If you were to take out a world map, search for the little sweet-potato-shaped green dot to the right of China — beneath Japan and South Korea — and point at its lower half section, you’d find my hometown: Kaohsiung, Taiwan. When people think of Taiwan, they most often think of Taipei, our country's capital. The difference between Kaohsiung and Taipei can be simplistically likened to the difference between South America and North America, California and New York, suburb and city, stroll and power-walk, or areca trees and skyscrapers — we operate in different universes of human interaction.
Where I grew up, human connection was defined by a touch of kindness and courtesy, or more accurately in Mandarin, ren qing wei. There’s not a lot of hurry in the suburbs of Kaohsiung. Neighborhoods are full of chatter and laughter, as people sit on their armchairs and greet the passersby and the neighbors across the street. Children come out and play in the community park and teenagers show off their basketball skills on the court.My aunt and I used to always ride our bikes around the town, buying ingredients for my grandmother’s hearty dinner or simply enjoying the feeling of the wind blowing against our faces. Sometimes we would park our bikes on the main shopping streets and watch the traffic below the areca trees.My family’s house is located on a mountain, and it would usually take us thirty minutes to drive up the curved paths to get home. Six years ago a highway was opened up for tourists that cuts the distance in half, but we continued to take the old route to enjoy looking at the villages along the road as we drove up. It is important to note that this particular mountain is a local attraction, because it (as in the entire mountain) is run by a family business. Somewhat of a secluded civilization, the mountain hosts everything from hospitals to schools, hotels, amusement parks, shopping malls, restaurants, movie theaters, and residential housing. From my bedroom window I can see the color-changing fairy wheel on top of the ice skating dome, located on the side of the mountain; it is a place of wonder that is still filled with a distinct aura of the suburbs and ren qing wei.
As an elementary school student, I would go down the mountain every weekend to visit my grandparents’ home. My family would stroll onto the shopping street and dine in restaurants that fit our mood, eating wonton and dumplings one day, teppanyaki another, millet porridge, oyster omelet, and turnip cake some other night. We’d watch television in the restaurants, chat with the lao ban niang (the boss’s wife), gobble down aiyu jelly, and enjoy our dinners.
On other nights of the week, we would visit the night markets. On these nights, streets in certain parts of the city would be closed to give way to crowds of people being ushered from one dazzling stall to another. These night markets would attract vendors of everything from food to jewelry, clothing, games, appliances, and local lottery. We would skillfully wiggle our way through waves of the crowd, stopping at every other street corner to try an array of guava juice and tofu pudding.
Thinking back now, my memories of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, are colored by delicious food, crowded night markets, the shiny fairy wheel outside my window, bike rides, and most distinctly, ren qing wei, the underlying human spirit that holds everything together.