The Girl Who Ate Everything

Blogging about food and whatever since 2004.

Belated Intro to Taipei, or "What's That Smell?"

In October of 2011, I visited Taipei—the city where my parents went to college and where my dad and his parents currently live—for the first time in over a decade, accompanied by one of my best friends, Lee Anne, whose maternal grandparents live in Taipei. I'm guessing I wrote this post near the end of 2011, but it fell by the wayside because my words reach peak coherence when they're allowed to ferment for one and a half years JUST KIDDING I am really slow. So I'm writing about the trip now, long after my memories of the trip have mostly fizzled into question marks, because I won't setting for "giving up"—but I will settle for "barely trying." Well there, here we go.

Road, don't know which one
A road in Taipei.

I couldn't get it out of my head. The question I asked myself shortly after stepping onto the streets of downtown Taipei. What's that smell? Not a lip-curling, is-that-the-stench-of-decay-or-did-someone-fart smell, but a mild, omnipresent scent that says, "You're definitely in Taipei."

And thus I became unnaturally flush with excitement* when one night out of the blue Lee Anne said, "There's a distinct smell here." Oh, Lee Anne [clutches chest]—you totally get me. In addition to "BFF" you have earned the badge of "SMELL PARTNER 4 LYFE." And you're really smart, so I bet you know what the smell is.

* I mean, I'm easily excited, but it's usually at the hands of a voluminous ice cream sundae or a puppy acting helpless in a totally nonthreatening situation and thus looking immeasurably cute, not by smells.

"Oh my god, yes! The smell! There's a smell! You know the smell! ...What is this smell?"

"I think it's a mix of food and exhaust," Lee Anne started. "With some incense."

Keep going.

"And a bit of air freshener."

Keeeep going.


I nodded. It's not a scent I'd apply to my skin, but If I could bottle up Taipei street air and take it home for the occasional closed-eyed whiff, I would. It would transport me back to Taipei in a way nothing else can.

Red door
Nice door.

Taipei's smell was one thing about Taipei that hadn't changed since my last visit in 1999 and when I had lived there from 1996 to 1998 (6th and 7th grade, if I am to date myself). Most things were familiar: towering department stores, alleyways full of restaurants and shops, 7-11s and Family Marts on every other corner, rows of scooters waiting at traffic lights, rows of scooters parked by the sidewalk, grime-dripping buildings that look like they'll be torn down before they ever get washed, dingy eateries aglow with fluorescent lights.

Taipei City Hall station Doughnuts! Taipei 101
Taipei City Hall station, doughnuts, and Taipei 101.

Things that were different: Mister Donut, Taipei 101, bubble tea shops galore, far fewer stray dogs (the overpopulation of stray dogs is still a big problem, though), and the metro. The best new thing to me is the metro/MRT, which was but a stunted newborn the last time I saw it. It's clean! Bright! Spacious! Easy to follow! With trains that run smoothly and frequently! With clear announcements in Chinese and English! And the stations have restrooms—restrooms that don't make you fear for the potential horrors within! Ignoring that New York City's subway system has instilled me with low standards (it's very good for what it is—I do keep in mind it's an over hundred-year-old system that runs 24/7), I'm pretty sure Taipei's metro is objectively great.

Grandma + window
Grandma looking out the window of a relative's apartment. A fancypants apartment.

Another difference: my grandparents. It's been years since I last saw them—perhaps a decade. They were old the last time I saw them; now they're...really old. More specifically, my grandma ("ama" in Taiwanese) is 91 and my grandpa ("agong" in Taiwanese) is 94. When I was little, I'd semi-joke that they'd live forever. They've outlasted colon cancer and stomach cancer; they really are en route to reaching 100.

