Wow, I can’t believe it’s been two weeks since I’ve arrived in history-steeped Taichung, Taiwan. I had thought I would be writing more, but this trip has become more of a vacation than a working trip. In hindsight, I think I probably needed a break from all the plotting and planning I have been doing. I am fully caught-up with my demanding napping schedue, and have watched “RuPaul’s Drag Race” seasons 5 and 6 to see why people liked it so much (I am now a fan!)
While I am maybe a bit slow in becoming the “adventurous digital nomad” that I thought I might like, I am at least learning a bit more about myself when visiting places away from home: I’m not much of a tourist, it seems. I just like to soak up the atmosphere at my own pace.
Anyway, here’s a quick mini-report on what else I’ve been up!
Dental Work in Taiwan
One of the practical goals of this trip was to finalize the year-long process of having a Bicon dental implant to replace a rotted-out tooth. I had the preliminary extraction and bone graft done in the United States by my regular dentist, and my uncle put in the tooth socket last time I was in Taiwan back in October.
For this visit there are three final steps:
- Prepare the socket by clearing gum material and inserting a “temporary abutment”
- Making a cast of the area so a new tooth can be made, followed by…
- Installation of the new artificial tooth.
The advantage of the Bicon system, as I understand it, is that it’s designed to be strong by encouraging bone growth around the socket rather than relying solely on mechanical force. It also doesn’t use screws, using a mechanical principle It seems pretty cool. There was a bit of pain, but it was tolerable, especially after the pretty dental assistant told me to relax. Yes ma’am! :) Uncle’s dental practice is also pretty nice; I remember when he first started back in the 1970s with a single chair that used mechanical pulleys to drive the drill. Now he’s importing lasers and other advanced gear, and his hand is as sure as ever.
This trip to Taiwan is, as far as I’m concerned, less of an “eating trip” as it is a “get brave enough to get around by myself” trip. That said, it’s been difficult to avoid interesting foods!
I really love bien dang (the local pronunciation of bento), which is a “box lunch” that is served everywhere the way one might see hot dogs and sandwiches served in the United States. They are cheap and varied. I’ve had two so far, the one shown above left being one Dad bought at the Taichung High Speed Rail (HSR) station. This one is made by the Taiwan Train Authority, which is famous in Taiwan for its porkchop lunchbox. I really like these a lot! There are hundreds if not thousands of other varieties across Taiwan.
A few other staples I had are these breakfast dumplings, which were kind of long rolls of fresh dumpling skins filled with cabbage and pork and then pan fried. Breakfast in Taiwan is awesome and served everywhere in a myriad of forms wherever you look in the early morning. The feeling I get from it is like being at a county fair in the States, except it’s EVERY MORNING. I also asked about green onion bread, which is also a staple Taiwanese item that I remember. It’s a light roll that has a savory topping of green onions baked into the top, and for some reason I LOVE THEM. The onions are quite mild and pleasant, almost buttery but a bit different flavor. It’s probably pork lard. Delicious, delicious pork lard! :D
Some other random things spotted: this poster (upper left) for special order rice bundles (called bah-tsang in Taiwanese) for the lantern festival. I think these rice bundles are the traditional food that goes with the festival! I haven’t had one yet for this trip, though I think I saw them at the market. This poster was in an elevator at a nearby shi chang (market); I have a short video that shows us walking into it. Unfortunately most of the footage got screwed up inside the market.
Dad and his foster son A-bun have been cooking dinner, and typically the meals are simple and good. I made Japanese-style curry the other night as my contribution, which was a big hit! Also, they have been using my presence here to engage in some special meals that they ordinarily wouldn’t eat, such as a “barrel roasted chicken” (see below!). My uncle also took me to CostCo, of all places, so I could pick up some essential foods I might like. You can see in the picture (above-right) that they look exactly like the ones in the United States. I think CostCo imports a lot of the same food that we get in the US actually, even vegetables and other produce. A-bun isn’t impressed by the quality, saying the Taiwan fruit is better. I am inclined to agree.
