Like Cape No. 7 But Better

To truly experience Taiwan, you’ve got to get out of Taipei and go down South, preferably to Tainan. And to better understand what it means to be “really Taiwanese”, I would recommend watching Cape No. 7, a film about a Southern young man who goes to Taipei for better prospects, only to be let down (you know, Grapes of Wrath/Little Miss Sunshine’s broken California dream). He comes back down to the South initially depressed, but slowly appreciates the oddballs who happen to know everyone else.

The movie pokes loving fun at various Southern stereotypes: men driving scooters without helmets while chewing beetlenut, politicians having petty arguments with each other then bonded by their love for the town, people gathering at the local church and singing praise songs in Taiwanese.

The one full day that I spent in Taipei hardly consisted of anything truly Taiwanese—I stayed at the Sheraton, ate lunch at the Agora Garden, visited my mom’s friend’s interior design firm, walked around the Mega House next to the Living 3.0 office—but then painstakingly tried lamb hotpot (heart, liver, feet and all) with a few of my ex-colleagues. (They were out of brains when we arrived—thank God.)

But the weekend that I stayed with my grandma in a small town in Tainan county was…”很台” and hilariously Taiwanese.

shot from the bus

shot from the bus

To get here, I took the high-speed rail down to Tainan and spent hours on rusted buses riding from town to town, watching students and grandparents step on and off at each inconspicuous stop. The bus driver signaled some special peace sign to other bus drivers of the same company while stray dogs j-walked strategically and beetlenut babes sat in their flashy neon-green booths looking bored. Two ancient grandpas on my left chattered loudly about health, wives, and dead classmates—I imagined my grandma killing me for not taking a taxi instead.

The first night, my grandma handed me a hymns booklet with numeric music notation, Taiwanese lyrics, and Romanization on the bottom. I followed along by sounding out the Taiwanese and guessed the meaning of each song. Listening to my grandma pray gave me insight on her understanding of bits and pieces of my [apparently puzzling] life. I assume my dad tried to explain to her what freelance meant, because her prayer went something like, “God, she has work to do but no formal position at any company…” Bless her worried soul.

Since then, I’ve experienced a shortage of water (due to some guy cleaning the water reserve tanks), drank mushroom juice “to cleanse my body and clear my skin”, and woken up at 5-6am every morning thanks to a very persistent rooster.

Despite being grateful that my grandma is a devout Christian and not some superstitious, statue-believing fretful soul, I can’t help but feel like Taiwan has repeatedly undergone some cultural brainwashing. (Christian indoctrination started as early as the Dutch occupation of Southern Taiwan in 1624 then fazed out when the Chinese and Japanese came in with other forms of influence.) Because my grandma (along with that entire generation) lived through the Japanese occupation and was taught Japanese in school, she can pick out the “Romanji” in my Taichinglish. Yet she’ll hand me a bottle of Kirkland’s “stool softener” and ask me to explain the English directions for her. “1 to 3 softgels before bedtime”—for your morning convenience.

To put it bluntly, Taiwan suffers from a slight identity crisis. The older generation speaks Taiwanese (with bits of Japanese) to the Mandarin-speaking youth, who exercise to the Korean hit “Sorry, Sorry” in the morning at the kindergarten next door. Street vendors sell clothes made in China and fruit imported from California, while others eat at the local McDonald’s (where they sell egg-corn soup) and buy slurpie’s (along with a steamed pork bun or tea egg) from 7-11. The South consists of die-hard DPPs who have been in Taiwan for generations while the North consists of more KMT supporters with ties to China. Because Chen Sui Bien gave the opening keynote at my great-grandfather’s 100th year celebration and because my great-grandfather was jailed for 228 days during 228 and because my ancestors have been in Taiwan for many generations (before Chang Kai-Shek and his men came over), I would be shunned for saying that Ma Ying Jiu has his merits.

As I am writing this, my grandma’s in the kitchen cooking fish whole, my aunt’s playing hymns on the piano, and random fireworks are going off outside. I leave for Kaohsiung tomorrow morning to reunite with my mom and be spoiled by car rides, gated communities, and fine dining courtesy of my maternal grandpa—a separate world from this one, bisected by a lack of efficient public transportation.

This entry was posted a day later due to the lack of internet at my grandma’s.