There are two types of people in this world, stagnant and nomadic. The stagnant just want to stay in a place where they can be still, while the nomadic people enjoy the uncertainty and excitement of new experiences. Yet we are all traveling, whether for adventure or merely the purpose of searching for a place to stay still. But when the moving stops, we all need a place to put our feet up. I have a place where sticky-sweet, hot, thick air pushes on you from every direction, coating your skin with perspiration the instant you step out of the air-conditioned interior (always too cold even in the winter).
This is not a place for tourists. Rather it is a place where sidewalks are cracked and red lights don't mean stop, where walking is done with the elbows and personal space is a flight of fancy. It is a place where the difference between summer and winter is measured in inches of rain; and the difference between a car and a scooter is not the number of passengers but the number of wheels.
When it rains, the sky lowers its dark gray face close to the earth so that it seems touchable if you stand on your tiptoes. When it's sunny, even the shadows seem to melt in the heat of the sun, and the only escape is in the dependable realm of electric fans. A watch strikes three a.m. and the city is still twitching with life. Even on weekdays it seems as though the city lights never dim. This is a place not defined by the word "home," but the definition of it.
The City. My city, a place that has ceased to be a location but has grown to be the scent combination of garbage, tsai bao, beetle nut, hot cement and rain; the melodious tune of clashing plates, slurping (of soup, tea, juice or any other liquid, for that matter), horn honking, the high-pitched nasal voices of a-yi's chattering loudly as they walk to the wet market, the screaming of rusty bike brakes and the singing of the dee-dee-dee-diddly-dee bird. Here, nothing is done the way it should be. The garbage truck, though reeking of rotting food, plings a merry little tune much like that of an ice cream truck. Here, lines are not a device to impose order, but an obstacle to be overtaken. Traffic lights are merely a suggestion and the cross walk is for sissies.
But the city is not merely about the hustle and bustle of packed sidewalks; it is about the hidden places in back alleys through glass doors with bells that tinkle when they open (as if they couldn't see you coming through the glass). Tea houses, the dimly lit nooks carved into every alley, serve only small appetizers and an array of teas (my favorite is the world-famous pearl ball milk tea, zhen zu nai cha), and housing small groups of locals who sip tea and play da lao er (big two) with the house's worn packs of cards, and us, the young local wannabes and American school students who smoke cigarettes, suck up our tea and play Bulls--t with a fresh pack of cards we bought at the 7-Eleven around the corner.
The Stadium. It was supposed to be the hub of athletics, but due to some miscalculations in the dimensions of the outfield, the stadium was deemed unusable by the Taiwanese pro-baseball league (which fell to pieces a few months later because of corruption). Just 20 minutes from downtown Taipei, this stadium (attached to a large park and tennis complex) is a place for everyone. I sit watching from the center of a large open field. Joggers and security guards pass by, mothers push strollers, children race remote-control cars around the track in the three a.m. glow; skaters jump over trashcans and crash loudly; lovers hold hands and stare up at the sky in hopes of seeing a wayward star.
The playground is more of a place for teenagers, who hide in the shadows of swing sets, under slides, on top of monkey bars; cigarette butts, empty beer cans, spit, t-shirts, shoes and hats lay in piles at their feet. In their hands they clench fresh cans, holding their breath when the crisp crack of the tab echoes from their fingers, sucking on glowing cigarettes and glancing at watches and waiting for the sun to rise.
As I stroll along the outer edges of the track I find myself in every corner of the place. It is where I drank my first beer, kissed my first boy, stood on top of a jungle gym and sang Disney songs into the early morning air, and counted shooting stars with my best friends.
Tien Mou. Packed with every Western globalization device, from Wendy's to KFC to Starbucks, this was my neighborhood. The place where we strolled every afternoon, ducking into Print Shop to take sticker pictures and laminate our fake I.Ds. The place where we knew the Tien Bu La vendor by name and sat by his tiny kitchen waiting for him to prepare our staple snack.
This is the neighborhood where little girls buy
stationary with badly translated messages written on the corners (I am your favorite dog. When we play I get excited. Too bad I will only be alive for ten years or so); where pen fetishes flourish and outlet stores sell Bananana Republic and Ambercrumbie & Fish shirts. This is the neighborhood where five-year-old girls walk to and from school alone; where families of five (and the dog) will pack onto a scooter and drive past astonished expats (who mentally figure the dog will be the first to die if there is an accident).
Home. What makes Taipei home more than other place I've been is the fact that it is not just one place, but dozens of little places. It is the city, the stadium, Tien Mou, and dozens of other places not found on a map. It is the city where my heart beats in rhythm with the firecrackers on Chinese New Year; where I don't quite fit in but I don't fit out either. The city where cold means 20 degrees; da feng (typhoon) is a season and not an event; and instant noodles reach the gourmet level. The city where if you wake up early enough you can watch 100 people dressed in white perform Tai Chi in a park. This is a city that nestles itself in a bowl of land surrounded by the serenity of misty mountains.
Some people are stagnant, searching for a place to settle down and be still. Some people are nomads, hoping to run their fingers over the textured surface of the world. I have traveled the world, from Tuscany to Bali to Connecticut. Some have called me a global nomad, a child without roots. Yes, I am a nomad; I love the thrill of travel and watching bad movies on 12-hour flights. I shiver with excitement at the prospect of setting foot in a new country and shake my head at those who think five-hour flights are an endeavor. But I am not without roots. Though not obvious to those who look at the color of my skin or outer appearance, I am Taiwanese. My roots are nestled deep in the lush Taipei earth, waiting for me to return.
Home is more than a house. It is a state of mind. It is somewhere that cannot be explained easily because it has evolved from a place to a lifestyle, a feeling in the pit of your stomach, a place that you have to close your eyes and inhale every time you arrive. Taipei is my home. It is not a place you can go visit, like Paris or Rome. To capture the spirit of this city, you need to live it, to breathe it, to know it.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.