Category Taiwan

Night Market: The Flavors of a Friendship, Sugar and Nine Spice

I first met Beth on a train platform in Taipei. I was eighteen and she had just turned seventeen and we each knew we were meeting “the other American” in the large group of exchange students from around the world who would be spending the next year there, living in the homes of strangers we were to call our parents. We’d each just recently arrived, and I was nervous that she wouldn’t like me and nervous I’d be recognized for the imposter that I was in equal measure.

An imposter is what I felt like: I coasted through school with ease, and the parts that weren’t easy, I relied on my social ties with my smarter or more studious peers to pull me through. Frequently lamented in progress reports and report cards was my inability to apply myself; a fair criticism. Between the stress of my home life,  my after school and weekend job, and my desperate need to be liked by my peers, I took relief where I could get relief, at school, by doing the bare minimum that would get me the grade that would avoid repercussions at home. I did thoroughly apply myself to one area: telling authority figures what they wanted to hear, and I used that skill to carry me almost seven thousand miles away, to this train platform, with assurances that I was eager to learn the language, embrace the culture, and be an ambassador of sorts for the United States. I wanted to do those things well but what I really wanted was what the Rotary leaders had promised over and over again: the best year of my life. I wanted it and I was interested in any country that was willing to take me in and let me have it. At that time, we were required to buy an open-ended airline ticket, a ticket where your arrival date is set but your departure could be any date within a year of purchase, the better to be wielded by the program managers as a “behave or we’ll send you home” cudgel.

The nature of the ticket weighed heavily in my mind when I first met Beth. I was intimidated by her: she seemed much too cool and smart to possibly want to be my friend, and likely able to see right through my bullshit, and she could end the best year of my life before it could properly begin. But instead we went shopping and took sticker pictures together and ate food and became friends. Later, Beth confessed to me that she didn’t know if she’d like me at first because I was too pretty. I laughed–she had my number, all right. 

Our year was the last year the Taiwanese Rotary had all the exchange students together in a group: we had bonded together too much, they said, to the exclusion of making local friends. Of course we formed strong ties with one another; we were all teenagers going through a similar experience that was vastly dissimilar to our home lives. We were all schooled in Mandarin together, spending hours learning our bo-po-mo-fos and yi-er-san-sis, concluding our month of all day lessons by putting on a play. There were more exchange students than high schools, so even after we were split apart from the larger group, we still had familiar faces around which was crucial because the regular high school students were too busy striving toward college to have time for anyone still struggling with their Chinese ABCs. While all the exchange students had this experience in common to bond over and our individual friendships were based on personality, we also fractured along country lines, making Beth and I unquestionable allies and lifelong friends. We were American and that meant something, even though in the age of George W. we did occasionally pretend to hail from elsewhere so people wouldn’t ask us questions about our stupid president (2019: “Hold my beer.”). From elsewhere, together. That year was hard and all the exchange students clung together to survive it as we were used as pawns in subtle social games we didn’t understand while we navigated young adulthood and homesickness and culture shock and quasi-independence, and all of its assorted BIG feelings. Of course we bonded.  

So it wasn’t the best year of my life (how sad it would be to assume I could have none better in store ahead?) but I did make some of the best friends of my life, first and foremost Beth. We were obnoxious foreign tourist teenagers together, we hung around cafes for longer than was socially acceptable together, we shopped together, visited night markets and museums and slept on wooden beds and attended festivals and ate entrails stuffed with offal together. We got tattoos and $3 ear piercings together. We broke all the rules together, Beth lamenting that her host father was a police officer and she was constantly afraid of being caught with alcohol on her breath. We spent hours haunting restaurants that served free diet coke refills, assembling a yearbook which we mass photocopied in 7-11. We obsessed and laughed about things that German student Max deemed “a little bit stupid”. 

It was hard to go from a year of intense togetherness to being separated by thousands of miles, me in California and Beth in Pennsylvania, and though we kept in touch online, it was not the same. The best time I had in my tumultuous semester at Drexel was when Beth came to visit. I was overjoyed when over ten years later, her work brought her to Seattle and we could be in-person friends again. We spent a lot of time together, visiting museums, going to shows, taking tours, walking and talking for hours. 

Beth was more than cool: she was funny, and vivacious, and kind. At my bridal shower, Beth gave me a turquoise bud vase and told me that she’d been at a conference where the artist was selling them but the attendees assumed they were free and walked off with all of them, and that she felt so badly for the artist that she bought a vase whenever she saw them. That’s the kind of person Beth was, in her life, in her advocacy for causes she believed in, in her work as a nurse: thoughtful, compassionate, empathetic. She was a better friend to me than I have been to anyone, and she was that way with everyone. 

Last year, Beth died following a battle with kidney disease. Attending the memorial service felt useless, mingling with people she knew whom I’d never met in a part of the country where we shared no history. What comfort could these strangers take from me or I from them? I briefly entertained the idea of a return to Taiwan, with or without any of our mutual far-flung companions, but when I used Google maps to try and find the building in which my second host family lived and a point of reference to my favorite beef noodle soup shop, I couldn’t recognize anything. It’s been twenty years in a major metropolitan area: of course it’s different. I didn’t know what I hoped I would find there, the thing that would give me closure, that would help me accept her death.

