On my first day in Taiwan I covered about 15.2 kilometers walking. I strolled all the way from Taipei Main Station to Taipei 101, passing by several main attractions on my way — 228 Peace Park, Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, Liberty Square, Yongkang Street, and Da’an Park. I spent at least 30 minutes to an hour in each spot, mostly to rest and hide from the sun.
The first thing I noticed at the 228 Peace Park was that 95% of the people there were elderlies doing exercises and what seemed to me like rituals. One grandfather was even shouting as he did his ritual. I admit at first I found it weird. I was culture shocked.
It was the same for the park at Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. It was also flocked by old people doing rituals and exercises in groups. I even witnessed a grandmother touching the bamboos, almost as if worshipping them. I was shocked still.
My last stop before Taipei 101 was Da’an Forest Park. It was about eight in the morning. By this time I got used to the elders doing their thing. I looked for a bench to sit and rest on. I could finally see the Taipei 101 and I felt less anxious. I was starting to question my decisions and my impulsive tendencies. Why walk this far? Why go to Taiwan during the summer? Why do you keep making things harder than they should be? There are subways! I swear I wanted to give up and head back to my hostel to rest. I’m glad I went on.
People in groups and pairs passed by, a lot of them with their dogs. I felt self-conscious because most of them would look and stare at me for a few seconds and I’d feel as if they were judging me. A few would acknowledge me and nod, to which I nodded back.
A man and his white dog sat on the bench in front of the one I was sitting on. He smiled at me and I smiled back. I continued doing my thing. At that time I was writing on my small notebook and drinking from my bottled water from time to time. A few moments later the man opened his bag and took out a notebook and a pencil. At first I thought he was just jotting notes but then he started sketching his dog. I could tell by the way he looked at his dog and then at his sketchbook, by the way his hand moved across the paper. I knew and I smiled. Aside from that en plein air activity we had for one of our Fine Arts courses, where we drew outdoors, it was my first time witnessing someone actually doing that.
After a few minutes the man jumped off his seat. I thought he was leaving but he walked towards me and started a conversation. He asked me where I was from and if I was traveling alone. I felt a bit uneasy and wary because there wasn’t much people passing by at that time. I was in foreign soil and I was alone. A stranger approaches me so naturally I’d be alarmed. I told him I was from the Philippines and that yes, I was traveling alone.
He then told me that he was an artist and an art teacher at a local high school in Taipei. I felt less uneasy. I was amazed by the coincidence and told him I was an art student myself. He just smiled and told me I had the same vibe as his art students. That made me smile.
His dog was circling around him by that time, sniffing me every now and then. I wanted to pet her but I was too scared. Instead, I just asked if I could take a photo of his dog and he agreed. I offered him the seat beside me because he was just standing there the whole time. He politely declined.
We then talked about several topics such as art, Taiwan, Taiwan’s culture and traditions, the Philippines, and even Duterte (it turns out he’s quite known in Taiwan for his Drug War and is often on the news).
I mentioned that one of my professors (Hi ma’am if you’re reading this!) lived in Taiwan for a month for an artist residency a few years back. I told him the organization that handled the program was called Bamboo Curtain Studio but he seemed to have misunderstood what I said because he suddenly told me that Bamboos are an important part of Taiwanese culture. They believe that they, the Taiwanese, are like bamboos – hard on the outside but soft and good-hearted inside and that they do their best to uphold that virtue. This is one of the many reasons I love traveling and interacting with locals — I get to learn so much about their culture!
We spent a little over an hour conversing, mostly him sharing about Taiwan’s culture and me listening intently and asking a few questions here and there. He told me he was going to retire in a few months and would be focusing on his craft and learning from the masters. He went on for a while, sharing the art workshops he attended and held in the past months.
I started to feel that our conversation was about to end. At this point my uneasiness started to resurface and I was expecting him to offer me a product (lol) or invite me to an event or whatever but no words came out. A few moments later he started to talk again and told me that another vital part of their culture is their strong belief in Fate. I was stunned. Partly because I had a similar experience in Korea but mostly because I realized my tendency to assume the worst from other people.
He then continued to tell me how he thought that our meeting was fate – how we both happened to be at the Park at that moment, how him and his dog chose that bench, how he approached and started a conversation with me. I agreed and I smiled widely. There was a short pause but not the kind that was awkward – we were just taking our time digesting all that we have discussed and shared with each other.
Before they left I asked his name and his dog’s name. We said our farewells. We smiled at each other for the last time and he and his dog walked away. I was smiling still. For the first time I was thankful for booking that flight to Taipei, for walking that far. I was thankful for the heat and the exhaustion, for the opportunity to explore and experience a place completely alien to me. I tried to recall all the times I wanted to give up that day and I thought, “I am where I should be.”