By Leslie Ho, 17, Walnut HS
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(Front to back) Leslie’s brother, Leslie, her aunt, mom and uncle take a break from hiking to the temple.

When summer rolls around, all I can think about is Taiwan. Taiwan calls to me, and I am miserable every summer that I can’t go. Even though I was born and raised in America, I try to visit every two or three years.

I feel strongly connected to Taiwan because I am the first generation in my family to be born in the United States, and all my roots are back in Taiwan.

When my mother’s side of the family comes to pick us up from the airport, they always drive us to the nearest breakfast stand to have our first meal together in one or two years. All of Taipei comes out to breakfast stands in the morning. Although I am half-asleep because of the 15-hour time difference, I still notice that all around us are families eating together. There are fathers in business suits slurping steaming bowls of soy milk next to their children in their school uniforms.

There is an openness that makes me feel like I belong, even though I did not grow up there. On my last trip two years ago, I was visiting an old coal mining town, and I passed by a coal cart covered with small tubes of bamboo. On the bamboo tubes, people had written their wishes in black Sharpie for everyone to see. In America, I was told to keep my birthday and coin-toss wishes secret or else they won’t come true. However, in Taiwan, everyone shares them because they all want the same thing. The two most common that I saw were to lose weight and to get into a prestigious university. I felt touched seeing that, because it meant that that many other people were struggling with the same things that I was, and we all wanted one another to know that.

All it takes is for us to say that we are Taiwanese who have come from America for anyone from taxi drivers to store clerks to start gushing “Welcome back!” and “So you’re finally home.” Even though I still sometimes mangle my Mandarin and I can barely read Chinese, I have never felt like I did not belong, all because everyone else is too friendly to care.

However, what I like best is that even though Taiwan is a modern, developed country, it takes only a 40-minute car ride from the city center of Taipei to get to the rain forest. My aunts and uncles love taking me hiking on the weekends. There are paths for the city families that go to escape for the weekend, so that you don’t have to be experienced to be able to enjoy the sights. Even grandparents often turn out for these weekend trips. Spending a day in Taiwan’s forest-covered mountains is one of the two things that I have to do when I go.

The last time I went back to Taiwan, we went on a short day hike with my mother’s family. There were steps cut into the slippery, mossy rocks. As we climbed, we were surrounded by trees and tall bamboo. All I could see was green. I have gone hiking around Los Angeles before, but the land is dry, and the plants that do grow are scraggly and look withered. It is beautiful but in a lonely, uninviting way.

But on the trails in Taiwan, I feel differently. Even though the path was narrow and it was sometimes scary to look down and see nothing but trees and plants, I kept going. It didn’t matter that my muscles were sore because I was much more concerned with staring at the paradise around me. The mountain seemed even more wild and natural when halfway through our hike, a man hunting boars ran past us with several lean, fierce hunting dogs.

After two hours we reached our destination: a little clearing by a stream. As my uncle boiled water for our packs of instant noodle, we sipped warm tea from a thermos and chatted. My mom told my brother and I how she had spent her childhood exploring places like this. By taking us on that hiking trip, my family was sharing with my brother and me their own childhood experiences. As we slurped up our noodles, we listened and laughed while my aunts and uncles told us stories of what had happened since the last time we had visited. They told us about past hiking trips, and hilarious arguments that somehow involved the whole family. The memory of that hike sticks out to me because I felt so complete and happy. I had my family with me, and the plants, trees and stream is what I have always pictured as what nature should be.

The second of the two most important things for me to do in Taiwan is to visit a night market and eat myself silly on the famous street food. Night markets are kind of like open-air malls filled with stands selling new clothes, electronics and DVDs, and delicious street food. They can take up whole sections of the street and are free. They open to the public at about 7 or 8 every night, just about when parents are back from work and children are off from school, and last until midnight.

Although some of the food may seem strange or even gross to Americans, it is perfectly normal to me and other Taiwanese people. I pass places grilling whole squid and other seafood, selling chewy chicken-butt kabobs, barbequed pig feet, and pork blood-and-sticky-rice cakes that are steamed and covered with peanut powder and sweet chili sauce. They are all incredibly delicious, but I am looking for tastiest treat of all: oyster omelettes.

They are omelettes with small, thumb-nail sized juicy oysters, covered in a layer of gelatinous corn starch, a layer of Taiwanese bok choy (Chinese cabbage) and smothered in sweet chili sauce. It is extremely flavorful, and the oysters and the gelatin layer add a much loved texture that is called, you gotta believe me, “Q” in Chinese: which means chewy, but with a nice bite.

When I spot a stand selling oyster omelettes, I jostle into place with the crowd standing around the cook as he prepares the omelettes on a large, circular stove. The crowd is big, and for a good reason. The smell from the stove makes me drool and my stomach rumble even though I’ve already chowed down on sausages and stinky tofu. I sit on a plastic stool and wait impatiently for my plate to arrive. It is hot and the small ceiling fan does not help at all, and the place looks like a cheap, dirty kitchen filled with people. However, when the food arrives, and I take my first bite and taste the chili sauce and the oysters, and that all important “Q” texture, it does not matter anymore.

The omelette is enough to power me through a shopping spree through the night market. People don’t come to night markets to buy old or used things; everything is new and cheap. One U.S. dollar is worth about 32 Taiwan dollars, so what is already cheap for the locals is even cheaper for me. What makes it fun is that even though there is a price tag, you can haggle with the store keeper to lower the prices. At the right stands, with the right people to drive bargains, I end up with seven pairs of jeans, countless tank tops and shirts, shoes, two bags, and three belts. I am set for clothes until the next time I come back. It may seem like overkill, but stores in the U.S. don’t sell clothes in that distinctive cute, sweet Asian style. Not only that, but the clothes are incredibly cheap.

I usually stay in Taiwan for three weeks, because I have schoolwork to do during the rest of the summer. My family always makes a big fuss about taking us to the airport and seeing us off before our flight. My stomach feels tight throughout the ride, because I know it will be another two years until my next visit.

On the 12-hour flight back to Los Angeles, I am torn. I am leaving the place that feels like home in my heart, for the place that I officially call home. It takes about one or two weeks for me to get used to being back in Los Angeles, but in Taiwan I jump right into life. When I wake up in the morning, there are no breakfast stands that are conveniently around the corner. I do not hear the familiar buzz of cicadas when I walk around. There are malls and food courts instead of the crowded, lively night markets. Staying in Taiwan is like having a  three-week long dream, and when I come home it is like waking up to a more boring reality.

This summer, I can only dream about going back because my brother is stuck with summer school. Next summer, after I graduate from high school, I plan to join a volunteer program funded by the Taiwanese government for overseas Taiwanese to come back and do volunteer projects. Not only will I have fun in Taiwan, but I will be able to give back the kindness and hospitality that the people there have given to me.