In October of 2011, I visited Taipei—the city where my parents went to college and where my dad and his parents currently live—for the first time in over a decade, accompanied by one of my best friends, Lee Anne, whose matern...
In October of 2011, I visited Taipei—the city where my parents went to college and where my dad and his parents currently live—for the first time in over a decade, accompanied by one of my best friends, Lee Anne, whose maternal grandparents live in Taipei. I'm guessing I wrote this post near the end of 2011, but it fell by the wayside because my words reach peak coherence when they're allowed to ferment for one and a half years JUST KIDDING I am really slow. So I'm writing about the trip now, long after my memories of the trip have mostly fizzled into question marks, because I won't setting for "giving up"—but I will settle for "barely trying." Well there, here we go.
A road in Taipei.
I couldn't get it out of my head. The question I asked myself shortly after stepping onto the streets of downtown Taipei. What's that smell? Not a lip-curling, is-that-the-stench-of-decay-or-did-someone-fart smell, but a mild, omnipresent scent that says, "You're definitely in Taipei."
And thus I became unnaturally flush with excitement* when one night out of the blue Lee Anne said, "There's a distinct smell here." Oh, Lee Anne [clutches chest]—you totally get me. In addition to "BFF" you have earned the badge of "SMELL PARTNER 4 LYFE." And you're really smart, so I bet you know what the smell is.
* I mean, I'm easily excited, but it's usually at the hands of a voluminous ice cream sundae or a puppy acting helpless in a totally nonthreatening situation and thus looking immeasurably cute, not by smells.
"Oh my god, yes! The smell! There's a smell! You know the smell! ...What is this smell?"
"I think it's a mix of food and exhaust," Lee Anne started. "With some incense." Keep going. "And a bit of air freshener." Keeeep going. "And...toilet?" I nodded. It's not a scent I'd apply to my skin, but If I could bottle up Taipei street air and take it home for the occasional closed-eyed whiff, I would. It would transport me back to Taipei in a way nothing else can.
Taipei's smell was one thing about Taipei that hadn't changed since my last visit in 1999 and when I had lived there from 1996 to 1998 (6th and 7th grade, if I am to date myself). Most things were familiar: towering department stores, alleyways full of restaurants and shops, 7-11s and Family Marts on every other corner, rows of scooters waiting at traffic lights, rows of scooters parked by the sidewalk, grime-dripping buildings that look like they'll be torn down before they ever get washed, dingy eateries aglow with fluorescent lights.
Taipei City Hall station, doughnuts, and Taipei 101.
Things that were different: Mister Donut, Taipei 101, bubble tea shops galore, far fewer stray dogs (the overpopulation of stray dogs is still a big problem, though), and the metro. The best new thing to me is the metro/MRT, which was but a stunted newborn the last time I saw it. It's clean! Bright! Spacious! Easy to follow! With trains that run smoothly and frequently! With clear announcements in Chinese and English! And the stations have restrooms—restrooms that don't make you fear for the potential horrors within! Ignoring that New York City's subway system has instilled me with low standards (it's very good for what it is—I do keep in mind it's an over hundred-year-old system that runs 24/7), I'm pretty sure Taipei's metro is objectively great.
Grandma looking out the window of a relative's apartment. A fancypants apartment.
Another difference: my grandparents. It's been years since I last saw them—perhaps a decade. They were old the last time I saw them; now they're...really old. More specifically, my grandma ("ama" in Taiwanese) is 91 and my grandpa ("agong" in Taiwanese) is 94. When I was little, I'd semi-joke that they'd live forever. They've outlasted colon cancer and stomach cancer; they really are en route to reaching 100.
If it was hard to communicate with them before, it was even harder now. They speak Taiwanese, some Japane