My return to Taiwan

How does it feel to return to a place you once called home after the space of years - and a pandemic - away? Kayt Bronnimann left Wellington earlier this year to return to Taiwan and writes about what it's like to be back.

We see the mountains first. Taiwan’s snowless, summer peaks rise up above the clouds like a homing beacon as our plane descends towards Taipei. The imprint of civilisation emerges through the haze; a reminder that this tiny island, one seventh the size of Aotearoa, is one of the most densely populated in the world. When I first landed here in the summer of 2008 I was 22, with zero expectations other than adventure. As yet unaware that this would be my home for the next eight years. With the cost of living in New Zealand reaching exorbitant levels and the opportunity to travel returning, I’ve decided it’s time to come back to this hotly contested territory in the South China Sea, this time with my partner in tow. 

As we disembark the plane, Taiwan reaches out its sweltering arms, wrapping me in a sticky welcome back hug. I missed this heat, that crawls in every crevasse and holds the air hostage.  

A crowded house front. Image: Kayt Bronnimann

Later we sit on our balcony in Taichung drinking píjiǔ (beer) and watch the sunset over the city. The mountains are hazy in the distance, there has been no rain today to clear the pollution. Our seventh-floor apartment is dwarfed by other towering blocks. Air conditioners cling to them like mechanical koalas. The city stretches out in all directions and I can finally begin to exhale. After months of planning we have arrived. I want to rush out and begin exploring but we still have three days of quarantine to get through. 

Like New Zealand, Taiwan spent much of the pandemic Covid free. Omicron has changed all that. But there are still restrictions in place. The borders are closed to most, arrivals have to quarantine and mask-wearing is mandatory almost everywhere. Yes, even outside, on the street, in 34 degree sun and 100 percent humidity. I am glad to be done with the misery of Wellington in winter but this is a whole new beast to contend with.  

After three days of texts inquiring about our health condition and reassuring us “The CECC (Central Epidemic Command Centre) cares about you”, we can finally venture out. First order of business: food. 

My green onion pancake man still sits behind his small stall in the Xiangshang market. I listen to the symphony of sound that is my breakfast being made. The bulb of the whisk beating eggs in a silver cylinder. The two metal spatulas clinking together as they fluff up the pancake, exposing its flaky layers. The slap of its body being flipped, to land atop a bubbling puddle of egg. These sounds are so familiar, part of the landscape of my memory. 

We eat our breakfast while it is still steaming and wander the rest of the market. The stalls are clustered under a corrugated iron roof and people shuffle their way through the narrow pathways. Taiwanese men, in the ubiquitous uniform of white singlet, scuffs and tracksuit pants smoke cigarettes with one hand and serve customers with the other. When the heat gets too much they would tuck their shirt up, exposing saggy white paunches. Chicken carcasses hang from hooks, next to clusters of animal hearts and fatty, dried sausages. Flies are kept away by flimsy pieces of plastic spinning furiously.  

Mangoes as far as the eye can see. Image: Kayt Bronnimann

And it’s not just meat that’s on offer. Firm squares of tofu in many shades neatly stacked, dried mung beans, red beans, and soybeans scooped into plastic pouches, reptile-like jackfruit and durian, pink tentacled dragonfruit, and the mushrooms (oh the mushrooms!): long spindly fingered enoki, the meaty girth of king trumpets, fresh shitake, dried shitake, sliced shitake, the seaweed like wood ear fungus, and the elegant frills of oyster mushrooms.  

In between the admin of getting resettled after so long away (updating my permanent residency card, re-instating national health insurance, sorting my partner’s work permit) there is time to explore and re-connect. The city is like an old friend, sweet and familiar. I don’t have a scooter yet so I walk or catch the bus or grab a U-bike. Getting around the city costs me less than a dollar most days. Somehow my feet have not forgotten how to navigate the congested footpaths where homes, restaurants and businesses spill out the doors and onto the street. I weave from road to path and slide between scooters, an expert in urban choreography. 

Last time around, there were days I felt the crush of humanity acutely. Could smell the accumulated stench of a thousand sweaty bodies enduring the humidity. There was no avoiding the endless stream of scooters idling at traffic lights, emanating heat and exhaust. The towering, utilitarian apartment blocks became claustrophobic. Shops blared garbled messages in Chinese through a bullhorn, tempting passersby with the day’s special. At 6am temple trucks ambled past, blasting techno music and fireworks simultaneously. Religion was a spectacle. During ghost month, which falls on the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, acrid smoke colonised the streets, as devout Taiwanese burned red ghost money to honour their ancestors.  

My friend Bob used to joke, “They’re slowly killing the living just to appease the dead.”

Chairs waiting to be filled with chatty neighbours. Image: Kayt Bronnimann

The Chinese word for busy, 人山人海 – ren shan ren hai, translates as ‘People mountain, People sea’. And it was true, we were piled atop one another like sand. People came at you in waves. Some days the noise and the heat and the pollution that covered the sky were too much. 

But now the busyness does not seem to bother me. The blurring between public and private feels welcoming. Perhaps after lockdowns and remote working and closed borders the chaos of urban life feels like a return to how things once were. Even with Covid in the community there isn’t the luxury of avoiding others. People are not locked in their houses behind high fences and closed curtains. Taiwanese people know how to live together; have perfected the art of life outdoors. They sit in mismatched chairs outside their homes, smoking and cackling and chatting with friends. Every inch of space is utilised. Maybe this is the honeymoon period but for now, I revel in the chaos. 

When I told people I lived in Taiwan they would often confuse it with Thailand. This was over a decade ago and most knew little about this place. Even fewer had visited. But current geopolitics has brought Taiwan into the minds (and televisions) of many. On May 23rd Joe Biden told media that he would defend Taiwan from China should it come to it. America has always held an outwardly ambiguous relationship with Taiwan and China. Days after I told my friends I was planning on moving back, Russia invaded Ukraine.  

“Are you scared what that may mean for Taiwan?” I’m asked. 

I wasn’t. And even now, with a visit from Nancy Pelosi making political waves, I don’t feel the threat of Taiwan’s neighbour looming. When Xi Jinping warns Biden, that those who play with fire will get burnt, local media reports that China has continually made these threats over the years. Perhaps it is naivety, but Taiwan has always lived with the existential threat of its demise. And still it has thrived. 

King trumpet mushrooms. Image: Kayt Bronnimann

All this week along the island there have been air raid drills. I’m familiar with the routine from the last time I was here. For half an hour whole cities shut down, mournful sirens ring out and the streets are cleared. Pedestrians take shelter in MRT stations, vehicles stop in the streets, seeking shade where they can; classes tense, shoppers stop. A practice for invasion where we hide from imaginary projectiles.  

War, imagined or otherwise, feels far away though as I drink grapefruit green tea with my friend Vicky in the shady corner of the park between our houses. The only thing falling on our heads today are seed pods from the tree above. Sweat our only foe. I wondered if coming back to Taiwan things might be different. Would I still find a life and community here? We used to call Taiwan ‘Never-neverland’, in part because it was so magical, but also because it was a place for misfits and those who didn’t want to grow up. But I have grown. I’m not the same person I was 14 years ago. What will it be like this time?  

As Vicky and I laugh and share the way only close friends can I realise I needn’t have worried. Returning to Taiwan feels like a conversation that never really ended. It’s as though I had momentarily slipped away from the table and now I’m picking up where I left off.  

It feels like coming home.   

Banner image: Photo by Mark Ivan on Unsplash  

- Asia Media Centre