When a young woman makes a travels to Taichung, her father’s hometown in Taiwan, she struggles to find a window into his busy life.
“We’re meeting them at the restaurant. Tonight at six after I swim,” my dad says over the phone. I can hear rapid-fire Chinese in the background, an indication he’s at work already.
I sigh, frustrated. It’s the same every night. Dinner with another one of his friends and colleagues. I’m here in Taichung, Taiwan’s second largest city, with the sole purpose of visiting my dad, but I can’t seem to spend any quality alone time with him. I see him twice a year when he flies to the U.S., but those visits are brief.
“Can’t we have dinner at your house? Just us?” I step out onto the balcony of my hotel room and gaze at the downtown skyline. The Botanical Garden’s greenhouse, a bright blue hexagon towering above the trees, reminds me of an alien ship plunked in the middle of a forest.
“I’ve already invited them and made the reservation,” he says, signaling the end of the discussion.
Later that day, I complain to my friend Min over our brunch of steamed dumplings, beef pies dotted with sesame seeds, and scallion pancakes.
“This is how he is,” Min says. “Always out to dinner with people.” Min’s mother and my dad are business associates and longtime friends. Min visits her mother frequently, so she has more insight into my dad’s habits than I do. I’m trying to rectify that.
I reach with my chopsticks for another morsel of egg-stuffed scallion pancakes, popping the flaky, onion-y goodness into my mouth.
“Why don’t you tell him you want a dinner with just you guys?” she suggests. She skillfully halves a beef pie with her chopsticks in one swift sawing motion, something I knew would take me too long.
“I do. He always says he’s already invited them.”
Later that day, at six on the dot, I follow my dad into a cozy vegetarian restaurant. I know he enjoys his meat, so I’m baffled at his choice. The menu is surprisingly Western with stuffed eggplant, colorful salads, pasta, and pizza. The dishes are gorgeous, like works of art, and I snap photos of every platter laid in front of us. Our dinner companions include one of the partners of the restaurant. Luckily, he speaks English and sits across from me.
“You like the salad?” he asks.
“It’s very good.” I smile as I spear a beautifully-carved radish. The Chinese rarely eat salads or raw vegetables. In fact, everyone at the table requested their salads to be cooked.
He nods. “Your dad says you eat a lot of salad at home.”
In Southern California we’re blessed to have access to local organic produce. I eat salad almost every day. I love Chinese food, but it’s taking a while for my system to adjust to all the soy sauce and stir-fried meals. I had casually mentioned this to my dad yesterday. It dawns on me why we’re here, and I’m touched by the gesture.
“Yes, I do.” I glance at my dad, but he’s engrossed in an animated discussion.
The next day is a Saturday. Unfortunately, my dad is busy working yet again, but he assures me I’ll see him for dinner after he swims. He swims every day, he never fails to remind me. I wonder what restaurant he has planned and with whom.
I join Min for a power walk. It’s a gorgeous day out. Not too humid, a pleasant 26 degrees Celsius (80 Fahrenheit). We follow Calligraphy Greenway, the street-wide pathway connecting the National Museum of Natural Science to the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts. It’s akin to flowing movement, reminiscent of Chinese calligraphy, hence the name.
We’re not the only ones out for a walk. The greenway is alive with joggers, cyclists, and families enjoying the sunshine. We encounter artists setting up their booths underneath the trees, hawking their wares. We stop to admire handcrafted jewelry, leather purses, and amusing caricature sketches.
As we near Taichung Civic Square, groups of people are settling down to share a meal as lunchtime approaches. Blankets are set up on the grass, and a few Frisbees zoom past us. I marvel at the bustling activity, buoyed by laughter and friendly chatter. Somewhere in the distance a musician tunes his guitar.
“It’s not like this during the week,” I remark as we walk around the massive square. We have come here almost daily for our exercise, but this was the most crowded I’ve ever seen it.
“On weekends, everybody is out,” Min says. “People in Taichung don’t have big backyards like in the States. So they come here to enjoy the outdoors and spend time with friends and family.”
We continue our walk until we reach Caowu Square. It reminds me of a mini amusement park with its rides, food booths, and artwork for sale. We buy pearl milk teas at one of the stands, light ice and light sugar. I sip the cool sweet tea, chewing a tapioca ball that has made its way through my straw.
By the time we finish, we’re both famished. Min and I decide to hit up the impressive food court beneath my hotel. Merchants offer samples as we browse, barking at us in Chinese as they thrust a sausage or dumpling at us. It’s hard not to want to try everything. When I ask what something is in English, they either eagerly practice their English or smile and nod. Sometimes they pull out their phone and use Google Translate.
Min and I finally decide on steamed dumplings, radish cakes, beef noodle soup, fried tofu, and cucumbers in chili oil. As we settle down at a small two-top near the noodle booth, I realize I haven’t heard from my dad on what the plan is for that night.
Eventually he calls. Dinner will be at Min’s mother’s place. I’m thrilled. It will just be me, my dad, my stepmom, Min, and her mother. A casual, intimate, home-cooked meal, something I had been hoping for since I arrived.
That evening, I walk into Min’s mother’s apartment, the enticing aromas of garlic and ginger beckoning me from their kitchen. We sit down to an incredible meal of dumplings, scallion pancakes, sautéed Chinese greens, stir fried eggplant, grilled beef, tofu, and noodles. And of course the requisite steamed rice. The mood is relaxed and upbeat.
“What did you do today?” my dad asks as he spoons eggplant onto my plate.
“We walked around Calligraphy Greenway to Taichung Civic Square. Everybody was out enjoying the weather. I’ve never seen it so busy!”
My dad nods. “It’s where everybody gathers and socializes.”
I realize that that’s what I love about Taichung. And what I wish for my own hometown. Here everybody is outside, talking and spending time with one another. People don’t lock themselves up in their houses with the television on, home from work, exhausted from the traffic. I know I’m guilty of doing just that.
“Do you ever stay home for the evening?”
My dad thinks about it. “Sometimes. But usually we go out to eat with friends or come here and have dinner with Min’s mother.”
“You’re more social than I am.” This both surprises and amuses me. My seventy-eight-year-old dad spends less time on his couch than I do.
He laughs. “Taichung is a great place to retire. There’s universal medical care. The Chinese respect their elderly. People live much longer here than in the U.S. We’re less isolated and alone.”
We chat for a while about other topics. At the end of the night, I have a much better understanding of my dad and what his life is like here. It’s comforting to know that his many friendships and numerous social engagements keep him young and active. By inviting me to his various dinners, he’s offering me a window into his life. It’s his way of connecting. It’s not what I initially anticipated when I arrived here, but that doesn’t make it less meaningful. It makes it more so.