hiiibirdie

Another lazy Sunday afternoon at home and sunlight is filtering through a crinkled-glass window creating a soft, hazy, yellow glow that’s perfect for a nap. Though tempting, I knew I needed to plan my lessons and opted to leave the too comfortable apartment. So Pete and I decided to stretch our legs and brains and walked to a new cafe. With no expectations, aside from a hot cup of coffee and a chair, I entered hiiibirdie and so began my obsession.

The exterior of hiiibirdie.

*Full disclosure: hiiibirdie isn’t in Taipei, but in the surrounding suburb of Linkou. Regardless, my adoration for this place transcends labels so I will include in my Taipei Cafe series.

As I slid the flimsy wooden door to the right, I entered a larger-than-expected room and was immediately greeted by a generous amount of sunlight cascading over the wooden furniture and the slightly cracked concrete floor. As I watched the sun rays dance over mismatched chairs, the smell of lingering caramelized sugar reached me.

A few trepid steps inside, a kind apron-adorned employee asked us to sit down then placed the menu, housed in a soft light brown leather notebook, in front of us. Not sure what to order, I took a moment to absorb my surroundings.

I turned my head to the right and took note of the 12-foot high ceiling the color of rusted cement that reflected the warm orange and brown hues found among the quaint decor. Though none of the chairs matched, there was a symmetry in their varying shades of wooden browns and yellows, rusted white, and black which combined into a sweet effect.

I then spotted a muted pea green couch with matching arm chairs – all low to the ground and inviting customers to truly rest and relax. From the couch’s vantage point stood two large glass doors that nearly reached the ceiling and welcomed the sun. The doors were left slightly open to let a fraction of the outside breeze and the cafe’s cat inside.

Beyond the window laid a playground and basketball court teeming with running children, chatting families, and dribbling basketballs.

I turned my head to the left and saw a geometric wooden bookshelf fashioned from a contemporary Scandinavian design. The shelving unit was split in half by a large green chalkboard decorated with children’s art, important messages, and the wifi password.

“What are you going to get?” asked Peter and I was instantly snapped back. I walked to the front counter and ordered a Matcha latte, Pete a cup of coffee. Standing there, I saw a dozen glass jars filled with coffee beans from around the world ready to be ground and used with a ceramic pour over set. The barista asked us to smell each bean to help decide which one is best to drink.

Behind the wood slated counter was a small, but well used kitchen where they make all of their desserts. Even from our seat, the pots, pans, ovens and utensils are all visible adding to the cozy home effect which made this place even more charming.

The desserts are then shown off to right of the counter in a mini display. Inside were apple pies, lemon tarts, honey glazed cakes, and Matcha cake.

Here’s a Matcha latte served on a cute wooden plate and matching wooden spoon.
French Toast Breakfast, complete with Bacon, cubed orange and grapes, salad, and a cup of refillable coffee.

Since this first visit, I’ve returned to hiiibirdie countless times. It’s genuinely my favorite weekend brunch spot to enjoy a pour over, Matcha latte, French toast brunch, or just a slice of pie. Not only do I admire the craft and care for their food and drinks, but I love the quiet and spacious atmosphere. Sitting there drinking a latte and reading a book on my Kindle, I am always transported to a flourishing green countryside where the birds chirping, children laughing, grass swaying in the wind’s hushed blows combine into that rare song of pleasure and bliss.

5/5 cups of coffee!

Sky Lantern Festival

To celebrate Peter’s 27th birthday, which coincides with Taiwan’s Lantern Festival, we traveled to Pingxi District in hopes of watching the lantern parade. We heard from locals that Pingxi is a must as it is the only place to legally release sky lanterns. Despite the hype, the information on the Internet about the logistics was hard to come by. Without realizing it until we arrived, we were a day late. Though we missed the main event, this short trip left a lasting impression.

