Diary of a Reverse Immigrant Tea Eggs Have Always Tasted Like Home
In the first weeks after my arrival in Taipei, I ate more of these eggs than I’d like to admit.
This is Diary of a Reverse Immigrant, a column by Karissa Chen about moving back to Taiwan.
A tea egg, if you’ve never had one, is a beautiful thing. Submerged for several hours in a broth of soy sauce, tea, star anise, cinnamon, ginger, and Sichuan peppercorns—though the particular spices can vary depending on the recipe you’re using—and cracked partway through the cooking process to allow the broth to seep in, its surface is tan and speckled. Peel back the shell, and the flesh beneath looks like marble, with dark brown veins running along the sepia whites. (During the height of the Game of Thrones craze, the food’s distinctive look earned it the nickname of “dragon eggs.”) Walk into a room where tea eggs are boiling, and you’ll be hit with an unmistakable, heady aroma: sweet, dark, and earthy.
If I sit down with a plastic bag full of tea eggs, I can eat four in one sitting. I try to peel the shell off in one go as if it’s an orange, hoping that it’s still sufficiently attached to the membrane despite its many cracks. I carefully bite off the tapered end of the egg, just enough to expose the gray yolk, which I pop out whole and toss aside—I don’t like how powdery they are. Left with the hollow whites, I’m free to savor their umami richness. I’ve eaten tea eggs this way my entire life.
In Taiwan, tea eggs are available in any convenience store you walk into—and there are a lot of convenience stores. At all hours, there will be at least one electric pot of prepared tea eggs, crowded onto the same table as roasted sweet potatoes and simmering oden. Oftentimes, there will be another pot of newer eggs beside it, so that by the time the first pot inevitably sells out, another batch is ready to go. Beside the pots are plastic bags and metal tongs so that customers can pick out their eggs the way one might select produce. They sell for the equivalent of thirty cents apiece.
When I first moved to Taipei from New Jersey nearly six years ago, local Taiwanese often asked me if I had any trouble adjusting to life here.
“No,” I’d reply, beaming.
Seeming equal parts surprised and impressed, they’d ask me what I liked so much about being here.
“The tea eggs,” I’d say, and I’d usually be met with confused expressions.
In the first weeks after my arrival in Taipei, I ate more of these eggs than I’d like to admit. I’d only been planning to stay for less than a year—I’d received a Fulbright scholarship to research a novel. It was the first time I’d ever navigated Taipei without family to help me, and beyond the places we had frequented in other districts, I didn’t know much about the city at all. I hadn’t yet found the best eateries in my neighborhood, and even if I had, I was embarrassed by my poor Chinese skills—I couldn’t always read the items on menus, and every interaction was carefully rehearsed under my breath before I ventured to open my mouth. Convenience stores, then, became a safe haven. 7-Eleven sold everything from rice balls to sandwiches to ready-to-heat noodle bowls and curry plates, and all could be purchased with minimal conversation. While I ate those dishes plenty of times, I never left without a bag of eight to ten eggs, which I could squirrel away in my fridge for the times when I was too mentally exhausted to face the world again. Alone in my studio in the wee hours of the morning, I peeled and ate one after another as I binged Chinese dramas on my laptop. Sometimes the eggs were the only thing I ate for entire meals. They offered me comfort, a sense of familiarity. They were something that, ironically enough, reminded me of home.
During my elementary school years, my mother prepared my lunch every day. I was a kid from northern New Jersey, and my lunches generally reflected that: ham or pastrami and cheese slapped between slices of Wonder Bread; thermoses filled with Campbell’s New England clam chowder or spaghetti with Prego sauce; if I was really lucky, a box of Lunchables (though never the coveted Deluxe kind). Once in a while, though, my mother would pack a plastic box of cold sesame noodles she’d purchased from the Taiwanese supermarket. That same supermarket sold tea eggs by the checkout counter, and each week she would stand, tongs poised over the pot, and ask, “How many eggs will you eat?” She’d shake the full plastic bag in front of me. “Is this enough?” In my mind, it never was.
