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A Trip to Taipei

Jay takes responsibility for brewing and serving. It's an elaborate, endless, yet casual process, so unlike the ritualistic Japanese tea ceremony. There's much pouring of hot water before the tea is spilled over the clay teapot and into taller "smelling" cupsãtheir sole function, I'm told. Then the tea is poured into the short, squat cups. Yes, you drink from those, Jay explains. But not just yet. Not the first pour, which is discarded after being used to heat the cups.

Golden "champion" almond cakes arrive. If I eat one, I'm advised, I'll be "number one" in my school exams. I'm decades past my exams, and never did very well on the ones I took, but the cakes, resembling shortbread cookies, are nonetheless delicious.

Jay, who has managed to take charge of both the tea and the conversation without loosening his grasp on his cell phone or Filofax, is planning my visit. At one point, mid-pour (about the 10th round, when my toes are beginning to vibrate from the caffeine overload), his phone rings. He hands me the receiver: "Here, speak to Nelson. Nelson is taking you to dinner on Tuesday night because I'm busy."

I have no idea who Nelson isãthis is the first I've heard of himãbut I take the phone. Nelson briskly informs me that he'll pick me up at seven, and then hangs up. People in Taipei, I reflect, are like New Yorkers: busy, hurried, and decisive. I leave myself in their hands. We drink tea and talk for the next three hours, and I'm very, very sorry for it all night long and all the next day.

MISNOMERS When I finally do meet Nelson Yu, a graphic designer who studied in New York, the first thing he tells me is that he "worships" Banana Republic. The second thing he tells me is that he chose his English name after seeing his first Chow Yun-fat movie. "He was tall, rich, and handsome, and his name was Nelson."

Names and identities seem to be slippery things in Taipei and throughout Taiwan, a subtropical volcanic island that is geographically just off the coast of China's Fujian province, but is culturally equidistant from China, Japan, and the United States. Taiwan has an aboriginal population that may or may not have sailed there from the South Pacific. Its Han residents largely came, over the centuries, from neighboring Fujian, while its Hakka minority migrated from Fujian and points south.

The Portuguese named the island Formosa ("Beautiful"). It was colonized by the Dutch and briefly by the Spanish. Then it was ruled for half a century, until the end of World War II, by the Japanese, who forced residents to learn their language and customs. (The younger generation now does so by choice, embracing Japanese fashion, music, and art. Film star Takeshi Kaneshiro, who is half Taiwanese and half Japanese, is currently Taiwan's reigning heartthrob.)

In 1949, when the Communists wrested control of China, the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan and established the Republic of China. Taiwan held the China seat at the United Nations until 1971, but then lost it to the People's Republic of China, which wants Taiwan back. Mainland China regularly holds military exercises off the island's coast, making the Taiwanese nervous.

This past spring, the Kuomintang was voted out of power for the first time in 51 years. It lost to Democratic Progressive Party candidate Chen Shui-ban, who has cooled his anti-Beijing rhetoric despite his party's leanings.

All this results in a confusion of identity: political, linguistic, and cultural. One FOM, Mei-lin, the daughter of mainland immigrants and a curator at the Fine Arts Museum, sometimes has difficulty speaking with taxi drivers. While she's multilingual, with art history degrees from overseas, she grew up speaking Mandarin, not the local Taiwanese dialect.

Well-connected Taiwanese were always a presence at American colleges. But after 1987, when martial law was lifted and the Taiwanese could travel abroad easily, the "diaspora" (as one friend here called it) began in earnest. American schools today are filled with Taiwanese students, many of whom return home with new names and tastes, along with their degrees.

´FROG EGG´ DRINK A decade ago, when I first visited Taipei, it was a fashion backwater, a dreary city of bad haircuts and polyester. No longer. Fueled by international business (the Asian economic crisis merely grazed Taiwan), the latest in everything parades through Taipei's streets. In Tien Mu, where the expats live and shop, the avenues are lined with international boutiques and upscale restaurants. The biggest names in fashion can be found in the shops in Shin Yi and on Duen Hwa North and South roads.

The city's Hsimenting district looks so much like Harajuku, Tokyo's trendy teenage stamping ground, that I almost think I'm in Japan. Mei-lin brings me here to sample the "frog egg" drink, a famous concoction of tea and tapioca balls that resemble frog eggs. Afterward, we go to a stall famous for its spicy pork ramen, and slurp noodles while standing in the street.

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