Wandering Around Tianmu Aimlessly
walking down memory lane
One Sunday afternoon in late July, I decided to visit Tianmu, a quaint neighborhood in Taipei where I lived for two years in middle school. Two years is a short time to be in one place, yet I had so many memories of Tianmu that I couldn’t bear the idea of not returning for another look.
Technically speaking, I went to Tianmu in early June to visit my former school, but I didn’t spend much time walking around. I only had a month left in Taiwan, and walking around Tianmu was one of the items on my bucket list. I had no particular agenda that day besides walking down various streets and visiting past places. My purpose in exploring Tianmu was to revisit snippets of my past life that became hazier over the years since I left.
After spending nearly an hour on the MRT (a.k.a. the metro), I finally arrived. For three hours, I walked around all the main roads and alleys that I could think of. I walked slowly the whole time, observing each store I passed by, trying to jog up memories and test my memory’s accuracy. I wondered how much of my recollections lived up to reality and to what extent my memory had become distorted over time.
Most stores I passed by did not have an impression on me, but a couple looked familiar, from the local late-night soymilk store to the thrift store with a banana cartoon logo. I found it strange that random, small things I barely thought of after leaving still stayed with me. It was like unearthing a long-lost memory buried deep in a sea of memories.
While most things stayed the same, I was sad to see some things leave. The car wash I walked by every day on the way to school was no longer there. No more hellos and hand waves from the washer who greeted every passerby. I was disheartened to see some stores replaced by other stores, such as the organic grocer’s store, right next to my apartment. Despite the changes, I was also delighted to see some stores still there despite the high rent and intense competition, especially Caves Books.
After making some twists and turns in the local streets, I saw the nearby blue tutoring center sign and knew that I was close to the bookstore. It was right across from me. This was the place I frequented during the summer to find my next great read. Before I entered, I decided to take a picture of the bookstore. The storefront wasn’t eye-catching necessarily, but held some sentimental value to me. As much as I wish I had an answer, I didn’t know when I would come back to Tianmu again. I decided I was better off living as if it were my last time.
When I entered the bookstore, things were almost the same as how I remembered. The store still had this small yet cozy environment that made silence not awkward, but rather enchanting. The number of books inside Caves was much fewer than what I would find in a U.S. bookstore, yet I still found lots of interesting books to add to my list. After lingering in the store for a while, I decided it was time to move on to other stops on my journey.
I continued taking pictures along the way. As I went up close to the restaurants I had been to, memories flooded me:the delicious chive pockets at Song Jiang or the eclectic décor in Lili’s. It wasn’t just the food and atmosphere that I liked about these restaurants: it was also the memories of people that each one carried. MB White Coffee was where my middle school friend and I ate Singaporean food together. Beijing Golden Kitchen was the first restaurant in Tianmu I ate with my family.
Even places I didn’t regard to be special at that time now felt like treasures of the past, whether it was the vegetarian buffet I ate at every weekend or the yogurt shop where I got my weekly container of fresh, organic yogurt. Yes, it was 2023, yet I felt like I was back in 2015. I was walking down a literal memory lane.
As I wandered around random streets, visiting stores and restaurants I went to often, my sense of longing for Tianmu became stronger. I was still in Tianmu, yet I already felt nostalgic for everything, even things that people found to be ordinary aspects of their daily lives: the quiet alleyways with the occasional sound of a scooter, people eating taro balls at the local dessert shop, the bakeries that displayed local pastries, and so much more.
After walking around the main streets for a couple of hours, I looked at my watch and noticed I only had an hour left in Tianmu. I wished I could stay longer, but I needed to commute to downtown Taipei for dinner with a family friend. Instead of walking down the main road again, I took the less direct route back to the MRT station by walking along the local stream.
As I followed the stream’s windy path, I didn’t understand why I found this particular stream to be so pleasant. There wasn’t a lot of water, the surrounding scenery wasn’t particularly pretty, and the stream was overgrown with random plants. Objectively speaking, it could not compare with the Charles River in Boston. Despite that, I appreciated its simplicity.
Maybe it was seeing people of all ages walking around, from children running around to seniors enjoying their daily stroll. As the sun was slowly setting in the background, I liked how different the pace of life was here compared to Boston — less busy, more peaceful. Running along the Charles is also nice, but there was something about life in Tianmu that felt slower, where work and personal life were more separated from each other.
I thought a change of scenery would help me enter a new train of thought that didn’t keep cycling around vignettes that evoked the past, but I still couldn’t stop feeling sentimental. The rational part of me wondered what made me romanticize everything about Taiwan.
Why was I so emotional about a community I’d only lived in for two years? I am not Taiwanese. No matter how hard I try to integrate into Taiwanese society, I will always be a foreigner. An ABC. American-Born Chinese. Sure, my Chinese is fluent, but there’s always this lag I have when it comes to understanding the subtle jokes and slang that people here say. Likewise, there are some nuances that I will never fully understand because my upbringing isn’t completely like theirs. My relatives don’t live here. I drifted away from most people I knew in Taiwan. I only lived in Tianmu for two years.
My tendency to idealize a place that I grew distant from after I left frustrated me. I was puzzled why I became emotionally attached to Tianmu again. I thought I moved on from this place, like someone I once pined for, but I suppose it wasn’t quite the case. At the same time, however, I was tired of being in this constant mental tug-of-war, telling myself to stop feeling anything.
To end these contradictory thoughts, I gradually realized that I wasn’t obligated to justify my current emotional state. It was okay if I didn’t have the exact words, phrases, or sentences to construct an eloquent answer explaining the reasons behind my melancholy. Even not having a satisfying answer was fine with me.
As my walk reached the end and I boarded the train, I finally developed an answer that made me feel at peace, at least temporarily. I was going to miss this place because I wouldn’t get to find the same atmosphere or environment elsewhere in the world. In other words, I couldn’t bring Tianmu’s essence to Cambridge. Not even a Chinatown could replace Tianmu, whether it was the maze-like alleys or the conversations I overheard on the street. My answer is just that simple.