“Ever been to Jiufen?” I asked Mom.
“You should go! It has a nice view of the sea. It’s rumored to be the city that inspired Spirited Away. And they have the best gweh I’ve ever tasted - your favorite, with taro and the green one with radish or whatever the chewy stuff is.”
She looked skeptical. “How did you get there? You don’t speak the language.”
I know thirty words in Mandarin, and speak Taiwanese at a four-year-old level.
“The guide book.”
“How did you buy a ticket?”
“I went to the ticket office.”
“What did you say?”
“Wo beh ki Jiufen. Wo beh beh i-ge pyoh.”
Before the hour-long bus ride to Jiufen, I wandered around the street looking for breakfast. I’d left the hostel without eating, and thought I’d find a Family Mart or 7-11 and grab a 7NT tea egg or a 30NT freshly-roasted yam.
The only to-go snack I found was a cart selling pan-fried baozi. I bought two bao, each under two inches in diameter, and walked back to the bus stop, eating. It was super delicious.
Several cabs lined the curb. Each driver offered to take me to Jiufen for a good price.
“Wo ooh pyoh,” I told them.
One of them wanted to know where I was from, why I spoke Taiwanese instead of Mandarin, since most people my age spoke Mandarin, why was I in Taiwan by myself, and why didn’t I just use his taxi, it would be so much faster and easier for a clueless tourist like me to get to Jiufen. Why wait forever for a slow bus? I explained and politely declined, and he continued to pester me. We eventually had an argument, during which I dropped my second bao.
I ran back to the bao stand, but the vegetable bao were sold out.
“Mayo (none),” the guy said unsympathetically. He had thought it was weird that I only wanted two bao.
I thought about the bao during the bus ride.
When we arrived in Jiufen, everyone clambered off the bus and booked it towards an alley. I followed the masses and bought something from the first popular stall - a bowl of pretty pastel taro and sweet potato balls in a clear purple-gray soup.
I sat next to a gold-and-black stray cat on a concrete ledge overlooking the sea and ate the lightly sweet chewy balls (called yuyuan and diguayuan, or tang yuan) and soup, feeling lucky that I hadn’t purchased fifty dumplings and arrived in Jiufen stuffed.
I get full quickly, so I had to pass up most of Jiufen's scrumptious snacks in favor of not exploding. After leaving the Old Street, I took a bus up to the Gold Mine Museum and explored the peaceful surrounding mountainside. The day was drizzling and gray, and clouds drifted into the mountain range. I explored enticing vine-covered paths and stairs that made me feel like I was in a Miyazaki film.
For dinner, I cooked buckwheat noodles to pair with spinach and broth. Chupa found the noodles in the sink and began eating them out of the colander.
“Mmmm,” he said.
“Do you like them?”
“Mmmm, warm rubber bands,” he replied.
“Want to play a game?” Mom would ask.
The game turned out to be us pinching and pulling the skin on the tops of our hands in a perpetual dog pile of claw hands. She’d pull/pinch the skin on the top of my right hand with her right hand. While she held the pinch, I put my left hand over her right hand to pinch her skin and hold it while she put her left hand over my left hand and pinched hard. I’d take my right hand from the bottom, and put it over her left hand to pinch, and so on. This game never lasted long, as Mom, smiling, would speed up the process until we ended with a big collapsed hand pile.
This game was painful and not fun, but Mom enjoyed it. She probably had some nostalgic attachment to it.