In Taiwanese, if you want to ask someone how they are, you actually need to ask them whether or not they’ve eaten. Yes, you read that right. “Jiă bà buāi,” the equivalent of “how are you?” (which can sometimes also be used as a “hello”) literally means “Have you eaten?”
When the academic director of my elementary school taught me this phrase last week, I really didn’t get it. Growing up, food and meals weren’t ever really a focal point, per se. Of course my parents fed me (thanks, Mom!) but dinner was more often than not chicken nuggets and rice eaten out of a Tupperware container in the back of an SUV on my way from swim practice to karate, than a home-cooked, sit-down meal in the company of family. It was always more of a necessity — eating to live — than a tradition — living to eat. Which was totally fine! But, as I am really beginning to note, this on-the-go food culture is distinctively different from the Taiwanese way.
This became tremendously clear to me this evening. After a long school day and cityBike ride home, I walked down to my favorite local vegetarian restaurant. Now, any of you that know me know that I cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, read Chinese — especially food menus. So the first time I went to this hole-in-the-wall restaurant a few weeks ago, I literally pulled up a photo from Google of a plate of vegetables, tofu, and purple rice that I thought looked appetizing, and showed it to the woman at the front. I stumbled over a brief Chinese introduction, translated roughly as, “Hi, excuse me, I don’t read Chinese, but I would like to have this. Thank you.” She chuckled lightheartedly, showed me where to grab chopsticks, and brought out a truly delicious vegetarian platter.
(This, by the way, ended up costing a whopping total of 50 NTD. Which is equivalent to $1.36. I know.)
This evening, I was slightly more prepared. By that, I mean that the store owners remembered me and my order, and prompted me with a helpful “Xi ma?” “Number 7?” — so all I had to do was nod, smile, and wait for my food to arrive.
As I was finishing up the final bites of roasted vegetables on my plate, a couple walked in. This place is really tiny, so there was no empty table available. “Can we sit here?” the man asked me, in English. “Of course!” I said. They laughed, repeating, “Of course!” From there, the conversation took off in a thousand directions. Where was I from, where did I live, what did I do here—they wanted to know. All the while, as I talked to the matriarch about her time living in California, her family, and her architecture firm, her husband was busy scribbling on menus. “I recommend this one for you,” he said, circling a line of Chinese words, still entirely foreign to me, on a tiny paper menu. “Pumpkin noodles.” All of a sudden, he was calling the chef over, communicating in wicked-fast Chinese (which I did not attempt to understand). Two minutes later, a plate of tofu with shaved mushroom and rice arrived before me, alongside a side of pumpkin noodles. “Here, please. You can try!” He had asked the chef to put some of his portion into a separate bowl for me, I now realized. Not knowing what to say, I laughed, smiled, thanked him, and dug into the steaming hot plates of food in front of me.
Love, in Taiwanese culture, is often shown through food. A grandmother that loves you will make sure that you are properly (read: overly) fed, my new friend (Ingrid is her English name) explained to me, as I dug into the noodles that she had ordered on my behalf just minutes prior. Over the course of that family-style meal, we shared information about our experiences in the U.S. and in Europe, about our families, about our joint commitment to vegetarianism, and about my dreams for the next few years and beyond. We talked about religion (they are Buddhist), about spirituality, and about the best vegetarian spots in Kaohsiung.
Eventually, they called the owner of the restaurant out from the kitchen (they were regulars there, I gathered), and again spoke in Chinese so fast I had no chance of keeping up. “Ooh! He wants to treat you to a drink of your choice,” she translated for me. I looked over, and this kind-eyed Taiwanese restaurant manager was standing there smiling at me, gesturing at the refrigerator in the corner. As it turns out, he had also remembered me from me previous visit (foreigners aren’t too common here, but I have a feeling this had more to do with how ridiculous I’d looked bringing a picture of the food I wanted to the hostess the last time. This story made its way to my new friends — I blushed and laughed).
I elected to try a red-flower-and-something-or-other-herb drink, while my new friends Windy and Ingrid chose a cold sweet white fungus drink. We shared these, like everything else, family-style.
By now, my stomach was bursting. But this is Taiwan after all, so naturally, the food kept coming. Windy had apparently ordered me a box of herb pancakes to go, “for breakfast tomorrow morning.” After nearly two hours of sharing food and stories and thoughts and aspirations, these new friends asked if they could to take me to their favorite vegetarian spot in the city, by the Kaohsiung Fine Arts Museum, next weekend. Windy scribbled their names and phone numbers on yet another tiny menu (I left the restaurant, at the end of the night, with five sheets of paper — a mixture of annotated menu items, useful Chinese phrases, contact information, and cultural notes) and told me to call with any problems, at any time.
When they entered the restaurant this evening, we were complete strangers. Two hours later, we left the place smiling and laughing like old friends, hugging the manager, and looking forward to next week’s family-style vegetarian meal experience. Only in Taiwan, I thought. Where food is love, where meals are occasions, and where even foreign strangers are potential fast friends.
Author: Brooke Chapin Robbins, 2017-2018
Read more about Brooke's year as a Fulbright Taiwan ETA on Medium.