Does Reality Matter?

The National Palace Museum of Taipei holds one of the largest collections of Chinese art in the world. It is also one of the world’s five most visited museums. In its cool, quiet exhibition rooms one can wander alongside strangers, pondering the meanings of ancient shapes and inspirations. Visitors are Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese, European, American, Indian… but in the hallways of the museum we are merely fellow humans enjoying the art.

The National Palace Museum of Taipei is either the result of a rogue looting of Communist Party property, or the result of a noble effort to protect and preserve China’s ancient artifacts. It depends on one’s reading of the history of China after the fall of the last dynasty, whether one sees Taiwan as a state in rebellion, or if the true state in rebellion is the People’s Republic of China governing the mainland. It is a situation where two places with the same origins have two totally different ideas about what the facts of their relationship are. Both truly and honestly believe that their position on the autonomy of Taiwan is the only one based on fact, and that any suggestion to the contrary is insane.

This should not be confused with a “difference of opinion,” by the way. This is an actual disagreement over what is factually true.


Those not familiar with the conflict may think this disagreement over reality to be silly or strange, but they would be wrong. In almost every conflict situation on Earth, people are wrestling with this same struggle every day—a struggle of contesting narratives which do not add up to a coherent truth. In Israel and Palestine, in India and Pakistan, in Ireland and Northern Ireland, in Turkey and Armenia, narratives are split about what things really happened and what did not.

Yet another example is Chinese and Japanese narratives on what really happened during the Nanjing Massacre. “300,000 dead,” read the signs in the museum in Nanjing, China, whereas the Japanese claim it was closer to the 50,000-100,000 range. How can something as concrete as 200,000 human lives become a disputed fact? I’m not sure I understood until America spent a week arguing over what we could all plainly see with our own eyes: whether Obama’s or Trump’s inauguration photo showed more attendees.

For in the wake of the 2016 US election, it has become popular to talk about Americans’ “bubbles.” We grow up in certain neighborhoods, surround ourselves with similar friends, and only read newspapers that confirm our original beliefs, therefore we live in bubbles which need to be popped.

I agree to some extent, but “bubbles” is a bit of a weak word for something that is more like “alternate realities.” And it shouldn’t exactly be treated as something unprecedented. All it proves is that America has joined the “society-in-conflict” party, alongside places like Taiwan and China.

In other words we are not alone, but it is not exactly good company.


Calligraphy art

Some people like to treat differences in interpretations of reality as though they are differences in interpretations of art. As a dreamer and idealist myself one might think I would count myself among their ranks. And believe me I have tried. During election season I lapped up every single article I saw about the perspectives and characteristics of Trump supporters, hoping to at last find the key that would unlock a comfortable understanding of them. As someone with a relentless desire to understand absolutely everything it filled me with so much frustration when every article seemed to fall just short of enlightening me as to what exactly their reality is constructed of.

Art can be so peaceful because of both its connection to, and separation from, genuine reality. With a friend, you can stand in front of an abstract painting and give your own opinions, considering each other’s viewpoints equally.

“I think it’s a horse,” your friend whispers.

“No, I think it’s a birthday cake,” you whisper back. But you still leave laughing and walking together, no matter how strong your disagreements on the painting.

Why can’t the real world just be like this? I suppose it’s because art may either inspire or depress, but rarely does one leave the halls of a museum totally changed. Rarely therefore does art affect one’s actions in real life… but a person’s view of reality does matter, and it deeply and severely affects real life, especially for those whom that worldview hurts.

Whether the police shot an innocent man or a dangerous criminal is of huge importance; whether a woman was saying yes or no is a matter of serious gravity; whether climate change is genuine or a big coordinated hoax is a matter of the actual survival of our planet.

In these types of situations, it is absolutely imperative that we know the real truth, and cannot leave room for “interpretation.”  So yes, reality matters, and reality is a matter of life and death.


