Transitory Tales: I Think I’ll Stay, Taipei



I read a quote today.

I was lazily browsing through books at  Eslite, Taipei’s biggest bookstore, when I stumbled upon this:

 …”For if every true love affair can feel like a journey to a foreign country, where you can’t quite speak the language, and you don’t know where you’re going, and you’re pulled ever deeper into the inviting darkness….every trip to a foreign country can be a love affair, where you’re left puzzling over who you are, and whom you’ve fallen in love with. All good trips are, like love, about being carried out of yourself and being deposited in the midst of terror and wonder.” (Pico Iyer, Why We Travel.)

I thought it was beautiful and true.

I’m beginning a new journey this year, a journey that I never could have imagined I’d be starting. I’m scared, I’m excited, I’m thrilled to be living in, studying in, and joining those throngs of black-haired denizens on the MRT as an inhabitant of Taipei. I indeed feel–carried out of myself. And I relish it. I’ll take it all, the terror. And the wonder.

I’ve got so much yet to see, and so much lies ahead. All I know is that I’m on my way to finding out more about who I am, and this achingly beautiful city that I’ve fallen in love with, but still know so little about.

It’s really the story of a girl who lost her heart to the leafy lanes and child-like charm of Taipei, and left behind the world’s most famed city (a certain Big Apple) without an ounce of regret– in order to find it again.

The story begins at my birth, you see. My Chinese name consists of three characters: 許正怡. The third character was chosen by my grandfather. The left side of the character is the radical meaning “heart”. The latter half is the “Tai”, the “Tai” in “Taipei”. “Out of all my grandchildren,” my grandfather said, “Her heart will always belong the most to Taipei”. And despite my middle and high-school years of scoffing at and denying of my Asian identity—I realize now that he was right all along.

I graduated high school in Los Angeles three years ago, with college admissions letters staring me in the face, beckoning me to continue my education. In the end, I found myself living in Bushwick, Brooklyn, working with inner-city children in the projects of New York City. I spent six delirious months alternately knocking on derelict doors on the Lower East Side and exploring the chic wonders of districts like hipster Williamsburg and glamourous Fifth Avenue. An unexpected turn of events brought me to Kansas City, Missouri; where I lived a life of spiritual solitude in complete contrast to my whirling life in New York City. One and a half years of quaint thrift stores and too many trips to Wal-Mart, I decided I had had enough. I applied for school in New York City and anxiously counted down the days until I could return to the “concrete jungle”.

But first, I had one summer before I moved back to New York City, the city of my dreams. And tragically, I had to spend it in Taipei, Taiwan. My family had just moved to Taipei from Los Angeles, and they wanted me there before I headed off to school. I resigned myself to a summer of cultural blunders and smelly suffering.

But by July, it was all over. I’ll never forget that summer. I can’t pinpoint a moment, but I suppose somewhere in one of those leafy lanes… I fell in love. I fell in love with Taipei. Though I adore the city at any time of day, dusk in Taipei stood out particularly in my memory, for it suits the city so well. So many almost-nights wandering in the glow of quiet cafes and quaint boutiques; the sound of the street a faint echo in the background; the soothing night-heat wrapped around me like a blanket. I adored the chaotic, messy excitement of Taipei’s night-markets, wholly devoid of  pretense. I loved the warmth of the people, from the prim worker at 7-11 to the grimy construction worker eating noodles at a open-air stall. And quite honestly, Taipei offered a life of delight (and the most mouthwatering food) at half the cost.

When September came, I cried the entire plane ride to New York City, tears wiped away by the flimsy Continental Airlines napkin. It was so strange—for the longest time, I was unbearably excited to go to New York; to be finally able to call it “my city”. But it was then I realized that the spot  in my heart for “my city“, for so long designated for the Big Apple,—had already been filled. No other applicants need apply–somewhere along the way, Taipei had slowly snuck into the spot.

I spent four months trying to be a New Yorker, nearly killing myself (fashion internship, retail job, club president, honors college) and depleting the entire nation of its coffee stores in the process. I left New York for Taipei during winter break with a battered body and scattered mind, with absolutely no idea that I wouldn’t be returning.

The minute my bus pulled into the familiar streets of Taipei, the thought of leaving it, from its magical alleyways to my two adorable cats, from the plethora of cafes to the bustling excitement of the night markets, made my heart sink. I want to be in Taipei, I thought. I don’t want to go back to New York. But my wish seemed unattainable. I couldn’t just leave a university in the middle of the school year. I had already registered for classes in the fall.

But to leave Taiwan, I thought, What could possibly be worse? It all culminated in a mini-breakdown on the beach in the south of Taiwan (a rather good place, as far as breakdown locations go)—where I decided that it really was this simple: I had to be in Taipei. The next day, I officially “moved” to Taipei.

Even now, months later, enrolled in a Taiwanese university and studying Chinese,  I still walk out the door at times into the “midst of terror and wonder.” I still wake up some days puzzling over how I summoned the guts to move here–and how fortunate I am to be able to walk through the bustling streets of the city that stole my heart.

Taipei, wo ai ni.  Let’s make some beautiful tales together.

5 comments

  1. Jessica Lim says:

    Hey Steph! I’ve read your article. what a beautiful story. I feel so touched by the story of your journey to find ‘you’. I’ve been also trying to find who really I am for all this time. ;D we have different journey, but in your story, I find something related to my own personal experiences. I love your writing and hope you keep writing more beautiful pieces.♡

  2. Isabelle says:

    Lovely article, Stephanie. I miss the food in Taipei as well as the warmth of people. I haven’t been back since 2003, and a visit is long overdue… I hope to visit in the next couple of years. :)

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