It’s rainy and overcast when we touch down at Taipei’s international airport and make our way through the immigration and customs lines into the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan’s official name since the Kuomintang established their power here in 1949. After losing a four-year civil war to the Communist Party of China (PRC), the remaining Kuomintang forces and their supporters fled here and re-established their government, maintaining to this day that they are the sole legitimate government of China despite having no control over the mainland. It’s a claim that’s logically absurd, possible only through the backing of my home country, the absurdly powerful United States of America. And I know I should feel some support for Taiwan’s claims, for another reason: this is where my grandparents fled after the war, and where my father was born.
The story surrounding that exodus is murky to me, complicated by two things: all members of the generation that fled have died, and I speak almost no Mandarin, so any attempts to clarify what happened must be done with the next generation, those that speak English. None of parents’ attempts to get me to learn Mandarin as a kid succeeded. I languished through Chinese classes on Saturdays, rejected any attempts of my dad to carry on conversations in Mandarin, and sought out only English speaking relatives at family gatherings. At the time, it didn’t seem to matter; everyone else outside my family spoke English, and my family only used Mandarin for grown up talk, so why learn anything else?
Now I’m squinting up at the characters in the subway cars, trying to make the jumble of lines and angles into meaning and cursing my short-sightedness. It does me no favors that what little Chinese I do know is Simplified, a less-complicated character set created by the PRC in mainland China to enable more people to gain literacy. With no love for the PRC here in Taiwan, they’ve stuck with the Traditional Chinese characters, which seem to have two to ten more strokes than I’m used to. There are rules for how characters were simplified, but I only know a few.
Thankfully, for this first night in the city we have hosts. A friend of mine from Yale, Leslie, is visiting with her friends, and they take us out to a night market. We wander behind them, looking over the endless stalls of snacks to decipher what they are. Someone hands us a stick of fried quail eggs, then some other kind of fried food. We eat and walk, and I let Leslie do the talking. But tomorrow we’re on our own.
We pass a week in Taipei and my Mandarin gradually improves. I remember words that I’ve forgotten, and pick up new words that I didn’t know. The city seems to have two distinct times: day and night. In the day, business is conducted as usual and I can find people who speak English if we truly need it. We visit shops and restaurants, and using Google Translate I can sketch characters and get their pronunciations. I order us food, terribly, many times, though the food is always wonderful.
But at night, when the businesses and citizens of most other countries close and leave, Taipei comes to life. People flock to single, chosen streets in each neighborhood to do two things everyone loves: eat, and socialize. Lit by street lights, neon signs, and the glow of lightbulbs built into vendor carts, crowds squeeze between vendors selling everything from fried yam balls to grilled steak cubes and stinky tofu. People shout to each other and hands reach out to receive snacks piled into a paper container, all in exchange for a few Taiwanese dollars. And while a few vendor signs are in English, almost no one speaks it. Getting food is a fast-paced game of guess and point and grin.
Despite the unfamiliarity of the language, the people and culture of Taiwan feel incredibly familiar. I can see my dad’s mannerisms reflected in the people here, the facial expressions and gestures while speaking. Then there’s the standard Chinese/Taiwanese utter lack of respect for formal lines, which offends Stoytcho but I’ve long since grown used to. “How can people BEHAVE like this? The inefficiency is just…” He’s at a loss for words and I can only offer a shrug. “Lines are a Western thing,” I reply, “and things just work differently in this culture.”
On May 30th, we head to river’s edge to see Taipei’s annual Dragon Boat Races, a celebration that in its current form celebrates the death of a beloved minister or poet (it depends on who you ask). After drowning (by accident or suicide, also depending on who you ask), the people of the nearby village were so moved by his death that they raced out onto the water to try and save him. When they failed, they threw packets of sticky rice into the water to ensure the fish would not devour his body. Today, people still commemorate this person’s death through boat races and eating sticky rice, known as zongzi. But I’ve only ever heard this story through Google; it was never mentioned by anyone in my family. And my grandmother made zongzi whenever she wanted, which was thankfully often.
We watch the boats race from and the bridge above, staring down at the rowers moving their paddles in unison, to the beat of a drummer up front. Then we descend from the bridge and stand with the crowds, watching as the flag-bearing boats and their teams race by, bound breathlessly for the finish line or gliding back in the return victory lap. In a moment, cheers erupt from the crowd around us for some unknown thing of team. I get the feeling that there’s something I missed, maybe lost in translation. I’ll just have to get better at translating.