Destination: Taipei, Taiwan

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Top of Taipei 101 (June 2016).

Taipei has always been sort of my second home: my family and I would frequently go to visit my mom’s family– aunts, uncles, cousins, grandmother– all the while explore the city and what it had to offer. Despite the intense humidity and mosquito bites every time we visit, Taipei is the exact definition of a city paradise: shopping, night markets, and of course, incredible food!

After our eight-day whirlwind tour of Japan last summer, my family and I hopped over to Taipei to visit my grandmother. During our time, however, we also spent a few days outside of the capital to explore other parts of the country– considering that I’ve been to Taipei countless times as a child, it surprised me that I’d never been to other cities in Taiwan. My family and I road-tripped throughout the country, and it turned out to be a good time, seeing what each place contributed to the beauty and diversity of the nation. More on them later…

In any case, we arrived at Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport after a three-hour flight from Osaka, where we caught the bus into the city center, then a taxi over to my grandmother’s apartment located just a few blocks from the iconic Taipei 101– I could also see the building from outside her home, a representation of what the beautiful city had to offer foreigners with friendly service and plenty of things to keep oneself entertained for days, e.g. shopping districts, trendy cafes and eateries, etc.

Having visited my grandmother so often as a child, I always feel a sense of familiarity whenever I walk into her apartment– cramped and outdated, but also timeless. Few, if any, changes have been made to the living space in the past twenty-plus years: what has really changed has been us, the ones who live and visit there. Really, it’s a strange feeling to be getting older, while the home does not. From the old, black-and-white photograph of my grandfather (who died when I was eight) hanging in the dining room to the varnished, hard-to-open bedroom drawers in the guest room, I can still perfectly envision where everything is placed inside the household.

We spent three nights in Taipei, then another two after we returned from our road trip around the rest of Taiwan. While staying in the capital, we made the most of it, spending time with our grandmother and heading out to revisit old places. Although we ended up skipping the Shilin Night Market (one of the most famous ones in Taiwan) and Din Tai Fung (a one-star Michelin restaurant known for its xiao long bao) this time around, we still enjoyed ourselves with what we did do.

On our first day in Taipei, we helped our grandmother run some errands, going grocery shopping in the outdoor markets, which in themselves were a hodgepodge of vendors spilling into each others’ markets, random piles of leafy greens and root vegetables being sold in the middle of the street, and motorbikes weaving through the narrow spaces between pedestrians– definitely helps to be careful while pushing through the crowds!

My family and I enjoyed a delicious lunch of beef noodle soup (牛肉面) at a small mom-and-pop restaurant not too far from my grandmother’s home. We’d been there the last time we visited and loved it. The food is so fresh: you see the noodle’s dough being prepared as soon as you walk in, becoming soft and bouncy when cooked in a cauldron (yes, cauldron!) of boiling water. The cubed beef chunks are beautifully tender and the broth earthy and piping hot– you can tell that it, along with just about any Taiwanese food, is made with 100% love.

We also spent much of our time in Taipei 101, as means of seeking refuge from the stifling summer heat (thank goodness for air conditioning!). Much of the ground floor is the food court, filled with an eclectic blend of Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean, and just about any other Asian cuisine that’s sure to satisfy the Asian foodie at heart. My sister and I also tagged along with my mom to the Chengzhong Market, which is a covered, outdoor market that sells clothes, Taiwanese snacks, and household items. Although I’m not much of a shopper, I did like how things were relatively less expensive than those in the U.S., even Europe. One U.S. dollar equates to roughly 32 New Taiwan (NT) dollar, and with this exchange rate it was beneficial to us Americans whenever we went out. I recall getting a large, hearty breakfast for four people for only $6 USD– you can bet, then, that I had tons of shao bing you tiao and fresh Taiwanese bread (my favorite being red bean-filled) each morning!

Inside Chengzhong Market.

Returning to Taipei after our tour of Taiwan, we spent the last couple of nights in my grandmother’s apartment, also having a family gathering out at a Chinese-Japanese fusion restaurant where we were served seven-coursed meals (how fancy…). We also shopped around, visiting the multi-story Eslite bookstore (one of my favorite places in Taipei) and buying clothes near Taipei 101, home to international brands like H&M, Zara, NEXT, and so forth. We also treated ourselves to *massive* plates of shaved ice for only $2 USD each– mine was filled to the brim with red bean, taro, mochi, and boba, and each bite felt like a slice of heaven on earth. A great way to cool off from the sticky heat, even if it happened to be raining that day!

Taiwanese shaved ice.

Of course, I couldn’t leave Taiwan without getting boba milk tea– although I’ve had it numerous times back in the States, they just couldn’t beat the ones in Taiwan, where it originated from. While I would say that their tastes are just on-par with each other, the Taiwanese version wins my heart for being less expensive ($1.50 USD to $3/$4 average in the States) and bigger in cup size, if that’s hard to believe! Trust me, my stomach was in pure, milk-tea bliss for the whole afternoon…and I didn’t regret it!

(Real) boba milk tea.

Aside from the exploring and *obvious* food fest in Taipei, we also made sure to spend quality time with our grandmother in her home. Lots of home-cooked dinners around the table (thanks to her caretaker) and hours spent watching evening news while eating mangoes, guavas, and whatever delicious tropical fruit was in season. Although I’m not very close to my grandmother, I believe that we have mutual love for each other– grandparent to grandchild– that makes it okay, and I’m sure that she loves me just as much as I love her, despite the language barrier and distance apart.

My visit to Taipei last summer was brief, but a pleasant reminder of just how wonderful my roots are. I’m not just talking about the food (although it plays a huge factor), but also the local’s hospitality and pride in being distinctively Taiwanese. It makes me sad that, growing up in the United States, I’ve lost touch with the language and culture, but since then I’ve made efforts to get in touch again. Little by little, I hope to get back into speaking Chinese comfortably, as well as fully embracing my Taiwanese identity– humidity and mosquito bites included.

Next up: Taichung, Taiwan!


— Rebecca


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