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  • Writer's pictureJane Cooper Hong

The Distance Between Taiwan and Wisconsin

I just stumbled on a video memoir from a recent participant in a student exchange program between the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and a university in Taiwan. In his collection of photos, it was clear he collected the images that captured the essence of what was new and foreign to him--the Midwestern change of seasons, the wide and seemingly empty roadways, the food, a farm, the holidays, the student activities.

I suspect that, due to the prevalence of Western movies and television, most Asian visitors to America are less surprised by what they encounter here than Americans traveling to Asia for the first time. But there are some surprises. Most movies are set in New York, L.A. or maybe Chicago or Miami. Not many are set in River Falls, Wisconsin, or anyplace like it. A small university town 45 minutes from the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, it is, by Taiwanese standards, positively uninhabited. A short drive from campus takes you into farm country, and although Wisconsin isn't quite the dairy land it was when I went to school there, Holsteins and pastures are still a common sight.

Besides not often showing rural settings, movies rarely attempt to communicate that snow is cold or that it can create real challenges when you're trying to get to class. So I appreciated the way Jeff Hsu marveled at the depth of the snow (mild by Wisconsin standards) and the loss of visibility from the blowing white stuff. As I watched his video, my own memories of my time as an exchange student in Taiwan flooded back. Like him, I took hundreds of photos but from the other side of the looking glass.

My first memory is of the oppressive heat. The humidity of that late August day when I stepped off the plane was like nothing I had encountered growing up in Minnesota. I'd heard the expression, "The air is so thick you can cut it with a knife," but I'd never experienced it. I could feel the air pressing, moist and superheated, onto every part of my body. For the first time, I understood the fear of the asthmatic when they struggle to breathe. My first days in Taiwan, I lost weight. It poured off my body in gallon buckets. (I'd like to have that part of the experience back.)

After the heat, the next wildly different experience was the traffic. Cars and motorcycles packed six lanes of traffic into every four-lane roadway and added motorcycle lanes on each sidewalk. I had never before feared for my life as a pedestrian, but in Taiwan, the chaos of the streets was constant. During the middle of my stay as an exchange student, my mom came to visit. My dad had always thought my descriptions of the traffic were exaggerations, so he was astounded to hear that she held my arm every time we crossed the street during her stay.

And then there was the food. I am old enough that, when I was growing up in the Upper Midwest, Chinese food was a novelty, and nobody I knew had encountered Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Nepalese or other Asian cuisines. Generally speaking, "Chinese food" came in a can labeled either Chun King or La Choy. Chinese food as I knew it was a case study in what not to do to vegetables if you wanted children or other human beings to like them. (It probably shouldn't come as a surprise that Chun King was started by someone named Jeno Paulucci in Minnesota.) So one of my biggest fears in traveling to Taiwan was that I'd find nothing to eat but Chun King or La Choy-style canned vegetables. Happily, I was wrong about that, but the food was 10,000 miles from where I grew up--literally and figuratively.

I still remember walking out of the hotel room I shared with four other students on my first night in Taiwan. Immediately outside the door was a vendor selling something I mentally dubbed "pressed octopus." Hanging all along the roof of the cart like a bizarre fringe, the octopi literally looked as if someone had driven a compaction roller over the poor creatures and then left them to dry in the sun on the sidewalk. Bear in mind that, at this point in time, the average person in Minneapolis or Chicago had never heard of sushi or calamari. The idea of eating an octopus, prepared in any manner, was every bit as alien as the thought of eating a cockroach. (And yes, I've heard that people in some countries eat cockroaches; someone probably says, "It tastes just like chicken" as they're crunching down the vile things.) My classmate and I stood there and watched as a couple pointed and ordered. The vendor pulled out a cleaver and expertly cut two of the pancake-flat poly-legged figures into fine strips and slid them into a bag. The couple walked off, reaching into the bag of octopus-jerky as if it were potato chips, and each started chewing on the thin strips.