Palace Museum Interior

The real truth can be hard to come by. As humans with the capacity for logical thought, our instinct is strong to always use facts in our arguments, assuming they are more accurate than emotions. This can be a problem. While most humans agree that emotions are fallible and should always be taken with a grain of salt, we do not exercise the same amount of caution in trusting the facts we see on the Internet or even the ones we hold in our own heads. Facts are seen as iron-clad and argument-ending, while in reality, facts are just as slippery as emotions in that we need lots of context to fully understand where they’ve come from and why they exist. Our understanding of the world will never be objective and uncolored, because we all are susceptible to fallible emotions—and we all are susceptible to fallible logic, too.

I wish I could be more kind and forgiving towards alternative viewpoints on reality, recognizing that all of us struggle with finding the truth at some time or another. And yet reality deserves urgency. A potential genocide is going on in Syria. Am I supposed to nod and listen mildly when someone suggests with “purity of intent” that letting people die there is safer than letting them into the US as refugees?

Am I supposed to be cordial and accepting of the reality that my fellow citizens voted for a man who bragged about sexual assault? Am I supposed to accept that in their realities where the same words were said, somehow those words didn’t reek of the same grotesque meaning, the feeling of being grabbed in a dark bar or catcalled on an empty street? Am I supposed to pretend it’s okay and acceptable to me that so-called “alternate interpretations” exist where either I’m being silly, those words don’t mean what you think they mean, or the worst, the reality where all men just go around saying and doing those things? Is that really something I’m supposed to hear with an open mind, like Trump is not disgusting because all men are absolute pigs, and both men and women are allowed to live in a world where they believe this to be true and unchangeable?

Don’t people want something better?


Me and Blurred Reality

In a way we all have the power to create the realities we want and then inhabit them. Social media makes it even easier. We can curate our experiences on Instagram and Facebook to make glorified lives for ourselves. In a more tangible sense, the way we act often dictates how others act to us. Those who believe no one can be trusted are generally not trustworthy themselves, and those who believe the world is beautiful seem to find the most beauty.

Those who don’t want to believe their own clothes are on fire can stand there grinning in denial until they die, if they so choose. Those who don’t want to believe Trump is a bad guy can create a reality where everyone else is somehow worse. But honestly, what good is that doing anyone? Shouldn’t the opposite also be true, that if we dream up a reality where the world is peaceful and loving we could live there too?

I still believe we can. I believe in a reality where people first and foremost respect other people. Where we all fight together to understand the absurd complexity of this world. Key emphasis on together, because some of the few things I know to be true are that human beings all want mostly the same things, life is kinda scary, and all of us are super confused.

Look, I wish we could live in a world where looking at reality was like looking at a painting, and we could all see something different and that would be okay. But in real life, if we build the wrong reality people get hurt.

At the very least, can we agree to show ourselves some respect by believing in a reality that’s better than this?


Putting the Tea in Taipei

Need to get away from the hectic streets of Taipei? A peaceful escape is closer than you think…

Taipei is a loud city. That was one of my thoughts as I finally got off the bus after a one hour flight and somehow about two more hours of trying to get out of the dang airport. Any place with as many motorbikes as Taipei is bound to be somewhat deafening, as well as stressful; I’m the type of person who is usually lost in a cloud of half-formed ideas and the narrow side streets built for whizzing motorbikes are not really an awesome place to get wrapped up in deep thought. After almost getting hit at least a dozen times I figured it’d be nice to take a day out of the action.

Luckily it is easy to make a day of an escape to Maokong, a village full of tea plantations located up in the hills surrounding Taipei. The characters for Maokong (猫空) literally mean “cat sky,” and as I found through research afterward it is because the place was at one time overrun with these cute little cat-like things called masked palm civets. Sadly I didn’t see any of those cuties, but I did see lots of tea, with plenty of green space and mountain views too.


