Farewells

The past two days have been full of preparations for my trip home. Yi-Jun and my cousin help me mail a large box home, and I will be so relieved when it gets there safely. Its contents are going to be amazing in my kitchen, and I cannot wait to use my new soymilk maker and wok Ai-Yi bought for me!

In addition to packing, Ai-Yi taught me more recipes to take home. My favorite part of my cooking classes with her is taste testing and delivering the dish to the table. ☺

Ai-Yi's shrimp dish

Ai-Yi’s shrimp dish

This morning marked my last day in Taiwan. I started it off by eating at my favorite Taiwanese breakfast shop, and drinking coffee at my favorite café. In the afternoon, my cousin came to spend some time with me, and then she took me to the Windsor Hotel for a massage and pedicure. It was such a treat since the next five days are going to be terribly stressful. Not only do I have dozens of things to take care of at home, in a few days I am flying to the U.S.A. to visit my husband. Traveling to three continents in less than five days requires so much preparing.

For dinner, Ai-Yi, Yi-Jun, and Ai Shan take me to a Japanese restaurant for our last meal together. Not only did we get to pick the fish and lobster from the tank for our ever-so-fresh sashimi, it was still moving at our table when served. Part of me felt terrible for the little guys, but it was delicious.

Our unlucky lobster

Our unlucky lobster

Sashimi

Sashimi

On our way home, Ai-Yi stops to buy my favorite dessert, half of a Taiwanese sweet potato. The rest of the family stops by the house to spend some time with me. We take fun photos with their Polaroid camera and say our farewells.

It will always be difficult leaving Taiwan.  Here I am surrounded with family, and food and places which remind me of my childhood.  In Taiwan, it is as though my mother never passed, and we share stories I have never heard about her before.  We talk about her everyday with happiness.  Here I do not ever seem to get homesick.

Despite all these, I am excited my heart will be whole again once I am with my husband, and I suppose that is the reason why I cannot be too sad about leaving my family in Taiwan. I am truly blessed beyond what I deserve.

Happy Birthday, Ai Shan!

My cousin and best dinner partner in the world celebrated her 26th & 27th birthday today.  <3  I will miss her so much when I leave Taiwan.

In the West, when a child is born, he or she is zero years old. In Chinese culture, babies are already one-year-old when they are born, since there has been life for almost a year.  I love this.

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Birthday dinner with the family

Birthday cake time!

Birthday cake time!

Friends + KTV

I am unsure why karaoke is an uncommon pastime in the western world.  In Asia, it is wildly popular and there are hundreds of karaoke salons in Taiwan.  Admittedly, I am a terrible singer, and in America or England I would not dare to sing with a microphone in public.  But here in Taiwan, it is definitely one of the best things to do with family or a group of friends for a fun night out.

My cousins take me to just one of many karaoke chains, Holiday KTV, just a short drive from the house, and we meet their friends.  For just a little over $16 U.S. per person, we have a three-hour slot to our own private karaoke room.  The host takes us to one of dozens of karaoke rooms.  On the way, is an open buffet area which is complimentary to singing guests.  We get excited about all the food and drinks offered.  Once settled and all of our friends arrive, we get some plates of food, drinks, and start singing.

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Just some of the buffet

We have a great time talking, singing, laughing and cheering each other on.  Some of our friends are fantastic singers and I embarrass myself with some fun American pop songs.

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Our private karaoke room

Kaohsiung & Fo Guang Shan Buddha Memorial Center

For my last Sunday in Taiwan, the family wanted to take me to one more special place.  After breakfast, we take a roadtrip to Kaohsiung to meet with my other family members to visit the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Memorial Center.  On the way, we talk about my mother and share stories about her.

We arrive at the center and Yi-Jun is told there is no parking available at the moment.  All I can think about is that it must be a very special place to be completely full on a Sunday.  We decide to have lunch to pass the time until later in the afternoon.  We drive to a traditional Hakka village nearby.  The Hakka people migrated to Taiwan centuries ago from China, and they are the second-largest ethnic group in Taiwan.  The village we visit highlights the tradition of hand-painting umbrellas, and we decide to have lunch at a Hakka restaurant.