My mother knew, of course, how much I loved those eggs.
Unlike the “cool” kids, I never had any fun snacks in my lunch—no Gushers, no Fruit Rollups, no Dunkaroos. My mom packed us chicken-flavored Japanese snacks shaped like ramen noodles—which, beloved by my friends, I often traded away—Chinese rice crackers, apple slices, clementines, seedless grapes, and, every so often, a tea egg.
My mother knew, of course, how much I loved those eggs. She must have noticed how quickly they disappeared from the fridge each week. I loved to watch my afternoon cartoons with a plate of eggs on my lap, licking their juices from my fingers as the yolks rolled around on scattered eggshells.
What she didn’t know was that school tainted my love for them, that I dreaded the sight of their brown speckled bodies in my lunchbox. Move over, egg salad; in my classroom, my egg lunch was a much greater offense. I can still hear the various taunts now:
“Ew, Karissa is eating a brown egg. It looks like poop .”
“It has veins on it. It’s like a gross body part.”
“I bet it smells like diarrhea! The chicken must have diarrhea-ed it out.”
*Faux gagging noises*
Memories of being mocked for your school lunch are so ubiquitous among non-white people, it borders on cliché, one more item in a list of micro and macro aggressions we may not have had the tools to make sense of at the time. Perhaps for some of us, these incidents were easily waved off; for others, these scenes were much more formative and painful.
For me, the maligning of my beloved tea eggs forced me to start seeing home life and school life as two distinct spaces and to recognize that who I was in the former was not always allowed to exist in the latter. This was not the first time I’d felt this type of conflict. Discovering that the pretty white girls in my classes had middle names like Kelly and Angela , I learned to hate my Chinese middle name; I, too, wanted something “American.” At school, my brother and I referred to each other as “you” because what we usually called each other—“didi” for little brother and “jiejie” for big sister —was too embarrassing to say in front of all our friends. But being asked to see something I loved as disgusting—this emphasized even more strongly that there were certain parts of me that had to stay at home. I had to hide my love of tea eggs, to reserve it for a setting where they were considered normal, not weird.
This lesson was reinforced throughout my life: In middle school I would hide my love of Chinese dramas and instead gush about the latest episodes of Dawson’s Creek ; at my first job, when asked by my white coworkers what I did over the weekend, I would lie about the hours I spent in a karaoke room with other Asian Americans singing Taiwanese and Korean pop songs and instead say I went to an Irish pub.
I can’t quite justify why I told these lies. It’s not as if I expected the truth would garner the same reaction as eating a tea egg in an elementary school classroom. But years of navigating a dual identity, which in turn reinforced my hypersensitivity to social cues and my desire to people-please, meant that I instinctively avoided expressing culturally specific interests around white people. For years, I alternated between these versions of myself and believed I was a good chameleon.
I can’t remember if I ever asked my mother to stop putting tea eggs in my lunch. I was never one to ask for things outright—instead I might have complained that they were messy, that the tea broth leaked, that I didn’t like having the yolk that I was too ashamed to throw away in front of everyone rolling around in my lunch box afterward. Maybe I left the egg untouched until I got home. I probably derided the egg in front of my classmates, rolling my eyes at its continued presence and agreeing that it was weird and stinky. It’s hard to recall, so many years later, the exact way I protected myself from the insults—all I’m left with is the paradoxical feeling of loving something so much and yet being ashamed of it at the same time.
Despite what I told people, it wasn’t true that I had no issues adjusting to life in Taiwan. I spent my earliest days steeped in humiliation—the humiliation of having a Taiwanese face but being unable to read or speak without fumbling; the sense of helplessness and insecurity. I desperately wanted to fit in as a local, but within thirty seconds, I almost always revealed myself as an American. At a fast-food restaurant, I would order something in a perfect accent (having looked up all the characters beforehand) but, when the cashier asked a follow-up question, I would stare at them blankly before sheepishly admitting I had no idea what they’d said. “I’m American,” I’d apologize. Eventually, in a bid to avoid awkwardness, I started to use this phrase to head off my interactions altogether. Unlike in America, though, it wasn’t my face or my interests that betrayed me, but my mouth.
