Grand Prize Winner, High School Category
Summers in Taiwan are brutal. I mean, think of the thrashing Da’an heat, cooking you alive like a fried egg from a breakfast shop. Or picture an army of mosquitoes, all nosediving towards you with their suckers out, ready to unleash an unrelenting week of itchiness.
The irritating sound made me sigh.
A mosquito flew in circles around my ear, taunting me for not killing it before it’d injected its “Itch-3000 serum” into my arm. I swatted it away and reached for my phone.
The harshly-lit screen blinked back at me. 2:45 PM.
“Man, are there 30 hours today or something?” I thought to myself as I slowly slid off the sofa and amped up the fan speed. The AC in A-gong’s apartment complex had decided to call it quits earlier in the week, so now we were left with his very own, dilapidated, 20-year-old Panasonic 3500 fan to prevent ourselves from quite literally drying out. Nonetheless, I attempted to make the best of what we had, savoring those precious moments of bliss, jets of cool air blasting my face.
It was only early afternoon but my stomach growled and roared, despairing for something, anything to satisfy its craving.
I decided it was time for the one thing I came to Taiwan for.
“Ma!” I shouted, grabbing the apartment keys and my wallet. “I’m gonna go get some dan bing from that vendor nearby. You want some?”
“I’m OK, just save some for Esther,” she yelled back in Mandarin, referencing my sister, “and don’t forget to use mosquito repellent!” Five seconds later, Ma, looking slightly disheveled, emerged from her room, brandishing said bottle of mosquito repellent.
“Bu yong la, it’s fine. It’s only a block from here,” I groaned. She still proceeded to spray me with the grassy mist from head-to-toe. Of course.
I peered over her shoulder and saw her laptop, placed precariously on the edge of a cardboard box, papers strewn everywhere around it. Probably still driving herself crazy with that speech contest. Every year, A-gong sponsored this speech contest for students across Taiwan. Frankly, I didn’t understand it. I mean, who in their right mind makes writing speeches a hobby? Anyway, Ma and her two sisters always helped A-gong with scheduling and the boring, behind-the-scenes work that nobody wants to do. I felt super bad for her because the contest
just so happened to fall in September, which was part of our vacation time, and Ma never really got to relax.
I slid into my beat-up Vans and opened the door. A rush of humid, summer air pressed against my face as I began the impossible quest of not coming back soaked in sweat. Pressing the elevator button, my mind began picturing the delectable, oily treat that awaited me on Heping West Rd. Dan bing, or egg scallion pancakes, are not just a treat, but also a fond memory. I still remember the excitement of every Thursday of summer break when A-Gong would ride out on that ancient motorcycle of his and come back slinging a bag of fresh, hot dan bing over his shoulders with a cheeky grin on his face. Ten minutes later, the only trace of that day’s meal would be two oily boxes, scraped completely clean.
Once outside, all you could hear was the loud vrr-errrrrghn of scooters, puffing out smoke, the smell filling the July air. In the distance, the familiar jingle of the garbage truck could be heard, Taiwanized Maiden’s Prayer blasting in all its glory. Sitting on those cheap, pink, plastic chairs from Show Ba Department Store, a couple of obasan gossiped nearby. Their rapid-fire
Taiwanese tested my embarrassingly poor grasp on the language, my ears only registering the occasional án-ne-ooh (is that so?) or khióng-pòo (that’s scary!).
I took in everything around me as I slowly traversed the sidewalk, careful not to bump into a restaurant patron or a motorcycle with a still-sizzling engine. In Taiwan, a sidewalk isn’t just a sidewalk. It’s also someone’s driveway, a restaurant’s makeshift dining area, an obasan’s gossiping ground, a motorcyclist’s parking spot. Off in the distance, the paint-chipped face of Da’an District’s potential Taipei City councilman-elect looked right back at me, eager to lambast me with his campaign promises.
Then there it was. The dan bing vendor, the words 陳家蛋餅 inked meticulously on a well-worn sign. It was a humble sight, a metal street cart covered with a faded army green canvas and a plastic board declaring its one offering:
As I edged nearer, a steadfast odor of grease filled my nose. A single figure stooped over a hot pan, flipping dan bing, one after another, careful not to burn its delicate layer.
My gaze was fixed on the simple, yet perplexing motions, just one of the many steps in creating the greasy, soft snack I’d grown to love.
“Shui ge, how many do you want?” inquired the weathered owner, noticing my stare. I recoiled, slightly embarrassed, and cleared my throat.
“One order of dan bing, please.”
Those were the words I’d longed to say since I landed on Runway 2A two weeks ago.
“Hao, it’ll be 30 yuan,” he replied, shoveling a freshly made pancake into a crisp Thank You! paper bag and handing it to me.
Hurriedly, I fished out my wallet, causing a stray 100 yuan bill to slip out. Descending with grace, it swiveled from side-to-side as if it were dancing, Sun Yat Sen’s face staring back at me disapprovingly. I picked up the tattered bill and handed it to the owner, my face plastered with the bu hao yi si apologeticness that the Taiwanese wereworld-renowned for. Unable to contain my excitement, I quickly took my change and plopped down on a plastic stool.
As I slowly pulled away the two flaps of the bag, scallion-infused steam began wafting out, rising earnestly into oblivion. It was a welcoming smell, a smell that exuded decades of tireless passion for a craft and a search for comfort in a strange, new land called Formosa. I raised it up to my mouth and took a bite.
It was just as I had remembered it, year after year, trip after trip.
The QQ, chewy dough and the soft, pillowy egg was like yin and yang, a harmonious balance between two polar opposites. One complemented the other. There was no hierarchy in the precedence of either one. The egg, whites and all, melted like butter, while each Q of the dough bounced off my teeth. Not forsaken, the scallions infused in the dough were the individual notes in the symphony of flavor, each expressing its acidic-yet-sweet personality a little differently. The dramatic ending came in the form of salt and pepper, just enough to be noticed. All in all, it was a solace to the inferno Mother Nature condemned Taipei to on that July day.
A breeze picked up. I watched as the vendor’s smoke gently floated eastward, towards that political billboard which watched over Heping West Rd. A single siren blared from somewhere beyond it.
There is so much about the world that merits appreciation but one thing stands out in particular: a passion for food. A chef’s sweat and toil. A patron’s enamoration. It’s a process that starts and ends with passion.
Or maybe it ends in a delicious bite.
*shui ge (帥哥): lit. handsome brother; often used to address a younger male in Taiwan
**obasan (歐巴桑): auntie (on the older side); derived from the Japanese word おばさん which also means older auntie
***bu yong la (不用啦): it’s fine; no need
****bu hao yi si (不好意思): excuse me; used as a casual apology in Taiwan
About Tristan Tang: Tristan Tang is a junior at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School in Los Angeles. His parents are immigrants from Taiwan (Taipei and Tainan, specifically) so he grew up in a household filled with all things Taiwanese. He is the president of his school’s Taiwanese Cultural and Traditions Club and Chef du Cabinet of Model UN.