I looked at Al, and he looked at me, and we shook our heads. No way were we making that our first meal on foreign soil. The expression "eeuuww" as a sign of disgust had not been invented yet, or I'm sure we would have used it. Instead, we headed off in search of something a little more familiar. A few blocks down the crowded street, we stumbled on a narrow alley lined with food vendors. Now, in Southern California or Florida, people may have been accustomed even then to food shops that spilled out in the streets, but we were from Minnesota and Wisconsin--places where at least seven months of the year are downright inhospitable to indoor/outdoor dining, and the rest of the time, the mosquitoes will cart you away. And I think I mentioned the oppressive heat. Seeing food sitting out in weather so hot and humid breathing was difficult only increased my sense that we had to be pretty careful about our food choices.

We walked the alley, which was lined with buffet-style "restaurants." The good news was that we could point at what we wanted. The bad news was that most of it was unrecognizable to us--thin strips of green, wet, translucent material that I later learned was seaweed; bumpy, lumpy gray and brown things that looked like big, wet turds or giant grubs (the latter guess was closer; they were sea slugs, sometimes euphemistically called "sea cucumbers"); pig ears, chicken feet and fish with heads and eyeballs still intact. I found myself wishing for a can of Chun King. Then I saw a stand with a huge pile of something marvelously familiar--shredded cabbage. A woman was combining the finely chopped cabbage with ground pork and diced green onions and wrapping the blend into little rolled flour wraps.

No heads, no feet, no tentacles. Lunch. We pointed with big grins to the finished dumplings (which are now familiar to most people as potstickers or gyoza) and held out some of the colorful, foreign cash in our pockets to find out how much this would cost. The husband took a couple of bills from each of us and invited us to sit down, and a few minutes later, the wife brought plates of the perfectly seared potstickers to our table, along with chopsticks.

At that point in my life, I had heard of chopsticks. They were something you saw on cartoons--the stuff of faraway stories and things parents tell their children about to get them to improve their table manners. Well, we were that far away. And the chopsticks were real. We laughed. We despaired. Lunch was no longer within our grasp. The woman took my hand and placed one chopstick firmly at the crux between my thumb and palm. She then showed me how to hold the other one kind of pencil-like and manipulate it to touch the stationary chopstick. She demonstrated. I tried to follow her lead and sent the large dumpling squirting across my plate. By this time, a crowd had gathered from the nearby food stalls. They had found their entertainment for the day--two high-nosed foreigners trying to use chopsticks. I tried again and almost had maneuvered the tube-shaped dumpling to my mouth. But the woman shook her head and held up her hands to stop me. The dumpling escaped and dropped like a flopping fish to my plate. She placed a miniature "bowl" on the table--a dipping bowl. She combined soy sauce, vinegar, a little oil and chili sauce in the tiny bowl and showed me that I was to dip the dumpling into the mixture before eating it. I tried again, and once more, the dumpling squirted from my chopsticks, sending the dipping-bowl contents splashing into the air. This brought howls of laughter from our growing audience.

I did eventually navigate the dumpling from dipping bowl to mouth again, and I can honestly say it was wonderful, delicious. But maybe you noticed my earlier mention of chili sauce. Again, backing up to my Minnesota roots, let me explain that Swedes and Norwegians don't use a lot of chili sauce in their cooking. Germans sometimes throw enough black pepper into their wursts that the taste comes through, but in general, heat was not on the menu where I grew up. So about four bites into my meal, my eyes were watering, and I was pantomiming for water, Coke, anything to drink.

We had not yet learned that most Taiwanese or Chinese restaurants don't serve cold beverages with meals. Soup is the beverage. People in the gathered group of gapers pointed to the soup. But the soup was something I now know to be hot-and-sour soup--spicy in its own right--and it provided no relief whatsoever from the burn. Someone in the audience leaped up and went next door and came back with two bottles of a golden-colored soda with an apple on the label. Even though I would never have ordered apple-flavored pop back home, I was never in my life so glad to see a bottle of pop of any flavor. I'm pretty sure Al shared the sentiment.

I could tell a dozen more stories of my first days in Taiwan, but the point I was making was that no one from Taiwan would find the heat, the traffic or the food strange. They wouldn't notice them. They wouldn't take pictures of the octopus vendor or the sea slugs, but I did--just as Jeff Hsu demonstrated for his friends and family back home the perils and intrigue of three inches of snow.

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