What do you call a rainy day in Taiwan? The answer is: a normal day. At least during the early summer, that is, because it’s the East Asian monsoon season. I did the research (i.e. Googling) that you’re probably not curious enough to do. For people who think that monsoons belong to India and the subcontinent, there is in fact an East Asian monsoon season, which runs from May to July, and encompasses much of southeast Asia, the Philippines, Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Koreas, and Japan.
Having lived most of my life where there was no rainy or dry season, it’s pretty strange to experience this kind of downpour. For the last five days, it has rained pretty consistently every day. There is little thunder and few tumultuous winds, but just gloomy skies and a skin-drenching amount of rain. Occasionally, it will lift to a light drizzle, or even pause enough for the streets to dry a bit, but it’s never safe to venture outside without an umbrella. That’s a lesson that we did not have to learn a second time. The rain alleviates the crushing heat and has made late May quite a bit cooler, and we’re enjoying temperatures in the high 70s most of the time, but what it hasn’t changed is the blanket of humidity. We essentially sweat everywhere we go, and I’ve learned to build in a lot of time for walking to work and other places, because hurrying is just not worth it.
Three days into this streak of wet weather, Steve and I set off for Tainan on Saturday morning. We settled into our seats on the train (thankfully – I have had it up to HERE with standing-only tickets!), and watched the mountains to our east grow and change as the train took us south. It was fun to look at those mountains disappear and reappear in the misty clouds that hid the peaks. There are also the most beautiful rice paddies and farmlands along the way. I could see many fruit trees, including banana and mango trees.
When we got to Tainan train station, we set off for Kate’s parents’ house, both clutching our umbrellas as though for dear life. Fortunately, it was closer to their place from the train station than we remembered, and we arrived at their place with plenty of time to spare. Kate’s parents Charlene and Dave met in Taiwan almost forty years ago as they were both missionaries, and got married and settled down in Taiwan for good in 1982. They raised Kate and her brother Grant in Kaohsiung, but moved to Tainan (both good southern Taiwanese cities) about seven or eight years ago, and currently live on the campus of the Tainan Theological College and Seminary where David teaches. Charlene also teaches English at a nearby university. With the help of Char and Dave, we were fortunate enough to stay at the Alumni House of the TTCS campus, which is right next door to where they live, both last time we visited Tainan and this time.
Aside from seeing Charlene and Dave, we headed to Tainan this weekend to see someone else. I’ll rewind to about a month and a half ago, back at school, where our public policy school was holding its tenth reunion for alumni from the Class of 2005. They held a meet-and-greet with current students, and that’s how I learned that Elizabeth, an MPP alumna from 2005, lived in Taiwan! She is now an assistant professor in the Institute of Public Health, teaching health policy and economics, at National Cheng Kung University. Steve and I met her for lunch on Saturday, and enjoyed a really great long conversation with her. She showed us their Convocation photo taken twelve years ago, and we talked about some of her old classmates whom I’d met at the reunion. Elizabeth also asked me about my internship, and gave me some suggestions on what kind of education-related organizations I may be interested in if we decided to come back to Taiwan after graduation. She also gave us a short tour of the medical college there, and we took a few pictures together before I left. I’m really glad that our schedules matched up, and that I was able to meet her in Tainan – the Duke alumni network is pretty awesome too, and just keeps on giving!
