The summer before college, I traveled to Taiwan to teach English to children in rural areas. While this was partly (okay, mostly) an excuse to return to the amazing country of Taiwan after nearly 6 years, I was also excited to learn that I would be teaching on Kinmen (金門, literally “golden gate”), a small island situated between Taiwan and southern China.
There is no way I can name everything I loved about my experience on Kinmen: the celebrity-esque airstairs we descended after landing amidst heavy tropical winds; our tiny, blessedly air-conditioned sleeping quarters where we hid from the suffocating humid heat that evaded every corner of the island; the famous Taiwanese oyster omelet dish (蚵仔煎) concocted with freshly caught oysters – even the dreaded squat toilets, the occasional frog chilling in the bathrooms, the hairy spiders as big as my hand, and the broken drying machine that forced us to air-dry our laundry and thus wear smelly teaching uniforms.
However, what was most memorable to me was the quiet history that lurked behind every piece of rubble, every blade of grass, and every drop of summer typhoon rain that landed on Kinmen. In my eyes, Kinmen was like a bubbling cauldron of time, history, and culture. Although initially a relatively tranquil area, Kinmen was transformed into a military base by Chiang Kai-Shek in 1949 during the Chinese civil war.
Even after the war, it was used largely for military purposes. In fact, my dad was stationed on Kinmen during his military service. Even today, one can see uniformed men roaming the streets, hauntingly silent military brothel-turned-museums, coastal artillery guns on full display, and abandoned houses riddled with gaping bullet holes.
And the streets! Peering down a single dusty, rustic street, I would see the typical Taiwanese convenience stores; modest, family-owned pawn shops filled with miscellanea; a desolate Shiseido boutique, and a classy, renovated Italian restaurant – lined up all in a row, like a strangely mismatched, yet charmingly fitting, Kinmen outfit.
On these streets, I watched a funeral procession march, belting out festive music and clad in white mourning clothes. To these streets, I snuck out with some friends past curfew to hop over our dorm’s brick wall and satisfy our midnight snack cravings at the 24/7 Family Mart. Through these streets, I biked in the daylight and in the darkness, daringly removing both hands from the handle bars and feeling the cool sea breeze ripple through my hair. From these streets, we drove our rickety, coughing van to the ocean’s rocky shore and gazed into the foggy horizon in amazement as the cityscape of Xiamen, China, loomed right before our eyes.
To me, Kinmen is a timeless and special place, riddled with intricate history and cultural mishmash. Although I only spent two weeks there, I hold dear all those precious memories and experiences, from the comfortably expected to the mind-blowing moments of culture shock. There is no doubt about it – one day, I will return.
All photos courtesy of the author.