Elise: Just call me 姐姐

Just call me 姐姐

A story about overeating, spending Christmas in a country that doesn’t celebrate it,  and finding family in the most unlikely of places

Part one: Stomach: 0, Taiwanese Delicacies: 5000

A week ago now I had the privilege of staying with a Taiwanese host family for the weekend, who welcomed me into their home and treated me to a weekend of culture, sightseeing, and lots and lots of food. Bǎoshùn 保舜, Yújūn 俞均 and their three year old son, Bǎiyù 柏𦱀 (or English name, Aiden) were an absolute delight.

Meet Bǎiyù (Aiden). He loves cars, the word “no”, and Westlife’s early 2000’s hit “My Love”

Bǎiyù, like many three year olds, loves the word “no” (or the Chinese equivalent “Bù yáo 不要!”), the movie “Cars”, and openly talking about anything toilet-related. He also can sing the entire chorus of Westlife’s early 2000’s hit “My Love”, and has an English vocabulary more extensive than native speakers I’ve come across at the same age or older. What really captured my heart was the fact that Bǎoshùn, Yújūn and Bǎiyù referred to me as Jiějiě 姐姐, which is Chinese for ‘older sister’. As someone who doesn’t have younger siblings, nor many young cousins I get to see on a regular basis, this was incredibly touching and made me feel so welcome. Besides being treated to watching Cars with Bǎiyù, I was lucky enough to spend time reading out loud the English homework books he gets sent home from kindergarten and singing English nursery rhymes to him.

Along with their hospitality and patience when it came to teaching me vast amounts of handy new Chinese vocab, Bǎoshùn and Yújūn treated me to another wonderful aspect of Taiwanese culture which was ensuring I left the weekend with a few extra kilograms (quite literally) under my belt. I’m generally quite hearty of appetite, but tradition of going the extra mile to ensure a guest never goes hungry can put the biggest of eaters to shame. Prior to departing for the homestay, I made the mistake of ordering a big breakfast of two danbing 蛋饼 (a delicious Taiwanese egg-crepe – this will be covered in an upcoming food-dedicated blog), presuming it might be a while before I ate again. I could not have been more wrong. Upon pickup, Bǎoshùn and Yújūn informed me that we were going to the annual fire service appreciation day, as Bǎoshùn works for the Taiwan Fire Department. There, they treated me to choudoufu 臭豆腐 (stinky tofu), winter gourd with lemon, sugar and lime, and strawberries with condensed milk. Just when I thought I couldn’t fit any more, I was informed it I was lunch time! Without further ado, it we hit the road, stopping en route to pick up a 500ml wax gourd ice tea (delicious) and ended up at a vegetarian restaurant to sample three different types of fried rice. Then, more closely resembling a balloon than a human, I somehow made it back to the car and back to their wonderfully beautiful home, where we all slipped into a food coma for a few hours.

Bǎoshùn, Yújūn, Bǎiyù and I with our homemade hotpot dinner

Much to my surprise, upon waking I was hungry, again! My body seemed to have recognised the need to turbo-charge its food processing systems and activated my second stomach, a hallowed space typically reserved for desserts. Dinner would be a traditional homemade Taiwanese hotpot, which they made vegetarian especially for me. In Taiwan it actually works out cheaper to buy dinner than it is to make it and many people lead incredibly busy lives, so a home cooked meal was a really, really kind gesture. Bǎoshùn and Yújūn led me through two traditional markets to get fresh vegetables and tofu for the hotpot, and once home refused all my offers of assistance to prepare everything. Instead, they thrust into my hands a plate of freshly made inari (Japanese rice-stuffed tofu skin) as an appetiser, and popped on a movie for Bǎiyù and I. Once the hotpot arrived, I was a wild beast unleashed, thrilled to be faced with so many fresh veggies. I must have eaten an entire head of cabbage, a small plantation of bok choy, and Southern Taiwan’s entire supply (plus reserves) of tofu and mushrooms, until it was time to collapse into a food coma once again.

The next morning it was an all systems go on stomach attack! We kicked things off by heading to the most famous breakfast place in Tainan, Yao Yan Grilled Sandwiches, for an enormous dangbing stuffed with potatoes, cabbage and corn, paired with an iced soymilk. With my tummy slightly more full than I’d like it to be (again) we hit the road, jet-setting further South for a 4km waterfall walk. At the waterfall they presented me with a wax apple (a bizarre but delicious fruit) and some nori, both of which I politely stored in bag for later having not yet recovered from breakfast. Whilst a noble attempt to allow for digestion time, it was all in vain as no less than thirty minutes later, we arrived at another vegetarian restaurant for lunch. Sooner than you can say “splitting my pants”, an enormous curry with rice, an iced lǜchá 绿茶 (sweetened green tea) and a soup arrived in front of me on the table.  I bravely conquered a quarter of the meal, but eventually had to admit defeat and took the remainder in a doggy bag.

