I like sweet potatoes, one can do wonderfully tasty things with them. And the Taiwanese like them especially; it is said that Taiwan has the form of a sweet potato (not a really poetic thought though). You can buy roasted sweet potatoes on the street, like roasted chestnuts in other countries. Only with the difference that in our countries, roasted chestnuts are usually offered during wintertime, while here, hot sweet potatoes are also offered during the heat of summer.
“Sweet Potato Mama” is a project to provide single mothers (who usually don’t receive support by the government) with an opportunity to work and earn money. Up to 7 days a week, they sell hot sweet potatoes in various places in the inner city of Taipei, around 30-50 kilos per day. This is hard work – including preparation time, it can easily take 10-12 hours to sell all potatoes. And the earnings are low – on average around 30 US dollars net profit per day. Once roasted, the potatoes have to be sold that same day, therefore, the women sometimes need to stand on the street until late at night. I can imagine that the families of the mamas can’t stand even the thought of sweet potatoes anymore.
“Live Like a Local” provides everyone with an opportunity to share the life of a Sweet Potato Mama for one day and help them to sell their hot goods to the general populace. And so I found myself on the street one day, selling hot potatoes in Chinese.
To sell hot sweet potatoes in a very hot and sweltering 34 degrees centigrade may not be quite as difficult as selling fridges to eskimos or sand machines in the desert, but it’s not far off. Pamela, a young American with Taiwanese roots, was my volunteer-colleague for the day, and we were a great team – she speaks Chinese, I brought in the distinct advantage of being an obvious foreigner, which made us noticeable. For 8 long hours (with 2 breaks when our aching legs didn’t want to support us any longer), we stood on the street, calling out something that sounded like “kau ti qua”, and waving a sign with Chinese characters. There are few Western foreigners in Taiwan, and to hear one shouting “sweet potato” (with probably a funny accent) in their midst brought a smile to many faces, and business to our Mama.
It was hard – the heat, standing on one’s feet for hours, smiling, smiling, smiling – I felt like I shrank or melted by a foot during this day. Soon we divided the world into two groups: Happy looking potato buyers, and miserable looking potato ignorers. But we made it – at 7pm, the oven was empty, all potatoes sold.
Zheng Ma, the real Sweet Potato Mama, was very proud of us, and assured us that we helped her selling potatoes faster than usual. And indeed I saw that other returning Mamas still had half their potatoes left, which did make me feel a bit proud, but also gave me a slightly bad feeling at the same time.
To thank us, Zheng Ma took us to a typical little Taiwanese restaurant after, and then to a temple, for thanksgiving and also to ask for protection for us on our further travels.
This was my first experience of selling things on the street, and I learned a lot – it’s very hard work! I can only hope that I don’t look so miserable as some, or rudely ignore vendors as others, but likelihood is, I did do these things. I have resolved to become the “happy potato buyer” sort of person, and at the very least combine a no with a smile in future, and pay more attention to charitable projects on the street. There is nothing like personal experience. I was very happy not to have to do it one my own – during our shared experience, Pamela and I also became good friends.
I am very impressed by the hard life of the Sweet Potato Mamas – I was totally knackered at the end of the day, and could hardly keep up with Zheng Ma. She does this every day, all day, to support her three children; only Sunday is a day off.
If you happen to come to Taiwan and want to try it out for yourself – that’s where you can register: http://www.topologytravel.com/sweet-potato-mama.html. Don’t give money to the Mamas (the entire project is aimed at fostering self-responsibility) but you can of course buy one or two potatoes off them. And best collect your grocery receipts to give to them – the numbers printed on them can win in the national lotteries.