The trip from Linkou to Pingxi – using public transportation – totaled approximately three hours. According to Google Maps, it should have taken an hour and a half. We spent quite a bit of time lolling in Taipei Main Station uncertain where or how to buy a ticket to Pingxi. It was our first time navigating the maze that is TRA (Taiwan Railways Administration). After what felt like walking in circles for hours, we happened across the single TRA ticketing machine.

The train from Taipei to Pingxi felt anachronistic compared to the modern amenities in Taipei. For starters, the ticketing machine was essentially an old-fashioned “ Coca Cola Freestyle machine from 1940” that worked by inserting a handful of coins, pressing dingy yellow buttons, and watching a paper clip sized ticket print. With the one-use ticket in hand we boarded a rickety train that sped through open-aired stations, each decorated with local motifs (Unlike Taipei where each station is underground and uniform with current designs).

Shortly after sunset, we exited at Riufung station and waited for our final train. During our layover, an energizing and familiar wave hit me. The warmth of the day hung thickly around, which left a comforting sheen on our foreheads. While I couldn’t see beyond the dim station, I could hear the wind blowing through the leaves of the surrounding forest and frogs croaking in unison. I was transported back to summer nights in Georgia where the lull of insects chiming and the residing heat tuck you to sleep. I had to remind myself a few times that I’m not in Georgia. But it felt like home.

The next train we boarded carried few people, but those in attendance were diverse. Individuals spoke in unknown tongues but emoted the universal: laughter, snores, and lost-in-thought stares fixed outside the window. I knew we arrived when a small boy leapt up and ran into the train conductor’s box waving at the upcoming crowd. I looked to my left and was greeted by hundreds of smiling faces and waving hands.

Alighting the train, we immediately joined the welcoming crowd. Amid the mass, lantern vendors shouted deals and pushed large-print menus into focus. They scattered along either side of the tracks illuminated by the surrounding food stands, flash of cameras, and lamp posts.

Once the incoming train departed, people flooded the freshly unoccupied tracks. People walked, photographed themselves and scenery, and released hanzi adorned lanterns.

Within 10 minutes of arriving, Peter and I purchased a four-colored lantern and were ushered into a tight fluorescent room. Here, using calligraphy brushes we decorated our lantern with a combination of well wishes and nonsensical jokes related to health, friendship, love, and happiness. I even spilled black ink on Peter’s shirt, whoops!  

With our four-foot lantern in hand, we stood on the tracks and posed for photographs. Much to my surprise, there was no single group release. Groups released their lanterns sporadically leaving a disconnected trail of lanterns in the sky. Watching our little light join the lingering trail was a tender moment.

Afterwards, Peter and I ambled along the main street, packed with vendors and visitors. We snacked on a corn onion pancake (rough translation) while we walked towards a waterfall – the rumored main event of the festival – located outside of city center. We walked under a full moon along a secluded road listening to the distant rambling of a river and unknown insects chirping. The moonlight, the gentle breeze, the calming river, and home-inducing scents was enrapturing. I jolted awake when we entered a pitch-black park. My paranoia of panthers and venomous snakes smashed any curiosity to join a party by a waterfall.

We entered the town for a second time by 7pm, but this time it was dead. The once packed strip was now empty and lights reflected off the steel shutters of closed shops. Given there was nothing to buy nor people to talk to, we decided to make our way back to Taipei. Easier said than done.

No employees manned the train booth. There were no visible bus stops. We waited by a Taxi Zone for 15 minutes but only a pack of 20-year olds in all black Adidas swag were leaning on a single taxi smoking cigarettes. At wit’s end, we asked the single taxi driver remaining – smoking by his 10-seat van – to take us back to Taipei. He agreed and asked us to wait 15 minutes. We waited 20. Seated inside the taxi I released the second sigh of relief which vanished as soon as he requested $1,400 NT ($40 USD). Me and Peter’s eyes met with a simultaneous droop; we had no other choice. An hour and $40 later, we were walking on Taipei sidewalks surrounded by six-story malls and greeted by the stream of cars propelling through traffic.