Where can I get one? (Photo: Wikipedia)

You can get up to Maokong by taking a gondola ride from the Taipei Zoo, which is at the end of one of the city’s MRT lines. The gondola is a bit expensive at NTD 120 / HKD 30 / USD $4… okay so it’s not that expensive, but keep in mind you can also just take the minibus up for NTD 15 / HKD 4 / USD $0.50! And saving one hundred Taiwan dollars means you’ll have room for an additional snack or two at a night market later on. (Of course, if you take the gondola up you can also get some cool videos and pictures, which I eagerly did—and took the minibus back down at the end)

Up at the top of the mountain you might wonder what exactly you’re supposed to do. At least, you will if you’re anything like me and only do vague research before jetting off on adventures. I saw a map of the layout of the area and decided I’d walk in one direction until I found something cool.


The direction chosen turned out to be an excellent choice. There were some great views of the mountains and tea fields from over here, as well as a bunch of cute little cafes which I kept bookmarked in my brain in case I wanted to stop later. After maybe 15 or 20 minutes of walking (and like 30 minutes of stopping to take photos about every 10 feet) I came across the Tea Promotion Center, a small museum-like place with information about the tea-making process and some tables to take a rest at. My favorite part of the promotion center was the free tea on tap and big mugs given to drink it with, so I stopped for a big cup of some nice hot tea, even though the weather was beginning to be sweltering.

Kaylee in MaokongThe next part is where I made the inevitable huge mistake, something I am almost guaranteed to do every time I travel. I saw a place on the map that sounded pretty cool—though I had no justification for that impulse—called Caonan (草南) which was about another 20-30 minutes into the mountains. Yeah, I can go another twenty minutes, I thought with confidence, and headed off, as the sun hit midday and began boring down and burning my snow-white shoulders. As usual I’d brought no sunscreen, though I did have a hat this time—at least my face was spared from the sunburn!

Alas, after walking about twenty minutes downhill and seeing nothing interesting but some pretty grumpy chained-up dogs, I came to a lovely bridge at the bottom of the hill… and then an empty road. I kept going for a few minutes, but it looked like the road just led to a small local village, and I felt like it was the kind of place where it would be weird if I just turned up unannounced. Leaving Caonan, it looked like there was a minibus that could take me elsewhere, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out if it was going uphill back to Maokong or downhill and back to Taipei. Besides, the buses only came like every 30 minutes and I didn’t want to be a lone white girl standing by herself on some empty backroad. I wouldn’t exactly say I’m cautious when it comes to travel, but I do have my limits, and I trust my gut when it tells me not to do something. So I sighed, resigned to my fate, and began trudging back up the mountain.

Caonan Bridge

To be fair it was a really nice bridge…

After edging my way past the dogs again (one of which was untied and running around all growly now, making me freak out a bit about the risk of rabies), I made it back to a more popular part of the hill and spotted a restaurant I’d seen on the way down that quite a few people seemed to be going into, located near the Tea Promotion Center. I figured here was as good as anywhere to eat, so I headed in.

Turns out that restaurant is called the Yao Yue Teahouse (邀月茶坊) and it’s one of the most famous in Maokong (who knew?) That meant unfortunately that it was pretty expensive, at least by my standards, though keep in mind I thought the $4 gondola was a rip-off… At the Yao Yue there were a large variety of classy-sounding teas for sale, but you couldn’t just buy a single cup—you had to buy a small canister. However you got to take the rest home if you couldn’t drink it all, and that soothed my financially anxious heart a little bit.

The teahouse also had both full meals and some dim sum available to eat, so I went with the dim sum and got soup dumplings with tea in them instead of soup, some radish cakes with a wonderful dipping sauce, and scallion pancakes. The food was all super delicious, and the tea was nice too. The waiter even took a few minutes to explain the traditional way in which to brew and pour the tea, so you got a bit of a cultural experience along with the food. In total I spent about NTD 600 / HKD 150 / USD $19, and more than half of that was spent on the classy tea. Considering I was spending about NTD 200 to eat at night markets it felt expensive to me, but also considering I got a very nice atmosphere, unlimited tea, tasty food, and a souvenir to take back with me it really wasn’t so bad.