And yet, I can’t say that what I felt was culture shock. My frustration was subtler, more internal, the inability to prove that I belonged when I felt so at home. Being in Taiwan filled me with a strange sense of relief. As I tried to explain to both Taiwanese and Americans who asked, “I feel like the ‘weird’ parts of me aren’t weird here.”
I pointed to my love of Chinese dramas and room karaoke. I pointed to my habit of thinking of certain foods as “cooling” or “warming” to your qi, of having ginger during your period and mung beans when you have a canker sore. I pointed to the integration of my fortune teller into my life. These were all things that, at one point or another while growing up Asian American, I had hidden, lied about, or felt embarrassed to bring up in front of my non-Asian friends.
The tea egg, though, was the greatest, simplest example: After an entire childhood code-switching between loving tea eggs and agreeing they were weird, I had moved to a place where they were so normal that they were stocked in every convenience store, available twenty-four hours a day.
Is it possible to describe that kind of relief to someone who has never experienced it?
Some people asked me, then, if the opposite might be the case; if in Taiwan, the most American parts of me might be seen as weird. When this question came from an American, I thought I could sense an accusation lurking within it. If I was truly an American, then shouldn’t I feel at least a little bit more American out of America?
And I did. In so many ways, I was acutely aware of my Americanness. I missed pizza and decent Italian food and tossed salads. In public places with American friends, I spoke and laughed too loudly and received scathing looks. I found thirty-cent dumplings to be a great deal while Taiwanese exclaimed at their high price (apparently fifteen cents is more reasonable). I still couldn’t really get into eating many types of offal, though I tried. While I knew a handful of Taiwanese songs, most of the songs I sang at karaoke were ’80s and ’90s American pop ballads.
It’s not that I was less American than I was Taiwanese; it’s that, in Taiwan, American and Western culture are so widespread that I was never made to feel bad for it (except maybe the talking too loudly). I didn’t feel like I had to hide the American parts of myself. If anything, military imperialism and the soft power of media influence have made it such that my American tastes are treated like a quirky curiosity at worst and with reverence at best. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Being American in Taiwan is, as in many other parts of the world, privileged.
I’ve learned to embrace—even love—the humiliation that comes with making mistakes in language.
To be Asian American—or any multicultural American—can often mean feeling like you don’t wholly belong anywhere. There is always a part of you that the dominant culture doesn’t fully understand or make space for. For many people, the only way to feel a semblance of wholeness is to seek out others who also straddle that line, a community that sees you for all that you are. And yet, as work and life often necessitate, we still have to step into places where we have to hide parts of ourselves.
What I loved so much about Taiwan when I arrived was how, in this imperfect world, I had found a place that let me be both of my selves—and therefore the whole of myself—without fear of being maligned. For the first time, I lived in a place where I could gather all the parts of me that I’d been carrying separately and let them coexist. There didn’t have to be a Karissa around other Asians and a Karissa around everyone else. There could simply be one Karissa.
As I’ve gotten more comfortable with life here, I no longer feel the need to apologize for my Americanness or prove my Taiwaneseness in quick encounters with strangers. I’ve learned to embrace—even love—the humiliation that comes with making mistakes in language. My life here requires me to navigate my multiplicity in a different way, even as it forces me to reimagine and understand myself anew. What I’m saying is that, as the years have passed and my life in Taiwan has grown fuller and more complex, I’ve stopped buying tea eggs as often as I did in those first weeks. I’ve moved on to eating a variety of other Taiwanese foods (with pizza, pasta, and salads consistently in rotation). But once in a while, when I want something simple yet satiating, I still buy a bagful of tea eggs and eat them in one sitting. I will always have a soft spot for them. They remind me of home: the one I come from and the one I’ve created in Taipei.