It’s true… I love the breakfast shop across the street from my apartment. I know that from the moment I sit down for breakfast I’m no longer just another laowai hanging out in Taipei; an unknown entity living among them. I’m Gao Jian, Gao Laoshi, or sometimes even Gao Xiong. More often than not I’ll be the one hanging out with an empty plate, chatting with the employees, or talking to Leo, the owners son, about Field Runners or Counter Strike. Everything about the breakfast shop has become a part of my daily routine, and I know that I’ve become a part of the other peoples routine as well. Whether it’s the boss joking around with me for “being late to breakfast,” since I decided to sleep in on the weekend, or the other patrons asking why they didn’t see me the day before, our individual experiences have molded together, creating something special.
Just the other day, for example, I had the opportunity to strike up a 45-minute conversation with a cab driver catching breakfast after night shift. The conversation started innocent enough, he asked me about my life in Taiwan, and I inquired about his. He schooled me, Jedi Master-style, in the ways of owning a cab, teaching me about Taiwan’s peak hours; and how his personal cab (privately owned) wasn’t nice enough to hang out in front of Taipei’s swanky hotels and clubs. As he said, “they would never choose my cab when they could choose one with TVs on the headrest!”
Eventually I figured I had to ask him some tough questions, since, at this point he’s probably seen it all. I was a little embarrassed when he expressed a desire to learn better English, to “better communicate with all the laowai here who can’t speak Chinese,” since we should be the ones learning their language, not the other way around. But he didn’t seem to mind, saying casually, “English is much easier to learn than Chinese.”
Pressing further on the topic of foreigners in Taiwan, I was curious what he thought about picking up the “occasional” expat heading home with a cute local in the middle of the night. Although I don’t know how much truth there was to the statement, he responded casually saying: “we are all human, we’ve all got the same desires.” I certainly didn’t see that one coming.
Then he asked me if I had heard about the Chinese expression “to wear a green hat” (戴绿帽子: dài lǜ mào zi). For those who don’t know, DON’T ever give someone (especially a married man) a green hat as a gift. Wearing a green hat, in Chinese culture, symbolizes that the wearer’s wife is being less than faithful, to put it delicately. This cultural faux pas is almost worse than claiming to be a Bear’s fan while in the great state of Wisconsin (Go Pack)!
I had heard the expression before, but I loved the question that followed:
“Do you know where the phrase comes from?”
I didn’t have the faintest idea, but the cabby was happy to share his thoughts on the matter. For him it’s because soldiers wear green hats, and when they left for war (put on the green hat) they didn’t know how long their wives would wait for their return. His theory might not be as fantastical (or correct) as the origin stories shared on the likes of Baidu
, but there is a bit of logic to it, and I certainly can’t blame the guy for not knowing expression’s true origin.
At this point the owner, listening to the entire conversation unfold, nodded in agreement while his son, Leo, scratched his head in total confusion. Stepping away from the cooking area the owner lit up a cigarette, offering one to the cab driver, and began to speculate on why “eating tofu” （吃豆腐: chī dòu fŭ) has come to imply that one has a fondness for taking advantage of women; an expression I learned about the hard way during my first stay in Taiwan. Being a vegetarian I learned to avoid that phrase pretty quickly! The way he figured it, tofu, like a young woman’s skin, is best eaten when it’s soft and tender. The cabby and I were impressed by his creativity, and since we couldn’t come up with a better explanation we took the owner’s word for it… I mean, he does cook for for a living, right?
It’s not the meal but the experiences that I’ve come to love. They don’t treat me like an outsider, and heading downstairs every morning for the most important meal of the day, I never know what crazy story might end up in my breakfast shop diary.