Taiwan, an exotic dreamland. It's a small nation renowned for its dynamic food and culture, gorgeous country scenery, debatable political standing with China, and of course, bustling capital called Taipei. Its most common language, and quite often the only one you'll hear, is standard Mandarin. That, in a brief summary, is Taiwan in the eyes of a tourist.
I, as a visiter every year for the past 15 years of my life, should know this well. But I don't. Instead, I spend the two weeks I have yearly in a suburb of Taipei, known as Yingge, hidden in its own bubble. Here, despite the 10 minute drive between the two, you will find cramped, unkempt commercialized roads stacked with 60+ year old houses filthy and rickety from years of poor living conditions in comparison to Taipei's wide, perfect streets and million dollar apartment buildings. The only similarity between the two is the smell of motor oil and eggs hanging in the air caused by the thousands of motorcycles and scooters and overwhelming amounts of food.
In Yingge, life is difficult and less than picture perfect. It's a mix of the rich and the poor, although spolier alert! it's mostly poor. My grandfather, a wealthy, Taipei-raised man, died when my mother was barely 2, leaving my grandmother penniless with children to raise as his family was no longer bound to mine. She used to have 5 jobs and World Vision support in in order to feed my mother, 2 aunts - once three, but the third aunt was given away for adoption because it was too expensive to feed five kids - and 1 uncle. They would run free as children to the local river and play all day, catching fish with their bare hands and eating chicken marrow and rice for dinner. They would walk at 5 in the morning for miles to get to school and hours back before working their butts off at 13.
My grandmother grew old and retired, but trouble still ran in the family. My uncle gambled away the 4 houses he was supposed to inherit while his sisters could do nothing to stop him because he was the only male in the family, and gender ruled everything. Now, he runs a business selling bathroom tiles and kitchen countertops in a warehouse next to the house he grew up in, calling the empty space in the back his home. My eldest aunt, well past 60, managed to beat ovarian cancer with costly medical treatment. My second aunt faces countless troubles. She married a deadbeat man I've never met who refuses to work and ease the debt as she works without a single day of rest in order to barely scrape by. She can't even divorce him because there's a large chance she'll lose the house, a property under his name. Her daughter, straight out of cheap night class-fueled college, works and has worked for her instead of getting a proper job. I've only seen her second son, older than me by just a year, a handful of times because he's up to go to school at 5:30 and works after tutoring sessions until 11 at night. The debt between the three of them in New Taiwan Dollars (30:1 if we're converting to USD) is more than 3 times my mom's annual salary before tax.
My mother, the only lucky one in the family, turned down a hair modeling contract and ended her 'dating but not quite dating' groupie relationship with a then unknown musician to move to the US. She started her life here in America, stabilized her life, and had me before beginning her yearly trips home to Taiwan.
She brought me straight to her home, in Yingge, instead of bringing me to the glitz and glamour of Taipei. It was there I learned the true struggles my mom endured as she left her life behind. It was here where I made an effort to communicate with my Hokkien-speaking grandmother despite only being able to talk in broken, American-accented Mandarin. It was here where I got to understand the true culture and daily life beyond a tourist's point of view.
Instead of dining at fancy restaurants and having extravagant breakfasts, I appreciated waking up at 4:30 AM and strolling down the block to the breakfast store my mother always went to before moving for freshly made omelettes with pork sung and house sauce. I walked through the local market, where my mom recognized the old "Three Sisters" fruit stand had become "Two Sisters." I spent hours having fun at summer night markets filled with hundreds of people in the narrow Yingge streets. I became a regular at a certain street vendor who has the best french fries in the world. I endured the blazing heat as I went in and out of shops on the "ceramic road" where all the shops selling pottery were gathered on a cobblestone street. I bought snacks and prepackaged coffee from 7-Eleven (which are, by the way, practically on every corner of any town/city. You think I'm exaggerating, but at my aunt's old apartment building, there are two on each corner on the other side of the street and one on the left corner of our side.) like everyone else.
Still, people always looked and asked questions because here, in an unknown, rarely visited part of Taiwan, was an outsider. I spoke English instead of Mandarin, I wore different clothes, and acted differently even though it was clear I was Taiwanese. They wondered why someone so alienated from their world was visiting.
Yingge isn't Taipei. It's separated from its city counterpart despite its proximity. It's the equivalent of South San Francisco to San Francisco.Yingge barely gets tourists. Correction. Make that never. It's all locals and locals only, so when someone as foreign yet inclusive as I am comes through, people notice and ask.
I seem like a tourist, yet I'm more than familiar with the streets and sights in Yingge. I'm not a Taiwan citizen, yet I can give you a thorough tour and tell you where the best apothecary and hair salon in town are.
I've seen and experienced this nation far more than what a tourist could ever know because beyond the Taipei 101 and department stores lies Yingge, where I'm grounded in my family's history and the daily lives of Taiwanese people. Here, I hear Hokkien, the Taiwanese dialect, more commonly than Mandarin. Here, I speak English only with my mother, not to any sales clerk or waiter. Here, I don't visit for the food or the popular destinations. I come for Taiwan, and what it truly is.