When I got off the MRT at work and started into the alley between the station and JPG, I started to hear chanting. Strange chanting…non-rhythmic and mysterious. Almost scary in the overtones and chords being sung. Unnatural to say nothing of the deep and throaty sounds coming from what turned out to be a group of women in yellowish monk’s robes, kneeling in a sort of a circle on the porch of the temple I’ve posted pictures of. I chose not to consider what it was they were circled around.
The smell of incense wafted into the alley, and I continued past the little old Chinese man who says, “hello” and grins at me each time I walk past. I’m pretty sure he knows no other English.
He made me uneasy the first day he greeted me, but seeing him has become one of the special parts of my day each day. His face lights up when I say, “hello” back, which makes me feel like in some small way I’m making someone else’s life better.
My friends who have children feel this joy each day; knowing that they bring safety, security, and happiness to their children…That they make their children’s lives better with every motherly thing that they do. In my life, these moments are more subtle and one step removed.
I make the old man smile.
And so he also makes me smile.
At lunchtime today I went with my three lunch girls to a Japanese restaurant. Today was the first day in three weeks of work that I’ve suggested what sounded good to me. This is notable first because I said it in Chinese, and second because it means that I’ve been here long enough to begin to crave certain kids of local foods. I suggested mien tang, or noodle soup. They decided Japanese noodle soup was in order.
They all know that I’m deathly allergic to shellfish, but I’m really just not sure they realize that I’m deathly allergic to shellfish. Maybe something’s lost in translation. I’ve heard that Asian people don’t have the same problems with or understanding of food allergies that Americans do.
My friend Yvonne ordered for me since the menu was in Hanzi (Chinese characters), and when my soup arrived, there were several huge shrimp staring at me.
In Taiwan the shrimp still have their little black beady eyes and their whiskery-looking feelers attached. Not that I would have been any more inclined to indulge in food-allergy-induced suicide had their eyes and feelers been removed. My friends looked a little annoyed (maybe with me, maybe with the restaurant) and ordered me a different soup.
The Second Soup
The second soup was placed in front of me. My three friends were well into their lunches when this one arrived. It smelled great, and I was hungry enough that I was feeling a little light-headed. I drew the large, Japanese-styled spoon (that looked more like a ladle) up from the soup and discovered a fried shrimp sittin’ there, headless at least, on my spoon.
Now my hands were shaking. My friends say, “Just take the shrimp out and eat it.” I thought they understood that I’m deathly allergic to shellfish. I think maybe it’ll be okay if it’s just the one shrimp, so I place it in a separate dish on the table and again delve my ladle-spoon into the darkness that is either my lunch or my death.
Crab meat greets me.
I’m embarrassed and frustrated as I try to make my friends realize that I’m not a picky eater, but that this food will KILL me. All three girls are talking to me, to the waiter, to the owner, to each other, at once. People at other tables are staring curiously at the white girl who won’t eat her food. My body holds such tension that if something had bumped into me abruptly I may have jumped out of my seat. I really, really want to get up and walk out of the restaurant. This is a lot of trouble to go through when I know I can grab a PB&J at the 7-Eleven across the street.
The Third Soup
A third bowl of soup is delivered. Vegetarian this time.
I take a good look at the surface and I see nothing but vegetables. I’m starving and I’m damp from the adrenaline that flew through my body with my frustration and embarrassment. In goes my ladle…
Out comes a shrimp.
I’m leaving. I can’t deal with this.
Again, I say, “I cannot eat this. I’m really sorry. I’ll pay for all of these soups, but I can’t eat this. It will Kill me. I’m not just picky, I promise. I wish I could eat this. It looks really good, but I cannot eat it. I will die.”
Turns out it’s a soybean shrimp, like the vegetarian chicken or hamburger meat used for cooking. I still didn’t eat it, but I ate the rest of the soup, and it was good.
Fixing My Couches
I make it through the rest of the day at work, and push, tired, through two hours of Chinese lessons.
I anticipate scooter headlights coming at me head-on now, after three weeks of bicycling in this city. A daunting ride and five flights of steps later, I am in my family room.
I set down my bags, read to the fridge, and pull out the salad I made three meals worth of last night. I come back into the family room to get a bottle of water out of my bag and realize that the fabric my landlord recovered my couches with only Thursday is falling off the bottom side of the couch.
Upon closer investigation, I realize that my landlady has, are you ready for this???
Used foam-padded double stick tape to hold the fabric to the couch.
Welcome to Taiwan, I think to myself.
I eat my salad.
Life is good.
I am good.
Originally written and published on my blog, A Year in Taipei on October 2, 2006.
I wrote more than 300 blog posts during my year in Taipei, Taiwan. I don’t know yet how many of those posts I’ll recreate on MilliGFunk.com, but for now, at least, you can come back on Thursdays for a #ThrowbackThursday to my #YearInTaipei.