We get a sweet taste of the real Taiwan

Under a canopy of tangerines, my mother and I discovered Taiwan.

I had just completed my first semester as a full-time English-language teacher at Wesley Girls' High School in Taipei. It had been an overwhelmingly busy term. I had seen nothing of Taiwan aside from the school's campus and glimpses of Taipei street scenes as I dashed to and from Chinese-language classes. What I did see led me to believe Taiwan had little to offer except a McDonald's on every street corner, a tidal wave of motor scooters, and a cacophony of cellphones playing shrill little ditties.

So when I invited my mother to visit during the Chinese New Year holidays, I did so because I missed her, not because I felt the island worth sightseeing.

My mother arrived from Illinois, where February ice and snow blanketed the prairie state. But in subtropical Taiwan, temperatures soared into the 80s. The warm weather sent my Taiwanese colleagues into entertainment overdrive. Luncheons, home visits, and other engagements quickly filled our schedule. But it was my best friend, Monica Chiao, whose proposal caused me some concern.

"I will take you and your mother to the tangerine farm," she had decidedly announced.

Outwardly, I smiled; inwardly, I cringed. I envisioned one of Taiwan's notorious tourist traps and prepared for the worst.

On the afternoon of our tangerine tryst, Monica excitedly hustled my mother and me into a taxi, and off we sped to the center of Taipei's Nei Hu district. We were deposited onto the main shopping street, crowded with people, cars, and numerous department stores. Monica briskly made her way along the busy sidewalk. My mother and I half-heartedly followed behind.

Within a few blocks, however, the scenery changed. The crowds thinned, giving way to a smaller Taiwanese community. Family-run noodle restaurants and street-side fruit sellers emerged on either side of us. A grassy public park welcomed strollers. Densely forested mountains sprang suddenly upward. My mother and I marveled at this striking contrast to what we had left behind not more than 10 minutes before.

We followed Monica into a private residential area where a security guard gave us a cautious look. "We are going to the tangerine farm!" Monica called out in Chinese. The man smiled and waved us through.

It was a fair hike up the steep, narrow roads of this well-to-do neighborhood. Palatial houses of Taipei's rich and famous towered over us until our climb came to a sudden stop. The neighborhood ended, and we were met by a breathtaking view: a quiet valley of rice paddies, sandwiched between distant terraces of tangerine trees.

Monica led us onto a well-worn dirt path that zigzagged before us. We passed neatly-rowed cabbage patches and soggy rice fields spotted with long-necked white egrets. Wild, tropical ferns and clattering bamboo filled the steep slopes around us. Here was the Taiwan the Portuguese had once called Formosa, "Beautiful Island."

Our arrival at the tangerine farm was announced by a pigtailed little girl who ran down the path to greet us. "Ye-ye, Ye-ye!" she cried in Chinese (Grandpa, Grandpa!). "Keren laile!" (Guests have come!) "Ye-ye!"

From a crumbled, red-brick building sauntered the owner of the farm. His high boots, crusted with mud, and his worn plaid shirt marked him as a man of considerable orchard-growing experience.

Monica paid our 40-kuai ($1.30) entrance fee, and we followed our host through the terraces of his tidy, well-cared-for orchard. My mother and I gazed with admiration at the heavily laden branches above our heads.

We finally reached a spot our host deemed worthy. He pointed out the best fruit to pick, then left us alone with his trees.

Giggling like schoolgirls, we began plucking greedily from our private garden. Jumping, climbing, reaching, snatching - before long, a mound of tangerines surrounded us. We then plopped down onto the moist ground and began feasting. Soon our secluded grove was filled with the sounds of slurping and smacking lips interspersed with congenial chatter.

As the hot sun slid in around us, we became sleepy and less talkative. Birds alighted in the branches above our heads. Egrets skirted the rice fields before us. A small brook trickled its lazy melody. We sat quietly, the fragrance of tangerines emptying itself into our island space.

When the time came for us to leave, Monica collected several plastic bags from our host and filled them with tangerines to take home. Laden with fruit, we trudged back along the path and continued all the way into the crowded district of Nei Hu before we departed.

Whenever I think back on my time in Taiwan, I recall many special moments. But the one I remember most is that day spent with Monica when, under a canopy of tangerines, my mother and I discovered Taiwan.

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