On July 1st, we finally made the transition from hotel vagrant to home dweller.
The process of getting a long-term house rental here in Hoi An, in the early summer months, during an unprecedented heatwave (oh, did you know it’s hot here?), sweating (obviously and always) with a toddler who wouldn’t stop saying how much she missed “the blue house” back in San Francisco, was a new and spectacular form of torture.
The first house we looked at hit all the marks: a separate guest cottage in back. A small swimming pool(!) in front. An expansive kitchen with beautiful vintage Vietnamese tiles on the staircase leading up to the two bedrooms on the second floor. All of this for around 1000 USD. I was ecstatic. See, I wanted to gloat to Matt. I told you we’d find a house easy.
I was about to say, “We’ll take it,” when the tenants—a foreign teaching couple and their waddling 2 year-old—began describing their experience with dengue this past winter.
Both husband and wife had been hospitalized for a week. The husband dismissed it as no big deal. But then I noticed the dark circles underneath his eyes. His dangling, stick-thin limbs. The tiny pouch of stomach protruding through his oversized tank-top. The moment I heard “dengue,” this once healthy American male transformed into a malnourished third world child before my eyes.
The same happened with the wife. What looked like pale skin at first now appeared sallow and waxy. Her limbs, too, seemed to flail aimlessly off her body. She spoke slowly and deliberately. Was she always like this, or did Dengue deteriorate some of her language capabilities?
I looked around the room and noticed how dark the interior was. The windows were open, but the outside foliage shaded much of the natural light. Above the dining room table dangled three barely-lit light bulbs. My foot started to itch. Matt scratched his ankle. And oh my god. The swimming pool! I now saw its real purpose. Surrounded by big leafy trees, it stayed shaded from the bright afternoon sun. Perfect for mosquito family reunions, anniversaries, weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs and other large-group gatherings.
In an effort to put the disappointment of the Dengue Den behind us, we went to look at house number two. This one was introduced to us by Hoi An’s one and only housing rental company for foreigners. Their total and complete monopoly on the market means they do not respond to emails, desperate text messages, or even begging and pleading in person. Communism is funny like that.
As our flight from Tokyo began its descent into Da Nang, the pilot made a jolly-voiced weather announcement over the intercom: “Current temperature in Da Nang: 40 degrees,” he breezed.
Several passengers gasped. A baby growled. The silent ladies seated across the aisle from us started clucking their tongues and shaking their heads in distress.
Goddamn America’s resistance to the metric system. I knew 40ºC was bad because I’d never heard of a Celsius number so high before. I am familiar with Celsius numbers in the 20’s. I know mid to late twenties is a blissfully warm San Francisco day. Anything after that was likely Dubai/Mumbai/Bye-bye sanity terrain.
The moment we landed, I googled “40 Celsius to Fahrenheit” on my phone. The answer? 104º. Immediately, I could feel the pores on my nose dilate in anticipation.
I sweat. Mostly on my face. Mostly after a brisk walk. Sometimes out of nervousness. Say, when I’m talking to someone whose stare lingers abnormally long on my face, as though they’re waiting to see if I’ll break out in a sweat, as I’m known to do. Then, yes, I’ll sweat then too. So, in other words, I sweat all the time, both in dreaded anticipation of sweating and then in self-loathing humiliation afterwards.
Imagine, then, my sweat production upon arrival in Hoi An, located a mere 523 miles south of the Tropic of (skin) Cancer, and also during an unprecedented 40º+ heatwave.
The scenes of sweat after our arrival to Hoi An are aplenty:
- The young Vietnamese real estate agent (torturously wearing jeans, a long-sleeved button-down shirt and a jean jacket!!!) looking at the colony of sweat beads on my nose and not my eyes when talking to me.
- The bike rides around town with Matt where I follow his dark, sweat-soaked back like a google map pin, leading us to the nearest café so we can commandeer the largest possible electric fan and drink the coldest, iciest beverage on the menu (usually a blended fruit smoothie, sometimes a coconut cream iced coffee), surrounded by equally desperate-looking tourists doing exactly the same.
- Remy’s first words to me after every bike ride: “Mama, are you sweaty?” And my reply each time: “Yes Remy. Mama is very sweaty.”
I could have never predicted that I would find parallels with summer in Hoi An and my childhood winters in Minnesota. But both places experience extreme temperatures, to the point of retreating into the home to cocoon oneself from the terror outside.
