On the first of this year, National Geographic researcher Jeff Chen set off on a walk across the East Coast of Taiwan, an exploration he’s calling A Walk on my Ethnic Lines, to explore his multi-ethnic identity. For 260 miles over the span of three weeks, he’s been filming, photographing, audio recording and blogging his journey to explore the other half of his ethnicity. We asked him to write up a bit about his trip so far.
It’s 4:10 a.m., and we have to go pray. I’m not cut out for monastery life.
For the past two nights, my longtime friend and I have been sleeping at a Buddhist monastery on the East Coast of Taiwan, eating vegetarian food, shoveling cement, making chocolate candies, and mopping the temple floor.
I’m here on a self-administered project I’ve decided to call A Walk on my Ethnic Lines. This exploration of my ethnic identity has been bubbling around in the depths of my gut for some years now, so when the opportunity came for me to fly to Taiwan this winter, I took it.
It’s not the first time I’ve been here, but it is the first time I’ve been here with a critical eye on the half of me who is formed on this island. My other half, I would argue, is something along the lines of White American.
I started walking a week ago more than a hundred kilometers north of where I am now. My travel plans were to walk south and meet people. I’ve hitched a couple of rides and taken a short train ride, but they were all either tangential to meeting people or for the sake of convenience to some of my hosts. I’ve slept by train tracks and staked a tent near waterfalls. Today is the start of the second segment of our walk – 150 km to Taitung, a comparatively larger city than what we’ve seen so far.
The start of the trip was just like any beginning to anything that isn’t well planned: different. After a coffee at a café on the cliffside coast above Dali, we headed south. The weather was cool, but our walking subdued most of the cold. We’d been walking on a coastal road that most cars abandoned once a faster route opened. It’s mostly tractor trailers now. Sometimes even tractor trailers towing tractor trailers.
The thing about walking is that it’s accessible to most people across the world and it really helps you understand the land. People take note of what you’re doing and ask questions. Questions turn into conversations, and then there’s an exchange of cultural information that’s priceless. For the world to meet one another is an endless opportunity of both inner and outer exploration. It’s that simple.
In I-lan, we stayed with my mother’s-friend’s-mother’s-sister for a night. We were getting ready to leave town, but day was turning to night fast. A kid we met helped us ask his middle school if we could spend the night in the school yard. After a welcoming “yes” from an English teacher, the assistant principal turned us away. No worries. I understand.
But as we were leaving, it began to rain. Bummer. We donned our goofy ponchos for the first time and searched for the local university. The security guard told us to stake out in the basement of their student union. In the morning, we awoke to an elderly crowd exercising to their favorite tunes. The mosquitoes kept me awake, so I wandered around. The floor above the exercise troupe was partner dancing to tango music. It was like a nightclub, except in the morning, and with old people. The elderly here are far more active than those I’ve seen elsewhere. Our second wake-up call was students milling around from class to class.
Eight kilometers later, we met a man that had seen us down the road. He bought us “binlang,” an addictive nut that’s chewed in Taiwan. After meeting some of his friends, we stepped into their abandoned house, had tea, and watched them gamble paper bills and dominoes. They were kind to us, and at the moment, that’s all that mattered. Later, we had coffee at a Mazda dealership and chatted with a salesman.
After a short evening train ride and a sloppy night-market meal, we went back to the train station to sleep under a covering that seemed to overlook just the tracks. In the morning, we awoke to a spectacular view of the mountains. A kind station worker gave us a lift closer to Taroko National Park, and said that travelers can always use a helping hand.
I got more than my share of worldly wisdom after sleeping under the roar of the many waterfalls in the park. We hit the road again in the morning, keeping in mind that we needed to get to this charity organization by nightfall. We stopped at a 7-Eleven for an afternoon snack.
As we were leaving, I saw a sign that pointed to the Tzu-Chi Academy.
Our afternoon hunger landed us exactly where we needed to be. We walked to the monastery, dropped our packs in front of the temple, and went in for an evening prayer, as directed by the man who greeted us at the entrance.
There we spent two nights of 3:50 a.m. wake-ups, 2-hour prayers, chores throughout the morning, and a visit to an even larger temple boasting a mosaic of Buddha holding the Earth. After living in monastic order, we’re on the road again, now with no order to our travels except a road going south.
Stay tuned for more of Jeff’s reflections from the road.
Photos: top, Stephen Fleg; bottom two, Jeff Chen