My Dad’s Home

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Today’s excursion out into the city is a solo one. Though my dad is still busy teaching and couldn’t meet us in Taipei, I’m curious to know where he grew up so I sent him the question via email. He responded with a snapshot of Google Maps containing a rough-drawn circle over a bit of Yonghe District. “I lived at “#30 Baofu Road Section 2. […] No physical trace of my house or the neighborhood remained. The only tangible thing left is the Baofu temple. I fell into the pond in front of the temple when i tried to pick some lotus flowers. Still remember the underwater image, green water and a lot of straight underwater stems.” So today I’m going out, alone, to try and find Baofu Temple and what remains of #30 Baofu Road.

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As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t know much of my family’s life in China before the Communist Party took power or here in Taiwan after they fled, and what little I do know is gleaned from secondhand sources. I only really know my grandmother’s side, the Hu Family, because they were the most numerous among the survivors and the relatives that lived nearby in Southern California. I know that once my grandmother’s family was once wealthy and lived in Suzhou, a city about two hours outside of Shanghai. I know that the family house still stands there, an immense traditional family compound enclosing an inner garden, used when I last visited as excess storage space for a nearby hotel. And I know that to escape the Chinese Civil War and communist revolution, my grandmother and her husband (of the Ma Family) fled with my uncle and aunt here to Taiwan sometime in the early fifties, where my dad was born. They lived here until my grandfather died, when my grandmother decided to emigrate to the Albequerque, New Mexico, bringing my dad to the United States somewhere during his high school years. But that’s where the facts end, and beyond them lie is a series of nebulous, achronistic anecdotes and stories.

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Back in the real world, I’ve found my way to Ren’Ai Road and turned right, in the direction of Baofu Road, navigating busy traffic stops and dodging people, equipment, and motorbikes planted on the sidewalks. When my dad described his childhood, it sounded like he grew up more in the countryside or in a sparse suburb. He told me about catching frogs and bugs, and to this day he doesn’t like the smell of cinnamon because it reminds him of the stinkbugs found here in the summertime. But any semblance of nature has long been paved over in this district. As people flocked here to live and commute to Taipei City across the river, the buildings here were flattened and then-new apartment complexes rose more steeply and densely in their place. The population continued to grow. In 1979, before being swallowed up into the New Taipei City municipality, Yonghe City was one of the most densely-populated places in the world.

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I make a final turn onto Baofu Road, Section 2 and take a look around. There are no visible numbers on the apartments here, although again any building around here was built after my father left. But Baofu Temple still stands, a brilliantly-painted building with traditional curved roofing and an open front façade leading to the altars indoors. To my dismay, there’s no sign of the pond my dad mentioned, likely a casualty of the construction process of what is now a parking lot in front of the temple building. There’s also no one else around to ask, although what would I ask them? “Did you know a kid back in the early 60’s who went by the name Ma Tzen and once fell into the pond here that no longer exists?” I could ask something akin to with my rudimentary Chinese and Google Translate, but then what? Would I understand the response? And would anyone here now have even lived here back then?

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I walk around inside the temple, where decades and a few renovations ago my family would have visited for festivals and prayers and offerings to the deceased. I can’t read much on the walls, for things are often not only in traditional characters, but also in “grass writing”, a stylistic form of Chinese characters akin to cursive for us English speakers and unintelligible for those who can barely read to begin with. In one corner, though, I find a stack of incense sticks wrapped with gold foil-inlaid papers and a price written above them on a shelf. I’ve visited temples and gravesites of family members enough to know that these are offerings for the dead, to be burned so they reach the deceased on the other side. I drop Taiwanese dollars into a nearby lockbox, grab a packet, and head outside.

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Knowledge about is less powerful than knowledge of, and I find myself fumbling with what to do next with this packet of goods for my deceased family members. I decide to light the incense first, and though I have no lighter, someone has thankfully just finished burning offerings in the nearby oven. I hold the tips of the incense sticks over the remnants of their offerings to catch the twisting orange tongues, and in a few seconds the sticks catch fire. After shaking them to put the flame out, I carry them over to the altar, bow three times, and push the incense sticks into the altar’s sand.

