As I followed my boys around the heart-stopping, rail-free vistas at the Grand Canyon a few weeks ago, I kept thinking about the summer I spent in Taiwan twenty years ago. Something about being at the edge of a precipice reminded me of being a young college student in Asia. I could practically taste the cold, frothy bubble tea I drank with its chewy pearls of tapioca, hear the flurry of unintelligible language around me.
Sometime later in the week I remembered that feeling I’d had at the Canyon, and in the languidity of a desert afternoon I told stories about my time in Taipei, at the northern tip of Taiwan. The images have faded, but I felt that summer’s heavy humidity against my skin as I pulled the memories forward. Taipei is a modern, clean, bright, boisterous, highly cosmopolitan city with Chinese, Japanese and Western influences in its food, culture, and architecture. It was there I ate my first kimchi; I frequented tea houses and watched tai chi practiced early in the morning. I didn’t go anywhere without wandering past a temple; they were, literally, everywhere. I heard that Taipei has something like 15,000 of them. Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian temples share the same architectural features, and I couldn’t tell them apart by looking. Some had more action and noise than others, the area outside packed with vendors selling sticks of incense, food stalls, people everywhere. Worshipers came to make offerings of food and clothes and to light incense and pray. Early in the morning, priests recited scripture. I liked stepping inside to see the traditional Chinese paintings.
Weekends, my classmates and I toured the rest of the country, or visited the iconic night markets and tourist destinations in the city such as the National Palace Museum and the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.
In the cafeteria of the hospital where we spent our days we ate staples such as braised beef noodle broths and pork dumplings. Out in the city, we ate high-quality, inexpensive food from around the world.
I spent most of my time in a labor and delivery ward.
I learned about yuezi, a postpartum tradition. The Chinese believe that the first month after childbirth affects a woman’s long-term health, so the recovery period is critical. There are criteria for confinement, rest, food, herbs, hygiene and the assistance of others during the first month of motherhood.
I shared a room in a nurses’ dormitory with my friend and classmate, Anne. She’s tall, and beautiful, with long, blond hair; pretty much everyone notices her, wherever she goes. Particularly so in Asia. She taught me how to swim laps for exercise in the mornings, as running didn’t seem to be an option, and did my nails every weekend, and kept me laughing with her constant stream of wise-cracks. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone more generous. She received a letter from her boyfriend almost every day, and at regular intervals he sent care packages filled with Jolly Ranchers and Sweet Tarts, to satisfy her craving for candy. American sweets were hard to come by.
Shortly after we returned home, she married him. Wise woman. Lucky man.