Stinky Tofu, Typhoons, and other Perils of Taipei

Gate to Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall

The island nation of Formosa, known to many across the globe as Taiwan, is known more officially in Beijing as The Republic of China. Taiwan has never achieved independence from Beijing and – some contend – never will. Although Taiwan has its own currency, democratic government, and unique dialect, the mainland Chinese government has vowed to keep China together since the civil war some fifty years ago – no matter the costs.

The grandest fireworks in Asia

Touching down in Taipei is a unique experience even for the most hardened of travelers. The skyline of Taipei is minuscule compared to Bangkok or Hong Kong, except for the bamboo styled obelisk that is firmly mounted in the northeastern corner of the city. Taipei 101 is the epitome of modern Taiwan and a cherished patriotic icon. Go there on New Year’s Eve for a fireworks display yet to be rivaled anywhere else in the world. (Note: At the beginning of 2010 Dubai has nearly doubled this feat).

101 floors of fireworks

Thus far in my journey, I have walked by this monument several times. I live about 15 to 20 minutes by bus from Taipei City Hall in a city called Xizhi. Like most of the planet today, Taipei’s weather has been in constant flux. Although it is supposed to be the initial phase to what will certainly be a scorching summer, the temperature has remained cool and breezy – raising the specter of the incoming typhoon season around the corner.

Taiwanese people are some of the friendliest people I have yet to encounter in my travels. The only pitfall that seems to have arisen is that the food is beyond my taste, which is hard to say for a man who has eaten crickets and other unmentionables in Southeast Asia.

Crowded night market in Geelong, east of Taipei

Stinky bean curd

My first run in with stinky tofu was actually an immensely pleasurable one; although, I must say I was extremely jetlagged and stared. The taste is similar to that of other tofu; however, the smell seems to send shockwaves through your olfactory system, distorting the rest of your senses along the way.

The next time I walked past a stinky tofu stall it was a week after my jet lag had worn off and I still can’t believe that I was dizzy enough to ingest this diabolical dish. My South African boss probably put it best. If you want to know what stinky tofu smells like, vomit in a car during the summer at high noon, close it for three hours, then open it again and take a big whiff.

Nevertheless, the smells haven’t been deterring me from gorging down other local dishes as much as the language barrier. Anyone who has entered a new country for the first time without any language skills will sympathize with the plight involved in communicating with body language.

So in an effort to assimilate and eat, I have begun the arduous task of learning Chinese. Ever ask a Chinese person how many characters there are? Go ahead and they will all tell you the same thing. I don’t know.

"I love Xizhi" written on the wall of a local restaurant

Hieroglyphically intricate

Throughout the centuries the language has been subjected to the same amount of pollution that any language goes through – with one unique difference. There were at least 100,000 known characters to begin with – now only those who are truly scholarly can give you even an approximate estimate.

The innate conscientiousness that seems to endow these people is without a doubt a product of their written language. Reading a language that uses hieroglyphics takes patience, time, and hard work – otherwise you are likely to be completely illiterate. With that in mind, it’s time for me to hit the books and continue writing these pictographs until I am able to differentiate stinky tofu from edibles.

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