So instead I went with mutual friends to a night market, to honor her memory by sharing the flavors of our past and a little bit of the unsavory carnival element inherent to the night market. The ones I visited in my youth were certainly seedier. They were places that sold bootleg CDs and DVDs, shots of snake blood, counterfeit designer goods, junky jewelry, a variety of marital aids and they just happened to also have food. This one caters more to foodies and families and also sells some other uncompelling crap: junky jewelry, special effects contact lenses*, thin onesies, stickers and some as-someone-has-seen-on-TV.  Things for which the night market is just a short stop on their inevitable journey to a landfill. The vibe was right. 

I felt it was important to take a group photo together, as taking photos together was one of our primary hobbies in Taiwan. It’d be even better if there were a few purikura booths** but handing my camera to a complete stranger is fine, too. 

I first experienced stinky tofu (臭豆腐) shortly after my arrival to Taipei; my host family took me to enjoy this “special taste” within days, as if they were afraid someone else would feed it to me first and they’d miss their chance at seeing my reaction. It was a simpler time, there wasn’t as much on TV, and watching your exchange daughter gag on the creamy garbage smell of cho-doufu was an entertaining diversion. Cho-doufu is tofu that’s been fermented in brine made from other fermented things in an unholy multiplication of stank alchemy. This tofu, puissant with odorifiousness, is then deep fried to put a crispy skin on its wobbling innards. In the second neighborhood I lived in, an enterprising vendor would make his rounds, pushing  his fry cart down the street, the wafting scent curling into people’s homes as he called out “cho! doufu” over and over again. He could have saved his voice: the smell is unmistakable. Twenty years later at a night market halfway around the world, the smell and its remembered associated taste could still make me shudder and my stomach flip-flop.

Cheese tonkatsu poutine: pork patty stuffed with cheese, breaded, and deep fried, served on a bed of french fries and green onions. A fan of anything stuffed with cheese, I was hyped to try this. Pro tip: find somewhere to sit, dump out that searing lake of cheese onto the fries and then stuff those cheesy fries back into the empty meat shell. You’re welcome.

On hot, sticky days together in Da’an Forest Park, we’d occasionally visit a shaved ice vendor who would load up a mountain of fluffy shaved ice with rivers of condensed milk and piles of chopped fruit, red beans, and tofu pudding. My favorite was ripe, fragrant mango. This drink from icy bar with its bubbles and jellies was refreshing and evoked a similar experience.

What are the six extra Ds beyond the mundanity of the mere three that people usually experience? Best guess: danger, dinosaurs, divestment from money…disappointment? That’s still two entire Ds unaccounted for. I’m going to venture that the disappointment is deep and all of these dimensions combined with a bunch of deep fried whatever could conceivably cause dry heaves. Disgorgement: that’s the word I’m looking for.


There’s so much food at the night market that everyone found something appealing, whether that was a chicken cutlet the size of a car tire or fish shaped pancake stuffed with custard. I got to share dragon beard candy with almost everyone, a pillow of fluffy strands of sugar around a core of chopped sweet peanut, black sesame, and coconut, dusted with more sugar that puffs around your mouth like smoke when eaten, the strands clinging to your face in a beard of sugar. Laborious to make with a freshness window of less than ten minutes, it’s very sweet and the texture is a bit like biting into a cotton ball. A nostalgic cotton ball. 

We found a table and wrapped our evening with gelato, flavors like tangy White Rabbit (Chinese milk candy), punchy yuzu, and nutty, roasty black sesame eddying into the bottom of our cups. In sharing this experience with our friends, Beth felt more present in my life than she has since her death. It didn’t lessen the ache but reminded me why I ache, why I loved her and love her still. Beth lives in the past now. I know where to find her.





*The very last place I’m going to put something sketchy is directly on my eyeball, thank you very much.

**I don’t know how they haven’t taken off in the USA yet but they’re like snapchat filters and stickers rolled into one and they can only have gotten better in the last twenty years.

Taiwan Part Twelve: Action, Adventure, Amnesia

In December, Beth and I went to some sort of Science Fun Fair Mystery Spot Park Thing. I *think* we went with her host family, or someone in her Rotary, because I really don’t recognize any of the people besides us in the picture. Regardless, it was a day of adventure, danger, and fun.

The shirt I’m wearing is the t-shirt of my class. It also may be indicative of my mental age; at any given moment, I’m likely to act like a two-year old.


Beth, posing with the Science Fun Fair Mystery Spot Park Thing’s mascot.


This thing almost killed me. Don’t laugh. Seriously. So it’s a wheel that you run on, to what purpose I could not say. What I did not realize is that the faster I ran on it, the more it tried to suck me underneath and into the swampy bogwater. Such shrieks as I uttered have likely ne’er been equaled at that park before or since.