Looking at the photos, even today, Peter and I agree that  it was worth the confusion, expensive taxi, and quick turn around. It was truly magical to watch lantern after lantern float towards the distant mountains.

A Few of Pleasant Surprises

During the past two months of living in Taiwan, I’ve noticed and experienced the following.

The number of adorable stray dogs with collars

I photographed this doggo for over an hour my first week in Taoyuan. I thought to myself, “surely, this is someone’s beloved house pet.” Nope. This cutie is one of a dozen roaming the streets of Luzhu.

This sweet pup let me pet him, much to the surprise of locals.

I play tennis on a regular basis

Before I left for Taiwan, I played with Peter a few times (since this is his beloved sport). I went from hitting stray balls, to hitting a balls with limited accuracy. Now, I play at least three times a week – depending upon the rain – and I have greatly improved my strokes, volleys, and serves. (Side note: this is a very strange court; it’s sandy yet slippery like a clay court.)

A group of students from DaZhu Junior High asked to take a picture with Peter and I playing tennis.

Fried chicken Sandwiches for breakfast is the move

This isn’t ~entirely~ shocking since I hail from the land of fried chicken (Chick-fil-A, Zaxby’s, Cane’s, KFC, Popeyes) and I was low-key addicted to Chick-fil-A in college. But, fried chicken was typically reserved for lunch or dinner. Now, all I crave is a $45NT ($1.53USD) fried chicken sandwich in the morning. The bun varies – waffle, hamburger bun, crust-less sandwich bread – but the sweet fried chicken and egg combo remains the same. It’s heavenly.

A simple breakfast sandwich filled with fried chicken, lettuce, a thin layer of scrambled egg and sauce.

Because one image can’t do it justice.

Living without a car is bittersweet

It’s exciting and convenient to live in a community where work, grocery store, and 711 are all within a 900 meter radius. (Talk about carbon footprint reduction!) However, the only places close to me are work, grocery store, and 711. If I want to go to a coffee shop, movie theater, mall, or rock wall in the closest city, I have three options:

  1. 1 hour walk
  2. 1-1.5 hour bus ride
  3. 30-40 minute bike ride (on heavily congested streets with unrecognizable travel patterns)

Even though it’s satisfying to not drive a car on a daily basis, it’s quite the challenge to go anywhere beyond 4km.

A smooth cruising bike a teacher/friend loaned me for my stay.

A typical bus stop in Taoyuan: no overhang, no timetable, simply a list of routes in Chinese.

A max-capacity bus ride from Linkou to Taipei.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is heavily practiced

On a similar note, I’ve noticed that waste reduction is practiced by everyone on a consistent basis. Everywhere I go, people are separating recyclables, using reusable mugs for coffee, and using reusable tins for take-out. Additionally, the government has banned plastic bags, and some stores will give you a discount for using reusable containers. Rumor has it Taiwan plans to ban plastic straws and cups by 2030!

At my school, we separate recyclables from paper, different types of plastic, and cardboard.

Who knew double-stacked flat tires could look so chic protecting plants from falling over in strong winds?

There are so many layers of “reuse” in this image it makes my heart happy!

Even McDonald’s participates in waste management: four separate compartments for recycling, waste, liquid waste and cup recycling.

A common sight, old bath tubs (or maybe sinks) and Styrofoam containers are given new life as planters for community gardens.

Students Clean the school

A few years ago, I saw a video on Facebook about Japanese students cleaning their school to learn responsibility and reduce janitorial costs. I thought it was limited to that Japanese school. I’ve learned otherwise. Every morning, students arrive to school by 7:30AM to deep clean – classrooms, bathrooms, outdoor areas, offices, everything! Around lunch time, a flurry of students burst into my office to sweep, mop, organize paper work, and tidy the room. Honestly, it is shocking to witness because I cannot imagine my 15 year-old brother cleaning anything.

A large group of students sweeping up leaves from the track and outdoor seating.

Students use thick brooms to sweep up leaves surrounding the school buildings and track.