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The gold-foil papers are a bit more more difficult to burn, and it takes me a few minutes of piling them into the oven and turning over the remnants of the still-smoking previous offerings to get them to light. Then I add the remaining sheets slowly, pausing to step back and out of the stinging smoke. Bit by bit, the sheets disappear into the flames, transmuted from paper into smoke and ash, disappearing into the atmosphere.

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Taipei Natural Parks

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A translucent white mushroom grows from a mossy branch, surrounded by small black earth tongues (Geoglossaceae).

One unexpected part of Taiwan has been its natural beauty, for beyond Taipei lie vast parks that make up around ten percent of the island’s landmass. From thick jungles to sweeping shorelines, Taiwan’s natural beauty is both unexpected and unexpectedly easy to reach, thanks to the extensive public transit system. Though we did not stray far beyond Taipei, we managed to visit two different parks in our time there. Here’s our experience at each:

Yehliu Geopark

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People crowd the paved walkways in Yehliu Geopark.

People. So many people. This park is easy to get to by bus from Taipei and gets incredibly packed, so show up early or on a day most people have work. There isn’t much hiking to do around here, but the guided walk out to the peninsula takes you past fantastical stone formations in the shape of candles, mushrooms, and human heads. The top of the hill has a lovely view of the park and the surrounding sea, but take care in the path you choose: some paths down lead to barricaded areas, and the less trod are incredibly slippery and overgrown.

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“The Octopus” stone formation, besides some “candle” stone formations. All of the formations are formed naturally by erosion, without the touch of human hands.
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A life ring at the park. This area is prone to rogue waves during monsoon season.
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People wandering among the rock formations.
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DON’T BE THIS GUY: human touch speeds the eroding process and does damage.
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Smalls succulent plants grow in a dirt-filled hole on one of the rock formations.
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Waves breaky on the rocky shoreline at the end of the peninsula.
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A poorly-kept, slippery path to nowhere.
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A dew-dropped ladybug.
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People stand on a bridge over rock formations in the park.

Mt. Qixing

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The slippery, stair-filled path up to the peak of Mt. Qixing.

Also accessible by bus from Taipei, this is where you go for a real hike. Mt. Qixing Park has dozens of trails that would take days to hike, and the tropical weather of Taiwan nurtures thick forests full of insects, lizards, and small rodents. Most hiking trails here are stone and involve an insane amount of stairs, so bring walking sticks and watch your step in the slippery rain. The Lengshuikeng Hot Spring Bath is open to the public and is a great place to soak after a hike, but has limited hours (see below) and is closed on the last Monday of each month. The foot bath in front of it is always open, though, so you can always soak your feet alongside a dozen other weary hikers.

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A mysterious round structure hides in the foliage.
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A tree lizard, possibly from the genus Japalura.
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A dew-jeweled caterpillar (probably of Lemyra) makes its away across the edge of a bench.
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A stream flows between an ocean of grasses and shrubs.
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A small, decorated land snail (I’m guessing Aegista mackensii) inches by.
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The Lengshuikeng Hot Spring working hours. Guess what day we were here! (It was the last Monday of the month. Sad times).
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We soak our feet with other hikers.
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A waterfall at the end of our hike.
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An ant-mimic jumping spider (Salticidae, probably a female of Myrmarachne sp.).

Taipei (台北), Taiwan (台湾), Tai Shuyuan (太疏远)

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A sculpture at a park in Beitou

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.

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A motorbike encounters pedestrian traffic at a night market in Taipei.

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?

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THIS is why.

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.

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A bilingual sign at a park in Beitou. The translation is appreciated, but not necessary here.

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.

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A fried quail egg vendor at the night market.

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.

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The city in daytime.
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Niu Rou Juan Bing (牛 肉 捲 餅), braised beef and scallions in pan-fried bread.

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.

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The entrance of a night market.
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A woman buys snacks at a stall in the night market.

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.”

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No line necessary: people crowd into the entrance at the first Din Tai Fung.
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A boy squats in front of his father while he watches him juggle.

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.

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A Dragon Boat, mid-race.
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Family and friends waiting for a race round to start.

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.

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Unused dragon boats moored in the river.