In terms of jetlag immunity and high layover tolerance, perhaps my travel bug owes a lot to near-annual Taiwan trips since the tender age of one and a half; my ears don’t even bother popping from the altitude anymore.
That being said, I never really categorised my twice-removed homeland as another country to explore in its own right; it was always epitomised by Grandma’s noodle dish, Grandpa’s calligraphy brushstroke, catch-up sleepovers with my Taiwan-born cousins, midnight snacks from a 7/11 around the corner. I’d never picked up a travel guide, Googled the exchange rate, or known the names of historical landmarks and even cities. Grandma’s house was always just Grandma’s house—and anyway, Taiwan was more a collection of memories than physical locations; the faint smell in a certain stairwell can hurtle me straight back to a specific moment 10-odd years ago when my cousins and I raced down 3 flights as the onomatopoeic “ba-boo” man (the equivalent of a western ice cream truck) cycled by with his horn, but I wouldn’t even begin to know how to geotag it on Facebook.
Three years ago, I saw Taiwan almost as if for the first time; after having to “skip” the two summers prior, I’d never felt so confusingly homesick—not for my parents during countless overnight youth summer camps, not for my own bed after a month of sleeping amongst Amazonian critters, not for a closet full of clean clothes during my first longterm backpacking trip, not for the Florida sun after moving to England. I’d moved away from home, lived on my own for the first time, delved into fine arts, was devastated by and recovered from massive disappointments that forced me to grow up rapidly. My trip last week was similar in the sense that I’d become a different person with different interests; I moved even further away from home, studied in two of the world’s most bustling urban playgrounds, fell in love with design, and belatedly realised that one of my only regrets in life is not having spent more time to know my incredible grandparents.
I think I’d always been a bit unfair, shutting Taiwan neatly away into a drawer along with other childhood relics—a bookmark collection, an old ring I dug up in the sandbox—when, as a rapidly modernising capital, Taipei is developing at a rate that perhaps exceeds my own. As a living and breathing thing existing within a span of twenty years, it’s subject to the same trends as any other city and its inhabitants. I was shocked, for example, to see a sign for wheat germ pineapple pastries and that stinky tofu was becoming more popular steamed than deep-fried. Time stood still in my drawer of relics; I had always assumed that even if I stopped eating white sandwich bread and cut down on saturated fats, Taiwan would be the place where I’d be happily forced to revert to old habits whenever I wanted a taste of childhood. On the street where my young cousins and I lovingly spent all our time between meals picking the ticks off of stray puppies’ ears, there now sits a shiny red Ferrari.
Of course there are constants, but my changing interests dictate my observations and activities. Last time I hopped from bakery to bakery; this time I spent hours and gigabytes interviewing my grandparents and filming nightmarket food stalls until, tripod less, my hands were unsteady and clothes saturated with the smell of grilled squid.
And it’s fun this way, like playing catch-up with your oldest friend; the reality is you’re both absolutely different people, but nothing evolves that can erase or devalue those most impressionable early years spent together. No matter how much I grow and change, I’ll know that Taiwan—the way it was then, the way it is now, and the way it will be with every future visit—had and will continue to have a role in that.
I’ll still have to nurse countless mosquito bites that linger long after I fly back home, I’ll still revel at the ever-expanding ramen cup noodle selection, I’ll still be able to enjoy intestines without risking total social damnation, and I’ll still remember to stock up on cute stationery supplies. I’ll still be waking up for fresh soy milk pressed from beans at the street stalls each morning, and I’ll still be cashing in on the cheap and convenient healthcare system that allows me to squeeze in a dental cleaning walk-in appointment a few hours before my flight. I’ll still bring 6 egg yolk red bean pastries back in my carry-on bag, and I’ll always have eaten half by the time I land. I’ll do all these things until they phase out of relevance—whether it’s because of my growing up or Taiwan’s. And for now, I’ll try a pineapple cake made with wheat germ.