Near Dad’s Place
Dad’s place is located near the intersection of San-min Road and Lin-sen Road in the West District of Taichung. The West District is part of the old city, and historically was where Japanese government workers and soldiers lived during colonial times (between 1895-1945). Dad grew up in the area during this time, and pointed out many of the old-style Japanese houses and commercial buildings that still exist. This part of Taichung is a bit run-down compared to the newer developments, but seems perfectly safe. And even as a run-down area, it is still much more vibrant my home town in New Hampshire. The population density is astonishing to me, but when I mention it to people here they look at me funny :-)
The closest place that sells whole coffee beans is a store called (I think) Central Africa Coffee. It’s an unassuming place located next to one of the many English-language prep schools that dot Taiwan’s cities. On my last trip to Taiwan I left my mini Porlex coffee grinder with Dad along with an AeroPress, so I have the tools to make a decent cup of coffee while I’m here. It’s a treat for my dad and A-bun for me to make them coffee in the morning, since they find the mini Porlex a bit cumbersome to use and drink terrible freeze-dried coffee instead. One of my main personal missions is to try buying coffee beans by myself from this store, and maybe try to talk about it with the owner.
Nearby the coffee place was a mysterious place called “Artistic Space of Color Stone”. I have been noticing what appear to be design or art studios scattered around the old city; I wonder if the pursuit of affordable studio space is as important for artists in Taiwan as it is in the United States. It may also be due to the presence of the National Taiwan Museum of the Fine Arts located in Taichung. It’s within walking distance of Dad’s place, but I have yet to visit it this trip.
Walking through the back streets toward the Luquan Market area, I spied a hamburger restaurant in a dead-end alley (upper-left) called Lavaburger. It appears to be a hamburger chain from Bahrain. I thought it was a strange place to put a hamburger restaurant.
Also nearby was the local FamilyMart (upper middle, right), which is a competitor to the dominant (I think) 7-Eleven chain in Taiwan. You can do things in Taiwanese convenience stores like pay your utility bills, which is why Dad and I were there. There is some kind of digital cash card that you can buy at these places that allow you to ride buses and pay for various things at kiosks, but I haven’t figured out how it works. Apparently you can go to the convenience store to just hang-out, and people don’t mind! I may have to test that!
Anyway, this Family Mart is pretty typical, I think. Of note is the roasted sweet potato machine that calls out with its savory sweet goodness. 10NT a potato! That’s like 30 cents! Alas, I didn’t try one. I have yet to actually visit a 7-11 by myself in Taiwan, but hopefully soon!
As usual, Dad has a lot of flowers that he raises in his balcony greenhouse. He cycles them in-and-out of the greenhouse into the living room a few days at a time. It’s pretty nice!
The Old Central District
The smallest city district is the Central District, which is the smallest and apparently most densely-populated district of the city. According to Wikipedia, it was the first “modern city” built by the Japanese in the early 1900s, and the location of the first railroad station. The city hall above is a nice example of the Japanese Imperial architecture style; such buildings seem to be appreciated and valued by the local Taiwanese who have ties back to the colonial period. This building has been replaced by the enormous New Taichung City Hall that can hold 20,000 people. I have yet to see up-close in-person.
I noted one of the many Taichung public bike kiosks nearby. Dad and I stopped to inspect it while a couple other people rented some bikes to get around. I’m not sure how popular the system is; riding a bike in the congested streets of Taiwan seems would seem to be a frightening affair for those who aren’t used to local traffic patterns. The traffic here is very organic and responsive, and requires you to be very vigilant and responsive. Since I have some experience driving in the automotive hellhole that is Boston, I might do OK but I would prefer not to. That said, my auntie suggested that I get my International Drivers License anyway so I could have the option of driving.
While looking for a hearing-aid store nearby, I noted a run-down block that had a lot of graffiti on two large abandoned buildings. Unlike some such areas in the United States, this one actually seemed pretty safe because it was hemmed in by other busy streets; Taiwan is said to be very safe other than the threat of pickpockets. I’ve noted one other area where I’ve seen graffiti nearby along a low bridge, though I don’t have a good picture of it.
On the walk back toward home I couldn’t help but take a picture of the police scooters that were parked in their spaces by a police station. This particular police station, Dad told me, was built during colonial Japanese times and was still in use.
I was happy to see the old Taichung Train Station, which was also built during Japanese rule and is still in operation. There used to be a similar train station in Taipei, but I’m told it’s been torn down…quite a shame in a way.
Though the building is old and small, there seems to be a LOT of other construction behind it that I’m presuming is transportation-related. I’m told that this will be replaced by a larger elevated railroad system to handle the traffic better. The entire area around the train station is packed with all kinds of things; I need to spend a day just walking around.