If it was hard to communicate with them before, it was even harder now. They speak Taiwanese, some Japanese, and little-to-almost-no English. I speak English. The end. (Monolingual Asian Americans, unite! shame.) Since the last time I saw her, Ama went deaf in one ear and now suffers from dementia. Agong hasn't lost his hearing or much cognitive ability, but since he's on the "almost no" end of speaking English (Ama is on the "little" end), I've grown up rarely speaking to him and vice versa. Most of my communication with my grandparents has gone through my mom and dad. I have little emotional connection with them—not necessarily because of the language barrier, but it sure doesn't help.

I was genuinely happy to see them, though. They're still my family, and they remind me of my utterly carefree childhood. I think I was mostly glad to see them because I was hoping they'd be glad to see me. Agong is about as expressive as he is good at speaking English—his smile is like a lazy frown—but I'll assume I brought him some modicum of repressed joy. Ama is the opposite; she would eagerly hold my hands just to feel my skin, grab my arm and pretend to gnaw on it like it was a meaty chicken leg (in a good way, if that makes any sense), and stare at me with massively hopeful eyes and a pure smile usually reserved for girls meeting their favorite Disney princess for the first time. It made me think, "It's a good thing you don't know me that well, nor could you, because I could never live up to your expectations."

And thus I'm ashamed by how annoyed I became when Ama would ask me a question and I'd answer her a few times, louder with each repeat, and then a few moments later she'd ask me the same question because she forgot I had already answered her. All the while, Dad would act as translator between us, which made things feel more frustrating. Ama probably didn't remember anything we talked about, but I guess it doesn't matter.

Youtiao, I love you Mango shaved ice Table of food for four Noodles
Or maybe I did eat a lot, I dunno.

I'm writing this intro because as my handful of posts about Taipei unfurl at the speed of an overweight sloth, you may notice a lack of food. I mean, I still ate a lot, but not as much as you might expect a food blogger to eat during a one-week vacation in Taipei, one of the most food-dense cities in one of the world's most food-crazed countries/states/omg wut is it. It's because my vacation was part vacation, part fulfilling filial duty. Because I stayed with my dad and grandparents during my meager one-week trip, I spent a good chunk of that week with my dad and grandparents. Eating breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Going to the doctor's office. Going to another doctor's office. Meeting relatives and family friends I hadn't seen since I was prepubescent. Shopping for furniture and household appliances. This meant far less time for eating my way around Taipei with friends.

But I don't regret it. Someday I'll take a trip to Taipei for the purpose of transforming into a bulbous fleshlump engorged on Night Market vittles, but this was not that trip. The time I spent with my grandparents was a worthwhile experience, even if it wasn't what I set out to do.

It wasn't just spending time with my grandparents that was valuable, but also with my dad, whom I hadn't seen in about two years. I got to see what my dad does on a regular basis to take care of his parents, which was a lot until he recently hired a few caretakers to help out. He didn't need to give round-the-clock attention, but it was more than I think most people would want to do in their 60s. I can't imagine having to take care of my parents when they're in their 90s, but if they needed my help, I'd do it. And although I doubt I'll live long enough, I might be that 90-something-year-old someday.

Little notepads and things

The other reason I didn't eat nearly as much as I could've is because Taiwan, like much of East Asia, is home to [booming voice of God] CUTE STATIONERY OFTEN EMBLAZONED WITH ENGLISH WORDS, EMPHATIC IN EMOTION, TENUOUS IN...MAKING SENSE [/booming voice of God]. I guess that didn't need to be all in caps, but the excitement consumed me. Lee Anne and I reveled in hours—too many hours? NOT ENOUGH HOURS, IT'S NEVER ENOUGH—ogling stationery of all kinds. We share a slack-jawed, glittery-eyed, squeal-enhanced obsession with Asian (mostly Japanese and Taiwanese) stationery. It may never be featured in a museum or gallery or win design awards, but to me it's a sort of art form, visually and linguistically. ""Bugs Popo: He is a a small gentleman. That is not a nose hair but a mustache." Does this not move you?