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The food is very different from typical Taiwanese cuisine, as it origins are from southeastern provinces in China.  After lunch, we walk around the village to shop and also to watch the musicians play their Taiwanese instruments.  We visit an ice cream shop in another village nearby and Yi-Jun buys me my favorite, passion fruit sorbet.  The weather is warm and perfect for a cool treat.

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We go back to the Buddha Memorial Center and there are still crowds of people trying to enter.  We realize that today 20,000 Buddhist monks are gathering here for a special ceremony.  Although there was much commotion, it was an amazing day to visit.  Upon entering the first entrance hall, my cousin tells me that this place is sacred to Buddha.  All the restaurants are vegetarian, and there are also rules prohibiting tobacco, alcohol, and improper attire and slippers.

The center is absolutely stunning.  From east to west are the Front Hall, the Eight Pagodas, the Grand Photo Terrace, the Bodhi Wisdom Concourse, the Main Hall, and the Fo Guang Big Buddha.  The Go Fuang Big Buddha is the landmark of the Buddha Memorial Center.  It is over 354 feet tall from the base and made from 1,780 tons of steel and bronze and makes it the highest seated bronze Buddha in the world.

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The symmetry and beauty of the grounds with its Eight Pagodas and Big Buddha is one of most impressive places I have ever visited in Taiwan.  I am so happy to be in this amazing place with my cousins and Ai-Yi.  Ai-Yi is happy at this place and she excitedly talks about her Buddhist faith.  As we finish our tour of the center, the bells chime at four in the afternoon and large groups of monks and believers move their way to the center of the grounds.  It is an incredible site to see.

Ama

This morning, my eldest uncle, came in from Kaoshiung to visit with us and take me to visit the final resting place of my grandmother, my Ama.  We sit and talk and eat breakfast together.  As we prepare to leave, Ai-Yi gives me a small baggie with a single kumquat with leaves still attached.  She tells me to put this in my pocket.  Ai-Yi tells me that with all the death I will see today, I will need to eat this fruit after my visit for protection.  My other uncle and his family meet us at Ai-Yi’s house and we follow each other to the cemetery.

In a nine-story pagoda about ten minutes from Ai-Yi’s house is a beautiful red, white, and green pagoda.  It is surrounded with burial mounds and tombs, and there are towers for burning ghost money.  We unload the car and carry the fruits, and small bowls of food for the gods to the temple.  As I walk into the pagoda, a monk is chanting her readings and chiming the bells.  The air is filled with smoke and the scent of burning incense.  I could not have imagined a better resting place for Ama.

We set out twelve dishes of food and platters of oranges, apples, and other fruits as offering.  My family completes their rituals and prayers to the gods by burning incense and ghost money.  Afterward, I follow my Ah-Gong, my grandfather, up the spiraling staircase up the pagoda to the fourth floor.  We find Ama’s place on the wall and replace the photo on the door with a new one and visit for a little while.

Upon my arrival back to Ai-Yi’s house she has prepared a bowl filled with hot water and kumquats for us to rinse our hands before we enter the house.  We go to a restaurant close to home for lunch, and my cousin and I go to run some errands afterward.  Yi-Jun takes us to the eastside of Taichung to a market district close to a college to meet with our cousin.  We shop, drink papaya milk, and walk around.  I find some gifts for my friends, and on the way home, we stop to bring some food home for dinner.

Lunch with the family

Lunch with the family

Although I miss Ama, and my visits to Taiwan will never be the same without her, my heart is peaceful and happy that I had the opportunity to visit her tomb with the family.  And ending the day with some time with the girls made for a great weekend.

Mountains & Mochi

My family and I leave the house early in the morning for a day trip to the mountains. I enjoy the ride out of the bustling streets of Taichung and watch the changing landscape. Within an hour, we start making our way into the mist and fog in the higher altitudes. I snap photos of the lush bamboo forest.

Bamboo forest

Bamboo forest

As we arrive to our first destination, I realize I have been to this restaurant before while on my honeymoon. It is the place we had our Taiwanese reception at, and I am thrilled to come again. The owner and his family are friends, and he along with his wife greets us as we pull up. We exchanged greetings and take us to his new smoking pit to show us the chicken he has prepared for our lunch.

