Food, Glorious Food

Thursday, December 23, 2004

I woke up with the beginnings of a cold this morning, sore throat and body aches. I sent Doolies to search for medicine—she is a doctor, after all, and I figure she should be good for something. She brought back a bottle of children’s Dimetapp. Before I drank the four cups of yummy purple medicine, Doolies’s grandmother suggested I eat Japanese herbal medicine. The medicine came in a sugar-sized packet, which, when torn open, looked like a packet of brown birdseeds. The only thing I understood on the Japanese-lettered box that the packet came in was a big C, which Doolies assured me, meant the medicine had Vitamin C. I figured that out for myself and asked her what else was in it. Like a good doctor she said, don’t worry, it’s herbal medicine, it must be good for you. Her mother told me to take it with water, but I rarely take medicine with water. When you’re a professional medicine taker like me, water is unnecessary. I tore open the packet and poured it down my throat. The medicine had a pebble-like texture and was terribly dry, sticking to my tongue and the roof of my mouth. I ran to the kitchen and guzzled a glass of water. When mixed with water, the medicine turned thick, cement-like, but I managed to swallow it. It was strong medicine. Less than twenty-minutes later, it knocked out my congestion and me. I woke up an hour later, feeling drowsy, but much better.

Jennifer, Doolies’s sister, arrived this morning after a terrible travel experience. She flew from Boston, where she’s attending Har-vard—she’s the smart one of the family. She was supposed to arrive yesterday, but there was engine trouble on her first leg, from Boston to Newark, and when she arrived in Newark, she missed the next leg of Newark to Seattle. She spent the night with her sister, the middle one, Janie, who has an apartment near the U.N., and took the Newark to Seattle to Taipei flight the next day. She’s surprisingly refreshed and awake today, much more so than either Doolies or I managed after our much shorter travel experience.

While visiting Shanghai last week, Doolies’s father purchased a traditional-Chinese shirt. The shirt is black with black Chinese designs and wide buttons and loops running down its middle. I’m sure you’ve seen these shirts in Bruce Lee movies. Doolies’s father liked the shirt and finally had a chance to wear it when we went to the hotel for dinner last night (don’t ask about Doolies’s parents fascination with hotel food). When I woke up from my herbal medicine-induced nap, everyone was readying to go to lunch. Before we left, Doolies’s father offered me his shirt, telling me that it would keep me warm and stop me from getting sicker because it was made of silk and therefore very warm and light.. (Doolies and her parents believe you get sick from being cold. It’s the same belief held by most people in the world. While temperature is a factor on how well your immune system responds to attacks, it’s the viruses and bacteria that make you sick, not the weather.) While it is a nice looking shirt, I knew that I would look ridiculous—check that, more ridiculous—if I wore it. I was already fighting the white-man’s prejudice, and I don’t want to even think what would happen if they put me in a Chinese shirt.

We went to a vegetarian Chinese restaurant for lunch. The restaurant served the foods that the Chinese emperor ate, or at least that’s what the placemats said, and we all know placemats never lie. When we sat down, the waitress brought me an extra dish and a fork and knife to replace my chopsticks; clearly they had dealt with people like me before. All of the waitresses wore cheaper version of the traditional Chinese shirt that Doolies’s father had offered me. I’m thinking not accepting the shirt was the smartest thing I’ve done since I arrived.

There were many starter dishes, some good, and some with beans—and by definition, not good. They served the main course in a crock pot with a heating element in its middle burning wood or coal or something. Air would flow in from a bottom element which held the cooking bowl, up through (what I assume) was an empty middle area of the cooking bowl, into a chimney heating element. Smoke would escape through the top, which had a flap over the opening, and ash would fall down the chimney part into the hole in the bottom. (Yes, I remember my deficiencies, but I keep trying to learn to describe things better.) The water touching the chimney heating element boiled, which heated the rest of the water. The soup was an herbal brew, dark colored and rich. The vegetables and noodles that the waitress placed in the pot were tasty, although the clear noodles were exceptionally long and almost impossible to scoop out of the donut-shaped cooking pot.

I’ve been to many countries where I didn’t know the language, but Taiwan is a unique travel experience for me because (a) its culture is different than western culture, and (b) I stick out like a throbbing thumb thanks to my height and whiteness. To compensate for this, I try to emulate the manners of this country as best I can, and look to Doolies for help. Doolies provided such help by telling me that you scoop the bean paste that came with soup into your soup bowl before eating it, which I happily did. Her parents laughed when they saw what I was doing. You were supposed to dip the vegetables in the paste, not add it to the soup. The paste clouded the soup and gave it a chewy consistency. Doolies’s mother called over the waitress to bring me another bowl, which the waitress probably expected, seeing as if I can’t use chopsticks, I clearly don’t know how to properly eat soup.

After dessert, they served traditional sour-plum juice. The liquid was dark purple and thick, and tasted like a slightly sour prune juice, or what I imagine prune juice to taste like if I ever drank it. What was most memorable about it, however, was its distinct aftertaste. Just like prune juice, I never had occasion to eat mothballs, but if I did, I’m sure they’d leave the same taste in my mouth as the juice did.

After a restful afternoon and early evening, we went to Taipei 101’s neighborhood. I viewed 101 when I first arrived, the day was hazy and I saw it from a distance. My reaction was that 101 was an oversized monstrosity that didn’t fit in with the rest of the city. After getting close that has changed. While it’s still huge, I can appreciate its accomplishment and aesthetics more. Taipei 101 has a presence, like a mountain, and at night, when lit up with spotlights and blue-neon lights, it is impressive and beautiful. Even its gothic architecture seems right when you stand at its base.

The area around 101 is newly developed. The building itself isn’t even complete—they are still working on some of the office space and restaurants. Attached to 101 is a huge five-floor mall. Like everything in 101’s vicinity, the mall has plenty of open spaces. From any floor, you can glance casually through the huge openings cut out of the five floors, or stare up toward the ceiling, at least ten stories above you. In the states, a mall that size two days before Christmas would have been packed. Here, the mall was rather empty. I’m not sure if that was because it is relatively new or more expensive than other malls. The 101 mall is attached by a second-story sky bridge to the New York, New York mall. While we didn’t go inside that mall, from the looks of it, it was at least as large as 101. The area around 101 has been completely redeveloped. Originally, the area contained old, one-family houses. They’ve all been torn down and replaced by spacious parks, hotels, malls, and office buildings. What everything around there has in common is its openness and size. That’s what caused the change in opinion of 101. While the surrounding buildings aren’t anywhere near the height of 101, they make up for their shortness by their size and spaciousness.

Now, on to food—since that’s mostly what I do here: eat, eat, and eat—we ate in a Japanese restaurant inside the mall. Doolies’s mother chose a seven-course meal—this is after eating a six-course meal for lunch. You can probably tell by the last couple of paragraphs that my brain is moving slowly. All the blood that should be supplying my brain with clever and insightful comments is pooling in my stomach, trying to make some sense of all the food. The problem with fattening me up, as Doolies puts it, is that when I eat this much, my stomach hurts as it grows larger. Once I return to Seattle, its going to hurt as much when I don’t feed it as much and it shrinks. That’s why I like to eat the same amount every day—avoid growing and shrinking pains. We’re going to relax for a few hours before sleep time. Jennifer succumbed to her jetlag and fell asleep at around 3pm, missing dinner. We’re sure she’ll wake up in a few hours hungry. If Doolies and I are still up, we’ll head for yet more food at the HK-style 24-hour restaurant. Yes. That means more eating.