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.
About half of those on scooters wear what appear to be surgical face masks. I say appear because that’s what I thought they were at first. Such masks were ubiquitous at the Hong Kong and Taipei airports, covering the mouths and noses of all food service workers and most administrative staff. We were even given a “flu kit” as we left the secured area of Taipei Airport. It was surprisingly elegant: a bright red package containing a well-constructed face mask with cloth strings, some pleasant-smelling soap, and a packet of disinfectant tissues. F.’s was plaid and relatively tasteful. Mine, unfortunately, had a tesselated pattern of hearts and American flags. Someone later explained to me that the people on scooters wear these not for flu-prevention, but in order not to breath the noxious levels of exhaust they’re exposed to, and my brief walk through town convinced me of the wisdom of this. My sense of smell may be peculiarly heightened right now, but the haze in the air and sooty grime on any available surface corroborated what my nose was telling me.
Still, urban grime is offset by gardens in almost every available patch, growing right up to the edge of the road, nestled next to busy intersections, in planters on rooftops, or in someone’s 10′ x 10′ front yard. Such gardens are commonplace here in Zhushan, and they make me wonder why more people, especially in the fertile Mediterranean climate of Northern California, my adopted home, are not doing the same.
I returned to breakfast in the courtyard: delicious oolong tea, grown at the higher elevations here in Taiwan, along with freshly picked bananas, the aforementioned delicious sausages, and fresh milk. Afterward, I was teased (nicely) about my healthy appetite, and was strongly encouraged to eat two pickled, sweetened olives by my partner’s aunt, a brassy and assertive woman who made soothing motions on her belly and explained: “For digestion.” They were so tart my right eye twitched and fluttered as I thanked her, “Xiexie!”
Later in the day, we took a walk up a beautiful path behind the family place, through bamboo forests and banana mangroves, and past dozens, if not hundreds, of large spiders with markings startlingly like a human face on their backs, and bright yellow dots and red egg sacs on their undersides, maybe 4 or 5 inches in span, and who do something I’ve never seen before: they spin two-colored webs. The main web looks normal enough, but the top strand that holds it all up is thicker, and bright yellow.
I guess I never really knew what the pods/clusters of bananas look like — somewhat akin to inverted artichokes, but instead of the meaty part near the root you find in artichokes, bananas grow there, first as tiny embryonic versions, maybe half-an-inch long, that will eventually grow into maturity.
We also passed several striated hills that used to be used for growing tea, but are now abandoned and brown. When I first met F.’s mother, she was most animated when showing me the proper preparation of tea. When she explained to me that it was to be steeped for absolutely no more than 25 seconds, she spoke as if personally aggrieved by the ongoing widespread murder of tea by ignorant fools. So: Steep for 25 seconds, using only half a teaspoon of tea, then pour out the water so that you may re-use the leaves and enjoy several more (small) cups! If you do not follow these directions, if you let the leaves linger in sitting water or steep for too long, they will lose their essence and you will have ruined a potentially exquisite experience.