We arrived! We made it to Hoi An two nights ago, on Saturday, May 18th, on a full moon. It must have been some kind of special full moon, the mooniest of moons, as Korean cult leader Sun Myung Moon might have said, if he saw it, because the town be abuzzin.
A leisurely stroll around the old quarter indicated something mystically exotic (Yes! I got to use that word for my first Vietnam entry! Check!) was happening on this night because nearly every storefront had a small metallic table set up smack dab in the middle of its already non-existent sidewalk, filled with bowls of rice, cigarettes, fruit, paper money, Lotte brand Choco-pies, and hella incense burning.
So, on top of the many hazards we were actively trying to avoid on our walk (loose, mentally unstable bricks, piles of sand taller than Remy, speeding bikes, speedier motorbikes, honking cars, potentially rabid dogs sniffing around our ankles, leathery women who probably lost all seven children in the war and are still forced to sell tiny bananas on the street to make ends meet) we were also confronted with huge clouds of incense smoke blowing directly into our faces.
I’m not complaining. In fact, each time it happened, I inhaled as deeply as possible, hoping to get some new kind of buzz besides the matcha/oolong/coffee combination I’ve been drinking regularly for the past two weeks.
I saw a shopkeeper with his hands folded at his forehead holding incense sticks, eyes closed, praying to the gods? His dead ancestors? The Chinese for lower trade tariffs? Who knows? But in that moment, I was reminded of Tet, or Lunar New Years, of my childhood. My siblings and I were forced to stand before the VHS tape cabinet in our living room that had been converted to a makeshift altar. Like the tables I saw on the streets of Hoi An, our family altar had bowls of rice, oranges, traditional Vietnamese sweets, burning incense sticks, and a large, framed, black and white photo of a dead ancestor. In our case, the photo was of my dad’s dad, a hollow-eyed man whom I’d never met. He died here in Vietnam before I was born. My dad ordered us kids to pray to him and other black and white dead ancestors we never knew. “What am I supposed to pray for?” I moaned. “Anything! More money! Health! A long and healthy life for your old man!” I did as I was told. Eyes closed. Incense sticks gripped in my folded hands. And now, decades later, I see a middle-aged Vietnamese man doing as I had done as a kid. The ease in which he does it, the lack of inhibition as gawking foreigners on the street stare at him, both impresses and comforts me.
In honor of this full moon night, (and now I’m realizing, every night), bright paper lanterns were lit up everywhere. Dangling from trees, doorways, ceilings, and floating merrily down the river. Was this some kind of T Magazine photo spread? Where was I? “I can’t believe how beautiful this town is,” I kept repeating to Matt as we looked down the river. He grunted in return, either in agreement or from exertion of holding Remy in his arms while soaked in a shower of sweat.
Our last night in Japan was spent in what I can only describe as an onsen on steroids. We were seasoned public bathers at this point, ending each of our past eleven nights in Japan at the hotel onsen. Some were large. Most were small. Some stone. Some wood. If we were lucky, some had an outdoor bath, a cold bath, and a sauna. They were always separated by gender, always naked. Matt would go in the men’s section. I would go with Remy in the women’s. This was some antiquated, binary bullshit, in my opinion (which also meant I was on full parental bathing duties).
But even so, ending a sweaty day of sightseeing in a hot, hot bath was sublime. Remy understood the drill no problem. Thorough rinsing on the baby plastic stool. Vigorous soap lather on her pregnant toddler belly. Then dippity do into the steaming bath and feel the body melt into butter. Matt, too, couldn’t get enough. In addition to our pre-bedtime baths, he was frequenting the baths in the morning, arriving to breakfast like a lothario in his open-chested yukata and glistening, wet hair.
After each bath, he and I would do the same questions and answers: Who else was there? (Usually no one. Or, if there was, it was an old Japanese person because every other person in this country is old). How was the water? (Hot. Or sometimes: Not as hot as the one before. Because we had become self-anointed onsen PhDs at this point, recognizing when a bath was a few degrees off from another, when the salinity wasn’t as salient as it could be) Was it good? (Yes. Always. Yes).
