Food for thought in Taiwan
Designer, photographer and environmentalist Xárene Eskandar walks the dark alleys of Taipei as its night markets open up new landscapes – allowing a personal exploration of a relationship with a fear born in Tehran and the American suburbs
There are landscapes that are inaccessible to women. Growing up between two such societies – Tehran of the Mullahs and Reagan’s suburbia – the 80s for me were dominated by the patriarchy that exacerbated the impracticalities of being a female.
In Tehran, I was punished by society for exploring many ‘forbidden’ landscapes. Exploring the antique bazaar of Tehran as an unaccompanied teenager sent a message that I am a young prostitute. Going to a party at night where girls and boys could mingle was immoral and the Revolutionary Guard were patrolling for any indication of festivities. Joyriding a motorcycle through the streets of Tehran had my parents called to my high school and reprimanded by the administration who were a proxy arm of the Revolutionary Guard, rather than educators and protectors of children. In case you’re wondering, girls and women should not display their behinds on bikes and motorcycles.
I was punished by society for exploring many ‘forbidden’ landscapes.
In the 80s US we were intimidated by exploring the dangerous landscape of the ‘inner cities’, because you know, Black people. Everything in our culture told us to be afraid of ‘the other’. Movies, cartoons, books, and the evening news warned of a looming nuclear war brought on by the Soviets. Ironically, growing up in the Midwest during the Iran Contra Affair introduced a new landscape of not belonging in the eyes of the White conservative suburbanites; they viewed me and my family as belonging to the same brutal regime of the mullahs that I’d grown up persecuted by.
When it comes to women, both these societies of my childhood, the Islamic Republic and the United States, actually shared a lot of similarities. Both taught the victimization of women, and women as ‘the other’. For example, statistics on rape in the US have never been accurate because many women still don’t report rapes because the police don’t take it seriously. Women are asked, “where were you?” and “were you drinking?” as if both these places are off limits to women. In Tehran things are even worse; women aren’t even regarded as human beings with the same rights as men. The police will ask women for a witness to the rape to verify their claim. Naturally, many women just close off out of self preservation and protection.
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Feeling trapped, I spent my young adulthood searching for and defining my landscape. By my 20s, the Soviet Union was gone and I was escaping people and places driven by fear and control by going to raves in the dark belly of Detroit warehouses. Detroit – particularly its inner city – was my way of escaping a stifling society and saying I didn’t want it to dictate who I was, what I could do, and where I could go. Although I’d never bought into conservative fear-based ideologies, I’d never really overcome its trappings either because ultimately there really are landscapes that are inaccessible to women. Some real fears as a solo woman at night were always in the back of my mind as I quickly and directly walked to my car in the dark industrial streets, my keys clenched between my fingers as makeshift knuckle dusters.
Thirty years later, I’ve been traveling the world for work and have learned to push new boundaries on landscapes to explore, still carrying my keys as a self-defense weapon. The creative exploration of the urban nightscape however has always eluded me.
But that changed when I arrived in Taipei alongside a typhoon.
My steady career has been to simplify and communicate new technology concepts for adoption by the general public. In August 2016 I landed in Taipei to work with a blockchain company that was at the forefront of establishing digital assets and NFTs. Battling a rough jet-lag from a 16-hour time difference between Los Angeles and Taipei, I floated into the office surrounded by the surreal pink light of the typhoon. The thick light in Taipei doesn’t bounce; it envelopes and weighs down on you.
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Being a traveler that does zero research prior but devours with curiosity once I arrive, and wanting to make sure I avoid faux pas, the first question I had for my Taiwanese colleagues was a general, “So tell me about Taiwan’s political situation.” The immediate answer in quintessential Taiwanese fashion, reserved and polite, was that “Taiwan is NOT China”.
It’s a sovereign nation, Republic of China (pop ~24 mil), affectionately known as the “little potato island” because it looks like a potato and it’s little compared to its neighbors, notably, the Communist, People’s Republic of China (pop ~1.4 bil). My colleagues downloaded as much as my sleepy attention span allowed. (Here’s what I remember: Communists came, some fled the mainland and established a democratic government on the potato island, then Japan took over, then they were independent again.)
