Photograph by Michael Wolf, laif/Redux
I pass through the turnstile at the exit of the Jiantan elevated train stop and follow a throng of thousands down the stairs and into Shilin, one of Taiwan’s most famous night markets across the Keelung River, near the heart of Taipei.
Above me, Chinese characters scrawled on brightly lit red, white, and yellow signs pierce the Taipei sky. Floodlights swing above women stirring noodles in cast-iron woks and flipping oyster omelets on sizzling grills. I can understand a small set of random, only moderately useful words—“I,” “good,” “beer,” “eat”—in the steady pulse of Mandarin and Taiwanese shouted by vendors and passersby.
It is my first visit to the land where I was born, where most people have hair and eyes like mine, where I’m about as tall (or as short) as everyone else. Still, I am a foreigner, laowai. I left Taiwan in 1974, when I was an eight-month-old infant, to be raised by an American family in Detroit, a place that could not be more different from this. Taipei, located about one hundred miles from the southeast coast of China, is a crowded landscape of skyscrapers, Buddhist temples, and weaving traffic. The market feels like a riotous blend of foreign sensations.
Fortunately, my Chinese sisters guide me. I discover I have six in Taiwan and one in Switzerland. A couple of days after our reunion, four of them lead me through the jungle of people at the night market, buying me shaved ice dripping with fruit and juices, and popping barbecued quail eggs into my mouth.
My sisters are ready to purchase anything for me. They want to show me their native hospitality. They want to make up for 23 years lost.
One of my older sisters holds up a pair of earrings.
“You like? Pretty!”
Dolphins. I’m grateful, but it’s not exactly my style. And their generosity is humbling, overwhelming. I smile and say, in my suddenly broken English, “Too much. Not necessary.”
She ignores me and bargains with the shopkeepers. They bark prices at each other and throw their arms into the air. But then they laugh, a deal is struck, and the merchandise thrust toward me.
We dodge the women selling neon T-shirts illegally from a rack in the middle of the street. Young girls with their hair dyed blond and pink try on sunglasses. Boys nose their mopeds through the fray.
I wander, puzzling over another menu I can’t understand. I’m a soggy noodle in the humidity of a Taiwan spring night. The growing mob pushes in, close.
“Xiaojie! Miss!” A woman calls to me and grabs my sleeve. She wants to sell me something. I shrug the universal sign for “I don’t know what you’re saying.”
My younger sister slips her hand into mine. The feeling of our intertwined fingers sends a jolt through my body.
In Taiwan, women commonly hold hands. As awkward as this intimacy feels to me, the American, I let her lead me away. The combination of this closeness, the dizzying smell of fried dumplings, and the screaming singsong of men selling fabric scissors leaves me breathless.
I’d never wanted to visit Taiwan or my biological family before, but here I am, feeling as if I never want to leave, magically assimilating to a place and people I’d never known. Later, I’ll look back and wonder if this intense sense of belonging was a dream, an illusion of desire. But during this first visit to Shilin, I could not feel more at home. I let the night market absorb me. I’m a rainbow sign promising the best bargain, a shrimp in a neon tank, a piece of tofu sweltering in soup. The colorful Chinese characters stacked high above us leave a brilliant stamp in my memory.
My sisters and I meander through the damp streets and alleys, stopping here and there to inspect a pair of platform sandals. We shake our hips to the Mandarin pop blaring from shop speakers. My heart feels so open it bleeds as we hold tightly to one another’s hands and slide through the crowd like a snake.
Mei-Ling Hopgood is the author of Lucky Girl and How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm.
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
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