Faye Hasian (SFS’24) is an undergraduate student in the Walsh School of Foreign Service where she is majoring in international politics and minoring in Chinese. She is a PADI DiveMaster and AIDA II FreeDiver hailing from Indonesia. When she isn't in the ocean, Faye enjoys being terrible at lifting, mediocre at knitting, and arguably stellar at installing bidets onto dorm room toilets. She is part of the spring 2023 cohort of the Doyle Global Dialogue.
“We come from a long line of deviants throughout history all with the same final destination in the celestial order,” Meng Sheng muses dryly in Taiwanese author Qiu Miaojin’s novella Notes of a Crocodile. “Death.”
I began my semester in Taiwan thinking of Meng Sheng, a hedonistic, brash character seeking to tame the world. In some ways, Meng Sheng to me represented an impossible love for life, an unapologetic individuality that I struggled to understand within the context of the Asia I knew. However, it was within the first week of arriving in Taipei that I realized Meng Sheng is not an impossible character—only an exaggeration.
In Taipei, cultures of the world rest against each other. Somehow both bustling and soothing, the city is a tapestry of opposites: traditional architecture preserved by modern innovations, spiritual discipline intertwined with the rhythm of nine-to-five jobs, and individuality shining through commonality. It is hard not to fall in love.
I often spent my days wandering through Taipei’s many different public parks. Some parks are for sprawling on the grass with a book in hand, while others are much livelier. I can say that it was in Taipei where I first tried to salsa (although to call my clumsy footwork salsa is gratuitous) with an elderly couple who led workshops at Daan Park. Weekend salsa workshops are followed by a short walk to the saxophone player on the other side of the park, who is seldom without the elderly woman dancing in front of him. I had first assumed they came as a set until Dancer Woman pulled me into her dance and spun me around while regaling me with tales of her youth and about how she rediscovered dancing through meeting Saxophone Man every weekend. If Taipei thrums with energy, then the thrumming spills from these parks where families and lovers and friends and strangers come together.
I have heard of cities that “transform” at night, where quiet streets suddenly clammer with life. Taipei does not transform—it unfolds. As the sun begins to set, the famed night markets dawn. Out come the stalls and the stallkeepers, bringing with them an aroma (or stench, in the case of stinky tofu) that invites you to gorge yourself at every step. As someone who prides herself on trying to eat everything at least once, it is perhaps at the night markets where I learned the most about Taiwan. From braised intestine (滷味內臟) to pig’s blood cake (豬血糕), I was left in awe of the diversity of Taiwanese food. These were the experiences that initiated conversations with stallkeepers on slower nights when lulls between customers were long enough that they’d strike up a conversation with me. “I know many Indonesians!” they would often tell me, then proceed to show off a little bit of Bahasa Indonesian. Once again, it is hard not to fall in love.
Although I was limited by the regular constraints that make up studying abroad (time, rules, tiresome social dynamics), I was lucky enough for an opportunity to visit Xiaoliuqiu (小琉球) and Green Island (綠島). The first, a solo trip to the island known as a sea turtle paradise, introduced me to people eager to show me Taiwan’s underwater world. Freediving sessions were interspersed with visits to local temples and roadside stalls, where we frequently compared notes on underwater creatures in Taiwan and Indonesia. Unbelievably, I found an Indonesian on the island—a woman running a fruit stall who’d been there for over two decades. “I can tell you’re from Jakarta,” she said as she pressed a wax apple into my palm. “Your Jakartan accent is so thick!”
On Green Island, I was met with the ocean, bordered by cliffs stretching up so high that they kiss the clouds. At some points, the cliffs make way for gaping sea caves, full of life in all their charming ways—hordes of bats, clumps of moss, and little millipedes. Outside, the tide pools are similarly lively—tiny crabs run to and fro, fish await high tide, and sea urchins rest in the crevices of rocks. We woke up early to watch the sunrise one morning, biking up a hill I swear was vertical, my friends and I huffing and puffing to see a sun we’d seen before. Except, when we got to the top, it was a sun I’d never felt before. It looked the same, lazily rising through the orange-hued clouds, but it felt different, a new sunrise seen by a new-ish person. I don’t think I believe in anyone ever being fully changed by an experience, but I believe in being loved and giving love in all the ways that translate (not transcend) across cultures.
And all through Taiwan, Notes of a Crocodile often found itself in my backpack, a familiar weight against an unfamiliar terrain. Whether in Taipei or Xiaoliuqiu, people make time to learn from each other and to love each other, in every shape one can imagine. In this country, I relearned what I thought I already knew about being human, and I realized my answer will always shift as I grow with the world. I might never settle on an answer, but that’s alright. As Meng Sheng ends up deciding, “Any history that says I have to die is bull****.”