Tianxia in Tainan: a Somewhat Detailed Description

It’s hard to organise the past two weeks into a coherent sequence of events. Blended images come to mind of various things I’ve done and seen, but none appear to be vivid enough to centre my impression of the two weeks. I’d have to look through the photos on my phone to jog my memory, but I don’t want to order my blurred sense of this time just yet. Looking at the photos would split it all up into days and events, and I’m enjoying exploring what my head is bringing to the surface: little details, particular emotions, isolated visions of various excursions.

My memory is often like this: bad at the short-term. Ask me what I did last night and it will take me a minute (I’m back one minute later: I met with Pei Yun to try some rice cake and pig intestine for dinner). So I’m going to make the most of this and not look at my phone just yet. I’ll recollect the past two weeks as my brain sees them- not in sequential events, but in the images and details that made an impression. I’ll begin with the now; it’ll help me get started.

This room feels like closure, because it is exactly what one would conjure up when thinking of a café tucked away from the main street, with reddish wood and lines of books and jazz playing from a speaker in the corner. It’s like visiting the origin of an archetype, or a place you made up in your mind when you were a kid. Paint-chipped lamps and their pools of light, exposed brick, broken sunlight working its way through a messy garden of climbing plants expanding their empires over discarded objects. The sounds of a coffee machine. A tank of fish so deeply green with healthy moss and little plants it would look like a painting of a forest, apart from the little strokes of orange darting in and out of view. I’m not making this level of romance up. This should be something from the pages of a book, and yet I’m here.

I had a similar experience last night, except instead of rows of books, it was rows of bottles, half-full and lit up by the lights behind them, orange spirits glowing, coloured glass bottles bright, their labels shadowy: Dead Man’s Fingers, Kavalan Whisky, Hendrick’s Gin. The best cocktail I’ve ever had- matcha, gin, cream, lime, Ramos Gin Fizz Twist. Onto a wall is projected the album cover of the music they are playing as if to provide an explanation for the current atmosphere. We hear the owners say 纽西兰 (Niǔxīlán: New Zealand), and we eagerly turn our heads and say 我们从纽西兰来! (Wǒmén cóng Niǔxīlán lái! : We come from New Zealand!). When we leave the bar I realise with a sinking feeling- but at the same time never not knowing- that there are too many places yet to discover here, and I’m leaving in only a week.

The next moment in my head is a solo ice cream and journalling trip to Karu Sushi: An Introvert’s Dream Dining Situation (not the official slogan). You sit in a closed booth, you order food on your phone, it wizzes to you on a conveyor belt, you pay on a machine. Little to no human interaction. I ordered warm donuts and ice cream and mixed myself four cups of matcha. Both my journal and I left satiated. I remember the comfortable sensation of a cool wind on this feeling of fullness and ordered thoughts, and I was soothed.

I spent New Year’s Eve contentedly strapping myself into roller coasters, blowing the cobwebs of 2022 away by having myself thrown about in the air by various machines. This is more of a typical Tainanese New Years Eve than you’d expect: people were setting up their tripods as early as 10am at the theme park in order to capture the fireworks that would be burning behind the ferris wheel at midnight. By 3pm it was completely packed. We returned to the city for the countdown, though, in order to attend the free New Year’s concert being held, which boasted various famous singers and its own impressive fireworks display. The concert was perhaps half of what a New Zealander would expect a concert to be: a lively performance, but without the active crowd. People here quietly stand and observe concerts; singing and dancing are for the privacy of your home. And though it felt right to be doing New Year’s the Tainan way, it was nice that the fireworks felt familiar; I was glad for this universal element of New Year’s. I think this was because New Zealand arriving at the new year hours before us made me feel all that further from home. But, what better way to distract one’s self than with sparkles and pretty colours, especially when dramatically cracking and breaking in a majestic array across the sky, and all sarcasm aside, I am an absolute sucker for a good fireworks show, and I left that night feeling New Years-y and optimistic.

A love letter to Magic Monkey’s sweet mustard burgers 💌

Other experiences that come to mind are smaller things broken away from their wider context: a mural of a dog, head in paw, tiredly contemplating his existence over a glass of vino, which I was delighted with.

A restaurant’s unlimited frozen wintermelon tea (one of my favourite bubble tea flavours, which, I was thrilled to discover, is consumed like water here).

There was that vegan burger and kombucha place, run by a master and teacher of kung fu stick fighting, with its offerings of notebooks to leave your thoughts behind in, and its deeply intentional and thoughtful air (my theory is that that’s what high levels of vegan ethicality does to you).

A rose-tasting coffee and a letter to my language partner, penning that the infinity-shaped Māori bone carving means that no matter how far you are from one another, the memory that your paths have crossed remains.

I managed to delight a taxi driver by wishing him a year of rising in social rank and many years of abundance and surplus to come- New Year’s well wishes I had learnt in class just that week, which handily gained me a 5-star rating on the taxi app.

I was very off-key when I and three other peers warbled country road, take me home, to the place, I belooong into a microphone for the group of grandmothers (as we call them) we were visiting.

In a richly messy community garden we made tangyuan- little white, pink and purple balls made from squishy, powdery dough reminiscent of marshmallows-with both the youth and the elderly, and this felt so intensely wholesome it was as if fairies were about to emerge from behind the tomato plants.

There’s always so much to write about the moment I step out of the dorms. If I could carry a folding desk on my back with me wherever I go and whip it out right in the middle of the pathway, plonk myself down and lift my laptop cover up to produce some decent blog content, then I probably would. The feeling and details of a moment slip away with the seconds, and I’m left with incomplete moments, describing my week in lists of fractured visions. But, all the same, these are the things that feel the most important to my experience here because I believe that details are what make up the life of any place. By this I mean that it’s easy to simply name the places I’ve been and things that I’ve seen, like saying that I’ve walked down a busy street in a high school neighbourhood, the name of the street, its vendors and their food, the signs receding down the street and the comings and goings from the temple. But these elements, to me at least, never quite feel like the moment or the memory as much as other smaller details, like the rich tinny sound of some variety of symbol or gong, its banging as if keeping time to the fluent exchanges forming their currents down the road. I suppose I seek to define moments the way you revisit a memory in your mind; one or two senses occupy it, with an underlying feeling, either of what was there at the time or what you feel in retrospect. Each moment feels like a particular aesthetic, at least when travelling.

The fact that my brain is filled with so many new details from my senses gives me an inner feeling of having had many experiences, and I truly do enjoy going back through them, observing their aesthetic. Travelling always brings my mind back to the present with all that there is to take in in every moment, and I appreciate the outlook this gives me on life. I will go through this last week sitting comfortably in the present moment, observing the memories as they filter in through my sensations, and tucking away as many as my head will hold.

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