by Chris Pady
My wife, Michele, and I spent much of our twenties in one of Taiwan’s lesser known cities, Tainan, where we soaked up the former capital’s unique culinary, social, and cultural delights. Food and rent were cheap while teaching wages were high. Meeting friends for a lavish feast on a whim was practically the norm. We shared our time with curious, friendly locals and like-minded, creative expats.
Fast forward eight years, where the carefree lifestyle we had thrived in all those years had been replaced with a more sedate family-centric life in Canada. There is no regret for this choice, yet we also do not mind admitting that we pine for Formosa every so often. Our seven and five year old children, Kael and Chloe, have surely heard enough Tainan stories to fill their heads with wonder about this foreign land so adored by their parents.
So: Rational finances be damned, we finally decide to take them to see what all the fuss is about.
As soon as we stepped outside of the train station into the insanely stimulating, densely-populated heart of Tainan Michele and I feel instantly at home. Scooters, motorbikes and cars whiz by in a constant din, pungent smells attack our noses and an intense wave of heat crashes over us despite the sun already well on its way to disappearing for the day. As expected, the children are overwhelmed, a rare occasion where they are stunned into silence. Perfect. Taking them completely out of their element is exactly why we brought them.
By our third day, they have more or less adapted to the Tainan way of life. They even look forward to hopping onto the scooter and riding to our next adventure.
Today’s excursion consists of a ride into the centre of town with our extraordinary friend and Taiwanese hostess, Dumei. If height were measured in charisma, Dumei would be well over seven foot tall. In actuality, she barely stands at five feet tall. Yet she more than makes up for tiny stature with her irrepressible energy and playful qualities, despite being in her mid-fifties. The kids have certainly grown fond of Auntie Dumei during our visit.
Michele, Chloe and I hop on the large scooter while Kael gets a front row seat with Dumei. I take a deep breath or ten. It’s no easy task following Dumei as she skillfully - and quite often illegally - weaves her way through Tainan’s traffic, zig zagging our way to the Tibetan Buddhist Centre located in one of the tiny alleyways that are so unique to Tainan.
We explore the serene prayer room filled with thankas, images of the Dalai Lama and other important religious figures, prayer cushions, and funny-looking musical instruments as Dumei tends to her business as the Centre’s caretaker. In the background, a recording of the Rinpoche reciting a mantra in a baritone voice subtly fills the room. Before we leave, we help Dumei light candles as an offering.
Afterwards, we decide to go for a walk. Exiting the Centre, we veer left and follow an even narrower alley barely wide enough to fit two people. Claustrophobics beware: Stick to the main roads when in Tainan!
We emerge from the alleyway straight onto an elaborately decorated temple honoring Mazu, the goddess of the Sea. In the Taoist religious culture prevalent in Taiwan, there are dozens of gods — and Tainan has a temple to represent all of them. I’d always enjoyed visiting the temples, but I’m curious to see how the children will react. After all, they’ve never even set foot in a church!
I watch as the children scrunch their noses after inhaling powerful wafts of incense and open their eyes a little wider to absorb the bright and colorful statues, the ornaments, and the tables filled with offerings to the gods – everything from paper money to fully cooked pigs. Like most experiences in Tainan, a visit to a temple is a real sensory overload.
As soon as we enter, Dumei encourages us to bai bai, or light incense as an offering. Then, for a little fun, she has the kids do ba buei or divination blocks, normally a ritual performed when seeking guidance from the gods. It consists of first drawing a Fortune Stick and then throwing two small, crescent-shaped pieces of wood onto the floor. Only after successfully tossing them three times in a row, with one landing face up and the other face down, can you be sure that you’ve chosen the right Fortune Stick. That Stick has a number inscribed on it, and that number leads you to a scripture telling your fortune.
Kael goes first. His three tosses are successful on his first try. Dumei excitedly grabs the slip of paper and translates: “It say he will get lost on his path. But! He will get the help when he really need it if he ask for it”.
Chloe goes next. For some reason, her pieces are not landing right after each toss and she gets increasingly frustrated as Dumei instructs her to roll again. Just as she’s on the verge of giving up, success! When Dumei reads her fortune, she is floored. We suspect that she’s hamming it up for Chloe’s benefit but she assures us that she isn’t. “It say that she is the blue-eyed foreigner who will become the great leader!”
The rest of the afternoon is spent weaving through the back alleys with Dumei as our guide. We stumble upon unexpected places like a quaint art gallery complete with bar and serenely quiet back garden (a perfect example of the contrasts that can be found in Tainan). We also get treated to ice cream in a cartoon-themed shop featuring small tables dotted black and white like cows and matching stools shaped like teats.
As we head back home down the alleyway, we encounter another scooter coming at us in the opposite direction. We have no choice but to back up and let them pass. Ah, we’ll miss you, Tainan.
Chris Pady spent many years traveling, writing and teaching in Asia. He firmly believes that his travel experiences have transformed him into a better person and feels as though he has many more untold stories to share. He now resides in Vancouver and can be reached at email@example.com.