“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 that 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. Also, Mom is not really aware of the internet.
“How did you buy a ticket? 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.
On the MRT to my next destination, I opened my new Chinese seal and tried it out. It wasn’t my name. I studied it for a minute, since I sometimes forget my name.
I got off at the next stop and hopped on the train heading back towards the 30-square-foot shop.
“Excuse me, but . . . this isn’t my name.”
“That’s your name,” the stamp guy said, puzzled.
“Sorry, but it isn't."
He shuffled through a messy stack of papers, finding the one with my information on it. “Here - this is what your mom wrote!”
I recognized her handwriting and remembered Mom scribbling on the pink scratch paper. We had spent the afternoon doing errands.
“Oh, you're right. Sorry! I guess she doesn’t know my name.”
We laughed and I ordered another seal.
Later I asked Mom about it.
“Sorry,” she said sheepishly. “Aiyah, why do you need your name on a seal anyway?”
“It’s for painting.”
“Aiyah, so particular. Not necessary.”
Dad’s parents had seven children and two cats - a scruffy orange tabby brother and a beautiful calico sister.
Dad’s father and his friends sat around drinking one day, discussing how great the female was - always catching mice - and how lazy the male cat was. During the conversation, the male cat slipped outside.
He returned several times, each time with a fresh dead mouse. He lined them up in a row in front of the group.
Grandma’s house had a cesspool in the backyard.
Grandpa or Grandma had cut a hole in the top of an orange construction cone and stuck a second cone upside-down into it (like an ice cream cone), creating a plastic portable toilet. This toilet sat in a shed-like room away from the main part of the house.
Petra and I were instructed to pour water into the cone after use, shake and swirl the contents around, and dump everything into the swamp.
The backyard was pretty, with close-cropped green grass, guava, mango, lychee and loquat trees, subtropical flowers and an anti-fragrant cesspool. You carried the cone out to the pit, moved the corrugated tin lid aside, poured the cone’s contents in, dragged the lid back in place, and took the cone indoors for a rinse.
Petra usually told me to swirl, empty and wash her cone for her, so I did.
The cones were actually a pleasant alternative to the indoor toilets, which were housed in narrow wooden stalls in the hallway. When you went in and closed the door, you felt like you were inside a square, claustrophobic, unsanitary tree.
Both bathrooms were much nicer than public Taiwanese restrooms.
I recently asked Petra if she remembered making me swirl and wash her cone for her.
"Yes," she said, with a satisfied smirk.
I planned a trip from Taipei down to central Taiwan.
“You are taking the train?” Dad asked.
“Don’t eat or drink anything for several hours before.”
“You don’t want to use the bathroom on the train.”
“Make sure not to eat or drink anything for several hours,” he repeated.
Later, Mom took me aside.
“Emmie,” she said. “You don’t want to use the bathroom on the train.”
“Yeah, Dad told me.”
“Emmie. It is important. Make sure you don’t eat or drink anything before you get on. If you do, you’ll be sorry.”
"I guess the bathrooms are disgusting?"
"It was so terrible," she said.
We spent several summers in Taiwan while growing up, splitting time between Taipei, where Mom’s sister worked, and Yuanlin, where Mom’s parents lived in a typical multi-story apartment with balconies for dangling laundry, courtyards for storing useful-ish junk, and a kitchen for housing mini lemon ice creams, which I swiped pretty often.
Some days, we’d visit tourist spots like Taroko National Park, Xitou Nature Education Area, or the Aboriginal Culture Village. Xitou was my favorite, with cool, shady paths leading through bamboo, ginkgos and green ponds. At the forest’s exit, peddlers sold carved wooden animals with toothpick-holding pockets - useful for the nightly de-vegetableing of your teeth.
Ginkgo leaves remind me of Xitou, Mom, and summers in Taiwan.
Pickling ume looks time consuming. I once watched my mom’s biǎo jiě (cousin)(specifically, older female cousin on the maternal side) and her husband massage and brine the sour green apricots for a long time. We’d plucked them earlier that day at a family farm deep in the woods.
The Japanese turn ume into soft poetic balls (Pantone 702 U-ish) that pair well with rice. The Taiwanese turn ume into dark, sweet, tart, prune-y things.