As a 22-year-old about to graduate, nothing is more thrilling or terrifying than being offered an opportunity to leave the United States for the first time to accept an incredible job halfway across the world. This was my case last spring when I had an opportunity to move to Taiwan for nine months to work for Kdan Mobile before returning to the United States to help start their American office. I called my dad immediately after receiving the offer, and we both shared excitement but had the same concern: how on earth am I going to order food there?
Getting Acquainted with the Culture in Taipei--Food and Otherwise
Before I started my new job, I enrolled in a 2-week program at Shih Chien University in Taipei, Tainan. Its purpose was to teach us some basic Mandarin and introduce us to Taiwanese culture.
The students running the program took us to incredible restaurants all over the northern part of the country. They did a great job helping me order food, always making sure to tell the vendors "no peanuts or tree nuts." I also carried around a card with the same message written on it in traditional Chinese--the dialect of Chinese spoken in Taiwan.
This worked for the most part until one day in a dumpling restaurant. I ordered a traditional Taiwanese dish and when it came out, there were chestnuts sitting on top of the food.
Naturally, their next step was to alert the waitress. She came over, apologized, and picked the chestnuts up with a pair of chopsticks and handed the plate back to me.
...I know what you're thinking...that's not going to help at all because there was still cross-contamination! I was very thankful that they did this in front of me rather than going into the kitchen where I would have been blind-sided. The story could have ended very differently.
I was naturally a little frustrated, but even more than that, I was confused. After speaking with the Taiwanese students, they explained that food allergies aren't as prevalent in Asia.
This was an eye-opening moment for me--I had never considered that "no nuts" in Chinese does not necessarily mean "no nuts, this food cannot be prepared by nuts, and can't come in contact with nuts."
This was a defining moment and an important lesson learned the easy way. This is when I decided to work with my team to design our first application that would help people translate their allergens.
Learning my Second Lesson the Hard Way
A few months later, I was settled into Tainan City and loving my job at Kdan, my new friends I made along the way, and the progress I was making with the translation app.
Each morning, I would work out with my coworker and friend, Chris, and we would would stop for a quick sandwich on the way into work. I had a more in-depth allergy translation that I had shown our favorite vendor and felt very comfortable eating at his stand.
One morning however, he was rushing to get a bunch of orders completed, and at some point the breakfast I ordered came into contact with peanuts.
Shortly afterwards, I was feeling quite nauseous, breaking out in hives, and having difficulty breathing.
I was lucky because I'm surrounded by awesome coworkers that are fluent in English and took the day off to drive me to the hospital and stay with me to translate everything. Our office also just happens to be minutes away from the best hospital in the region.
Sitting in the hospital bed, I remember thinking to myself, "If I had been on my own, I would have been completely helpless. Speaking wasn't easy to begin with and I don't even speak the language. I had no idea where to get help."
This was the second lesson I learned about traveling with food allergies: no matter how much you prepare, human error is always a factor.
While I waited for blood tests to come back and to be released from the hospital, I decided that if I was really going to help people with allergies travel, translating allergy information and cross-contamination was only part of the equation--I needed to design a way for people to be able to find a hospital and solicit help from strangers.
My Takeaways and Top New Foods
Fortunately, those two stories are fairly-isolated occurrences. I learned some important lessons that I'm trying to use to inspire my work, but overall, my experience in Taiwan has been unbelievable!
I am able to translate my allergy information when I go out and have found tons of new foods that I plan to continue to make even when I'm back stateside.
I've tried tons of new foods like squid, authentic Japanese sushi that they have in specialty restaurants, and even the thousand-year egg!
Favorite Food #1--The Egg Roll
In Taiwan, "egg roll" is not what we typically think of in western culture. Instead, an egg roll here is an omelette covered in a light layer of dough (think tortillas), rolled into a burrito-style meal. Then I get mine covered in chicken. It's my favorite breakfast food, and it's available all over the country.
Favorite Food #2--Shaved Ice with Fruit
I've never been a fan of fruit for dessert (it's not supposed to be that healthy), but that's changed since living in Taiwan. Shaved ice is a traditional dessert I was introduced to here that is frozen milk that's shaved down (like grating your own cheese) and comes with fruit on top. It's not quite as sweet as ice cream, but just as delicious. And as a bonus, it's far healthier!
Night markets are extremely popular in Taiwan and you can find hundreds of different kinds of food. I've been trying to get out of my comfort zone the best I can whenever I go to one (this is where I tried squid for the first time) and so far I've rarely been disappointed.
I think my favorite night market treat is the beef cubes which are made right in front of you by use of blow torch! It's quite the site and tastes amazing. Plus, night markets are a great way to make new friends!
If you'd like to download our free allergy translation app, you can find it on both app stores: