Fragments from a Taiwan Notebook

Written by  Sunday, 13 April 2014 15:12

 

The flight to Taipei was a 13 hour-long tunnel through about a million movies, and Taipei was a glimmer of signs in the dark. We've woken up in a gorgeous hotel room. Outside the window it's Times Square but with palm trees. Next, we drive south to Taichung. Maia: "I could get used to Taiwanese hospitality."

 

We're in Taichung, in a house on campus, and it's a little bit like living in Jungle Book. There are geckos walking across the ceiling and frogs in the kitchen. Outside there are cobras in the tall grass (we're told) and bats at dusk, peacocks and weird butterflies. The main road is lined with banyan trees and their branches look like they're dripping into the ground. Plus, it's really steamy. But the people are incredibly hospitable in a completely informal way, and the food is just astounding. Papaya for breakfast, mangoes like poems, a kind of red candied tofu...

 

At night any open space is utilized: lines of women shyly dancing to the music of a boom box, their exercise routine. Everyone in unison.

 

Whenever you hear a tinny rendition of “Fur Elise,” it’s a garbage truck passing by.

 

Food at the night market: Jonah eats pig’s blood and rice on a stick. It looks like a cherry popsicle.

 

Dogs of uncertain origin everywhere, night and day. One walks into the 7-11 and lies down in the aisle. Nobody notices. They seem well fed, many have collars, but it’s not clear that they belong to anyone. A pack hangs out in the tall grass of an empty field, spread out like soldiers around a perimeter, watching, but not exactly threatening.

 

Chinese is a song: the meaning of the sentence can’t be separated from the melody.

 

Fried chicken feet look like little gloved hands.

 

Rosh Hashanah: HSR to Taipei and then a taxi to the Chabad house on a little side street in the Daan district. The service is different from the usual Lubavitcher version—Rabbi Shlomi is Israeli. His Tallit is wrapped around his head like an Arab headdress. He’s assisted by a Taiwanese Hasid and an Israeli kid, his brother in law, who looks maybe 20—the black suit and hat make him look younger, not older, as if he’s playing dress up. There’s another Taiwanese in a pew, deep in study. The congregation is international: Canadian, Dutch, German, French. You really see the power of Jewish identity as something global, transnational, multilingual and multicultural. Ancient but coincidentally postmodern. A lot like Chinese identity, which is also diasporic.

 

The cement ceiling in my study comes clattering down. I was in the kitchen at the time. Peek my head in and there’s dust and rubble everywhere. The pieces are big—someone could have gotten really hurt. And the remaining portions are drooping from the slats above, ready to follow…

 

We get a plywood ceiling, and it takes over a week, but at least it’s fixed, and then a painter came to paint it. He got up on his ladder, and when he was done with one part, instead of getting down and moving the ladder, he'd sort of stilt walk the ladder over to the next place. It was brilliant. And while he's painting we had a long conversation in Chinese. He seemed to have a lot of problems with his boss--there seemed to be some profanity involved (I have a sense that Chinese is rich in profanity)--and then he told me a story about a relative in America who either came to a tragic end or made a million bucks, I'm not sure. My vocabulary is still under 300 words. But I kept nodding and saying yes, yes, and hmm, and he kept talking, and we were both very satisfied.

 

So Karen's writing a food article for a local magazine. We eat in a Greek restaurant and then have cookies in a gorgeous little French patisserie--the chef trained in Tokyo. There's some kind of ultra modern bar, an expensive looking sushi place, and we keep walking down the meandering side street, past all these lovely homes--and there on the corner is a couple roasting a whole pig, head and hooves and everything else, over a bonfire, turning it on a spit. At one point they have to move their emergency water bucket, so a car can get out of the garage behind them. We stick around, and people start coming out of the swanky apartment building across the street, carrying plates to buy some roast pork...

 

Playing tennis with Jonah under the lights tonight. The bats kept swooping down to catch the ball--then swooping away, big brown things. The woman on the next court was really walloping the ball while playing in a flowered dress. Not a tennis dress--the dress she wore to work that morning...

 

The thing about Taichung is that I never have a chance to get properly lost. If I pull out a map, somebody runs up to help. I'm worried that I'm getting spoiled.

 

Our neighbor gave us a shopping bag full of little stubby bananas from one of his trees. Small, plump, incredibly sweet, nothing like the things we used to get in the supermarket back in the States.

 

Whenever someone asks me about myself, I end up repeating prefabricated dialogues from my Chinese textbook: my actual life is replaced by whatever I can neatly say with the vocabulary I have on hand. That’s why I tell the taxi driver that we’re going to see friends in Taipei, rather than the truth, which is that we’re going to a series of Fulbright events. I use whole chunks of dialogue from the book. But isn’t that always the case for everyone, even in his or her native language?

 

I’m sitting in the front seat of a taxicab, carrying on a conversation I don’t really understand, when the drivers suddenly reaches for a little pot of ointment on the dash and without warning puts a dab of it on the nasty burn I have on the back of my hand. “That should fix it,” he says.

 

We come across a little temple split in half by a city street: on one side of the road two small shrines and a table for offerings, on the other side a bigger shrine in a sort of open garage structure, flanked by stoves to burn paper money. All three shrines are inhabited by the wonderful cast of characters I’ve seen elsewhere: the bemused old men with long white beards and bulbous bald heads, the fierce warriors in complicated armor, the morally serious scholars. Scooters zip down the road between the shrines; people pray over them, waving incense…Somehow we end up making an offering of pineapple, lighting incense and then burning great loads of paper money for my father, who has no doubt maxed out his credit cards by now. The heat on my face from the stove, the sight of the fire inside its belly, the money turning to ash on the grate, the whoosh of wind that sucks the money in, seems to pull at my fingers. Someone shows me how to count out the money in bunches. I throw in a sheet with pictures of clothing, shoes, pants, hats: a wardrobe, getting my father whatever he needs—or what I need, which is to feel his presence beside me even half way around the world.

 

We're driving to Taichung Park, and the streets downtown are all one lane and running in one direction. I take a left onto a side street and only then see the construction blocking our way forward. I consider backing up but it looks like we might just be able to squeeze between the cement mixer and the parked cars if I pull in our mirrors and my hands don't shake, so I start moving forward. In any case, I can see in my rearview mirror that there's now a line behind us, so I have no choice...And that's when I see the blind man. He's in the middle of the narrow channel between the parked cars and the construction and he's walking straight toward us, tapping his cane...

 

And then it’s winter and I’m wearing a wool cap in bed.

 

Robert Anthony Siegel is a writer and an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at University of North Carolina Wilmington. He is fascinated with East Asia and has written several pieces to bring Japanese authors into American discussions of contemporary literature. He has published two novels, All the Money in the World and All Will Be Revealed.

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