Omelets from a different vendor and they were awesome.
K, thanks. Love you Taiwan.