1. Outside the Chiang Kai-shek International Airport.
2. The Taiwanese flag blowin' in the wind, also outside the airport.
3. View of ̨���� (Taipei City), taken from the top of �¹����� (Xinguang Sanyue).
4. Taipei 101, taken from the top of �¹�����.
5. The Taiwanese flag blowin' in the wind, right in front of Taipei 101.
6. The night market near my apartment.
7. Blurred view of the same night market; the flash didn't quite work and my hands were shaky.
I watch Firewall and play Megaman X on the plane. Lunch is salmon and random side dishes. I don��t like salmon per se, and the way the salmon is cooked makes me dislike it more. I have Walls�� Magnum ice-cream for dessert and at the end of everything I feel bloated like hell.
I watch Firewall solely because Paul Bettany (Silas in The Da Vinci Code, also known as the only reason I don��t completely abhor that crapfest of a pretend-movie) plays a bad-ass in it. The television is puny, the screen is scratched, Harrison Ford��s phoned-in performance is extremely boring, but Paul Bettany��s British accent, as well as his general hotness, help me sit through 95% of the boring movie �C right up to the point where Paul Bettany��s character dies (as all bad guys in My Family Is Kidnapped! movies do), after which I take off my earphones and finally get up to pee. The movie, needless to say, sucks.
Megaman X is fun and I used to play it/watch my cousins play it as a kid. Oh, I have missed that game. I die too many times to remember and my game keeps getting interrupted by announcements over the public announcement system but it��s a lot of fun. I wish I had a Nintendo, or an Xbox, or a Play Station console that actually works.
I touch down at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport. It looks like home, it doesn��t look like home. It feels like familiarity, the sort you subconsciously pine for, the realisation of which catches you off-guard, disarms and surprises you, because it hits you in the face just how restless you feel without it and how alienated you��ve slowly become from your surroundings. The travellator, the immigration checkpoint, the arrival hall. My aunt��s husband, always there to pick us up whenever we fly back, and my grandfather, the reason we are making this trip. Familiarity nurtures fondness. I��ve been here so many times before, and all I want to do is to keep flying back.
I say ��fly back��, as in ��fly back to Taiwan��. As in ��̨��. It��s like a second home, or a home I left way too early, or a home that��s waiting for me to return to it. Needless to say it��s instinctive, the way I say ��go back��, instead of ��go to��. I��m still trying to figure it out.
The man at the checkpoint makes small talk with me as he stamps my passport. Are you here on vacation? he asks. He expresses surprise upon learning that NUS/Singapore universities in general (don��t know, don��t care) grants three-month vacations. Taiwan universities, he says, only get two months. They call it ���, summer holiday. It��s hard to tell when summer is in Singapore, because there is no summer, but either way getting May, June and July off �C far, far away from law school �C works perfectly fine for me.
My aunt��s husband (we have a phrase for it in Chinese: ����. I don��t know if there��s an English equivalent) got a new car. It��s more spacious and aesthetically-appealing than the old, ratty one. He gets into the driver seat on the left and for the first time I��m not the least bit surprised. I always used to forget that the Taiwanese drive on the right side of the road when I went back in the past, and so was always slightly disoriented by it, but not this time.
I remember the drive from CKS International Airport back to ���� (Yonghe) to be much, much longer. We arrive in no time, a bit under an hour, and for dinner we troop to a small Hong Kong restaurant on foot and arrive in five minutes. I��m awed by the number of road-side stalls that I pass by en route to the restaurant, and amazed by how the place hasn��t changed much, and I��m happily fearful of the motorcycles that zoom by too close for comfort.
Dinner is good. As long as there are Chinese people around, food will always taste the same. The fish is cooked in the same way as the ones I��ve eaten so many times in Hong Kong restaurants in Singapore: steamed, maybe slightly fried, drenched in soy sauce, spring onions sprawled on top. The tofu is good too, and so is the complimentary coconut rice cakes (Ҭ�Ӹ�) we get for dessert.
I feel like a kid again walking back to the apartment, craning my neck to look into the stores that I pass by on the way, looking with the type of bright-eyed wonder only associated with children. I pass by a huge building with a grand exterior and I think it��s a hotel, until my dad tells me that it��s a karaoke lounge. Amazing.
I get back to the apartment and unpack my things. I have the room all to myself, and I��m secretly glad that I don��t have to share. I have certain pre-sleeping habits that I have to carry out or I can��t sleep, habits which will definitely disturb the poor soul sharing the room with me and it won��t be nice. At the same time, I want to be able to sleep whenever I want and do my pre-sleeping stuff, so it works out great for me. Nevertheless, I tell my grandmother that she can sleep with me, but she says that she doesn��t want to because she snores and doesn��t want to disturb me. She takes the smaller room at the back, next to the kitchen. How nice of her.
