It doesn’t feel real. My sister and I ooh and ahh at the abundance of cuisines around every street corner. Being a tourist means looking at every moment with vibrancy. Here, 7-Eleven isn’t just a convenience store, but a new world where you can buy a whole yam, order a hot coffee, or even print concert tickets, each for only 1 USD. Isn’t that the dream?
My family and I traveled together to Taiwan for a week prior to the beginning of my semester with CET. During my family’s limited time here, they wanted to see 九分 (jiǔ fēn), a mountain town east of Taipei that served as the inspiration behind the iconic Studio Ghibli film, Spirited Away. The essence of Spirited Away derives from the tradition that on the seventh lunar month, the gates between earth and the afterlife open, and spirits haunt Taiwan during a period called Ghost Month. 九分 is a bustling little alleyway inspired by Japanese architecture, filled with many small shops. As I looked through the knick-knacks that would excite any Ghibli fan, a dog popped up! It made me laugh to see something so strange yet magical in this place, causing me to feel a little less grounded in reality and wondering if the dog could be the owner. In my eyes, if this dog could run a whole store, I could learn Chinese.
Are you the owner?
The following morning, I awoke to the light rustling of suitcases as my family tried not to wake me. Their flight was just a few hours away; then it would just be me and Taiwan. That may sound like a dream, but I felt scared. To be honest, I’ve always struggled with learning Chinese, which was difficult for me to accept since it felt wrong that my worst subject was a part of my identity. To be Chinese American means to never fully be a part of either identity. Looking at my inability to speak my mother tongue, I wonder if I am losing touch with my roots. So I speak quietly with hesitation, afraid I will mess up, or worse, try to speak Mandarin and be met with confusion plastered on their face. However, I realized that the only way we can learn is to let go of the expectations we have for ourselves. Making mistakes means that we are trying— isn’t that all we can hope for?
So, on my first excursion, I went to this little shop on the corner that sold 包 that were cooked in a furnace. It seemed unreal that there were only three people working to make the handmade 包. One of them would stick their hand in the furnace to individually place the 包 in a kiln/tandoor oven so hot that I could see the heat waves radiating into the air. The 包 is like a crispy baguette on the outside and filled with rich, juicy beef on the inside. It is funny that I was so nervous to speak when all I had to ask was for two 包; although it was a small feat, I was proud of myself.
The best baos
When I first arrived at my new apartment, I met Min! My local Taiwanese roommate. Our first interaction was carrying the three neck pillows that my family accidentally left and my humongous pink suitcase up a flight of stairs to our front door. Walking into the apartment felt like stepping into a Ghibli film with its wood floorboards and Japanese-style door that led to my new room.
It is hard calling a new place, let alone a new country, home. I think what we miss the most is the comfort of familiarity, yet we always want what we don’t have. When we are at home, we yearn to explore, but when we are away, we yearn for home. I think seeking is good, but when you get to a point where you are out of touch with your reality, you won’t ever truly get to enjoy the present. Of course, I miss my loved ones and my dog Teddy, but I am also excited for what my life in Taiwan will be like. Making new friends and exploring together makes the world feel smaller. It’s hard to sit in the feeling of missing others, but I think that only means our love can persevere from afar.
To new friends