Revisiting and remembering the best bits of Taiwan

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It’s not difficult to remember all the negative stories of home. Having lived in Taiwan for more than a decade before coming to Berkeley for college, I have stories aplenty: the humid horror of summers that made air conditioning a survival necessity, the terrifying abundance of spiders and cockroaches that would appear in the shower at the worst of times, the tendency for drivers to speed up at the sight of a pedestrian trying to cross the street.

But growing up someplace makes it easy to forget some of the great things that you love most about it. I got some reminders of that over a weekend trip to southern Taiwan.

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It’s always been somewhat off-putting when Berkeley is described as “urban” to me. Growing up in the densely populated cities of Taiwan, I found the Berkeley environment astoundingly spacious, while from my brief stints down in Southern California left me with the impression that the Los Angeles area was relatively rural.

This isn’t to say Taiwan doesn’t have its fair share of great horizons or landscape picture locations, but the sheer density of population made for some sharp divisions between each city center. The hour drive between the capital of Taipei and my home city of Hsinchu was a shift between two fairly distinct worlds, whereas an hourlong drive in the Bay Area takes you from Berkeley to maybe still stuck on the highway because, well, traffic. The four-hour trip to Tainan made for quite the change in perspective.

 

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All sorts of buildings are left over from the Japanese colonization of Taiwan in World War II, from the Presidential Office Building in Taipei to the TRA train station in Hsinchu. The Old Tainan Magistrate Residence, which housed the local governor and the Japanese royal family in that time period, now serves as a local tourist attraction. Besides housing, amusingly enough, a model of the building itself as a part of a historical exhibit, the renovated building also contains a small café and various small stores for shoes, clothes, moss squirrel figurines and other miscellaneous souvenirs. For some reason, it also includes a room dedicated to selling furniture.

Recent years have led to an outburst of creative talent in giftworthy material, with the Hayashi Department Store as a major shopping attraction. Some highlights I found around Tainan include the aforementioned moss squirrel figurine, bars of soap that look like macarons and a purse that looked like shorts. My personal favorite was a set of pins that ranged from the cheeky 人帥沒朋友 (Too hot; no friends) to the vaguely inappropriate 我要大便 (I need to poop) and the blatantly obscene (not included). 

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History has also left over some oddities, such as the Anping Tree House. Previously a warehouse owned by a salt company, it was abandoned, and the banyan tree around it subsequently grew into almost a part of the building — you can walk through a structure that is as much tree as it is house! Two stories high, with various corners of actual, living branches and roots sticking out, it makes for some really aesthetic photos!

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And of course, you haven’t had the full Taiwan experience until you’ve experienced street food. There are some great night markets throughout the country, and while I wasn’t able to visit the truly massive one this trip, you can still find some amazing street food if you know where to look. We were able to get mango shaved ice at a popular local store. This is the quintessential experience in the humid horrors of Taiwanese summers, though you can also usually get shaved ice with various other toppings depending on your taste, such as strawberries, red beans or boba.

On that note of night markets, just throwing it out there that Shilin Night Market is actually a real place in Taipei! Throw out what you think you know from the store in Asian Ghetto — there are all sorts of foods that I have not been able to find good equivalents of in Berkeley, such as oyster omelets (蚵仔煎) or green onion pancakes (蔥油餅). Let’s not even get into my boba nitpicks.

Coming out of yet another year at Berkeley, it’s important to rediscover and indulge in some nostalgic vices of home, even if it’s just some of the most basic stuff. Of course, there’s always more to explore and enjoy, but sometimes going home is a welcome return to some old comforts.

Contact Jonathan Lai at [email protected].