A day or two after our arrival in Taiwan, my family and I stood at the edge of the narrow road just outside the college campus where we now lived, wondering how to cross the street. There was no traffic light, no crosswalk, no sidewalk, and no break in the traffic, which was made up almost entirely of motor scooters. Coming from America, land of the Humvee and the monster truck, a motor scooter sounds like a child’s toy, but a torrent of them is actually pretty scary. We watched for a while, looking for a gap in the flow, lurching forward and then retreating. Finally, we lost heart and went home.
In the weeks that followed, we learned how to cross that street, zigging and zagging between scooters with the casual air of a Taiwanese college student out for bubble tea. We never really stopped to consider how out of character that was for us, anxious American suburbanites normally obsessed with rules and safety—tending to equate the two, really. It was like we’d left our order-loving, non-jaywalking selves behind in America, along with our two overweight cats and Big Gulp cups.
Meanwhile in our travels through the city we were becoming connoisseurs of the sheer oddness of Taiwanese traffic. There were the hearses, of course, golden pagodas on wheels broadcasting Buddhist chants through loudspeakers, grand and a little bit eerie, like billboards for mortality. And there were the garbage trucks, playing their tinny version of “Für Elise” over and over again. We once saw a truck with a jury-rigged platform high up atop the cab, a couple of men sitting up there for no apparent reason, nothing to hold onto. We saw a pickup truck with a table and chairs in the bed, two people seated on the chairs as if having tea at home. We regularly saw families of four jammed onto a single scooter, a baby held under the arm like a football. We saw scooters with dogs and cats and even, once, a parrot perched on the handlebars. We saw people using scooters to transport impossible objects: a lawn mower, gigantic bags of recycling, large-bore sewer piping. Once, a scooter whizzed by with five small propane tanks on back, stacked on top of each other and lashed together. In any other country, that would qualify as a missile; in Taiwan, it was just a guy going home for dinner.
“Such lovely people,” I said to my wife, smiling dreamily in the heat, which made us all a little like lotus-eaters. “It’s just that they don’t seem to have the word for safety in their vocabulary.”
This comfort with carelessness was endearing for people like us, used to doing too much worrying, in need of release. But there was an undercurrent as well. One of my Taiwanese students showed up for class covered in bloody bruises, which he’d bandaged for some inexplicable reason with clear packing tape.
“What happened to you?” I asked.
“Ah, Professor,” he said, looking bemused. “I tried to make a left turn.”
By then we’d found out that Taiwanese driving habits were an obsessive subject of conversation among resident foreigners, who described with great relish the most outrageous things they’d seen: the left turn across four lanes of traffic or the truck driver steering with his knees while eating noodles with chopsticks.
“Don’t drive if you can avoid it,” they all said.
“I have no intention of driving,” I told them.
“But if you do drive, don’t stop short at a red light, because the guy behind you will expect you to go through and he’ll smack you from behind.”
“I’m definitely not driving,” I said.
“The problem is they believe in fate. There’s no need to use turn signals if you believe in fate.”
It was meant as a joke, I realized—but the truth was that I’d been in cabs and buses where the driver kept a little shrine on the dashboard. One taxi, in particular, had smelled sweetly of sandalwood, and then I’d noticed a brown burn mark on the windshield where the incense burner touched the glass.
Of course I ended up driving. I couldn’t not drive, given all the intense feelings that clustered around it, all the thoughts about religion and culture and otherness, whether silly or serious, valid or invalid. And what I found, to my great surprise, was that I liked driving in Taiwan. Though I’d lived the last ten years in suburbia, land of the speed bump and the I Brake for Squirrels bumper sticker, I’d grown up in New York City and originally learned to drive in the ferociously clogged streets of Manhattan, taught by a father who’d also run red lights and zoom up the breakdown lane when he thought he could get away with it. Fighting Taiwanese traffic thus felt oddly familiar, a return to patterns that lay buried deep inside me.
And then one night we were driving home on Harbor Road, Taichung’s major avenue, when we heard a terrible boom up ahead, something between the man-made and the natural, a thunderclap and an explosion. Traffic slowed to a crawl, and when we finally crept past the trouble spot, I caught a glimpse of someone on the asphalt, lying on his stomach, very much as if he’d fallen asleep. A purposeful young man was standing beside him, waving traffic around. Other people stood at careful intervals, forming a neat perimeter around the rest of the scene, which included an overturned scooter and a helmet.
I do not want to write here about the dreamlike sadness of that scene. All I want to mention is that it struck me as very Taiwanese in its improvised orderliness—just as Taiwanese as the chaos of traffic. And it did not make me hesitant about continuing to drive, perhaps because driving had, by then, become a symbol of my sense of belonging. There was something deeply satisfying about lumbering down Harbor Road in my old Volvo, watching the scooters part ahead of me like little fish, as if we were in a Jacques Cousteau documentary. I might be a waiguoren, a foreigner, and my Mandarin might sound like the babble of a two year old with aphasia, but I had my place in the ecosystem.
Indeed, as the months passed, I found myself driving more and more like a local. I didn’t ever drive up the sidewalk, something I saw fairly frequently in Taichung, but I definitely did do whatever else might get me to my destination quickest, and I didn’t bother to signal much while doing it. If you had seen my Volvo in action, you would have assumed there was no essential difference between its driver and the thousands of others out on the road.
Maybe that’s a way of saying I was getting tired of being a waiguoren. One drizzly afternoon, idling by the curb of one of the city’s biggest boulevards, with my eleven year-old daughter in the backseat, I impulsively performed the maneuver that all the foreigners in the room had once identified as the great dividing line between East and West: I made a left turn across four lanes of traffic. It was, in fact, just the first part of a grand U-turn: afterwards, we sat in the no-man’s land between the two sides of the boulevard, waiting for the light to turn green so we could make a second left and head back toward Harbor Road and home.
In retrospect, the best I can say for myself is that I felt ashamed. Yes, I had seen others perform the same stunt any number of times, but that didn’t make it any less stupid. Such casual risk-taking felt inauthentic to me now, a form of pretension—perhaps because, deep down, I did not really believe in fate. I believed in traffic regulations.
I glanced into the rearview mirror, checking on my daughter in back, and then concentrated on the red light in front of us, willing it to change so I could get away and forget what I had just done. And then I heard a series of loud bangs: someone astride a motor scooter was smacking my passenger window with the flat of his hand. Hard.
I turned in my seat and tried to make him out through the tinted glass: in almost a year of navigating the streets of Taiwan, amid all the craziness and close encounters, I had never once witnessed an instance of direct, confrontational rudeness, let alone road rage. Drivers rarely even used their horns.
“He’s got red hair!” said my daughter.
Leaning in, I could see it was true: he was a foreigner. Between blows to the window, he screamed at me in American English with all the fury of the self-righteous. “Four lanes of traffic! Four lanes of traffic!”
I was too frightened to roll down the window, too ashamed of myself to do more than mutter a defensive half-apology. “I’m sorry, everyone here does it,” I said, knowing full well that he could not hear me over the radio and the air conditioning. “Stay awhile and you’ll see.”
The light changed and I drove away, grateful to make an escape, and it was only halfway down Harbor Road, my heart slowing down a bit, my hands no longer shaking, that I realized he probably couldn’t see me through the tinted glass. He thought I was Taiwanese.