My friend Rino, who grew up and currently lives in Tokyo, suggested we spend our last night in Japan at the family onsen, the aforementioned onsen on steroids. This one had a large, outdoor section that was mixed gender in bathing suits. It’s located in Tokyo Bay, closer to Narita, and therefore easier for us to catch our 10am flight to Danang the next day. I was excited to offload my parental bathing duties onto Matt so eagerly agreed. We could also spend the night there. In addition to an arcade, massage chairs with personal TV screens, shops, multiple foodstalls, nap rooms, pillow cushion play room, an outdoor giant, Strawberry shaped pool, etc., there was a hotel. Everyone walked around barefoot, wearing oversized, brown and tan prisoner pajamas that you received upon arrival. Your locker key (that you wore around your wrist) also had a barcode that you could scan to purchase anything, including beverages in the vending machines. Matt and I agreed. If we lived in Tokyo, we’d be spending every Friday night here with Remy.
I think the very worst thing you could do when visiting an old, wealthy, traditional Japanese family is to arrive on their doorstep, unannounced, with no gift in hand, twenty years after not being in touch. Oh, and with a hairy white husband and young child too!
I regretfully did all these things when visiting my Japanese homestay family in Nagano. I can’t explain why I didn’t write them a letter in the months leading up to our trip to Japan. Why wasn’t I more persistent with my phone calls, after they didn’t pick up on my first attempt? Why, after my homestay mother and sister wrote me a Christmas card a few months after I returned home to Minnesota twenty years ago, didn’t I ever write them back?
Because you’re an asshole, feels like the appropriate answer here.
The first time I arrived to the Nakajimas’ doorstep, I was 18, wearing tan corduroy bootcut jeans and a puka-shell choker. (I’m not kidding. I have photos to prove it). I lived with them for three and a half months, from August-December 1998. They were the first of four homestay families. They weren’t my favorite (my last family, the Ichikawas, were). In fact, they were the family I experienced the greatest hardships, including late night sobs in my pillow from homesickness and rigorous, daily Japanese language lessons from the Nakajima’s “Mama.” I was at my loneliest when I lived with them. I spoke no Japanese and my only friend at the time was Fujimoto-sensei, the bald-headed, former-monk-turned-principal at my school. Every Friday afternoon, I would visit him in his office and we talked. He wanted English conversation practice. I wanted someone to look me in the eye without consternation/pity/distaste. It was a mutually beneficial best-friendship.
I think I knocked on the Nakajima’s door because I knew reparations needed to be made. I remember leaving their home 20 years ago feeling bitter. So what better way to make amends than to show up unannounced, like a long-buried ghost from the past? Oh, and Nakajima Mama spoke fluent English, the best of all my homestay parents. Because I couldn’t stand the idea of Matt, Remy, and me standing in someone’s home, pantomiming major life events from the last 20 years, followed by gorilla grunts, chest thumps, or worse, silence.
And the truth is, I didn’t think anyone would be at home when I knocked on their door on a Wednesday afternoon at 4pm. I thought I could tell everyone that I tried “my best,” or “did all I could,” but “aww shucks. It wasn’t meant to be after all.” Then I could resume my rabid, linen-potato-sack-silhouette Japanese apparel shopping and Matt could continue his rabid, 90’s throwback fannypack shopping, and all would be, as the Talking Heads say, Same As It Ever Was. Which, felt like a very pleasant place to be. Why throw displeasure into the mix?
I should have known things wouldn’t go as planned when we got into a taxi with an abnormally chatty driver. And, as though some duolingo switch had suddenly turned on in my head, every question he asked in Japanese I understood and was able to respond appropriately in Japanese. (I was actually saying “Hai,” for yes, instead of “Si,” like what I had been doing all week). Could it be that my mind was activating dormant language skills to prepare for this visit? The driver became especially animated when I told him the purpose of my visit to Nagano. If this were a reality show, after he said, “Honto sashiburi dana” (=oh my god, you ungrateful wretch, it’s been a long time!) the camera would remain steady on my face, hoping to capture the mix of terror, excitement, shame, and potential vomiting that I was feeling on our way to the Nakajima’s home.
Everything that followed was classic reality show ratings bait. I took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. My finger shook. My homestay Mama came to the door. I gave her some marbled introduction that didn’t contain any Spanish words whatsoever. She looked stricken. Then she said, “Katie? Katie!” and embraced me. Then I started to cry. Actually, it was more like weeping, willowy, hiccupping sobs. Matt looked embarrassed enough for the both of us.
