Driving up the winding road, we were aware we were going higher and higher into the mountains, but it was too dark to fully take in our surroundings. It was late by the time we arrived at the hostel where we would spend the night. My wife, Kathy and I wanted to get away for a couple of days and someone had recommended this little place in the mountains of Taiwan.
Our three children stayed with friends as we set off for a relaxing stay in this village, removed from the bustling city of Taichung where we lived. We had by now lived for five years in this island nation near China and had become used to exploring remote places and sites, our Mandarin now adequate to navigate what we encountered.
We slept late the next morning, a rare chance for parents of three school-aged children. We awoke to a breathtaking mountain vista from our room’s window. The sun was already up above the horizon and a mist arose from the landscape in the foreground. We quickly dressed and headed out to look for some breakfast and start exploring.
On the street, people scurried about, some on bicycles, a few on motor scooters. Venders selling clothing or toys were setting up their mats. A woman struggled under the weight of a pole across her shoulders, baskets at each end filled with produce. A couple of men squatted playing a game, their lips red from chewing betel nut.
We planned to grab some breakfast on our way, usually readily available and cheap. A steamed bun, maybe some hot soymilk with a deep-fried grease stick, typical breakfast fare. It was common for housewives set up little tables on the street or lane and sell what they had made that morning. Maybe we would find some “shao long bao,” a sort of dumpling steamed in bamboo baskets, one of our favorites. By now it was almost 10:00 am and all of the breakfast vendors seemed to have packed up for the day.
A teenage girl tended a stand selling Star Fruit drink (Carambola). Expecting that young people usually had good Mandarin, we asked her to recommend a path to explore the mountains. She giggled, amused to be talking for foreigners, and pointed to a path ahead behind a flower stand. We set out on the well-worn trail leading away from the village.
The air was fresh and clean, so different from the ever present exhaust smells of cities in one of the most densely populated countries in the world. We were sure that we would come across someone selling something we could eat for breakfast, a least a tea-egg which seemed be sold anywhere there were people. We could wait until lunch, but something to eat would be nice.
We made our way down the path taking in the natural scenery. There were terraced vegetable gardens on the hillsides. An occasional rooster crowed. The path narrowed and as we rounded a bend, we came upon a little building. We could see into a screened-in area, a number of round tables with plastic chairs. “Great! A restaurant,” Kathy said.
A woman, perhaps in her early 30s stood at a sink washing some cooking utensils. She looked like the typical women we often saw in the area, her hair pinned in a bun on her head, neat but not stylish clothes, rubber sandals, no make-up of any kind. A child, not much more than a year old, played at her feet. She wiped her hands on her apron and looked at us inquisitively, probably surprised to be encountering foreigners.
We spoke to her in Mandarin and she appeared to understand but we couldn’t understand her response. In Taiwan, once known as “Formosa” in the west, Mandarin is understood by nearly anyone that has a basic education. But there are other languages and dialects, more commonly used in rural areas. She could have been speaking Taiwanese, a Chinese dialect widely spoken. Or she may have been speaking the language of the indigenous people of the island, “mountain people” as they are often called. Even Japanese is still spoken in some areas, since Japan occupied Taiwan for many years.
We asked if this was a restaurant. She shook her head from side to side indicating it was not. As she said something that we couldn’t understand, she pointed to one of the tables in a welcoming way. If it isn’t a restaurant, why is she inviting us to sit?
She put her child in a sling on her back and began cooking what looked like scrambled eggs with green onions. She gave us a little plate of peanuts and dried seaweed, along with a bowl of warm bean curd milk. In a jar on the table were chopsticks and a few spoons. After finishing our breakfast, we asked how much we owed. But as best we could understand, she indicated there was no charge. We insisted that we pay but she was adamant. We thought this was odd, but all we could do was express our gratitude, which we did bowing slightly in the Chinese manner, thanking her earnestly. We left and continued on our adventure.
We hadn’t walked very far when the path turned sharply and suddenly before us stood an impressive, colorful structure. It was obviously a temple, called a “miao” in Mandarin. Usually, such rural temples have at the focal point of the pavilion-like structure the image of a red-faced warrior, incense sticks burning around it. Religion in Taiwan is a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism and ancestor worship. Small temples like this are scattered about the landscape, especially in rural areas.
At the center of this temple was a sight we hadn’t seen before, a life size statue of a woman with many arms coming out of her shoulders, quite a startling image the first time one sees it. Her arms reached out in many directions. This is a sort of female Buddha known by various names. In Taiwan, it is often referred to as “Guan Yin” (Kuan Yin), which translates roughly as “the one who perceives the sounds of the world.” Some depictions of Guan Yin show each hand with an eye in her palm. This personage, signifying compassion and care, varies from place to place throughout Asia.
As Christian missionaries, we generally did not visit such places of worship, rather observing only from a distance. After all, we were in Taiwan to teach our beliefs. Suddenly it dawned on me the connection between the two structures we had just seen. The restaurant-like building where we had eaten was for followers of Guan Yin to have their meals when making their pilgrimage to this temple. The woman who had cooked our breakfast was there to cook for such people.
We continued on our way, enjoying the new sights and sounds. But I couldn’t stop pondering the peculiar irony of what we had just experienced. We had been the recipients of kindness and hospitality by this worker at this retreat center for adherents of a belief system so different from our own. Had we known what the purpose of the place was, we probably wouldn’t have stopped.
I added this to the ever deepening repository of thoughts and questions that grew within me as I learned of and experienced this land and culture so different from all that I had previously known. This humble woman, most likely minimally educated, with whom we could communicate only with difficulty, had shown us kindness, accepting nothing in return. Our hearts as well as our stomachs had been warmed. This get-away had been good for us.
Surprising Hospitality is an excerpt from a memoir titled, The Long Surrender: A Memoir About Losing My Religion. Author Brian Rush McDonald tells the story of his growing up in rural Alabama dreaming of becoming a musician. But, during high school he embarked on another path that became an odyssey lasting thirty years, which took him to another country and resulted in misgivings about his youthful decision. At almost fifty years of age, he made the decision to forge a new and different path. The memoir is part of his search to understand his youthful choice and subsequent journey. Today, he is a psychotherapist in Alexandria, Virginia and helps others as they seek to make sense of their own life choices.