Bubble Tea and Life: What I learned about myself in Taiwan

This was the last tapioca ball you’d chew in your hometown. Enough of the watered down, flavorless and utterly fake bubble tea at your local mall. The organic matcha-pumpkin-spice-fusion-massaged-tapioca-loaded drink no longer does it for you.

Neither does any of the other plethora of Chinese restaurants flooded with flavors tailored for Western tongues. You’ve been craving an authentic cultural experience for the longest. A place where you can sip some real bubble tea and experience your parents’ roots in person.

In this article, you’re going to learn how I connected with my roots while in Taiwan -- while drinking glorious bubble tea.

Have you ever walked across the thin width of a street curb trying to balance without falling off?

As a first generation American Jamaican-Chinese, I’ve lived in the in-between for all of my life.

This has influenced my relationships, identity and life philosophy from childhood.

While I was surrounded by Jamaican culture since I was young, I didn’t have access to my Chinese roots until later in my life. Only by name and photos did I know they existed. Well, after eight years of karate under a traditional Japanese sensei in my home state of Florida, I was determined to make my way over to Asia.

Throughout my travels in Japan, I used the familiar to bridge the unknown. Namely, my Chinese heritage. My first stop was in nearby Taiwan. Afterwards, I hopped around the region, visiting Hong Kong, South Korea, and finally, China. Only after visiting these places, I began to tap into my roots and feel closer to family members that were once faces in faded Polaroids.

Taiwan stood out to me as the ideal place to go deeper into my Chinese background. The main reasons being the traditional Chinese characters, the kindness, and the sense of home. While of course, you will walk your own road, I hope my story can inspire you to come to Taiwan and take a sip of bubble tea to get your life.

Why Taiwan?

Communication to me is everything. Without it, whether it be written, spoken or experienced, people wouldn’t be able to do anything. That is why, whenever I visit another country, I do my best to learn a few key phrases in the native language.

Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world with 1.3 billion speakers. In China, simplified characters were created to allow the many different ethnicities in China to connect and communicate with each other. Thus allowing the country to rocket towards modernity. There’s a simplified version of the simplification for ya.

In Taiwan, however, the original Chinese characters are left intact. This is something I can jam with. I appreciate traditions as a time capsule of how life used to be lived. You can get a taste of people’s mindset based on how they acknowledge their traditions. One of respect for those that came before. Of course, there’s a long, complex and still debated history between Taiwan and China that is worth mentioning. But that goes beyond the scope of this article.

Next, is the kindness. On a whole, the Taiwanese people are welcoming and accommodating. Without being subservient, they show their openness and generosity endlessly. Different than the often dutiful behavior of the Japanese, I felt like the Taiwanese that showed me around were genuinely sharing their culture without trying to fulfill some national role.
Lastly, the climate, culture and people came together to form a lollapalooza of “home.” The tropical climate was great for my Jamaican roots, and the food was everywhere, varied and cheap. And all of the Chinese arts were available for me to dive deeper into. Tai chi, music, kung fu, calligraphy, traditional Chinese cuisine, all of the things. For me the highlight was the access to guqin classes, the zither Confucius is said to have played thousands of years ago.

Come to Taiwan for the perfect bubble tea of history, humanity and home.

3 ways to connect to your roots while in Taiwan

Just like the manager, Ms. Lin Hsiu Hui, did back in 1988 at Chun Shui Tang teahouse in Taichung, you hold the power to create your own experience. No one knew that when she poured the tapioca balls from her pudding dessert into her Assam iced tea, that the drink would become he massive sensation it is today. Here’s how you can create your own discovery of your ancestral roots while in Taiwan.

  1. Throw yourself into the history.

  2. Throw the first words at strangers.

  3. Throw yourself into a home.

Yes, that’s a lot of throwing. But just like Hui did back in the 80s, you must throw yourself out of your comfort zone to undergo change. One place where you can get all three done is Homey Hostel right next to Taipei Main Station.

I’ve done all three during my visits to Taiwan. And thus have felt more in touch with my Chinese roots. Homey Hostel has great reason to include “homey” in its name, as you instantly feel comfortable when you walk through the doors. From the environment to the people inside, you won’t regret your choice to stay here.

While most of the guests are in their early-20s, you will find people of all different age ranges and circumstances. The mix of different perspectives and cultures is perfect for those used to balancing along the street curb from earlier in this article.

With numerous day tours and pre-arranged experiences, you can explore the history of Taiwan unlike many other hostels that just provide accommodation. The people that come through are not afraid to spark up a conversation. But of course, you will get the richest experience from starting the conversation on your side.

I’ve found that from all my travels in Asia until now, throwing oneself off the curb sometimes is the best option. Especially when you find yourself landing on an assortment of different tapioca balls of experience. Just like the miracle accident of boba tea, you might find yourself with a massive hit.

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