Taiwan has always felt like a soft-spoken but smart tax accountant cousin. He stands on the periphery of noisy family functions, watching and not talking more than necessary. He wears glasses and outfits that are just fine—not too flashy, not too ugly. He has good teeth. His fingernails are clean. He’s a little bit doughy around the midsection. Maybe his breath is just a little bit bad. In photos, his face is always blocked by a younger, loudmouth kid. When enough time has passed, you forget about him altogether. Then years later, another family event is organized and he shows up all over again, same as always, no hint of aging whatsoever, and you go, oh yeah, Cousin Taiwan. Where you been?
Where has Cousin Taiwan been? Or, more accurately, why haven’t I cared more about Cousin Taiwan until now?
I think I believed the bad press circulating among travelers: “A land of nerds,” I was told; the same smelly vinegar/soy sauce/fermented flavor in everything; a downgraded version of Japan; clean; orderly; efficient. In other words: boring, boring, boring (cue stiff robot dance).
But I noticed something happening in the past few years. It started with Boba way back in the day. I didn’t give it much thought then, indulging occasionally with the other Asian teenagers. But then, shaved ice made its way into San Francisco. Not the Hawaiian kind, but the massive, light-as-a-feather kind from Taiwan. Then there was buzz about spicy beef noodle soup. On a visit to the Richmond district in Vancouver two years ago, Matt and I popped into a Taiwanese joint and had our first taste of this dish. It was spicy and oily and tendony and I couldn’t stop making comparisons with Bò Kho, the Vietnamese version of this dish. We decided it was one of the best meals of the trip. Then there was increasing talk about Taiwanese fried chicken. A place next to the Y in SF where Remy used to take swim lessons served this, with massively long lines on the weekend. I’d observed enough signs (all edible) to know something was up with Cousin Taiwan. Matt’s antennae, ever alert to new food trends, recognized this too. Boba. Shaved ice. Beef tendon noodle soup. Fried chicken. This was enough to make Taipei our first stop on our journey into Asia.
As far as I could observe in the five jetlagged (so very jetlagged) days we spent in Taipei, Taiwan is a land of nerds. But if nerd means fluency in English, every kind of child accommodation you could think of (toys for Remy at every restaurant, adorable matching plate, cup, and cutlery sets for toddler fingers to handle, playgrounds on every block, the best children’s museum we’ve encountered so far on this trip), interested but not intrusive stares, easy to navigate sleepy big city, zippity zip, no-human-feces-in-sight public transportation, and cra-zay cheap, delicious food everywhere, then call me Cousin Carlton Banks to Cousin Taiwan because I’m in nerd heaven.
Jetlag had me up at crazy hours. (Jetlag also had Remy experiencing the greatest meltdowns in public that I’d ever witnessed. Cue very interested and very more intrusive stares among the locals). We had a sweet Airbnb in the Da’an distrct. Our bedroom had two king-sized beds pushed together to make one, sprawling cushion town. Perfect for jetlag. I’d be up at 4am reading about expat life in Taiwan on Quora while Matt and Remy were sleeping a mile away. I started going down the internet rabbit hole. Investigating what my life might have been like if I had come to Taiwan instead of Japan as a high school exchange student. Or if I’d come here instead of Lopburi, Thailand to teach English more than a decade ago. According to Quora, I would have made good money. I would have picked up some Mandarin, putting the two years I spent studying Chinese in high school to some use instead of letting it shrivel up to the only phrase I can now say with ease: Wo bu zhidao=I don’t know.
I don’t know why I let the naysayers back in the day steer me away from this country. I wish I hadn’t listened. I wish, once upon a time, I would have been a little more open to exploring places that weren’t trending on British gap year lists. I wish I had been more interested in connecting with other Chinese people when I was younger rather than British kids on gap years. Who knows? Maybe today I would be the Cousin Taiwan I described above. Wait. Am I Cousin Taiwan? Holy shit. I’m not. Am I?
In the end, it doesn’t matter. I’m just glad I finally made it to Taiwan so I can demystify its boring reputation. Because the truth is, a boring—but delicious—travel destination is the greatest thing you could ask for when traversing with a wailing little one. Taipei felt like the perfect primer for our toddler travels in Asia.
…And, of course, now that I write this, I wonder if I was meant to await Taiwan until I had a toddler. I don’t know if I would have appreciated its boring beauty until now. So, thanks for sticking around cuz. I’ll be seeing you shirking away from me at the next family function….