I can still taste the candied strawberries on my tongue.
Sometimes, I wake up expecting to see a boxy, white air conditioning unit above me, rather than my bedroom ceiling. I expect to open my window and be looking down sixteen stories from the apartment complex my grandparents live in, the view of the street below obscured by the muggy, humid, summertime air.
I can still hear the sound of mopeds going by, leaving the smell of asphalt and exhaust in their wake as they head to the morning market, no doubt to call “gǎo tzà!” to the vendors they know and even some of the ones they don’t.
Sometimes, when I’m sorting through the clothes my grandmother sends me, her fabric softener still clinging to the polyester and cotton, the smell of Taiwan will tickle my nose. And I will return to that summer.
There’s a tunnel you have to walk through after a flight, the strange, plastic-metal corridor connecting the plane to the airport building. The moment that you step onto that tunnel, you get a taste of what your new location will be like.
My first breath of Taiwan was hot, humid, and smelled of asphalt in the sun. This did not change for many days. Even as we passed through air-conditioned building after air-conditioned building, even as I settled into my temporary bedroom and shifted my body clock sixteen hours ahead, even as I got used to the scent of the cucumber shampoo in that tiny shower in that tiny, 16th-floor apartment, that first breath seemed burned in my lungs. Humidity. Heat. Asphalt.
I don’t think I got my first proper taste of Taiwan until I had my first Taiwanese breakfast, but I wouldn’t realize this until much later. At the time, all I could think about was how hot it was, how thick and sticky the air felt. I remember wondering why we were waking up so early, why we would walk five blocks in the suffocating humidity for yóu tiáo dipped in rice porridge and soy milk.
I still think about the taste of that soy milk. Sometimes I think about getting on a plane and hunting down that particular breakfast place, just to see if it still tastes the same.
I wonder, sometimes, how many thirteen-year-old girls reluctantly go to Taiwan to visit family, determined to hate every moment of it, only to find themselves even more reluctant to leave and even more determined to return someday. I don’t know if this is a unique experience, or if that’s just Taiwan and the magic of her night market food stalls, the smell of smoke and stinky tofu clinging to every warm body crammed onto that lantern-lit street. Maybe there’s someone else out there sitting in their bed and writing about how they can still see the lush, green
countryside painted on the insides of their eyelids every time they close their eyes, reaching out for the sensation of a sticky summer afternoon.
If there is, I wonder if they, too, feel as if they have been incomplete ever since they boarded that plane back to whatever place they call home.
It rained every other day, for the entire month that I was there. The sky wept in the afternoon, shouted thunderous roar and split open the air with strike upon strike of lightning, only to wink down at us by evening, each star like a flake of gold churned to the surface by the turmoil of the day.
I loved those storms more than I can say. Later, when I returned to the States and attempted to explain this to my friends, I was struck by my inability to help them understand the exhilaration of the lightning, or the magnitude of the downpour. It was then that I first set out to
paint an accurate picture of Taiwan. I wrote endless poetry about her late evenings and early mornings. I set every short story in the bustle of her cities and the lull of her coastal villages. The picture is yet incomplete. Now, with the wisdom of time and nostalgia on my side, I realize the picture will never be complete. No matter how vividly the food stall smoke sits on my tongue, no matter how clearly I still see the beaches and ocean waves, something will always be lost in translation.
I can’t speak Taiwanese. Well, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the only thing I truly know how to say in Taiwanese is, “wā tiau-bó” which roughly translates to “I don’t understand” (Ironically, even my attempt to transcribe that short phrase in Taiwanese has left me at a loss. Mandarin pīn yīn only accounts for the four tones that exist in Chinese. Taiwanese has seven tones, and I don’t even know if a phonetic transcription system for the language exists). The strange thing is, in the few instances when I’ve learned Taiwanese words or phrases, I’ve always found that the language sits better on my tongue than English or Mandarin. Like some part of me was made to speak Taiwanese. Like my mouth was shaped by the hands of my mother’s ancestors, curved and molded against the bubbly curls and zig zagged corners of phonemes and morphemes my ear never learned to recognize.
During my visit, I would often hear Taiwanese thrown back and forth, interspersed with Mandarin, until the two blended together into something else entirely. This was always my favorite dialogue to decipher: not quite a different language, not quite a different accent. Something caught in between.
One day, about two weeks into my visit, we went to see a local temple, perched at the top of a series of stone steps, hidden amongst the rolling green hills and thick forests surrounding us. There was an old woman at the entrance, and when we arrived she began to ask us where we were visiting from. It was only after my mother started translating for me that I realized I’d understood every word of Taiwanese the elderly woman had spoken.
I didn’t know how to respond, and by that point my mother had taken hold of the conversation, so I was left reeling in silence at an understanding I didn’t know when or how I’d acquired.
That understanding is gone now, faded with time and a lack of daily exposure to the language. But the memory remains, clear and distinct and sharp. The moment when I glimpsed a piece of myself that has always been sitting inside me somewhere, waiting to be recognized.
Phoebe Chan was born and raised in California. She is a recent graduate of Temple City High School and has been writing short story fiction and poetry since elementary school. Her mother is an immigrant from Taiwan and her father is an immigrant from Hong Kong.
From Phoebe: “My Asian American and Taiwanese American heritage has always been near and dear to my heart, so when I heard about this competition, I was really excited about applying. My writing always seems to gravitate back to Taiwan, and writing my piece for this competition felt natural in a way. “Formosa is Portuguese for “Beautiful”” is a reflective piece about how visiting Taiwan gave me a sense of connection to both my identity as someone of Taiwanese heritage and to Taiwan itself.”