Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘food

Taiwan & the convenience of travel

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The 50 NTD (£1.30) canteen in Shilin

Last year, I spent almost two months in Taiwan, or 55 days to be exact.

Earlier this year, I was back again: from February 21 to March 2.

2020 is a leap year so that was 10 days in total. I did very little while I was in Taiwan. I stayed in the same hostel in Taipei, in Shilin district, as I did last year. I went swimming and used the pool’s “spa”. I went to the gym (pay as you go). I went to a second-hand bookstore and bought a novel: David Szalay’s All That Man Is.

I met a local journalist, a Taiwanese-American, who I befriended over Twitter. I met a couple of friends (one of whom I met last year in Singapore, while another is a friend of the blog). I ate at a canteen where you can choose a meat and two veg dishes, from a selection, with rice and free soup — that costs about £1.30.

Mostly, I made sure to eat. I ate delicious beef noodles. Egg pancake things for breakfast. The freshest, best bubble tea on the planet. And I wandered the local night market, stopping at my favourites. Supping on milk papaya. Getting the local delicacy of grilled mushrooms. Trying a shack that did steak with Camembert. And I queued for the best bao I know of. These bao (meat buns) are just so good. I love them.

I was in Taiwan for 10 days and I mostly ventured within a 100 metre radius of my hostel. Why was I in Taiwan?

I was there as a stop-gap. I’d been in Thailand, and I was up on my 30-day tourist visa, and not wishing to extend another 30 days, I decided to fly from Bangkok to Taipei. It cost £68.29 and it’s a 3hr 45min flight. 10 days in Taipei. And then I flew from Taipei to Cebu (Philippines) for £35.70 — a 3hr flight.

I was in the Philippines for 11 days, eventually flying out from Manila to Fukuoka (Japan) for £45.80 — a 4hr flight.

All of this is to say something about how convenient travel is (or was). Some have wondered how I afford to travel like I do, but looking at these airfares you can see that international travel can cost about as much as train fare. In Europe, these airfares can be even cheaper, but Asia is a larger region than the EU.

And going from Thailand to Taiwan to Philippines really did feel more like taking buses to different stops in the land of Asia than it did proper international travel with its boundaries and borders. Planes collapse our sense of distance.

We all might know this in the abstract, but it’s a different thing when it’s lived experience. Looking back at my time in Taiwan, it feels so fleeting, and, in perspective, it was. It was just 10 days. Yet those 10 days, although I didn’t do a lot, shouldn’t be taken for granted. I want to zoom in on that short transit stay and blow it out, to honour it, now that such convenience is a past time. It was fleeting but those days were once my daily reality.

And maybe this interruption, as our society feels now, will one day also feel like it was a short transit to somewhere else, as it indubitably is, and all these months of worry and anxiety will come to be remembered as a fleeting time, but which was once all that you knew.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

August 25, 2020 at 4:29 pm

The sushi chef

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I’ve been in Japan since March but I haven’t eaten sushi, at a restaurant, ’til this past week.

A friend and I went to a sushi restaurant. We ordered our selection. They brought the sushi carefully arranged on the plate. And each plate looked immaculate, as if it was art. I tried a variety, from their menu. For my second plate I ordered the salmon again. I put it in my mouth and chewed it slowly. The texture was like cream yet meaty; a careful savouriness engulfed my mouth, and the rice gave it a floury pillow. It was an intense enjoyment.

We drank green tea then shochu. We talked about the delicious food we’d eaten in times past. Around us were Japanese couples, friends, and work colleagues enjoying themselves. It was a wonderful evening.

As we got up to leave, my friend went to use the bathroom, and I stopped to look at the sushi chefs. They were held in the middle of the restaurant separated by glass from the diners. I looked at them and felt some complex emotions. I realised it was envy. I envied them.

But why?

I guess it was the simplicity of their job.

I have heard that it takes some time to become a sushi chef and it can take years of training. I am sure great manual skill is involved. But some of it sounds like sushi-chef propaganda. It is, after all, just cutting strips of fish and collecting rice together neatly. But I envied the physical aspect of their job. And its focus.

Journalism can be very tiring. I once heard that burnout most often occurs when you most care about the work. And these weeks have been busier and more exhausting than usual. I am not reaching burnout, but I am looking forward to a little holiday.

However, the yearning for a different kind of job remains. I’ve had this desire — medium-strength, like sake, or tabasco — buried for a few years. It as if the heart wants to live something else for a while. Like a hunter might want to switch things up the next season by being a fisherman; or the spear-fisher wants to try foraging for a while. It is not unnatural.

I looked at the sushi chefs and wondered for a moment what it would be like to switch places. Then we left and the moment passed. The desire won’t go away.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

July 17, 2020 at 8:07 am