We went to Taipei this past weekend – 3 nights, 2.5 days. And aside from the great, inexpensive eats, hearing my native language everywhere, learning how to get around, soaking up the sight, sounds, smells, realizing how good and bad my Mandarin is, sightseeing, and having brunch with my aunt and uncle, all of which made for a great trip – it was immensely meaningful for me because I have not been there since I was 7yo. I was born in Taipei, my roots are there, but I have not felt connected to Taiwan most of my life. In fact, it was only in the past year that I started identifying myself as Taiwanese versus Chinese. And interestingly enough, the hotel we stayed at, which was recommended to us by a colleague of SB’s at work, was in the same neighborhood as the house that I grew up in (for a whole 2 years!) with my paternal grandparents! (For those of you who know me – synchronicity right?) What are the odds? Although, I was told, which has yet to be confirmed, that my grandparents’ apartment building may have been torn down. Regardless, this past weekend I was gallivanting in the area where I lived after I was born. So I may have walked the very streets that my grandpa used to drive me around every morning before he left for work because being the spoiled toddler I was, I would not let him leave until he drove my princess-ass around the block. He had to factor the drive-time into his morning routines daily… I miss my gramps, may his soul rest in peace.
So wandering around Taipei was fantastic – I felt comfortable and felt like I knew where I was and how to get to places even though it’s virtually a new city for me. Normally I am quite disoriented when visiting a new city and some may say, although I adamantly disagree, that I can be directionally challenged. I can admit, I’m not usually the most skilled when it comes to spatial memory and do not enjoy studying maps like some people. However, I didn’t feel lost and felt generally “at home.” Then of course, this was positioned next to the experience of being stared at… often. And I mean, not just passing-by-prolonged-glances-of-curiosity, I mean stare. In one instance, a female stared long enough that she turned her head to keep staring even though we were well past each other. (I didn’t notice but SB relayed it to me). And I’m thinking, “dude, I look like you. In fact, I AM one of you.” The only thing that comes to mind is what I referred to in my previous entry about visual differences (or similarities) in that perhaps it is the clothes I am wearing or as Raji mentioned, the way I am carrying myself that is propagating stares. I’m used to it from traveling outside of Asia but when I get it in my motherland, it elicits some additional thought. I suppose what I am experiencing is the feeling that I am home and feeling that I am a stranger. This is the reality for hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people who are “moving and mixing” as transnationals (Bhatia & Rum, 2004). Something else I observed is how much Taiwanese mannerisms made me think of people in my life. I would see a woman who reminded me of Cinn, my stepmom, my brother, a distant relative… I felt nostalgic for the people in my life with Taiwanese roots. Additionally, I felt like I learned about a few things that always annoyed me about my culture or my family. For instance, when speaking with the hotel concierge about details for activities we were interested in, the concept of tipping arose. I inquired what the standard practice is for tipping and the concierge responded very politely in Mandarin “uh we don’t really tip but it’s up to you, I am actually quite frugal.” I was fascinated and appreciative of his candor. Of course, I am colored by my Western upbringing where being frugal is not attractive generally speaking, and admitting to it is even less attractive. However, apparently this Taiwanese man felt it was just fine to admit, or not even admit, but to share with his customer his personal preference for frugality. My mind started to spin through the Rolodex of memories of other Chinese or Taiwanese people I know or have known who spoke so freely about being frugal and how I judged them for it – (and not judge in a negative way per se, but judged them for the awkwardness I felt from their candidness). For a moment, it made sense. It’s acceptable to be frugal and be proud of it amongst some people. Wow! Talk about me being Western-centric!
Another example where I learned from my culture was when I observed what appeared to be a family discuss at length who would sit where on the subway/train. One female suggested that the grand-daughter sit next to the grandparent and then another female suggested that the grandparent sit next to his son and then they discussed it a bit more and by the time decisions were made and everyone was sitting next to the appropriate relative they had reached their stop. I can not tell you how many times I have been at a restaurant with my family (mostly my mom’s side) where all the women are discussing (loudly) who should sit where. Sometimes we are standing around the table at the restaurant, adjusting out seating arrangement for what feels like 14 full minutes before anyone takes a seat. I rarely see men discuss the seating arrangements. If they do, they offer one to two suggestions, which are followed by further discussion, and then shake their heads and sigh “ay ya” – I am usually shaking my head with them and “ay-ya-ing.” I thought it was a family trait but apparently, it’s a trait of families. Brief internet research imparted that there is a method to the madness. Where people sit at a table indicates status (see: Chinese Seating Etiquette). This is a very interesting negotiation given that no one wants to lose face by “outting” someone as having less status – so everyone “fights” for the lowest status seats – but everyone also knows where everyone should be sitting. It’s quite a balancing act to know your place but show that you care about the others more and put them before you… even though at the end of the 14 minute drama, there are no surprises and everyone sits where they always have. This made me reflect a bit – My non-Asian friends have often commented on my “selflessness” and have made statements that I am “too kind” or think of others too much. Well, perhaps it is true at times, but this weekend, witnessing Taiwanese strangers enact the same “thinking of others” skit that I have observed with confusion and frustration with my family for years made me realize where I get it from. It also made me think, is it genuine? I mean, I can answer that – yes, I absolutely, genuinely care about people. However, do I put in more effort to show it than others? And who are the others? Westerners? Other Asian ethnics?
All I can say right now is that returning to the city where may parents met, where I was born, and where my family lived for decades before immigrating to the US brought me joy and a sense of comfort in a way I did not expect to experience simply from spending 3 days there. I was sad to leave and was surprised to find tears welling up in my eyes on the taxi ride over to Taoyuan International Airport. I appreciate my family so much more as certain things make more sense to me now. And through the brief lived experience, I feel like I understand the things which they could not find the words to explain. There is so much to be said about experiential learning. Thank you for reading.