As I was becoming acquainted with everyone and setting up my desk and design library, the typhoon rolled through. Once it was over, so was the work day. I set out in pursuit of my favorite activity: getting lost in cities where I cannot read the signage. By this time I had my second wind and the overbearing sleep of jet lag had disappeared. Camera in hand, I made a left onto a street jam packed with scooters.
Like locusts, they were everywhere.
One day, I too will be involved in an accident with one.
I started walking.
My first stop: a 7-Eleven a couple blocks from the office. If you don’t know, 7-Eleven in Asia is the bomb. When my friend Shinji told me that in 2003, I refused to believe him. Until the following year, when I stayed in Tokyo for a few weeks and found myself frequenting the one next door. Fresh sushi and hot green tea round the clock. In Taipei’s 7-Eleven, I was greeted by my first Taiwanese food obsession: tea eggs – a rice-cooker with eggs floating in a dark brine of black tea, Kaoliang liquor, and five spices. Originally made as a way to preserve eggs, it’s available round the clock at every corner mart. I assimilated very quickly to this sweet and savory treat.
Another night in the future, my new friend, Iping, will take me to an herbalist to gather the spices for the tea eggs. I was determined to make these at home in Los Angeles. (I did, and my home smelled of Taiwanese 7-Eleven.) The herbalist was a showman who could mix you anything from aphrodisiac soup to cough syrup.
The herbalist was a showman who could mix you anything from aphrodisiac soup to cough syrup.
Back to tonight, held over with two tea eggs and a beer, two miles away I crossed the gates of the grand Raohe Night Market. Little did I know how far I will walk tonight in search of night market delights as each market has a specialty and are open until the wee hours.
Walking past loudspeakers and foods I’ve never seen, smelled, nor tasted, my mouth watered and my eyes occasionally cringed. I was that many years old that night when I learned how to best enjoy passionfruit: with a spoon.
From Raohe I made my way to Tonghua, then Liaoning, eating all the way. This was the first of many nights eating my way through Taiwanese night markets.
Finally I arrived at the opposite end of the city, at the Ningxia Night Market where the crown jewel is the egg custard ball. I haven’t eaten anything as slow as I ate this treat, savoring the salted gooey sweetness in a perfect fried taro dough.
Ningxia closed at 1am and I had walked 9 miles from the office in Nangang and had a 4 mile walk back to the Xinyi District where I was living. Subways had closed and taxis were nowhere in sight. I had no choice but to walk home, so I started walking. After all, I had gorged myself.
In these wee hours after the night markets have closed, the hustle and bustle of pedestrians and scooters gave way to a gradual quieting made heavier in the humidity of subtropical nights. Tired workers slept where they could. Shopkeepers lulled in front of the television as shops slowly turned into homes.
As I walked, it got quieter and quieter.
Finally, I was the only one walking in the dead of night.
Around 2am I looked down an alley and thought, ‘Huh. I wonder what’s down that way?’. A momentary hesitation fueled by flashbacks of sneaking past Revolutionary Guard patrols or rushing through Detroit’s industrial back alleys passed over me but was instantly vetoed by my curiosity as I made a sharp left and entered a labyrinth of alleys. It was the kind of dark of night and lights and shadows that I had never experienced.
There are landscapes that are inaccessible to women and the desolate landscape of the night is one of them. Most women will never think this way, to walk down a dark alley at 2am. I never had. Ever. Many places are unsafe for solo women, day or night. Women are instructed to walk aware and prepared. Special self-defense classes are held for women to ward off the most common ways an attacker will try to grab or restrain us. We establish a buddy system just to go on a date. They make pink pepper spray just for us.
They make pink pepper spray just for us.
But that night, none of those thoughts came to me and I still don’t know why. I walked alley after alley, photographing empty urban nightscapes for the first time. I made it home just as the morning commuters were buying breakfast from the home stalls. Preparing for bed I thought back to the night and how from when I left the office on foot until I walked into my apartment, not a single person had harassed me or in any way made me feel uncomfortable or unsafe. It was a liberating feeling. Living without fear – domestic or foreign – should be a prime requisite of any society, for its individuals or the nation as whole.
