Pretty Fly For A White Girl

This blog entry about the events of Saturday, April 24, 2010 was originally posted on April 25, 2010.

DAY 4:  “Hello!” said the familiar voice on my local-SIM-card-enabled phone.  “Welcome to Taipei!”

“I just told the information booth lady, xiexie [thank you],” I answered.

“Oh, you’re official!”

The voice belonged to my friend Elizabeth, whom I met through Steph during our days together in New York.  Elizabeth, an American ex-pat of five months thus far, was no stranger to the island formerly known as Formosa.  Having studied abroad in Taiwan before, this was her third round of living in the southeast Asian nation*.  I had not seen Elizabeth since she lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn USA, and two Taiwanese years later, she brought herself back to Taiwan, a place dear to her heart, to teach English and act whenever time permitted, in the local theater scene — heeding the casting call for roles as the token Chinese-fluent white girl.  (She had landed such a role in a limited-run play a few months prior, and ended up in every newspaper.)

IN SPIELBERG’S THE TERMINAL, Tom Hanks is stranded in an airport for odd diplomatic reasons, always wondering what life is like outside the airport doors.  In my lifetime, I have been to Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport half a dozen times — but only in layovers — and always wondered about the world behind the glass.  Every time in the past, it was always a beautiful bright sunny — and curiosity-inspiring — day.

This time around I finally got to leave the airport exit, only to be greeted by a drizzling 16°C gray day, which was actually a welcoming change from the heat and humidity of the Philippines.  Using English and my limited Mandarin (ni hao, xiexie), I managed to get on the #21 public airport bus, which took me on the 40-minute ride into Taipei, the nation’s* capital city.  Outside the airport, a countryside of rice paddocks eventually turned into a neatly-managed Asian urban sprawl.  My first impression was that it was like China, but not nearly as crowded.  Motorbikes sprinkled the city, but not littered it like they do in Beijing (or Hanoi for that matter).  I recalled Taiwanese friends back home describe Taiwan as “like China, but not crazy;” Elizabeth fondly referred to it as “China Light.”

“Hellooo!” said the familiar smiling face waiting for me at the popular ZhongXiao Fuxing station, where the train system met the airport bus.  Elizabeth and I embraced our welcoming reunion, but didn’t dawdle because she had to rush off to work soon.  We managed to get my bags on her motor scooter, and I hopped on the back, helmets on, for the ride to her residential neighborhood.

YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED that I’ve put an asterisk in this blog entry whenever I refer to Taiwan as a nation* (like that).  To the uninformed, Taiwan’s status as an independent nation is quite the controversy, spawning from a long, rocky history of the island.  Geographically-convenient for spice traders in the 16th century, Dutch traders “settled” on what the Portuguese called the Isla Formosa (beautiful island), an island already inhabited by indigenous tribes.  China’s Ming dynasty didn’t like this, and sought to claim the island, but let European traders continue their business there.  Spain got jealous of the Dutch, but failed to take it over, however the Chinese blitzed it in the 17th century and took control.  For years Taiwan had a symbiotic relationship with the mainland until the 20th century, when the Japanese invaded and settled an infrastructure, like they did to most island nations of The Pacific.  In the post-World War II UN treaty, Japan forfeited Taiwan back to China, much to independent Taiwan’s chagrin. 

Today, Taiwan stands in a weird limbo; the Taiwanese consider themselves independent, with their own government structure, although the UN still declares them a part of China — and the USA abides by that UN distinction for economic trade reasons.  This is why when you ask the question, “How many countries are there in the world?”, the answer varies depending on your country’s politics and recognition of nationhoods like Taiwan.

“[My friend put it like this,]” Elizabeth said on the scooter ride.  “It’s like China and Taiwan were a couple, but they broke up, and one of them thinks they’re still together, while the other thinks, ‘There’s no way in a million years that we’re back together.’  It’s the perfect analogy.”