Nothing much happens tonight. I��m tired from the early flight and from waking up early to catch the American Idol results show live. I lie on my bed, fool around with my Nikon Coolpix S6, go out to greet my ���� (grand aunt) when she arrives. I sit around for a bit and smile and nod and answer questions. My tiredness must be showing on my face because everyone is telling me to go and lie down, sleep for a bit, things like that. I don��t realise how tired I really am until I lie on the bed again and promptly fall asleep.
(This goes without saying, but just in case: I wake up at 11-something and take a shower, before sleeping again at 2-something a.m.)
The next day.
I wake up at 10-something, just in time to eat one of my favourite foods in the world. My dad buys me ���� (direct translation �C cool noodles) from the 7-Eleven that��s just a road away from the apartment. In Singapore 7-Eleven claims to be ��a store and more��, when in fact it��s really just a store and nothing more. In Taiwan, 7-Eleven is also just a store, but it��s a store with fucking fantastic food (see, it even alliterates twice) and drinks. I buy a cup of Starbucks espresso and salivate at the sight of the various brands of milk tea available for purchase. I don��t miss Singapore��s F&N canned drinks, random fruit juices, even the jasmine green tea I like, at all.
All these years away from Taipei has made me miss my���� like mad. It��s a packet of yellow noodles that comes with soy sauce and sesame sauce. It typically also comes with bacon, cucumber and carrot strips, but because I don��t eat bacon, I get the one without bacon. You pour everything on top of the noodles, mix them, and voila! My favourite noodles in the world. And it tastes even better than I remember and I slurp it down and I don��t see why I should or have to go back to Singapore.
My dad has to look at some machines at some factory in «�� (Ruzhou/Luzhou; not too sure how to write and spell it, but it��s a place in Taipei) which means he can��t take me out. I say, Okay, so I��ll take myself out, only to be met with my grandmother��s violent objection: �������ƭ����ô��? I can��t see how I could possibly be kidnapped by liars and cheats, seeing as I��m almost twenty years of age and everything, but what the hell. I wanted to go with my dad to the factory to take a look, but the weather positively tried to kill me when I was out for that short while to buy my noodles from 7-Eleven, and he keeps saying that he doesn��t know the way, that he has to walk for long distances in the sun, that he��d ask one of my cousins to come over and take me out. The horrendously hot weather convinces me to pick the alternative.
I finish up my noodles and promptly retire to my room and fall asleep. I wake up again for lunch, even though I��m not the least bit hungry. My grandmother thought I like salmon when my father was really telling her that I hated the salmon I got on the plane, but since she cooked, I eat as much of the fish as I can.
Another thing I have sorely missed about Taipei, food-wise, is bamboo shoots. It��s awesome. Singapore doesn��t have them fresh, and the packet ones from China obviously cannot possibly compare. My grandmother knows that I love bamboo shoots and she fries a dish for me and cooks them in soup, and they taste amazing. Amazing amazing amazing. I love slowly chomping a piece of bamboo shoot down between my front teeth and the teeth below said front teeth and hearing and feeling the crunch. I��m not really one to be so bothered about food as to gush over it, but bamboo shoots are certainly worth gushing about, ad nauseum, for the rest of my life.
To be quite frank, a part of the reason why I wanted to go with my dad to see some factories is because I was concerned about the potential awkwardness that��d surface between my cousin and I, awkwardness that I��m not equipped to deal with and would rather avoid by forgoing a nice shopping trip. I get ready to go out with some trepidation.
I think about the crappy hot weather outside and decide to wear a racer-back top with those three-quarter army-ish pants I got from Outfitter Girls. My cousin arrives just as I��m tying my hair. When I��m done I step out of the room, already expecting some comments from my grandparents. Indeed I��m not wrong. After a pause during which you can probably hear a pin fall, my grandparents start telling me to wear a jacket.
Ah, okay. I manage to convince them that I definitely will not get cold in the shopping malls and that it��s what I usually wear to air-conditioned places such as school in Singapore, and thankfully I manage to leave without needing to lug a jacket with me.
I do not, however, manage to escape from lugging a damn umbrella with me. My cousin is afraid of the sun and so she��s brought an umbrella with her. My grandmother tells me to bring one, and to avoid further back-and-forth ��take it!�� ��no I don��t need it!��s, I take the umbrella. And it��s not a small umbrella that you can just chuck in your bag; it��s a big one with the curved handle that you can hang on railings or your arm. I never carry umbrellas around in Singapore when it��s not raining (sometimes I don��t even take an umbrella out when it is raining), let alone a big one that you can��t hide. I take the umbrella and off we go, and I think it��s the weirdest thing ever.
Lo and behold. We get to the useless zebra crossing and wait for traffic to clear to avoid becoming decorations on a random car��s windshield, and I look around and see people holding umbrellas �C the same big ones that I��m holding on to. Very, very interesting.