Maokong Green Tea Ice Cream

After an hour or so of drinking tea and reading Outlander (so addictive!) I headed back to the gondola station, stopping for one last treat—green tea-flavored ice cream. The excursion took most of the day (though it would’ve been shorter if I hadn’t taken my pointless hour-long side trip…) but it was well worth it to get some nice green photos and tasty eats at the top of Taipei.

Taipei Night Market Review

Lehua, Shida, and Shilin: All different, all delicious

There are around a dozen or so high-quality night markets scattered around Taipei and if I’d had twelve days in the city, believe me, I would have visited them all. I love night markets because the food is local, cheap, and delicious. They pretty much ensure you’re going to encounter at least a few new things, and they keep your wallet nice and full for more important activities, like more travel and more cheap night markets.

Unfortunately I only had a few nights in Taipei so I managed to visit just three night markets, though they each turned out to have a totally different vibe. No matter what kind of traveler you are, there’s definitely a market for you in Taipei, so here are my reviews to help you out!

Night 1: Lehua (Yonghe District)

Crowd Density: Low                                                         English Level: Low

Vibe: Low-key and local                                                  Food Choices: Meat-heavy, but tasty

Additional Notes: I went on a rainy Thursday so it could’ve been less crowded than usual.

This was my first night market and the closest to my hostel, so once I’d dropped my backpack off after my flight I basically rushed right over. The internet had claimed that this was one of the “most Chinese” night markets in Taipei and I was ready to get a taste (literally) of the real deal.

The internet was dead on as usual; here, the vendors automatically addressed me in Mandarin and didn’t offer any special praise for me understanding them (it may sound arrogant for me to have expected that, but hey, that’s what you get in the PRC!) Instead I was given no special treatment—in fact I’m suspicious that the people hawking cheap handbags on the side may have actively avoided me thinking I wouldn’t understand them, and that was definitely a plus!

At this market I ate some meat on sticks (yummy), some spicy mixed meat in a bucket (yummy, though I’m not sure what it all was and I definitely ate something’s balls), some Taiwanese milk tea, and a famous street food called 甜不辣 / tian bu la / “sweet not spicy.” Except the lady also added spicy sauce effectively defeating the purpose, but whatever I guess. I wasn’t a huge fan of it anyways; tasted like a bunch of squishy stuff covered in a weird salad dressing but I have no idea whether it’s supposed to taste different or nah. Total price was about NTD 200 / or 50 HKD / or ~$6 USD.

This was by far the most casual night market in that it didn’t seem to be trying to look attractive or appealing; it was really just some food stalls on some back street. A good variety of food, sure, but nothing luxurious. And I didn’t feel like everyone there was a tourist, though I think a good amount of mainland Chinese travelers were hanging out. Don’t think I saw another white person and I stayed for a good hour plus.

Verdict: Check out Lehua if you want the “real deal” and are willing to try new foods, but if you don’t speak Mandarin you can expect to struggle.

Night 2: Shida (Da’an District)

Crowd Density: Medium                                                    English Level: Medium

Vibe: College kids                                                                Food Choices: Eastern and Western

Additional Notes: This one was my favorite!

I walked over to the Shida night market after catching the sunset at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (an activity I would highly recommend!) On my way there I caught a glimpse of the pleasant-looking National Taiwan Normal University, which, being right next to the night market, means the majority of people who hang out there are college students. Being just 23 myself I blended right in, and it was fun to be somewhere that local people my age would actually hang out.

The food was pretty great at Shida; I had 小笼包 / Xiao long bao / soup dumplings, followed by some nice curry and rice, and then the totally Chinese dessert of crème brûlée in a crêpe. For the last one it was sold at a stall which had an amazing variety of crêpe options, and the guy made it by putting whipped cream all over the dough, rolling it into an ice cream cone shape, sprinkling sugar on the top, and then shooting a blow torch at it for like five minutes. After that, they had to put it into a fridge to let it cool off for about five more minutes, until at last I was able to take the delicious concoction.

