by Brian Awehali
We arrived in Hong Kong early in the morning, en route to Taipei. Our landing was rough. Stomach-vanishing rough. During the worst of it, I looked over and saw a stone-faced woman next to me with a pendant necklace hovering straight out from her body instead of resting on her neck. I suppose flight is for the birds, and that most of us humans take it far too much for granted, rather than as the miraculous (if deeply ecologically problematic) thing it really is. [See for yourself] One of my favorite comedians, Louis CK, has a great bit about this, and about how privileged and spoiled most of us have become about the wonders of modern technology:
After touching down in Taipei, we took a bus and high speed bullet train to Zhushan, a farming town of about 30,000 in Nantou, central Taiwan. We’re staying at my partner F.’s family’s home, the center of what used to be a large farm. The grandfather and patriarch of the family is 8th-generation Taiwanese, but recent times have seen the decline of the farm that parallels the stories of much of the area, with sons and daughters alighting for potentially more exciting and presumably less laborious work in business. In F’s family, it’s mostly the shoe business. The family’s land has been sold off over time, and what remains is a courtyard with several homes arranged in a horseshoe around it.
I didn’t sleep on the flight, so when we finally arrived, I was dead on my feet, and went to bed almost immediately, smelling fire under simmering bamboo soup, and many other things I couldn’t identify.
It’s worth mentioning that since taking a perfuming workshop in San Francisco several weeks ago, my sense of smell has been in hyperdrive. On the plane, I smelled every foot, every lotion, and every other less-appetizing thing there was to smell. In the Zhushan countryside, the smells are better. From my bed, I smelled well-seasoned Taiwanese sausages (rice wine, garlic, Chinese cinnamon powder, and soy sauce paste) curing in the next room, along with glutinous rice and daikon cakes that are fried then fed to the gods at New Year’s, but then eaten by mortals once the gods have had their fill. It was explained to me that the gods eat only the cake’s essence, which works out well for everyone, I suppose.
After sleeping for 14 hours, I awoke to an eager rooster crowing well before dawn, and decided to walk into town, about 20 minutes away. I took a shoulder-less road flanked on one side by an open mountain spring-fed culvert.
As I walked, I saw several trucks with large water barrels and long-nosed suction pumps pull over along the road, drivers climbing directly from cab to bed to extract some of this water. They were taking it for watering, but I was told that people travel from other parts of Taiwan for this mountain spring water, because it makes the best tea. Lush vegetation grew happily in family gardens on all sides: banana trees, corn, plots of sweet potatoes, and lettuce.
I do not speak Taiwanese or Mandarin. F.’s grandmother and grandfather speak only Taiwanese, and everyone else in the family seems to speak both Mandarin and Taiwanese. I keep making small mistakes relating to my cultural ignorance, then struggle to understand what I’m being told. For example: my first meal with the family, I put my chopsticks down in my bowl to rest, so that they were pointing upward. This is a no-no; chopsticks are to lay flat when not in use, and are only placed downward in a bowl when offering food to the gods. I felt stupid and sad to have made a disrespectful blunder, but, of course, I had no way of knowing about this custom.
As an American, I marvel somewhat at the complexity and reverence displayed for the gods here. There are gods for everything, who must be respected and paid attention to. Offerings are made to the earth god, and it was explained to me that every region has its own earth god. The temple for the earth god of this area, who reports to the regional earth god, is just several hundred yards down the road. The patriarch of the family, now over 90 years old and mostly deaf, walks down to pay his respects every morning.
I was happy to see that animals are largely unaffected by linguistic or cultural barriers. I made fast friends with a still-nursing female dog raising her three pups in front of a house, and right by the busy road. After approaching shyly and seeing I was friendly, she became enthusiastically friendly herself, and has since come out to greet me and walk me down the road in either direction every time I’ve passed. In the picture to the left, she is approaching me from the direction of the temple of Zhushan’s earth god.
I passed a large, two-story roost for homing pigeons just before the foggy countryside gave way abruptly to cityscape. I bought two “tea eggs” from a 7-Eleven, the only recognizable western chain I’ve seen here so far. Tea eggs are hard boiled eggs that are then gently cracked and simmered in a broth of black tea, soy sauce, anise, cinnamon, sugar, peppercorn and mandarin peel. You get them from what looks like a crockpot filled with a dark brown broth, and the whites of the eggs are tan, with darker brown marbling. I found them delicious. At 7am, the streets of the city were an organized bedlam, with pedestrians and people on scooters navigating what seemed to me, especially at first, like impossibly limited space.
Since I couldn’t read any of the street signs or speak the language, I decided against a complex walk, made just one turn near the city center, and weaved the length of the street, before turning back and returning the way I came. Many, if not most people in Zhushan ride scooters — not just adults or boys. Grandmothers, fathers with daughters, mothers with three kids, mothers with two kids and large potentially explosive propane tanks nestled between their legs — everyone.