During Chinese New Year, Adam and I were fortunate enough to spend it with a Taiwanese family in Taichung, which literally means the center of Taiwan. The third largest city boasts plenty of green parks and sunny, mild winters. After sending a detailed CouchSurfing request, Cindy accepted it immediately. She was sweet enough to give me her address in Chinese and English as well as tell me that she is “very tall”. Twice.
We arrived in Taichung after traveling for several hours from 6.a.m in Haulien (half of the time was spent standing in the train; it was too crowded for seats during the holiday). She picked us up near a 7-Eleven in our failed attempt to walk to her place from the train station and brought us to her parents’ abode. Yes, she is a tall girl, but not quite tall enough to warrant advisory. Her mom and dad, Angel and Peter, greeted us with their three jumpy dogs, one with a permanent funny facial expression. Within the first five minutes, Angel gave us red envelopes with money inside, a custom on the new year. This kind gesture was foreshadowing the many acts of generosity the Chang family was about to demonstrate to us for the next two days.
The first thing we did together was visit the Buddhist temple steps from their home. The detailed architecture is colored vibrantly outside and contains brilliant shrines inside, all while being surrounded by the pungent smell of incense. In front of the gods are ornate displays of fruit to serve as offerings for the spirits. We each got five incense and ritually placed them throughout the temple and bowing each time. I wasn’t sure what the purpose was, so I made wishes each time. It was actually quite difficult to come up with five, serving as a reminder that I already have what I want in this satisfying life of mine. I’m thankful every day for my life and opportunities. (I later learned that burning incense is a way of communicating to the spirits, linking Heaven and Earth.)
Cindy invited us to a family gathering at her grandfather’s. We wore our fanciest clothes (that isn’t saying much) wrinkled in our backpacks and prepared some gifts of apples in a fancy box and Korean seaweed.
Seconds before we knocked on the door, Cindy let us know that her family did not know we were coming. I suddenly became fearful of intruding on this private event, but those nerves were calmed when we walked in the door and smiles welcomed us. There were about 10 people in attendance, all of them sharing Angel’s DNA. Cindy’s grandfather even gave Adam and I each a red envelope. We later discovered that they gave us over $100 USD! Again, baffled by their generosity.
They pulled up extra chairs for us and we all sat around the table (round tables > rectangular ones). Since the family practices Buddhism, they are vegetarians. In addition to not eating meat, they abstain from garlic and onions. Despite these restrictions, the food was fantastic and flavorful. We hovered over our bowl of noodles while plopping food from the center of the table onto our tiny dishes using communal chopsticks. Usually I’m examining my food and picking out meat, so it was nice to not have to worry about it during this feast. When one dish was a quarter of the way eaten, another dish was put on the table. The cycle continued on and on for over an hour. I can’t recall everything I devoured, but there were a lot of soups (both sweet and savory), tofu, mushrooms, vegetables, fried rice cakes with cheese, dumplings, etc., etc. Adam and I remained silent for a good portion of the meal while the family conversed in Taiwanese – it almost reminded me of being at school lunch in Korea. However, they were really kind and made efforts to speak to us in English. I appreciate their thoughtfulness, but also feel guilty for intruding into their culture and family, yet they are the ones who accommodated me because I can’t speak their language.
We were complete strangers to the Changs, but they still treated us like family. I am still bewildered by their generosity. They showed us around town, brought us to beautiful parks, patiently taught us how to play some Mahjong, gave us a comfortable place to sleep. We sat around drinking tea and eating desserts, nibbled on street food in the bustling night market, tested our luck with lottery tickets, and even had an eight-course meal in the fanciest restaurant I’ve been to in years. Throughout our many conversations, I learned quite a bit about Taiwanese culture while they learned about American and Korean customs, often defying stereotypes. We also shared many laughs and created good memories and inside jokes. Angel even surprised me with a birthday gift of a green scarf (she sneakily asked me my favorite color). I wear it proudly.
The least we could do was get them a few gifts to leave at their office because they refused to let us pay for anything. Besides mango chocolates, a handwritten letter, and homemade watercolor bookmark, we got them a few lottery tickets to hid them around their office for them to discover. Turns out they won over $1000 Taiwanese Dollars!
CouchSurfing has been a lifestyle that has changed the world of travel. It is an opportunity to really connect with locals, something that can be difficult to do by staying in a hotel or hostel. Even though you stay for free and are saving money on accommodation, we still end up spending a similar amount of money on gifts/dinner for our host. More on this topic in another post.
Want to travel in Taiwan during Chinese New Year? Read these 7 tips!