Dispatch from Taiwan: A Western night in an Eastern cityPosted: April 3, 2013
Of all the food joints in all of the districts in all of Taipei, Dave wants to meet at a thoroughly American establishment.
“Let’s meet over by Nanjing East Road Station. Meet me at the Hooter’s there.”
“You want to eat at Hooter’s?”
“Oh, hell no. I just want to stare at some girls while I’m waiting for you to show up.”
I walk to the corner of Nanjing East Road and Fuxing North Road. A stop for the Taipei Metro, the city’s rapid-transit system, looms above the busy intersection. It takes over a minute to fight through the crowd and cross the street in the rush hour traffic. I see a KFC and a 7-11–they’re ubiquitous in Taiwan–but there’s no sign of Hooter’s anywhere. This is why people have smart phones. My borrowed cellphone, my uncle’s, rings; it’s Dave.
“Hey man,” I ask. “Where’s this spot? Is it on Nanjing East or Fuxing North?”
“It’s not on either. It’s near the back of the metro station. Just ask somebody on the street.”
I’m not going to ask anyone on any street, in Taiwan or any other city, how to get to Hooters. Eventually I find it. It’s been five years since I last saw Dave, at a dingy bar in San Francisco, and I wonder whether I’ll be able to pick him out of a crowd, but there’s his stocky frame at a table beneath the restaurant’s awning.
We catch up over beers. Dave’s been living in Taiwan for the past three years or so. He was born in Taiwan originally, but he moved to California when he was two and grew up in the United States. He’s thoroughly American in his speech and sensibilities, and unlike me, he’s not as taken with the local cuisine. When he says he misses the food of his childhood, he means something else altogether.
In fact, Dave’s goal at this point is to open a taco shop in Taiwan. There’s no good Mexican food in Taipei, and he aims to remedy that. To that end, we hop on the metro and make our way to Juanita Burritos and Tacos in the Da’an district for some market research. It’s raining at this point, the sky relieving itself of a week’s worth of humidity.
Juanita’s something of a Chipotle knockoff, and English is the language of choice for Westerner patrons and locals alike. The food’s decent, but it’s the culinary lowlight of my trip thus far. The pork doesn’t pass the test of Dave’s discriminating palate, and the guacamole is disappointing; fresh avocados are hard to come by here. Dave is convinced he can do better. He’s working on some recipes, and he plans on starting with a food cart.
“If all goes well, would you quit your job?”
“Oh, hell yes. I’m surprised they haven’t fired me yet.”
We finish our meals and mull over the night’s possibilities. “It’s Thursday, right?” Dave asks. “Let’s go to the Brass Monkey. It’s ladies’ night. It’s an expat bar, and it’s where Taipei girls go to meet Western guys.” I wonder whether he includes the two of us in the latter category.
A cover of NT$150 a person–about 5 bucks–buys us entrance along with a bottle of Heineken. There are some tables in front by the bar and a dance floor further in with a DJ in the back corner. The crowd is a random mix of Taipei college kids with their unique take on American fashion–skirts and Uggs–and Westerners in nonhipster plaid. Most of the latter group look to be in their twenties or thirties, but there are a few older balding guys chatting up local girls. I try not to pass judgment and fail.
A group of Americans take over the dance floor, grinning broadly and dancing manically, surrounded by a phalanx of Asians gaping in earnest, anthropological interest. Throughout the night, the DJ spins a random, uneven mix that includes both that SNL song “I Just Had Sex” and One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful.” I step outside, where two German guys compliment me on my English. I meet a girl who’s majoring in International Relations in Taipei; she asks me what I’m studying. The same things that happen in New York City happen on the other side of the planet, it seems.
The night’s events take a pleasant turn toward the bizarre when a tiny old man, a shoo-in for Accidental Asian Hipster of the year, waltzes to the dance floor. He’s wearing a red and white Super-Marios-looking cap, a red neck-kerchief, a red fanny pack, and a blue tank top over a colorful striped long-sleeve tee. He dances like the quote says, like nobody’s watching, but everyone is. I want to rub his head and make three wishes. I settle for a group photograph.
I’m beat by midnight, feeling the jet lag, and decide to go. The rain outside has slowed to a drizzle. I find Dave at the bar chatting up a girl entranced by his dance moves. I tell them I’m leaving, and she says, “Wow, you’re really red. You must have had a lot to drink!”
It’s actually sunburn from Sun Moon Lake, but I don’t bother correcting her.