A nostalgic familiarity filled me as I chowed down on noodles and braised pork with rice, in this little suburb called Linkou, somewhere between Taipei and Taoyuan Airport. I am after all, Chinese, and I speak the language and understand the culture, so this sense of belonging came as no surprise. There have been times when abroad I felt at home and when at home I felt like a tourist, whether that had more to do with my lifelong sense of displacement or my desire to “fit in” whenever visiting a foreign land I’m not sure, but I suspect its a mixture of both. I’m learning to love wherever I am, yet this sort of feels like the initial giddy rush of being in an affair. The last time I felt such tendencies to infidelity I was on a beach in Bali.
I quite like cities although the older I get the more I treasure the quiet satisfactions of quainter places. There is however, a special something about Taipei and its hermetic charm that had me loving this capital of capitalism at first sight. The city seems to hum to a rhythm all it’s own, a bustling Oriental metropolis that sings modernity and commerce in it’s own unique voice, a neon-lit paean to Western ideals that nevertheless holds history and tradition close. Founding fathers Chiang Kai-Shek and Sun Yat-Sen are revered in suitably grandiose memorial halls. Imposingly ornate temples of Taoism become de-facto nerve centers of the meandering night markets of Shilin in Taipei and Miaokou in Keelung, where crowds spontaneously gather and mill about at their steps and entrances eating, drinking, smoking, and chatting away, prompting me to wonder what the gods and deities make of all this insouciant merry-making. The tempo of life is quick yet considered, a paradox of chaos and control. People are approachable and friendly, public transport operators helpful and polite. Stray dogs and cats look less like abandoned castaways than well-groomed co-citizens and it was a constant source of amazement how much the locals seemed to care for them, a clear indication of a society’s maturity. I remembered Gandhi’s words, and it greatly endeared me to the city. The food is palatable if a bit plain, though Malaysian tongues used to a smorgasbord of spices and flavours are certain to be biased. Toilets and things are mostly clean, well-organised, and looked after. Waits for buses or metro trains were short whilst ladies’ skirts at the shopping district of Zhong Xiao were even shorter - leggy women striding confidently, pulling stares and admiring glances to them like fires in the night. I think of Garry Winogrand and his book “Women are Beautiful” and I imagine an identical series right here in the heart of Taipei City.
As my affections for the city grew I could not help but wonder about the circumstances which led my forefathers to settle in Malaysia, considering my roots are the same as that of the majority of Han Chinese in Taiwan (which is Fujian province in South-Eastern China), I could just as easily have been born Taiwanese. I look at the faces of those around me, the silent words their expressions say, and I observe the way with which they interact with one another. Sometimes I lock in on one particularly phone-engrossed individual whilst riding on the metro, and I imagine their hopes and fears, their dreams for the future and their memories of the past, the myriad circumstances which led them to be right where they are at that very moment, a specimen and a slice of humankind, unaware that a tourist is staring them down like a voyeuristic bird-of-prey, searching the very depths of their souls or at least imagining that he could, and wondering to himself, “Are they happy where they are”?
I often ask myself why some people are consumed by wanderlust, whilst some are content to never leave their homes their entire lives. Perhaps there is a gene in us that dictates our cravings for new sights and sounds. I may not be exceedingly well-traveled but I’ve come to believe that the main utility of travelling ought to be the accumulation of an empathetic and empirical wisdom, the realization that no matter how often we travel and how different the cultures and languages, we are all inheritors of this world that is simultaneously vast and tiny, and beneath the skin and lolling accents we are but flesh, blood, and bone, ruled by gravity and time. The good traveler is not the one who has visited a hundred countries, but the one who sees and understands the unifying aspects of life wherever they go. Wherever you go, there you are, as the saying goes. The hard part is in answering the question, just who are you?