My cousin is my eldest uncle��s second daughter. She��s four years older than me, very pretty, very sociable. I find out that she��s going to Singapore for a short trip in a few days�� time and she asks me about Singapore on the way to the ��Ϫ (Dingxi) Metro station and beyond. I��m pleasantly surprised by how well we��re hitting it off. As a kid growing up in Taipei I was closer to her younger sister and I don��t quite remember playing with her much. Subsequent trips back to Taipei also didn��t have me interacting much with her. She��s a good conversationalist and pretty soon she��s making jokes with me, swatting me playfully, as if we��re old friends. It��s very, very nice.
We alight at ������ (Shizhengfu �C zhengfu means ��government�� and shi means ��town�� or something like that) station. She��s taking me to Eslite bookstore, ��Ʒ in Chinese. I knew of the bookstore years ago because it was featured in Time magazine but did not managed to visit it in 2004 when I was back in Taipei. This time round, we��re going to a newer one �C a huge, huge, HUGE one. It��s seven storeys, five (or six?) of which sell books and only books. I��m awed by its sheer size and its formidable architecture �C all metal and shiny surfaces and rectangles �C and I��m thinking, Borders and Kinokuniya ain��t got nothin�� on this one.
My cousin and I go our separate ways in the bookstore and set a time and place to meet again. I wander to the third storey and locate my Literature books. The range is disappointing but Voltaire��s Candide is going for less than ten Singapore dollars and so I bought it. I want to buy Salman Rushdie��s The Satanic Verses but I can��t find it. I also want to buy something by the Marquis de Sade, but the two books available are compilations of his previously-unpublished works. What I have in mind is titles like Justine and the Sodom book (I can never remember if it��s 100 days or 120 days) and so I decide not to buy the compilations.
I walk around the bookstore and wish I read Chinese.
My cousin and I buy drinks from Starbucks. I order an iced caramel macchiato, my new favourite drink from Starbucks. �����������. I read the Chinese words off the menu real slowly, like a retard, and it��s kind of embarrassing. I��m tempted to just say ��iced caramel macchiato�� but I have to do like the Romans do when in Rome. Besides, it��s not like I can��t read Chinese; I just take a while longer than native Chinese speakers to digest it.
I don��t know if I��m a native Chinese speaker anymore. It doesn��t make sense to call myself one when the Chinese words that come out of my mouth don��t make sense half the time. And yet, I can��t be a native English speaker because I��m not remotely Caucasian, nor do I want to be. To round it all off, I sound inaccurate, imprecise and plain wrong when I speak English and Chinese/Mandarin. This is another reason why Singapore sucks, and why I have to leave.
But I digress.
We are at ̨���� (Taipei central? I don��t know how to translate it) where all the action is. Taipei 101 is a few steps away from Eslite bookstore, the super high-end shopping centres are all adjacent and connected to Taipei 101, and the more pricey movie theatres are also here. I ask my cousin Hanying about the movie prices and she says that watching a movie in̨���� costs about NT$270 to NT$300 �C which is around S$13.50 to S$15. Going to the non-central theatres, like the one in Yonghe, which screen movies that have already screened in Taipei central, will also set you back by about NT$250. Divide that by 20 and you get S$12.50. And to think I always bitch and moan about the fucking ridiculous S$9.50 movie prices on weekends.
Hanying takes me to �¹����� (Xinguang sanyue), a Japanese departmental store whose Japanese name I don��t remember. It��s divided into three buildings, each one catering to different age groups. As soon as she tells me that I��m amazed all over again, because I can��t imagine Isetan taking up three different buildings in Orchard Road, each building targeting different customers.
The departmental stores in Taipei will make any reasonable middle-class person feel like a beggar. I walk in, take a look at the prices, and tell Hanying that I��m ready to leave. It doesn��t even matter that the departmental stores have about two or three levels�� worth of ladies�� fashion, one selling designer labels and another less high-end brands, because their idea of ��less high-end�� is about ten times the price of Isetan��s non-designer range of clothes. (I��m thinking that��s kind of way that French label Morgan which I adore so much but can��t afford has closed its sections in most Isetan stores here.) I believe that this is true of all major departmental stores in Taipei, possibly even the whole of Taiwan. It��s so curious that the average Taipei-er��s salary doesn��t quite match the high cost of living his departmental store demands of him.
I walk past Morgan and I fight hard to resist its seductive lure. Hanying and I take the escalator up to the sixth storey, where we enjoy the view of the city from an outdoors balcony-type thing. I take out my camera to take pictures of the view. A strange old man with a cigarette dangling from his mouth comes up to us and offers to take a picture for us. I suddenly remember what my grandmother told me about liars and cheats that run amok in Taipei/Taiwan and I quickly say no.
Colour me paranoid. In my defence, that man does kind of look seedy.
