Taipei, We Wanna Stay
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We were invited to celebrate the multi-day Lunar (Chinese) New Year with our friend in Taiwan and her family. 2019 is the year of the pig, which is the twelfth animal in the Chinese zodiac. It’s said that anyone born in the year of pig will have to be more cautious this year. The god over those in the pig house is paying extra close attention to you.
First we gathered for multiple meals with her father’s side then the mother’s side the following day. The younger generation made the rounds to pay respect to their older family members as well as their ancestors. The older members distributed red envelopes (red and gold are the traditional colors to decorate with) of money to the young people in their social sphere (especially family). We watched as they lit incense and tidied their family altar for their gods and set food out for them as acknowledgement of their worship. We joined in the traditional fun of purchasing new outfits to welcome the New Year with a fresh start and wore them with our friend and her family (also adorned in their new clothing) at the big dinner on the eve of the holiday. We had a blast taking a couple of day trips and joined in on the many gambling opportunities long into the night with her family. We greeted one another with, “Shee-niying Qui Luh,” or rather, Happy New Year! For us, this was one of three phrases we could say in Chinese. Luckily, it was a catchall as far as greeting a person and saying thanks.
For me and my travel companion, we had the honor of ringing in the Lunar New Year
incredibly traditionally with our friend and her family. We were an active part of each of the above described (except I suppose the ancestor and god worship; we were simply onlookers). We were happy to participate in each activity as it rolled out in front of us day after day.
Communicating our gratitude to our friend’s parent was difficult with the vast language barrier between us. We wanted to talk with them about their interests and details about their holiday traditions. This was challenging even with our friend’s translation help. Still, our direction interaction with one another was incredibly, and unfortunately, minimal. That said we caught glimpses of their personality and sense of humor in the days we spent nearby them and with their extended family.
One of our favorite days in Taiwan was visiting the town of Yilan, located an hour or so east of Taipei. The drive was gorgeous: misty mountains, family cemeteries built under the trees and lots of rice fields (not yet budding, but it was fun to see all the still, reflective water). We had a delightful day riding bikes around the lake and visiting the National Center for Traditional Arts. There were streets inside the cultural center with a variety of shops to explore and learn about Taiwan’s culture. They had toy shops, ceramics, wood work, tea pots, dyes, etc. They also have a dance and drum show. This was so entertaining and educational.
We took a long bike ride around a lake in Yilan. Our friend’s dad (a jokester) insisted that we choose our bikes carefully because a race would be taking place. He them explained that each person would need to put 50 TWD into a pool and the winner would get it all. When we got to the starting line, he situated us and then pedaled back fifty feet. We could tell that he was being cocky and felt he would win despite the handicap he gave us. When he said, “Go!” I pushed by bike harder than I ever had. I finally crossed the finish line with him just on my heels. He got his bike and collected the money from the various racers. He mimicked a triumphant trumpeter and brought me my winnings. “Winner!” He said, in English. I bowed and accepted the 350 TWD winnings.
A highlight memory of our New Year fun that involved unity despite language was the gambling session at our friend’s grandmother’s home. This involved placing your bet against the house and then, in order to win and be paid out to match your bet, beating the house’s dice roll. Our friend’s dad was the house. I took the first roll after him and then the other five players followed suit. As the game continued, I was doing very well and my stash of betting money was gradually increasing. As I kept winning, her dad turned to me and pulled several hundred TWD from his stash and pointed to the door, patting me on the back and emphatically saying, “Thank you!” I gathered that he was going to pay me to leave because I was wiping him clean. Everyone laughed at his antic; ever the jokester. The teasing continued as my travel companion was doing poorly and had lost all her money. He then pointed to her and waved his hands for her to keep sitting (to stay), and pointing to me and then the door (to leave). The game was so unifying to all of us playing against the house. Even though we couldn’t speak words between one another, we knew by their dice roll what it meant. If it was higher than the house, there was celebration among the group, if it was less and the person lost their bet, disappointment was felt.
At one point, the house rolled the highest possible roll without taking our money immediately. I needed a 12 to stay in the game. My friend explained that if I beat this roll, her dad would throw himself against the wall (due to the trauma of my winning streak). I felt it was impossible, but I threw the dice with a small hope that two sixes would appear. By a miracle, I saw a 12 land in the ceramic bowl. Elation burst across the room. Everyone was cheering and clapping; pointing at the house in mockery of his pride. He was a man of his word, and climbed on the couch and threw his body against the wall. I loved that we were connected together in this game and our fun surpassed any language differences.
Our greatest struggle with cultural differences was our friend’s family’s immense desire to cater to our stay. Traditionally in Taiwan, if someone in the party is older, they are expected to take the bill and cover the expense of those in their care. To us, we wanted to show our appreciation for their generosity paying our own way and occasionally treating them to a meal or an activity. In the end, we needed to pull back and accept our differences in views of money and let them treat us. They took incredible care of us and we felt so welcomed. Before we left, we combed through the street market and found gifts of gratitude for her parents. They accepted them with a quick bow and smile.
We enjoyed the night markets that Taiwan is so famous for. Filled with people, food vendors, and various clothing or gadget shops, these markets never left one bored. One of our favorite meals, kiwi juice and hot dumpling soup, was found at a night market. Even typing those words out has me longing for a bowl. We loved so much of the food and were suspicious about others. Our Taiwanese friend was an excellent guide to help us try new things and also explain items that may have warranted a bit more caution when consuming. For us desert kids, all the seafood was overwhelming! But we ate it and would definitely love to go back and tackle some dishes we were too leery to try. Our last exciting adventure that I highly recommend would be to stay in the stunning Shang Ri La resort in the heart of New Taipei City. There was a free shuttle to top tourist stops (including Taipei 101, the tallest building in Taiwan). We had a ridiculously awesome view of the city from our room and loved the open air rooftop swimming pool. I give Taiwan two huge thumbs up. I felt safe there and was impressed by their public transportation and the variety of food. With many things to do, it makes the country a key destination for any globe trotter out there.