The Taichung station is about 20 minutes away by foot, and so it is a viable way for me to get to Taipei. My aunt said the easiest way is probably to take a bus; there are many bus stations clustered around the old train station. The buses in Taiwan are generally pretty awesome these days compared to your Greyhound and Peter Pan in the United States (above, left).
Many people have told me that the best way to get to Taipei would be to take the High Speed Rail (HSR), a modern system that puts the transportation system in the United States to shame (then again, what modernized country doesn’t?) However, the Taichung HSR station is a 20-minute cab ride, versus a 20-minute walk. I love trains too; while the HSR is pretty awesome, I’d love to take my time and absorb the train ride. Taking the bus is a less desirable experience, but it’s a bit cheaper. Taking the train to Taipei and back by myself is another personal goal, incidentally.
I found that buses here sometimes have surprising advertising. Near a park in the Central District I noted a bus filled with stuffed animals (above, middle) all over the windows. I’m not sure what it’s advertising or if it’s something else…mysterious! I also saw a bus advertising what I thought was for the movie Captain America: Civil War, but it might be for a video game called Future Fight based on my Googling. Not sure!
Barrel Roasted Chicken
As I mentioned before, Dad and A-bun have been thinking of things for us to eat while I’m visiting. One of the exciting food items was a barrel roasted chicken which is made in a big clay oven. It’s sort of like a rotisserie chicken, but oh so much better. Roast chickens are expensive in Taiwan compared to the United States (around $15 here in Taiwan versus around $5 at a US supermarket), but they are kind of a specialty item.
This particular chicken was delivered to our door, from this place. It appears to be a small roadside stand (here’s the street view), though it’s hard to discern how the chicken itself is roasted. However, I found this video about a different chicken place in Taiwan that shows the multi-step roasting process more clearly. It’s in Mandarin Chinese, but just watch!
The flavor of this chicken was smoky-sweet, juicy, and utterly fragrant. The inside of the chicken had been stuffed with some kind of grass, which contributed to its wonderful aroma. Accompanying the chicken was a kind of sweet-savory light gravy, somewhat clear, in which the chicken liver and other organs had been cooked. The best way to eat this chicken is not to try carving it American-style, but to hack it into pieces with a sturdy pair of scissors. I love this kind of chicken; I usually can’t get it where I live unless I make a trip to Boston Chinatown to visit a “Chinese BBQ” place.
As with many Asian foods, the heads and feet were left on the chicken. This used to freak me out when I was a kid, but now I looked upon the chicken’s visage with a kind of thanks. Dad happily chewed the meat off the neck and head, and A-bun took care of the feet. Chicken feet are a delicacy in Taiwan, as are fish heads and (I now know) chicken heads. A-bun cautioned me that it’s wise not to eat too many chicken heads, because the neck is where antibiotics are administered and I guess it “builds up”. I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but I refrained from eating anything neck-up on the chicken :-)
I’m pretty happy to be back here visiting my dad, but I am still finding it really difficult to get over feelings of inadequacy due to my lack of fluency in the language. I’m also naturally a bit withdrawn when I’m in an unfamiliar place, so I’m working to overcome those feelings. I’ve made one short solo sojourn around the block, literally a five minute outside jaunt. I think my daily goal will be to go outside by myself once a day and just be “in the flow” of the people moving around. My subconscious worry is that someone will talk to me and ask me a question, and I will draw the usual surprise that I can’t speak Chinese of Taiwanese. It shouldn’t bother me, I know. Maybe I just need to repeat “water off a duck’s back” to myself a lot!
So, my progress on being adventurous is going very slowly, but improving. I’ve started to record videos using my livestreaming setup on the Mac and YouTube Capture app; I just uploaded this trip to the supermarket video with my dad, for example. The production values are shaky as I’m still learning how to best use these tools, but it is something!
Today (Tuesday) I am feeling a bit more adventurous and may go for another walk by myself. I don’t know why I am so nervous about it still…it must be that old childhood fear that stemmed from feeling insecure in the society. Perhaps if I do it a couple times a day, I’ll feel less anxious.
Deep breath! Wish me luck!
About this Article Series
This blog post is part of a series about reconnecting with my heritage in Taiwan while testing my mettle as a traveler, covering my second trip trip in May 2016. All posts are collected on The Taiwan Travel Challenge 2016 Page.