My second time in Taipei, I construct the space from memories of Taiwanese films. I feel the distance of Edward Yang’s cameras, that flood of “oldness” as he put it in his film Yi Yi, a contemplative hopelessness that is beyond rescue by spirituality or medication.
Graves are placed near houses. This is not ancestor worship, it’s a continued communication with the past, an adherence to the ideas and the people who guided us. Death seems an apparent fact of life, not because it happens, but because it always could happen, at any given moment.
Every afternoon when the monsoon comes, you never know if it is a serious typhoon or just a small storm. Whenever you feel the earth move, you are never sure if this is going to be the large one that collapses your building, or just a small shake to remind you that death is near.
And every now and then, a Chinese politician will remind everyone that Taiwan is an illegal island that, if it declared independence, would be “washed in blood” and showered with bombs.
Taiwan reminds you that the ground you stand on could always turn into a mudslide.
Perhaps it is the constant air of random, sudden chaos that keeps Taiwanese enthralled with newness. A popular café chain explodes with success one year, only to backtrack and go near bankruptcy the next year. The street-food scene flows with this demand for newness by inventing new tastes. New kinds of bubble milk tea, new kinds of shaved ice. They caramelize waffles, toss frog eggs in iced drinks, and turn duck blood into a sweet jelly. The new is a reminder that things are still happening, the world continues, unhindered by political threats and natural disasters.
The food is a mix of dishes from all over China and Taiwan. And they do it incredibly well. The Shanghai dishes I eat here taste better, fuller, less greasy, than any of the Shanghai dishes I had in Shanghai. The refined, subtle tongues of the Japanese pallet seem to have created more sensitive foods, which are Chinese but without the grease, sauce or “juice.” Sauce comes on the side, to dip lightly, rather than used to drown the dish.
In the popular Japanese manga Hetalia: Axis Powers, all nations are represented by high-school students gossiping about each other. The student who represents Taiwan is a beautiful, rich, sarcastic, stubborn and incredibly sassy girl. She is the popular girl who seems distracted by her cell-phone, and is most often pointing and laughing at someone less cultured than herself. She is quick tempered but cheerful, and an amazing cook. I never liked allegories much, but I can see why the author would carry these stereotypes. There seems like a secret pleasure here, a cultured and grand lifestyle, but the only way to know it is to be in one the joke. Otherwise, you are the joke.
Another way of putting it is to say that quality of life seems the constant emphasis. The food, health, spiritual wellbeing and nightmarkets all seem to cater towards keeping a consistent quality. Unlike in the West, we couldn’t use the word “happiness” to describe it. It’s more like a demand for something of worth, an expectation that the price and reputation hold true to the product.
The sassy and popular student. We can only guess why her expectations are so high, and what she will think of us.