Saturday, October 10, 2009

"Welcome to Sanshia" or "Never Stop for Banh Mi in a Strange Land"

Woke up early this morning, in Taipei. Walked to the HuaShan (Blossom-Mountain) supermarket down the street to buy some fruit for breakfast. I tried to procure some oranges. Last time I thought I was getting some plump oranges I had actually picked up some orange-skinned grapefruits. I was informed that here in Taiwan most oranges have green skin. So this morning I grabbed a bag of green-skinned citrus, but they were tangerines.

Yesterday was Saturday. Normally I will have to work on Saturday mornings at my new job but yesterday was a holiday, Double Ten Day. It is the anniversary of the Chinese Nationalists setting up the exiled government in Taiwan; Taiwanese 4th of July. I heard they were planning on shooting fireworks of the top of Taipei 101 (the world's tallest building) but it was such grey day, and the clouds came down low enough to obscure the top half of the building, that I don't know whether they bothered or not. I was not in town to find out.

I had made plans with Ashley to go hiking, but I slept in till about noon and the weather was threatening anyway, so we scrapped that idea and I suggested we go to Sanshia so she could see where I will be living and working. I was excited to be able to leisurely enjoy the charms of the city that I had only briefly seen. I remembered walking across the pedestrian bridge to the bus the night before and seeing tents set up with signs on them that said Taipei Farmers' Market. I hoped the market would be going on.

Ashley and I got off the bus in Sanshia. It was about 2pm and we were famished. I suggest we try the Bahn mi sandwiches at the Vietnamese place along the river since it was on the way. We stood outside the restaurant and looked at the faded picture menu on the window. Inside, a couple flimsy tables had been pushed together and a group of people were sitting there enjoying themselves, having a good time, bottles of Taiwan beer, a liquor bottle with some clear spirit, plates of half eaten food, spicy beef/chili pepper stir fry, green papaya salad with squid and a plate of plantain and taro chips. One of the women in the group, there were only two spotted us looking in and she beckoned us enter. The others all smiled and waved.

We stepped inside and the Thai proprietor asked us what we wanted (in Chinese) and we pointed to the picture of the Bahn mi. He didn't look too happy. He called over a woman who also worked there, his wife, and she pointed at other things that she thought we should have. This should have been a clue but we were obtuse and softly charmingly insistent.
I went to the drink cooler and grabbed a Taiwan beer (it being a holiday and all) and sat down. We were attracting attention from the group at the big table. Maybe it was my stylish straw hat or Ashley's mint green "Amy's Organic" t-shirt and blue eyes. Maybe it was our fool smiles that are always planted on our faces that say "I don't know what you are saying but I'm sure it is nice and I like you." Somehow we ended up at their table.
The two women were sisters and they were sitting next to a very tall man who was their oldest brother. The sisters didn't look like each other at all. One was short and stout with long curly hair and wide sun browned face with a slight blush over her wide cheeks. The other sister who was younger (between 35 and 40) was, tall slender and had fairer skin. She had a fashionable bob worn casually and was neatly dressed in a silvery rayon shirt and black capri pants embroidered with flowers. This woman, I call her Meimei (littlesister) cause I can't pronounce her name,it sort of sounded like Fen, introduced her older brother (age 48). We exchanged pleasantries. At that lunch which we began around 3 o'clock we discussed the Yankees, Taiwanese-Chinese politics, my nose, the many husbands of the stout sister, the lack of husbands of the pretty sister, the eldest brother's height of 185cm, my very big nose, the temples around Sanshia, food, the weather, Taiwan pride and the beauty of the island, the da bezi (big nose) on my face ....and then a man from mainland China shoved a spoonful of chicken fetus into my mouth. ok. It was very salty and tasted like boiled egg yolk, intensified by ten. Ashley had a bite too, her eyes shut tight and her mouth wide open.
One of the stout sister's ex-husband joined us at the table and he had a little girl of about 6 years old hanging around his neck. I played 'paper-rocks-scissors' with her till my hand cramped. Stout sister stormed out in a huff.

Oh, by the way, no one spoke English. There were ten words of English among the group of seven at table. My Chinese is like the grunting of a Neanderthal but combined with Ashley's knowledge we have about 60-75 words of Chinese. All this does is fool people into thinking that you understand them when they are speaking to you.

This morning I asked Ashley how she liked Sanshia. "I didn't see any of it but a Thai restaurant, and a karaoke bar!" Around 5pm we were ushered into a gypsy cab. I wasn't sure where we were going but we didn't drive too far and I was pretty sure I knew my way back to the bus. In the karaoke bar when Meimei said "Dance!" we danced and every time an English song came on we were required to sing it. They kept picking songs I'd never heard of but I could read the words that were displayed on the screen which was backed by images of eels feeding, little alligators swimming around and green fish. We were offered snacks. Pumpkin seeds that tasted of coconut milk; pistachios that also tasted like coconut; some deep fried crunchy fava beans (peel first) they were salty and delicious like oily crackers; and slices of dried candied apricot. We met more people and talked about my enormously big nose.

It was getting late, around 8 I attempted making my excuses to my hosts and plotting with Ashley our escape. The last bus for Taipei was leaving soon. Then Meimei told us all to get up, settled the tab, got us into another gypsy cab, Ashley, Me, Gege (olderbrother) and MeiMei. We weren't sure where we were going now; maybe back to the Thai restaurant? bus stop? no passed them, kept driving, driving. Neither of us new how to ask where we were going. At every red light I said to Ashley "open the door and run" but we didn't do that because it started to seem like we were heading in the direction of Taipei. "Disco!" said Meimei as we pulled up on a very Taipei looking street. (Ashley was in her hiking boots). We walked into another karaoke bar. At table in the back all of our new friends from Sanshia were sitting. Tea was poured for us, grilled fish drizzled with lemon, papaya, mellon, hard-spicey tofu and squid, sauteed greens and a big bowl of soup with meatballs in it. it seemed like the soup was just their to catch the "Taiwan whiskey" that people spilled as they reached across the table, over the soup, to toast one another. This drink was the clear spirit that I saw them drinking at lunch. It is very strong, kind of like grappa. They mix it in pitchers filled with ice and water to take the kick out of it.
The woman who ran this place wore a pink chanel suit knockoff and had a buffont hairdo. There were other girls who filled the drinks and the tea and the food. The songs at this place were projected in front of images of Versailles and carriages rolling around other palatial gardins. The room was filled with smoke from people smoking cigarettes. This was not like KTV where everyone was in a private room. There was only one room, everyone sits at rounded booths. On the wall above each booth is a no smoking sign.

We finally made it out. I think our hosts tired of trying to communicate with us. Around 11:30 we got into a cab, a yellow one, and went to Shandao were we stay. It was expensive, almost 300 NTD which means we were pretty far away, the outskirds of town, but we made it. I didn't mind paying for the cab since I didn't spend a dime that day. Our friend Meimei paid for everything and we tried many times to pay but she refused to accept any money. It was a fun night, like hanging out with a crazy aunt and uncles.

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