Walking out of my apartment I head for 吉美早餐 (jí měi zǎo cān), one of my neighborhood’s best breakfast shops. As I head across the street to the small corner store I begin to hear loud incomprehensible streams of Taiwanese, as construction workers follow up their breakfast sandwich (三明治: sānmíngzhì) and soy milk (豆浆：dòu jiāng) with some cigarettes and betel nuts (槟榔: bīn láng). The betel nut dregs cover the sidewalk near the workers, but the true tale signs of use are in the red-toothed smiles I receive from them as I head for one of the 7 seats in the place. Living with the when in Rome maxim I’ve had my fair share of new experiences and new flavors, but no matter how many times the workers have offered me a taste of betel nut over the past 9 months I’ve never felt an urge to try a chew. I think it’s the idea of giving someone else a crazy red smile that keeps me away.
After finding my seat I raise my pointer finger in agreement with one of the workers, indicating I’ll have my usual: a scallion pancake (葱抓饼: cōngzhuābǐng) and radish cake (蘿蔔糕：luóbogāo), complete with egg and hot sauce. I reach for one of the newspapers scattered across the tables to get a little reading practice in as I wait for my meal. The construction workers finish their cigarettes and hop onto the back of a baby blue flatbed, saying their goodbyes to the owner. Before the truck motors off I hear the amiable cry of “bye-bye laoshi”, the title they assigned me when they found out I was studying to be a Chinese teacher, although I secretly think they say it simply because my English name, Jake, is too hard for them to pronounce.
As I enjoy my meal the crowd shifts away from the betel-nut-chewing construction workers to a flurry of middle school and high school kids grabbing a sandwich on the go. Nearly all of them are a part of Taiwan’s head-down group (低头族: dī tóu zú), kids that have their faces buried in the cell phones, trying fruitlessly to stay up-to-date on their friends FB pages and Twitter feeds. They glance up from their precious technology just long enough to grab one of the fifty or so pre-made sandwich’s off the counter and pay the bill before they’re off.
I should be off as well, but not before firing up the Skritter iOS app and burning through some of my reviews with the help of the owner’s son Leo, who, on weekends, is just as eager as me to play the “character writing game,” or at least watch over my shoulder, asking for translations of the English definitions, and laughing at the strange simplified characters that are mixed into my study decks. After a while I pay my bill, heading back home to get ready to start the rest of my day.
On those rare days I don’t make it down to 吉美餐厅, things just feel amiss. They say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and while my breakfast shop makes some wicked food, I think it’s all the people I meet, and experiences I have that keep me coming back day after day…
End of Part 1
For a list of typical items found at Taiwanese breakfast shops, be sure to check out the Skritter list here.