Just about to open another Highball Whisky Cola from Japan (imagine: the convenience of whiskey and cola in a can!) Thought it was time to write about my weekend homestay with a Taiwanese family.
I met the mother, Annie, and sixteen year old daughter Peggy, on the first day of camp here in Pingtung. I knew immediately that I liked them: they smiled warmly and seemed patient enough to talk with me since I did not speak Chinese. Note: I don’t speak Chinese now, but it’s certainly improved since day one.
Anyways, Annie and her husband Davis came to pick me up in their SUV on Saturday morning. Davis did not speak much, either because he was shy or did not know much English. He did ask me many times during the course of the weekend, “Ni e le?” which means “Are you hungry?” I took this to mean that they he was hungry and wanted to eat.
The family SUV had mini TV screens in the back of the headrests and Davis had the channel turned to an American baseball game. I think the Yankees were playing and I didn’t know enough Chinese to ask him if he was a fan. I think he was more interested in the game than whatever this American had to say. So I did most of the talking with Annie the whole weekend. Her English was quite limited but we managed alright. Everyone got what they wanted.
First stop on the insane tour schedule was Meinong. This is a traditional Hakka area in Taiwan, and they have a Hakka “village” set up for tourists. It was really just a collection of gift shops full of crap. I guess Meinong is famous for their oiled paper umbrellas which they paint and can even be used in the rain. By the way, Hakka is one of many distinctive language and ethnic groups in Taiwan. Not everyone is Han Chinese.
Then Annie and Davis took me to the Yellow Butterfly valley, which was full of, you guessed it, yellow butterflies. It was funny though because neither the husband or wife really knew how to get there, so they made a million u-turns and kept arguing about the directions. Their bickering reminded me of my grandfather and grandmother on road trips, with my grandmother yelling, “No, Gene, turn here!” about 50 times an hour. Just like when I was a kid.
We had some Hakka food for lunch at a roadside cafe. On the menu: tofu with spicy peanut sauce, sauteed young rice shoots, water vegetable (?), fried rice and river clams. All of it was quite tasty but Hakka food is infamous for being uber salty. I downed about four bottles of water after that meal.
After lunch we drove back to Kaohsiung proper where they live. On the way, Annie turned and said to me, “I have five people in my family: Me, Davis, Judy, Peggy… and my father.” The way should she said “my father” made me feel she was trying to adequately prepare me for grandpa. I was glad she gave me the heads up. “My father doesn’t speak Chinese,” she said, “he only speak Taiwanese and Japanese.” Another cultural note here: many of the older generation (70+) don’t speak Chinese here in Taiwan. This is due to the fact that the Japanese occupied the island for fifty years, from 1895 to 1945. Older people were forbidden to speak their native language, Taiwanese, and went through a traditional Japanese schooling. I said to Annie at this point, “Well, maybe I can talk some Japanese with Grandpa.” She rolled her eyes.
When we returned to their home in Kaohsiung (the second largest city in Taiwan), I was surprised by the modesty of it. It was not poor at all, just middle class. I guess I expected something different since they had freaking TVs in their car. In front of the door was a little parking area for their car, bicycles, and scooter. There were also many bird cages hanging from the car park ceiling containing sparrows, doves, finches, and canaries.
Annie showed me to my room, which was on the third floor of the house. The house was quite large. That’s the funny thing about Taiwan’s living spaces, they appear small on the outside but have a ton of space inside. Clearly the room I stayed was the family library/playroom for the daughters (now teenagers). My room had small washroom and was across the hall from the family’s shrine room. Nearly every family in Taiwan keeps an ancestor shrine, where they burn incense and leave food offerings for their ancestors to enjoy in the afterlife.
It was raining hard by the afternoon so they let me nap for a bit. I slept on a straw mat on top of a cushion… it seemed very traditional and kind of made me feel like a farm animal. It was explained to me later that many Taiwanese prefer to sleep on the straw tatami-like mat because it keeps them cool while sleeping. I slept really well on something that was so unfamiliar. I think listening to the rain fall outside helped.
I woke up from my nap and went downstairs to find everyone disappeared but Grandpa, who was chewing betel nuts over the trash can. I tried to talk Japanese with him, but it took a wrong turn somewhere and he started talking about the A-bomb that the US dropped on Hiroshima. He told me to call him oji’isan (Japanese for grandpa) and then illustrated the differences in polite terms for family members. I wrote my name for him in Japanese, and he was very impressed. He tried to write the Japanese alphabet in katakana, but couldn’t. He said that he is an old man and couldn’t remember all the letters. I think he just had too many betel nuts (a Taiwanese version of coca leaves or cola nuts). His Japanese was mixed with Taiwanese, so I just keep saying, “Sumimasen Oji’isan, wakarimasen” or “I’m sorry Grandpa, I don’t understand.” He talked and talked, even though I didn’t know what he said. I guess that’s why Annie warned me.
Peggy, one of the daughters (the other one, Judy, is away studying in Ireland now), came to join us later in the day and we went to the Love River in Kaohsiung at sunset. Grandpa stayed home. We rode the love boat (really what it’s called) around the river and it was nice. Then we walked to one of the night markets, and the family had me try all kinds of Taiwanese food. I had some lemon jelly thing, stinky tofu, chicken feet, deep fried mushrooms, shrimp crackers, wax apple and oyster omlette. The only thing that was really bad was the chicken feet. I choked on the oyster omlette a little and ended up throwing up in a napkin… but I don’t think my family noticed cause I am a stealthy barfer. I was getting the distinct feeling that this family was trying to expose me to as much Taiwanese food as the could in one weekend, even if they sometimes preferred to eat more Western-types of food.
Made it back to the house by 10 pm and Annie requested I wake at 6:30 am the next morning. The idea was we would go temple-hopping before the day got to be too hot. Too bad the one temple they really wanted me to see, the Confucius temple, didn’t open until 9 am (my family didn’t know that, because they are perpetually lost). So we waited by seeing some other temples around the Kaohsiung Lotus Lake, followed by breakfast at a traditional market.
We finally made it to the Confucius temple after it opened. Annie told me that many students come to the temple to pray to the master and ask him for help with exams, etc. I asked Confucius to help me with my comp exams when I return home, but I don’t know if he heard me because I asked in English. Peggy reassured me that Confucius is wise and would know what I said. I said to her, “How can Confucius know what I say when he died before English was ever made a language?” Here’s to hoping he heard me, regardless.
Back to their house for more napping and eating. Annie prepared a lunch of rice dumplings and stir-fried cabbage for lunch. We ate around the table watching Taiwanese TV. It felt homey and really great. I think that was my favorite part of the homestay because for half an hour I was part of a Taiwanese family.
They were incredibly persistent about feeding me, and from what I hear from the other Americans who did a homestay last weekend, so were their families. It is a very Asian thing to overfeed house guests. I can’t complain; I ate very well all weekend and Davis would not let me pay for anything. Ever. He quietly followed Annie and myself around at the food stalls and restaurants, picking up the tab. He carried a pack of cigarettes in his pocket and smiled often. I liked the cut of his jib.
The day concluded with a walk around a reservoir in Kaohsiung. The sun was setting and the rain was coming so we finally piled back in the car, exhausted from a long day. I was ready to go back “home” to Pingtung and to the dorms. I was extremely happy to have had time with this family, as they were very good to me. I thanked them for opening their home to me and promised to keep in touch when they dropped me off.
After all that Taiwanese food, my first stop when home was the Pizza Hut down the street. Sometimes you just need some pepperoni and cheese in your life.