We go inside to sit and choose from the menu. The hot tea is welcomed as a cold front has moved into Taiwan and being in the mountains make it even cooler. Our dishes arrive and I take photos of each one. My favorite is one of the most unique and memorable dishes I have ever had in Taiwan, and I cannot wait to tell my friend about. It is a passion fruit cut in half, served with a bitter green leafy vegetable. To eat it, you must take some of the greens and stuff it into the fruit and eat the mixture together. The sweetness from the passion fruit, mixed with the texture of the passion fruit seeds, the bitterness of the greens and its crunch are one of the best things my palette has ever experienced.

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Passion fruit dish

We leave the restaurant full and say farewell to our friends. We drive further up the mountain to a new eclectic shopping village to look around and have dessert. I opt for a mango and melon ice treat, and my cousin has a charcoal and melon ice treat. They are both delicious and unique in flavor.

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Village in the mountains

The next stop is equally amazing, the Mochi Museum of Taiwan. Mochi is one of my most beloved treats, and I was surrounded by it. After walking in through the hall with history of mocha, there are several departments of mochi for sale. Ice cream filled, fruit and jam filled, pork and vegetable, sesame and dozens of other flavors. Some I sampled I did not enjoy at all, and some are the best I have had. I buy several boxes for my friends and family.

Taiwan Mochi Museum

Taiwan Mochi Museum

We go to Nantou County next to visit my cousin’s grandmother. Her grandmother lives in a rural area of Nantou. Her house sits among bamboo forests in an older traditional Taiwan home. We sit, drink tea, and tour her property. My favorite is her bedroom, which has an antique Chinese bed with shutters.

My cousin's Ama's home

My cousin’s Ama’s home

After my trip in Northern Taiwan with my friends and all of the day’s activities, I am exhausted. But with my trip winding down to its last week and a half, I am so grateful for all of these moments with my family.

天燈 (Sky Lantern)

I struggled with how I could possibly express in my inadequate words how my day went yesterday. I realize now that there may be days or moments that I cannot do it justice. I am still coming down from all the excitement I experienced yesterday with my friends.

At eight in the morning, Yi-Jun took me to the Taichung High Speed Rail Station to meet with my friends. Within 45 minutes we arrived in Taipei and changed trains to Keelung. Keelung is a port city in northeast Taiwan, and we went there for one reason: noodles. In Keelung, there is a major night market district close to the cruise port and train station. We visit an outdoor restaurant to try the dish special to this area. On the wall are autographs from many celebrities and important people in Asia. I take photos of the signatures of Jet Li, Taiwan’s President, First Lady, and other notable Asian celebrities. For $50 NT dollars, or $1.52 U.S. Dollars, we try their noodle soup. It is a simple clear broth soup with tasty vegetables, and curled up chewy rice noodles. On the table there are peppers and vinegar to add to it, if you prefer. It was delicious. The woman offers to take us to the back of the alley behind the temple to show us the man that makes these special noodles. After we finish our soups, we follow a short maze of alleyways to a man standing behind a huge wok. He is the maker of these delicious dumping-like noodles and is happy to show us his craft.

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Finished product

We jump back on the train to Houtong, formerly a small old coal-mining town. The coal mines closed in the 1970’s, but now is a quirky cat-lovers paradise. Dozens of white, black, gray and tan cats wander freely in Houtong’s byways, and all of us with many other visitors took photos of the cute napping cats dangling off walls, roofs, in plant pots, and other cozy places. We had a great time taking photos with them. We also visited the old coal mining buildings, bridges, and rode in old coal mining carts on display for visitors.

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Cat naps in a plant pot

Next we took the train to Pingxi. I love this route and watch out the train windows to delight in the waterfalls and mountains. We also notice several lanterns floating into the sky from people still celebrating the Lantern Festival. We got off the train and along the railroad tracks are vendors selling food, desserts, drinks, lanterns, and other fun things. We find the area we want to decorate our lanterns at, and choose from a dozen choices for the colors we want them to be.  I get busy using the Chinese calligraphy brushes and ink to write my wishes, blessings, and other special messages. I decorate my lantern with a message to my husband, his family, my family in Taiwan, and my own hopes for my little family.