Steve and I returned to the Alumni House, and dried ourselves out and took a nap before we got to have dinner with Char and Dave. We ended up having noodles, potstickers, scallion pancakes and the like at 五馬花, a dumpling and noodles chain that is about a three-minute walk away. It was great to catch up, and to discuss how my internship was going. It also made us miss our friends Kate and her husband Gene, who are back in Chicago! Guys, Tainan’s not the same without you. After dinner, Steve and I set out for another place in Tainan we’d visited before – Kinks Pub. It’s a very hipster pub situated in an old house, nearly crumbling, with dim lighting and mismatched armchairs. Kate and Gene had brought us and other friends there the last time we were in Tainan, and we enjoyed the ambiance. We had half-expected Kinks to not be there anymore, because of what we learned last time we visited. Kinks is one of the houses on the east side of the railroad tracks in Tainan; due to traffic congestion, Tainan City decided to relocate the tracks underground, but in the course of digging and constructing the tunnels, it needed the land on the eastern side of the tracks. They’re using a combination of buying people out and also eminent domain in order to seize that land, which will eventually (in ten or fifteen years) be developed by the city. According to Char and Dave, most property owners have settled for certain sums at this point, and construction might begin soon, but Kinks was still standing and operating when we were there. There are still many signs around condemning the government’s use of eminent domain. While it’s a pretty thorny issue, I mostly like hearing about the story because it’s an interesting public policy problem.
On Sunday morning, Steve and I rose early, and enjoyed some breakfast with Char and Dave, in the form of toast and yogurt. They have been making their own bread for about fifteen years now, because as they noted, the Taiwanese love to put a lot of sugar in their bread. Afterwards, we took the morning to walk around to the Confucian Temple, yet another destination we’d been to two years ago. At the expense of sounding really tedious, I read over the entries I made last time we were in Tainan, and I had written very little about the places that we went to, even though they were well documented in our Flickr album. So I’m trying to be more thorough here. The Confucian Temple in Tainan is the oldest of its kind in Taiwan, and was built in 1665. It’s a very popular destination for tourists, and also for residents – students will come here to pray for good luck before they take the college entrance examinations. The area around the Confucian Temple is filled with interesting little shops and cool cafés. The most notable café is the Narrow Door Café, which has a pretty darn narrow entrance, just a foot-wide alley formed by the narrowing walls of two adjacent buildings. We tried to visit, but they have an 120 NT minimum per person; presumably, they get too many people who just want to take photos! Still, it’s a neat environment. We also visited two other places on the street that is across from the Confucian Temple. One is a leather goods store where I bought the wallet I’ve been using for the past two years – it can hold a lot of cards and cash as well as my cellphone, so I kind of love it. I bought a few more presents. The other is a stationery stand that sells bound notebooks which can lie flat. We remembered being entranced by that stand the last time we were there, because it had all these really great flat-lying notebooks in both plain paper, lined, and gridded, for as little as 60 NT ($2 USD). This time, we both just indulged our love of notebooks and stationery, and walked away with ten different notebooks of different sizes for the princely sum of 880 NT (almost 30 USD). I have regretted buying many things in my life – this was NOT one of them!
Finally, Steve and I walked back to the Alumni House campus, packed up our things, and enjoyed one last lunch with Char and Dave. We got some good suggestions for visiting the eastern coast of Taiwan, and also for visiting Houdong, a famous cat village outside of Taipei. (This is going to be amazing, I tell you!!!) We said goodbye, and good wishes for the rest of their school year, and walked (again in the rain) back to the station to take our afternoon train back to Taichung.
Sometime during our weekend of walking in the rain in Tainan, I realized that I kind of enjoyed the rain – once you get used to it, it’s kind of beautiful. Rather than being a cold, nasty storm with severe winds that you just want to get out of, the rain in this plum rain season (as the East Asian monsoon season is sometimes known) creates a warm, quiet environment that feels just like you’re walking through a lush rainforest.
Steve also agreed with me that he really liked our trip to Tainan — it was not only pleasant because we got to see friends and meet very kind people; it was great because Tainan is a lovely, historical city with some fascinating places to visit. Though it rained profusely the whole weekend, we enjoyed ourselves a lot, almost enough to make up for the dozen-odd mosquito bites that we each picked up as well. Oh, and the tiny blisters that I accumulated from walking around in my rain-soaked sandals! This was a long post, but there will be more from Taiwan later this week about my internship, and about the dangers of Taiwanese traffic (of which there are many).