Here’s Beth’s head on a plate–but where’s her body? It’s a Science Fun Fair Mystery Spot Park Thing SECRET. In the middle of this park, they had what appeared to be a playground, with large plastic dinosaurs posing in happy cartoon stances. It was like an educational museum for kids who would be too frightened by menacing dinosaur skeletons, with little informational plaques in front of each one. As there really wasn’t anyone else there, we decided it would be a shame if we did NOT take advantage of the moment and ride the dinosaurs. Could you NOT have done it? I didn’t think so. Don’t judge. I hear you judging!



It took me about six tries to get up on this thing. It was far too tall and too slippery for me to pull myself up on the side, so I had to literally run up the tail to scramble aboard. I felt like a much fatter, much clumsier Fred Flintstone, but I did it, dammit. Emboldened by our mastery over the Reptile Gods, we continued to explore the park, when lo, out of the brush came that thing which man fears most: a dino wearing a bow tie! The horror! The horror!


There was no way I could escape this beast by the power of my own two legs–I would need a powerful steed, swifter than the wind, and more furious than a hungry wildebeest. Luckily, there was an electric dog nearby!


My life will never be the same, after witnessing the majesty of the Taiwan Science Fun Fair Mystery Spot Park Thing. Don’t your lives also feel enriched as well, now that you’ve shared in the experience?

Taiwan Part Eleven: Upheaval

Around December, it was time to change host families. I was a little apprehensive about this as I’d met the family before, and although warm, they spoke no English. I knew immediately that either my Chinese would improve rapidly over the next few months, or my ability to play charades would be unparalleled worldwide. Quite honestly, I would have been happy to have stayed with Tracy Ah-e and Huang SuSu for the entire year. But other people in the Rotary wanted me, and they would have lost face if I didn’t go stay with them, so there was nothing to be done about it. I was quite lucky in that respect compared to other students. I only had three different families throughout the course of my stay, as opposed to some who were changing homes on a basis of every three or four weeks. Can you imagine packing and moving and getting used to a new area of a completely unfamiliar city every three or four weeks? The Lin family’s daughter, Vivian, had gone to Brazil the year before. She loved it there and often expressed an intense desire to return as soon as possible. With as much as she had to study every day in Taiwan, I don’t particularly blame her. Brazil must have been very freeing. Studies have shown that students from the US who go abroad tend to be MORE studious when they return. I would imagine the reverse is true when students from Taiwan and Japan go overseas and experience not having to spend 16 hours of every day in a classroom setting. Vivian and Li-Wen. Li-Wen was a PISTOL. She was anxious to show off at any opportunity, and would routinely do just about anything for attention.

Li-Wen, getting ready to throw down in some sort of ruler-based war. 0004k6ak You know how schoolkids here (at least in my experience) pull on their eyelids to chants of “Chinese, Japanese, American Knees”? Yeah, they do the same thing in Taiwan. But in reverse. THIS IS WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE, ROUND EYES!


My second host father. He was an art teacher at a local art school, which is the same one that Vivian attended. He taught mostly chinese calligraphy, and it was something he was apparently quite well known for. He tried to teach me some, but the language barrier was impossible to overcome, especially when I was taking classes with a different calligraphy teacher who taught me things a completely different way. We ended up getting frustrated with one another after about an hour, and never made another attempt. He’d just watch and ‘tut’ at me when I was doing my calligraphy homework. 0004f624

My second host mother, eating dinner. This was the first host family I had that attempted to feed me until I exploded. They were both very insistent that I call them ‘mom’ and ‘dad’, which was hard for me, especially due to the time of year. The Rotary has charted the way student’s years typically go, and it follows a pattern–a very good first 3-4 months, and then around December and especially the holidays, the honeymoon vacation period ends and students become incredibly homesick and depressed. If a student is going to go home early, it’s usually during that period of time; the depression cycle lasts around two months. Of course I went into things thinking “I’ll be different”, but I couldn’t fight it. I missed home, and I even missed the things that had become familiar to me over the previous four months. It was very hard to call them ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ at a time when I was acutely aware that my mom and dad were across the Pacific. 0004b9yq

This was the bathroom in my second host family’s apartment. This was the thing that MAJORLY skeezed me out about this particular living situation. Notice the green bucket? That’s covering their shower drain. I believe this is the first time I’d ever seen a shower where there was no tub or any enclosure whatsoever. Consequently, water was EVERYWHERE. The floor & toilet seat were constantly soaking wet. I’d do a mental facepalm every time I stepped into the bathroom in stocking feet, directly into a puddle. SQUISH. My socks and the hem of my pants were always wet over the entire course of time that I lived there. Christmas is an interesting holiday in Taiwan, if only because the majority do not hold christian beliefs and therefore they have all the trees in public and the santa mythos without any of the semantics arguments.


A giant tree in front of Shin Kong Mitsukoshi, constructed out of glass bottles. If Fight Club took place in Taiwan, this is one piece of corporate art that I guarantee would be shards in so many people’s eyes in a matter of seconds. A bunch of exchange students got all gussied up and went to a christmas dance party; it didn’t matter that we went out in public looking like that, because EVERYONE went out in public looking like that. It was an uncertain time of year for a lot of us, if not all of us, but we made our way through it the best we could, and ultimately, I believe we all became stronger people because of it.