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Signing my Chinese name

My friends also decorate theirs and we stand in the middle of the railroad tracks and video and take photos of each other, as we get ready to release them to heaven. The vendor lights the “ghost money” soaked in kerosene and stuffs it in the bottom of our lanterns. Immediately the lantern puffs up and becomes hot to the touch. And on the count of three, “yee, urh, shan!” we release the lanterns and they quickly float into the sky until we can no longer see them. The belief is that the fire from the ghost money will carry our hopes and wishes to the gods in heaven and they will come true.

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Off it goes

Next we were off to ShenKeng. This village was formerly an agricultural and mining town. But now it is now famous for its tofu. We find a restaurant famous for its tofu and chicken dishes. After all the activities, we were all quite hungry. But we ordered so much food, we could not finish it all. We sat, ate, and gushed over the excitement with our lantern experience. Afterward, we stopped for dessert and opted for a warm sweet soup with mochi balls of sweet potato, taro, and mung bean. I stop for some handmade fresh mochi to take home to Ai-Yi and Yi-Jun.

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ShenKeng

We all thought we would sleep on our train ride back to Taichung. Some of us did, exhausted from all of our travels. But my friend and I sat together still chatting away about our favorite moments from the day. I share with her of all the culturally significant things I have done since I was a small girl in Taiwan, today was the most special.

“Good Fortunes” & Gifts

Ai-Yi and my cousin come home early today to take me out for the evening. I am always especially grateful, as I know the family has been quite busy with the family business. Ai-Yi, Yi-Jun, and my cousin take me to an office and explain to me that I am meeting with a “teacher”. We are greeted by a man and his wife and sit at a tea table in a new and modern office in the city. As we are watching the television, the room gets excited as the “teacher” is on the nightly five o’clock news for assisting the mayor’s wife. Recently, she was in a car accident losing her arm and almost her life. The man sitting across the table from me and serving more tea into my cup is the man attributed for saving her life. I hesitate to ask questions to not offend anyone, but I realize my teacher, is also a fate calculator.

After eating some guava and apples and drinking tea, I along with my cousin go to the back room into a private office. I am asked for my Chinese name, time and date of birth for myself and my husband, and current address. He then he places three Chinese ancient coins inside of a turtle shell, shook them with consistent rhythm and spilled them out into a gold bowl on the desk. He observed the sequence and side of the coin, and then made notes onto the chart with my information. This process was repeated for 3 times. He then goes to his collection of books on his shelf and shows my cousin the numbers on the chart also mark the pages in the book we are to read. As my cousin is reading, she is delighted with the information we are given. We continue reading the other two pages. The news is good and we are all happy to hear this. He discusses my marriage, plans for our family, what we can do to increase blessings in our home, and also what we need to be concerned with health-wise. Some of the information I am quite surprised he knows.

At the end of the session, he gives me two Chinese scrolls, along with feng shui instructions for my home. I am told charcoal is good for getting overemotional or argumentative, as it absorbs any excess ‘chi’. In this case, I am to place the charcoal in the northeast of my living room. The reason for this is because my husband and I are both monkeys on the Chinese zodiac, and there is too much strength in our home. This will remedy the excess chi and provide balance and harmony.  My Christian faith does not support these findings.  I am confident that every blessing in my life is from God and my prayers, and I know to be careful of new age beliefs.  However, I am still impressed with the accuracy and specifics he mentions.

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Ai-Yi and Yi-Jun are thrilled with the great message they receive about their eldest niece and we continue on with our evening with dinner at our favorite Korean restaurant. I enjoy every morsel and listen to the excitement of my readings from my family.

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After dinner, we shop at the kitchen section of the mall. Ai-Yi buys me a beautiful new wok and pot for my kitchen. Although I have no idea how I will get everything home in two weeks, I am so grateful for all these blessings and “good fortunes” I often feel I do not deserve.

