"Taiwanese people understand food purely in terms of pleasure," he said. "But my friends tell me that in China food is still attached to survival or status--it is used to intimidate, it is eaten to impress. It is sometimes not what it seems. But people here simply seem to enjoy it."
"And when I talk about China," he said without irony, "my conversations will usually start with 'My friends tell me,' because I haven't been there myself for so long."
On the twentieth anniversary of Tien'anmen, Kaixi attempted to return to China, to clear his name in court. He was turned away in Macao, and sent back to Taiwan. The government will not issue his parents visas to leave the country, so they have not met since 1989. "I miss my mother's food--I miss the Uighur style of cooking. You can get everything in Taipei, but you can't really get that."
On my last night with Kaixi, he took me to a local Xinjiang restaurant near his home. It was modern and minimalist--far different than the restaurants draped in green and gold embroidery across China, where plucky Central Asian music screams from tired speakers. Sometimes, in restaurants like those, the diners even dance.
But in this restaurant, tucked down in alleyway in chic East Taipei, only a few photos of men with skullcaps selling grapes signaled the restaurant's ethnic intent. That, and the heavy scent of cumin in the air. "The Uighurs were once a strong people, a rich people," he explained, as a waiter brought plates of fatty lamb and beef pierced through with skewers. "We were traders to the Mongols, we were powerful and independent people."