Okay, so I��m just lame.
We get out of there and Hanying shows me the movie theatre. She keeps asking if I want to eat anything but I��m full from lunch and don��t quite feel like eating. We cut through the first level of another shopping mall, full of Pradas and Coaches, and our next stop is ����� (Ximending �C shopping haven for high schoolers, a place which Taipei is also known for). First, though, we have to find our way to the Metro station.
We walk, and we walk, and we walk. I��m convinced that there must be some shorter way that we must have missed, because the walk back to the same Metro station at which we alighted feels ten million times longer than the walk from the Metro station to Eslite bookstore �C and everything is just around the corner. Nevertheless, we make it. I think we have been walking for close to three hours non-stop and surprisingly, I don��t feel tired at all.
We reach ���� (Ximen) station and take the escalator up. The first thing I see is a huge billboard with Edison Chen grinning playfully at me, looking as hot as ever. Yes, Edison Chen is still hot, and I think he will always be. Hanying takes me to a famous bubble tea stand, Legend Tea Bar and the number of people waiting around the small bubble tea shop astounds me, because I honestly can��t remember the last time I had to queue up for a cup of bubble tea. Hanying goes on to surprise me by asking how I��d like my tea.
Uh, just, you know, normal tea, I say.
You don��t want reduced sugar? she asks.
Reduced sugar?! What the hell. Never quite heard of such a thing. I tell her that I want my bubble tea ��normal��. She then asks, Big or small pearls?
Like, wow. Talk about variety. And I haven��t even looked at the menu. I think it��d be nice to try something that Singapore probably doesn��t have and possibly will never have, and so I say, small pearls.
She orders and everything. She tells me that the guy taking orders behind the counter has a funny tan line on his chin from his motorcycle helmet. Damn, I wish I could take a picture of that, because it is funny. We wait for about ten minutes, during which I��m getting slightly impatient. This tea better taste good.
And indeed, it tastes good. Not only does it taste good, it tastes fucking good. Best bubble tea ever.
We walk around with our drinks in hand. We buy some socks (6 for NT$100 which we split) and I buy a pink Roxy polo T-shirt from one of the numerous boutiques that are here. The salesgirl tells us that we can get two shirts for NT$1100 (one shirt is going for NT$550) and Hanying gets a white Playboy shirt. The salesgirl somehow detects that I��m not from around here �C probably because I have no idea what she��s talking about when she says, in Chinese, that the Roxy shirt isn��t tailored to fit one��s bodily curves. The salesgirl is very pretty and very nice �C which is typical of the service people in Taipei. I leave the store a happy girl.
Hanying wants to show me Taipei��s new buses and so we take a bus back home. I am amazed to find out that it costs only NT$15 for the bus ride, which lasts for around fifteen to twenty minutes. The bus is super crowded because it��s 6-something when we got on, and when we reach Yonghe I almost can��t get off the bus. It appears that taking the bus sucks serious ass no matter which city you��re in.
My grandmother cooked dinner for everyone and it feels nice to have Hanying there, along with my dad and my grandfather. For the first time I feel like I actually know one of my cousins �C like, truly know her. We have walked non-stop from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. the entire day; nobody normal will fail to bond from that experience. My father, true to form, spends dinner taking the mickey out of Hanying and vice-versa. I listen to their humorous banter and watch my father grin from ear-to-ear, their witty exchanges in Mandarin a significant departure from the sort of things I��m used to hearing in Singapore, and I get my first pang of futile wishing that we��d never left Taipei.
At around 9 p.m., my dad and I walk to the night market. �ֻ�ҹ��. It plays a significant role in my childhood memories of Taipei and my life in Taipei. It has changed somewhat. Motorcycles are parked in the middle of the road, forming an arbitrary makeshift road divider, and there are more clothing stores and stalls (literally a table stacked with shirts, and a chair for the stall vendor). But some things never change, including the small eating place that sells my dad��s favourite ѩ����. I don��t know what its English equivalent is. It��s a million times better than ice kacang, because the fluffy sliced ice actually tastes sweet. You order a plate of ice and choose the topping you want. Unlike ice kacang, you typically choose one topping, and sometimes two. I order a strawberry, as per usual, and my dad orders peanut, as per usual. I notice that the guy who takes our orders and brings our dessert to us is pretty cute (as per usual for Taipei guys). It��s only until I��m halfway through with my dessert that I notice something enticing on the menu: ����ţ��ѩ����.
I LOVE TAIWAN PUDDING. I make it a point to come back again and order that instead of strawberry.
My dad and I stop at a two-storey store selling stationery on the first story and a wide range of socks along its staircase. The last time I was in Taipei, back in December 2004, I bought three pairs of socks here. I buy three pairs of socks again.
At night, I imagine what my life would be like if Singapore never happened. I go to bed happy.
this entry requires chinese simplified encoding