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Lantern Festival Weekend

Fifteen days after the Lunar New Year is the Lantern Holiday in Taiwan, and it also marks the first full moon of the year. Preparations for this important day are similar of those done for the New Year, but with the additions of paper lanterns and lights. In ancient China, firecrackers were used to scare away bad spirits and disease, and the lanterns are lit to tell villagers the towns are safe. In the days leading up to the holiday, my family and I visit a couple of festivals taking place in Taichung. All the displays are huge and beautiful.

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We take the family to a local market so the children can color and design their own paper lanterns. With our family vacation to Disneyland Tokyo still fresh in mind, the children want their favorite Disney characters on their lanterns.

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Ai-Yi and Yi-Jun are busy shopping for fun battery operated lanterns that play music, spin, and light up, and come home with several shaped as snakes, cars, planes, and animals.

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The night before the official holiday, we meet with Ai-Yi and Yi-Jun’s friends for a twelve-course dinner at a banquet style hall. My friends and family take photos of the food and of each other and we have a great time talking and playing with all the babies.

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On Sunday, Ai-Yi and my cousins busily prepare all the dishes for the holiday meal in the morning and early afternoon. We take all the dishes to the temple for the Buddhist gods. Later in the evening we eat together and watch the children play with the lanterns purchased for them.

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After all the celebrations, I was relieved that my cousins took me for a walk to the local night market. We walk through their university. I thought I had never been there before until we came upon the church on the campus. This Methodist church is the site of many visits with my mother. We have picnicked here before and I remember this from photos we have. My cousins tell me their university was founded with thirteen other Christian universities in China. But after martial law was implemented in China, all of the universities were closed. But this one in Taiwan stayed open. The church is architecturally significant and designed by I.M. Pei, the same Chinese architect who  designed the pyramid outside of the Louvre Museum in Paris, the John F. Kennedy Memorial, the Dallas Convention Center, and other notable works.

At the end of the campus grounds are one of Taichung’s best night markets, and we spend the rest of the evening walking and shopping. It is so wonderful to walk and be outdoors after all the festivities of the weekend.

Girl Time

Staying true to the typical New Year resolution, I decided that today was the day to get back into the groove of my workouts. With all the traveling and celebrating, I have been really conscious of trying to stay in shape. I go for a nice run and to the park to use the pull-up bars. The weather is warm and sun is out, and I cannot help but shudder at the thought of my walks in the snow to the gym in England. Although I miss my gym dates with my friend, I do not miss the cold and rain. After my workout I go to a shop nearby for a light lunch. Perfect for a protein source and a cool treat on a warm day, I pick a cold mung bean and barley soup and go home.

I come home to find my cousin and our friend waiting for me. They want to get coffee together, so I shower and go. There is a café only a few steps from the house. It is modern, quaint, and serves beverages and desserts. We sit outside and talk for a few hours. I learn so much from my friend and cousin about Western and Asian culture, politics, religion, and social life in Asia. There are times I forget where I am because everything here is so easy.

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Ai-Yi has dinner waiting at home, and after dinner she takes Isan and I for foot massages. It has been years since I had a massage, and I am thrilled to have a little pampering with the girls. However, I keep in mind that massages in Taiwan are not done for luxury or relaxation. We walk into the spa with floor to ceiling windows with views of waterfalls and koi ponds outside. Each massage station has a reclining chair with a personal television, and a table with a reading lamp.

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We sit next to each other facing a waterfall view and they serve us tea. Isan and I enjoy our back, neck, and head massages and then the laughing begins. Not laughter coming from being ticklish; laughter from the pain we were enduring. It is a mixture of pain and therapy for myself. Ai-Yi looked so relaxed reading her book, and she answers all the questions the masseuses have about me. Isan tries to tell the masseuse to be gentle, and she is told her liver and kidneys have issues and that is why she cannot handle the pain. We laugh at the Chinese medicine diagnosis. I am elated with mine. The masseuse tells Isan that she can tell I exercise because my calves and shoulder muscles are very tense. I tell them that I had just worked out that day, so this treat was given to me on the perfect day.

Although some of the experience was definitely painful and uncomfortable at times, I feel as though it was all part of the release of stress and toxins. Despite the differences between Western and Eastern massage treatments, I enjoyed every moment. On the way home, I notice when I walk I feel lighter and flexible. Isan and I stop for a passion fruit drink and we walk home with a new pep in our step.

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