Two students sweeping the area in front of my office. Right behind them are two more students mopping the area they just swept.

13 Days

I have been living in Taiwan for 13 days now, but it feels like a small lifetime. Every action is exciting yet exhausting which makes the days feel twice as long. For instance, ordering black coffee. A simple task, but it sure is difficult when I can’t remember how to say hot in Chinese. Add to the mix that the cashier will ask me questions outside of my order which I don’t understand. I smile and nod and hope that we are on the same page. When the task is done a surge of relief and pride floods my body which leaves a permanent grin on my face. I think “damn, I just ordered coffee in Taiwan; I can do A N Y T H I N G.”

 

Thanks to Summer, a rep from Dewey International, a lot of moving logistics were settled in a matter of days. I have an adorable one-bedroom (kitchen-less) apartment that is a 10-minute walk away from my school, and my Visa application is processing. My favorite memory of Summer is riding on the back of her scooter during P O U R I N G rain. We arrived to our first apartment building and my pants and shoes were so soaked they sagged heavily off my body. As I clumsily slipped off her scooter, she turned and said “when you hold me, it’s like you’re a koala and I’m your tree.” Oh. My. God. Summer is just the first person on my long list of “Taiwan-Super-Stars” list. Next is Jenny.

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Jenny is a 9th grade English teacher at my school. This angel gave me a ride to Carrefour – a popular home goods store that is similar to Target – to buy all the boring necessities for apartment living. She patiently helped me translate and shop for goods for over three hours. Jenny even offered sage advice of which option is “higher quality” and “worth the higher price.” In addition to free rides, she gave me stylish coats to combat this brutal winter (50-60 degrees F with occasional heavy downpour), a comforter, pots/pants, and cups. I think we’re going to be great friends!

Jenny

Lily is Principal Peter’s wife, a teacher at Dazhu, and now my Taiwanese mom. I once said I was cold and the next day she brought me three coats, pair of gloves, jeans, scarf, and apples. The gifts haven’t stopped coming to this day. She is my tennis coach, my ping-pong partner, my Chinese teacher, and my personal tour guide. At this point, she is everything to me. We went to the Dazhu Night Market – where she purchased everything/anything I wanted – she asked me to tell my mother that “my heart is taken care of in Taiwan.” How precious. I already know that before I leave, I have to do something extra special for her.

During these 13 days, my interactions with students, teachers, parents, and strangers have been telling in terms of cultural differences. Teachers think my background/ethnicity is so interesting and “exotic.” Some have asked, in a curious, non-insulting manner, why I don’t look like a traditional American. You see, I’m Latina. I’m short, black-haired, dark-eyed, tan, and thin but slightly curvy.They expected me to be taller, bigger, and though they didn’t say this, I’m pretty sure they expected me to be white. I gladly explained that I am a first-generation American and that my biological parents are Spanish-speakers from Central America. However, I am American and a lot of Americans are like me: not white.

When I showed them a picture of my family a teacher asked “why is everyone’s skin and hair color so different?” Again, another opportunity to discuss another normalized aspect of American culture: divorce, step-parents, step-children, and adoption. I explained that my mother remarried a white man who adopted me, which explains all the various skin tones, hair textures, and sizes. Family isn’t defined by blood or genetics, but by commitment to love and protect one another.

Family Christmas

I feel a great privilege to represent Americans today: D I V E R S E. I want to break stereotypes and expand horizons, and I think my mere non-traditional presence is helping. That being said, no one asks to take my picture, unlike Peter who has strangers wave at him all the time. (He’s 6’3, white, blue-eyed, and from Texas. He’s a good ol’ American boy.)

Next week, I will begin to teach 45-minute classes, and I’m quite nervous. Creating my own curriculum has been such a challenge so I truly hope the materials I’ve created click with the students. I also hope they learn how to say something beyond “hello” and run away giggling. I mean, it’s really cute and funny but I want to get to know these kiddos!