The next location on our outing was an immensely beautiful Taoist temple clad almost entirely in gold. Defying my expectations of a food-free activity, the temple canteen offered incredibly pungent real fruit durian ice cream, a must-try according to Bǎoshùn. Once again I boldly ignored all of my body’s satiety cues in the name of new culinary experiences, and downed an entire cup. On the way back home we grabbed a some mung bean soup, a somewhat unappealing-looking but entirely delicious sweetened drink containing (you guessed it!) mung beans. Just when my stomach thought the assault was over it was time for Tāngyuán. Tāngyuán are a delicacy eaten on Winter Solstice, made of glutinous rice and stuffed with sesame, peanut, red bean and more. After having no less than 9 Tangyuan (they’re small but those babies pack a punch), I finally had to cry out “TÀI BĂO LE 太饱了!” I’m full!). With a full heart, a full stomach and a new arsenal of Chinese vocabulary, they dropped me back to the dormitory.

Part two: Finding family among the unfamiliar

On top of a Taiwanese firetruck, definitely all feeling preeeeetty cool

Bǎoshùn and Yújūn’s generosity didn’t stop with filling my stomach for the weekend. Bǎoshùn invited me to bring along some of my classmates for a tour of Taiwan’s oldest fire department and to practice our Chinese. As a result a motley crew of eight people, all stemming from different countries, descended on the Taiwan East Fire Department where Bǎoshùn spent two hours giving us an exclusive tour of his fire department and its museum. We ended on the rooftop of what eighty years ago was Tainan’s tallest building. Along with being such a unique experience, it was a reminder that home can be found anywhere, you just have to find it in the people you surround yourself with.

A group of UoA students, our new friend, Sami, and  my language buddy, Josh, on one of our many group dinners

In addition to Bǎoshùn’s kindness, the people I have met so far on this trip, both from UoA and other Chinese students from the Chinese course have in many ways become family too. The group of students who came to the fire station stem from all around the globe, are all different ages, stages and have vastly different backgrounds, which turned out to be the perfect connective tissue for a really wonderful day out. Following the fire station, we even found an amazing vegetarian Dim Sum restaurant and sat and talked for hours about life, our countries and plenty of other good stuff. Similarly, the UoA students on this trip have formed a great support network, from giving each other tip offs on good places to eat, going to the gym together, organising outings and even studying together. On Christmas night we took a break from studying (we had class on Christmas Day, as it isn’t a holiday in Taiwan) to have a Secret Santa gift exchange, followed by a visit to a local shaved ice shop around the corner. Admittedly I didn’t really miss Christmas as things felt so un-Christmassy; although other people may have found it harder than I. I think the Secret Santa effort was really significant for making everyone feel a little more connected and at home, in a situation far removed from the norm.

The final example of non-family family I’ve been blessed with in my short time in Taiwan is in the language buddy we were each assigned at the start of the trip. The language buddies are  Taiwanese students who are also studying at NCKU, and who we catch up with twice a week. I was expecting this to be more tokenistic, but my buddy, Jùnxiáng 俊翔 (Josh), has made a real effort to seek out Taiwan’s best vegetarian eats and come up with fun activities for us to do whilst practicing our respective languages. This weekend he even accompanied another University of Auckland student and I to Jiufen, as his family are from the area. His parents kindly picked us up and had rice balls and milk tea waiting in the car for us, ferried us to Jiufen, and later welcomed to his grandmother’s house in Riufen. She fed us yam soup and his parents then drove us all the way back to Taipei so we could catch our train back to Tainan. Similarly, all of the other language buddies have also been incredibly kind and welcoming; from introducing us to their friends, taking us around some of Tainan’s best eateries and KTV places and even bringing us treats. I’m constantly amazed at how enthusiastic they are to spend time with us, and having locals to show us around has really taken our Taiwanese experience to the next level.

My time here is coming to an end far more rapidly than I would like, and I really, really don’t want to go home. The people, the language, the university – everything just feels right. In addition to enjoying the satisfaction of seeing myself improve day by day, I’m really enjoying having the luxury of focusing 100% on Chinese, instead of feeling pulled in a million different directions at once. I hope to use this as a motivation to figure out how to better balance work, and life, and Chinese, so to use my language capabilities even better when I inevitably come back!

…Oh, and just when you thought Bǎoshùn, Yújūn and Bǎiyù weren’t lovely enough, they’ve just taken me out to dinner again to a beautiful hotpot restaurant because Bǎiyù the other day asked “Elise 姐姐在哪里?” (Where is sister Elise?). Furthermore, they’ve also invited me to spend New Year’s Eve with them! Time to sign off now; this blog is long enough, my tummy is full of hotpot, and my heart is melting.

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