For all the hours I spent rifling through shelves and bins of letter sets, notebooks, stickers, and more, I didn't actually buy much of it. This stuff only costs a few bucks apiece—what was I thinking? Did my American upbringing teach me nothing? Don't make my mistake; CONSUME EVERYTHING.*

* Just kidding! I do not recommend this at all. Ok maybe a little.

Well, this intro has gone on for too long. I'll get onto the real stuff shortly.


kim / May 19, 2013 8:44 AM

Wow, if stationery trumps over food, that speaks volume. :) I used to be like that in elementary school in HK. Friends and I would hit up the local stationery mom and pop shops after school and ooo-ed and ahhh-ed over the cutesy items. The only thing that could really distract us was ice-cream and Calbee chips at the end, hee.

Kat / May 19, 2013 12:31 PM

As a Chinese-American who also only speaks English, I can share in your shame. The worst part is when you actually attempt to speak it, and everyone laughs condescendingly at you like you're a three-year-old that just did something adorable. At least the food looks good!

Susana / May 22, 2013 1:22 AM

Funny you chose this week to publish this post about Taipei; I just returned from there a few days ago myself! Anywho, it was really interesting to read a more personal post from you. I don't speak any Taiwanese either, and it was definitely a struggle to communicate at times. It's fun to see how our approaches to these kinds of situations have evolved as we've grown up (although the frustration perhaps never completely goes away).

PS. The first thing I ate in Taipei was that same exact doughnut you posted. Great minds think alike!

Ully / May 22, 2013 5:19 PM

Love your writing, Robyn. Especially love the part when you say "at the speed of an overweight sloth." Ha! Totally reflects the progress I have with my dissertation writing!

chris / May 25, 2013 3:54 PM

love it! <3
i spent kindergarten til 2nd grade in taiwan (us air force base) many many many yrs ago. love your writeup here and can't wait to see more...

roboppy / May 26, 2013 8:13 PM

kim: When I went to school in Taipei there was a stationery store on the first floor of my apartment building and I LOVED IT SO MUCH. (Other perks near my apartment: a Family Mart down the street and a McD's around the corner. Yup, all the necessities.) I would also sometimes buy these surprise "goody bags" some stores would sell that contained random stationery bits for a bargain price. Not a waste of my money, uh yeah, not at all...

kat: I'm too embarrassed to attempt to speak it to regular people...sigh. I tried out a few sentences I learned recently on my mom and she understood me! YEAAAH! She said I was speaking with a Beijing accent, though. Hmmwell.

Jason: Taiwan is full of fun!

Ully: Thanks! Oh boy, a dissertation...that is about 1000000000 times harder than writing a blog post. Good luck!

chris: Thanks! I hope my posts bring back some good memories. Now I just have to write the posts! Yeah...yup...

Jamie / May 27, 2013 10:04 AM

Great non-food post Robyn! I feel the same way about my parents/grandparents.

I haven't been to Taiwan, but I know London has a familiar and particular smell too.

Marianne / May 30, 2013 1:15 PM

"Ama is the opposite; she would eagerly hold my hands just to feel my skin, grab my arm and pretend to gnaw on it like it was a meaty chicken leg (in a good way, if that makes any sense), and stare at me with massively hopeful eyes and a pure smile usually reserved for girls meeting their favorite Disney princess for the first time."

Love this. I totally know what you mean about the gnawing in a good way! My uncle bit my cheeks when I was a baby.

Danny / June 5, 2013 9:19 AM

haha I remember nothing about Taiwan... was last there in '94. Then again, I think when you're like a pre-teen, any city is about the same cuz you're only surrounded by your own apt and neighborhood. but i'm going in july! wee! gotta be sure to eat everything from my childhood...

Naomi / October 4, 2013 10:33 AM

My version of that smell is
tea eggs (a la 711), durian, stinky tofu, tropical flowers (jasmin etc), frying oil, and touch of poop depending on the day.

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