ELIZABETH LIVED IN THE DA’AN NEIGHBORHOOD, the hip, young area of college kids, young ex-pats and Taiwanese youths, in a humble apartment with three other roommates.  Her landlord was anal about having guys in the apartment after eleven, so she put me up in a hostel just down the block.  I supposed I could have pulled a Tom Hanks in Bosom Buddies had snuck into her place dressed as a girl (yes, that’s the second reference to Tom Hanks in this entry), but I forgot my wig at home.

“Wow, I haven’t been to a place like this in a while,” I said at the Eight Elephants Hostel that was advertised online but not in the Lonely Planet book.  Built inside a street-level house in an unassuming location, the friendly hostel was small, with it’s common area/office in the basement that was right out of That’s 70s Show.  Young, grungy backpackers sat around eating sandwiches and takeout food, while a lone woman surfed the web in one corner, and a dude played the guitar in another.  Having outgrown this scene, I checked into a private room, located in the house next door, which was a far better choice; with hardly anybody else staying there, I pretty much had an apartment house to myself with my own bedroom, a living room with flatscreen TV, a kitchen and laundry room, and a gated front porch with a hammock.  $30/night?  Score.

Elizabeth rushed off to work for the next eight hours, leaving me to my own devices.  I walked around the area, feeling alive and excited to be back on the road out in the world again.  I continued to marvel at Taiwan’s existence, “like China but not as crazy,” with room to walk and air to breathe, unlike it’s politically-induced big brother Beijing.  China Light indeed: old men walked lanes and alleys, while the occasional scooter or bicycle zipped by.  Tropical trees set a romantic mood near food stalls and Buddhist temples.  The only thing tarnishing the vibe was the 7-Eleven at just about every three blocks or so.  However, like the 7-Elevens in Japan, the American convenience store catered to the local clientele, with hot Asian foods, ramen noodle bowls, and rice balls

“SO DO YOU WANT TO GO TO A PUB or a club?” Elizabeth left it up to me for our first night out on the town of Taipei. 

“Whatever the more Taiwanese thing to do is,” I answered.  She thought about it and came up with a tentative plan. 

The first Taiwanese thing to do was, out of all things, take out the garbage — which is actually a really unique thing to do in Taipei.  According to one friend back home, the government keeps the old people employed by giving them jobs in sanitation, which isn’t as bad when you consider that the garbage truck comes down the block like an ice cream truck, complete with the happy music blaring out of speakers.  The truck stops at its designated time and designated meeting point, so that everyone in the neighborhood can come down and throw away their trash and recyclables (in another truck). 

From there it was off to neighboring the ShiDa district for a Taiwanese dinner: chicken meatballs in broth, dumplings, noodles, and two big bowls of noodles in spicy beef broth, complete with a tea egg.  This was all added by a post-dinner snack in the ShiDa Night Market at a vendor that deep fried items that you selected yourself from their assortment of goodies:  a taro mini sandwich between two Ritz crackers, a fried doughy smiley face, and Elizabeth’s favorite, a skewer of chicken butts.

“You know what?” I asked her.


“Chicken butt,” I replied.  She chuckled.  (I explained how that bit came from a memorable SNL sketch when Macualay Culkin hosted in the 90s, post-Home Alone.)

Elizabeth and I wandered the night market (picture above) with its little eateries and trendy shops, including a store called “Oh My God!” that sold awesome t-shirts and a weird pair of pants that had long sleeves on the side.  Beyond yet another 7-Eleven, we meandered amongst the crowds of Taiwanese hipsters and Mandarin-speaking ex-pats. 

This is where people watch Avatar on the street for free,” my friendly tour guide told me. 

Keeping with Taiwanese trends, we walked out of the market to another 7-Eleven to do as the Taiwanese do: buy a beer there to drink out on the streets, to pre-game before going out.  “Cheers!”

Sitting out on the curb, we enjoyed our beers and talked.  Elizabeth continued to tell me about her life in Taiwan, how she usually blows people away (including me) with her modestly-good Chinese language ability, and how being white has come in handy; once she had been pulled over by a cop, and she played like she couldn’t speak the language, and he simply let her go. 