“明天见!” See you tomorrow, the woman joked as she handed it to me. I wish I’d had the time! Total cost of the food that night was probably around NTD 260 / HKD 65 / USD ~$8. The crêpe was comparatively expensive, but definitely worth it.

As I munched my crêpe I strolled around checking out the area’s clothing shops. One cool thing about Shida is that it is a hub for small boutiques run by local designers. While sizes made for Chinese bodies are generally not well-equipped for handling my American-size hips, it was fun to browse, and there were handbag shops and such as well. As for the level of English at the market, I was addressed in both English and Mandarin here. It seemed some vendors were bilingual (or at least comfortable enough in English) while others were not.

Verdict: If you’re a 20-something traveler who doesn’t want to go either full-local or full-tourist, Shida is a great balance.

Night 3: Shilin (Shilin District)

Crowd Density: Very high                                                 English Level: Unsure…

Vibe: Touristy                                                                      Food Choices: Huge variety

Additional Notes: I went on a Saturday evening which to be fair is probably peak timing

WeChat Image_20170423005438

There are a few big advantages of heading to the Shilin market as a tourist. For one it was the easiest night market to find and the only one I didn’t use Google Maps for, as there were signs pointing the way from the subway station all the way to the first food stall. Second, it definitely had the largest choice of food by far, and being catered to tourists the food was definitely more geared toward Western tastes than the stuff at either Lehua or Shida. I recall seeing some English translations on signs but I didn’t really talk to any of the vendors here and honestly can’t remember if I was speaking Chinese or English—but I’d assume that at a tourist-friendly place like this English would do just fine.

Still, I personally found Shilin to be pretty unpleasant. At its densest it was so packed I could barely move, let alone decide to turn back to grab that yummy-looking ice cream from a few seconds ago. It was by far the loudest market too, with more of the whole “shouting at tourists to buy stuff” strategy which unfortunately so many otherwise nice shopping spots seem to abuse. There were tons of stores in the area along with the food, including larger international brands, but I didn’t stay and check them out.

To get the food I wanted I actually had to cut out onto a side street and loop around to reenter the fray—the crowd was one-way only. I ate just one dish at Shilin, some admittedly very tasty 宫保鸡丁 / gong bao ji ding / “kung pao chicken.” Of course one dish meant this was my cheapest night market, at NTD 120 / 30 HKD / ~$4 USD. But I was still hungry afterwards so I went to MOS Burger (a Japanese burger chain) back near my hostel. They gave me chicken nuggets with the burger instead of fries!

Oh, and there was one last problem with Shilin: no idea where the public toilets were or where to even start looking for one, so don’t show up needing to pee like I did. I was quite happy to find squat toilets at the Shilin subway station afterward—and trust me I don’t say that often.

Verdict: If you’re in a state of paralyzed culture shock but don’t want to hit McDonald’s, then spend the evening at Shilin… otherwise go somewhere else!

As I said there are probably a dozen plus night markets in Taipei and these are only three of them, but I think I got a pretty representative sample of their variety! In conclusion, you should definitely take the chance to explore and eat cheap somewhere new every night… and one of those nights, if you can, should be spent at Shida!

Taiwan: A Tale of Two Narratives

Disclaimer: I realize the political history of China and Taiwan is controversial and emotional for those invested in the conflict, and so I want to be clear that none of my words should be interpreted as a political statement on who I believe is “right” or “wrong”… it is not my conflict, I’m not trying to make a personal statement, I just try and get the facts as straight as possible.

Taiwan is an island off the coast of southeastern China and its capital is Taipei. Taiwan is also called the Republic of China, but should not be confused with the People’s Republic of China, which is the official name of mainland China. The exact relationship between mainland China and Taiwan remains a matter of dispute.