I started paying attention day after day and every night. Taiwan is not only among the safest nations, it is orderly without the pressure of authority, soft-spoken, reserved yet open-minded, progressive, traditional but with modern sensibilities in design and in society – LGBTQ-friendly, women-friendly, foreigner-friendly. (I admit, I did benefit from foreigner privilege.)
The irony is that I felt safe in a place that exists in the shadow of the People’s Republic of China, a country which has announced its intent to annex Taiwan. There are hundreds of nuclear warheads aimed at Taiwan. Unlike the imaginary threats that I grew up with in the US, the threat of the outside is real in Taiwan. Yet internally Taiwan has among the lowest global crime rates and unlike US suburbanites or urbanites, the Taiwanese don’t warn of places to not walk or visit because they are not raised to be fearful of the other, nor are they raised to live in fear of their government as it is living under the Mullahs of the Islamic Republic.
The following months that I lived in Taipei are among the happiest and freest I’ve ever felt. I had walked every neighborhood, market, shopping area, and landmark, and had savored stinky tofu, pork floss, thousand-year egg, roselle mooncakes, and countless tea eggs. I traveled the entire island. Had the scooter accident I mentioned; traversed decaying logging trails to buy the best oolong tea straight from the farm; and cracked coconuts on a beach for all three meals.
On my last day in Taiwan I rented a car and took a journey to an isolated hot spring in the foggy mountains. When I got there, I discovered that I was the only foreigner and it was primarily frequented by the locals of the village. I didn’t know what to do between all the soaking and scrubbing areas and a rare and sudden shyness took over me. I was whisked away by the elder women who giggled and showed me what to do.
My last sunset in Taiwan.
— The bakery
The lady on the far right below is the owner of a bakery that I had been buying roselle mooncakes from. I was obsessed with them. When I first visited her shop in 2016 she didn’t speak English, so I had to return with my friend to help me place an order for 50 of those magnificent mooncakes that I mailed to family and friends around the world. I visited her again a year later, almost as soon as I arrived in Taipei. I asked her if she remembered me and she said, IN ENGLISH, that she did and asked how many mooncakes I want this time. I was quite surprised and actually not sure if I was speaking to the same woman as last time. She said she began studying English so if I ever returned to her bakery again, she would be able to speak with me.
Taipei’s vibrant night markets
Planning a trip to Taipei? Here are four places to sample Taiwanese tea eggs, sausage, boiled squid, red tapiocas and the Michelin-recognised deep fried custard taro ball.
1. Raohe – one of the oldest and most-loved night markets in Taiwan is a must-hit for street food
2. Tonghua – one of the smallest and most authentic local top night markets in Taiwan with hundreds of stalls in downtown Taipei
3. Liaoning – a small night market with eateries over 30-40 years old that was formed when Fuju Temple’s religious fairs brought big crowds and street vendors
4. Ningxi – traditional night market offering an nostalgic retreat to the Taipei of earlier years in one of the most interesting neighborhoods for street photography
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What’s so good about this?
Freeing your life from fear is one of the hardest things that anyone could do, but it’s also the most empowering. The Taiwanese live in constant fear of invasion – but they’re completely different from the Mainland Chinese, who live in a Communist dictatorship, which is in many ways the same as America; a society of fear. In Taiwan, somehow, despite living under threat of invasion, they’ve mastered living without fear. Or at least they’re trying to. They’ve mastered living for the enjoyment of food – and the small things that make life worth living.
Meet the writer
Designer, photographer – and anarcho utopian – Xárene Eskandar lives between Reykjavik, Iceland and Los Angeles, California, founded an AI company in Tokyo, and is one of the few female off-road rally drivers building a race car for the Dakar Rally. In 2009 she pioneered a new aesthetic of photography, Time Slice, and a methodology for data visualisation called Realtime Lapse. Eskandar’s award-winning work and film Driving at the speed of the Nordic sun came on top of a decade of successful design work. She also regularly organises The Gambler 500 rally in New Mexico, off-roading in the wilderness with her white Cadillac, Dreki Blanco. Follow her world on xarene.la, and at @xarene.la on Instagram and on Twitter @xarene. (Profile photo by Jeaneen Lund.)