We were soon joined by Elizabeth’s fellow English-teaching friend Devon, a young twentysomething who was oddly obsessed with 1950s American pop culture.  He joined us for our curbside beers, and soon the three of us were joined by a short-lived fourth: an incredibly drunk Taiwanese girl who was drinking wine out of a paper bowl for some reason, who was too drunk to finish it and was trying to pawn it off to us.  Devon and Elizabeth graciously declined without losing face; I was mostly ignored by not attracting attention with my non-white skin.

Curbside beers beget Taiwan Beers inside a bar, and we went to the quintessential young Taiwanese experience: Roxy 99, which was not unlike other bars with dancing in most parts of the world — I mean, everyone still sang along to Bon Jovi.  With a clientele of Taiwanese youths, ex-pats, visitors and ABCs (American-Born Chinese), Roxy 99 was a smoky and drunken soirée of hi-jinks.  We especially got a kick out of one ambiguously-gay Taiwanese dude get down on the dance floor.

In the end, it was a great first night out with an old friend, one that didn’t end as rough as some of the drunk kids passed out on the streets.  However, Elizabeth was feeling a bit hungover when I called her the next morning.

“Hey, you know what?” I asked.

“What,” she said, still groggy.

“Chicken butt.”

“Ha,” she said unenthusiastically. 

Still, she was still pretty fly for a white girl in my book — or any race for that matter.


Elizabeth told me about the faux pas she once had, when she failed to be informed that the Chinese word for “designs” is actually a colloquialism for “erections.”

“[Oh, that’s so cute how he had a design for you, and then he made designs for you back,]” she told me, recalling this time she had inquired about how a gay couple met — not realizing they weren’t talking about sending drawings to each other. 

Next entry: Chicken Soup For The Eye

Previous entry: Business Before Bourdain

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Comments for “Pretty Fly For A White Girl”

  • we drinking wine out of paper bowls when you get back

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/25  at  04:32 AM

  • Oh, dear! Some of the things I say in those videos are a little awkward… I take heart in the fact that Erik thinks I’m fly.

    Posted by Elizabeth  on  04/25  at  11:55 AM

  • Make sure you pick up some “zhu? b?ng” (grab cookie) before you leave Taiwan.  It’s like a burrito wrap but with a crepe-like skin that you pack with your choice of delicious fillings. You’ll find them on street vending carts.  Ask for egg, dried shredded pork, pickled veggies, corn, and what ever else you see that would satisfy your urges.  It should run about NT$70.  Great for breakfast on the go.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/25  at  05:35 PM

  • hey you coming by this small small island? - Carol your old friend from Singapore

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/25  at  08:55 PM

  • can you check out taiwan beer bar and beer garden…and look for a liquor called maotai or gaoling liquor (taiwanese moonshine) supposedly the best is in the island of Quemoy

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/25  at  10:28 PM

  • Damn you. Still want to go travel again, and I really wanna go back to Taiwan now. Boo on you.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/25  at  11:45 PM

  • I miss you guys!  Wish I could be there!  At least you got to enjoy my gift wink

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/26  at  08:05 AM

  • Not sure how Taipei can be described as just “sprinkled” with motorbikes.  They make roads specifically where only motorbikes are allowed! There are way more motorbikes than China.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/27  at  11:37 PM

  • ANNIE: Yes, you’re right.  There were way more motorbikes than I recall.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/10  at  04:29 PM

  • Thanks for a wonderful experience.
    Hey all. A am glad to find this site. Very usefull.

    Posted by china wholesale  on  07/28  at  12:14 PM

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This blog post is one of eighteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Chinese Leftovers And Other Asian Appetizers," which chronicled a trip to Shanghai and Huang Shan in China, as well as brief excursions to Manila, Taipei, and Seoul.

Next entry:
Chicken Soup For The Eye

Previous entry:
Business Before Bourdain


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