The National Palace Museum in Taipei holds thousands of ancient Chinese artifacts

A Brief History____________________               

The last Chinese dynasty, the Qing, fell in 1912, an event which can be seen as the turning point between ancient and modern Chinese civilization. The Republic of China (ROC) was the first government which emerged from the chaos. Through the 1920s the ROC government (led by the Kuomintang Party, or KMT) worked to unify China and establish itself as a legitimate government. Specifically, the KMT claimed it would make China a modern democratic society.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, was also growing in popularity as an opposition party which craved a revolution. They attempted to fight back against the government in the 1920s, but were too weak to pose a serious threat at the time. While the two parties were able to cooperate in fighting the Japanese invasion of the mainland during the 1930s and WWII, this truce collapsed as the war ended and the two were once again on different sides.

The parties entered an all-out civil war in around 1946, but this time around the Communists were better prepared. By 1949 the CCP had emerged from the war victorious. As the KMT retreated to Taiwan (along with two million refugees) and declared Taipei the “temporary capital” of the ROC until they could return to the mainland, Chairman Mao stood in Tiananmen Square and proclaimed the formation of the CCP-led, Communist, People’s Republic of China (PRC) with Beijing as the capital. The PRC is now the state most closely associated with the name “China,” although as you can see from the above, Taiwan also emerged from the same civilization.

Taiwan Today                                                                    

There is a split narrative between mainland Chinese and Taiwanese views of the current situation. In the PRC, the government position is that when Mao and the CCP won control over the mainland they also gained jurisdiction over all territories which constituted the historical civilization of China—including Taiwan—and therefore believe Taiwan is under their control. However, in Taiwan the government claims that the PRC has never had jurisdiction over Taiwan, the CCP is an illegitimate government occupying China, and the ROC is the only legitimate representative of the nation of China.

In terms of international recognition, the majority of nations now recognize the PRC as the official representative of China. In the United Nations, the ROC represented China until 1971, when member states voted that the PRC should represent China instead, which basically cancelled Taiwan’s UN membership. Due to its contested status and a desire to preserve the relationship with China, few nations have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. However, a number of nations conduct unofficial relations with Taiwan (and China turns a blind eye, but still does not want to hear about it).

What do the people think?                                           

The KMT succeeded in leading Taiwan down the path to democracy, and so there is an active debate amongst the Taiwanese population over this issue. While the mainstream position in Taiwan is that it does not belong to China, the question is whether it should go on being the Republic of China and claiming the mainland as its own, or if it should relinquish the claim and officially become the independent Republic of Taiwan.

Meanwhile in the PRC, the mainstream position is most definitely that Taiwan does belong to China… and I personally have never met a mainland Chinese person who was in any way willing to question that position.


Chinese map of China… that ocean boundary is also controversial

On Political Correctness                                                 

  • On my blog I may occasionally refer to Taiwanese people, culture, or food as being “Chinese” and I want to be clear that I mean this ethnically, not politically. In Mandarin there a useful distinction between the two concepts; if one is a 中国人 / Zhongguo ren one belongs to the country of 中国, or the PRC; if one is a 华人 / hua ren one belongs to the 中华民族 which is more like “Chinese ethnic group.” When I say Chinese in the context of Taiwan I mean the ethnic 华人 not the political 中国人.
  • There are three topics mainland Chinese hate talking about, called the three T’s: Tiananmen, Tibet, and Taiwan. All of these topics make Chinese people visibly uncomfortable when brought up. If you try and talk politics on these themes you should expect either a fiercely political answer or a very Chinese-textbook sounding rehearsed answer and then closed lips. Talking about these topics in China feels as rude and uncomfortable as telling someone in America that they’re fat (something which is actually totally okay in China!) In short, every society has things which make people uncomfortable. Don’t make people uncomfortable.

Don’t mention it…