Daxi Old Street is just a 30-45 minute scooter ride outside of Zhongli, but arriving there will transport you many decades back in time. That’s what every laojie, or “old street” is supposed to do: take you back to a simpler Taiwan where the narrow streets weren’t crowded with SUVs and good food was one of life’s highest pleasures.
There are lots of old-fashioned buildings along a brick road, many tofu restaurants, street-food vendors, tea and coffee shops, souvenir shops, a big temple, a small temple, and a view of the river. At night, you can watch the sunset there, and when it’s dark, one of the bridges lights up and the lights change colors.
The Scottish foursome The Bay City Rollers were the little neon-pink tulips that rose from AM radio’s utopian soil, and every girl wanted more than a whiff. […]
The boys ascended from their black car, so pale and slender, their shoulders narrow, and their hair ornately chopped-up in beautiful plumage. They wore plaid pants in gleaming red and green, with their little hipbones jutting out…These men were like girls, bird-like and frail. They looked like me, except with weenies. Where was their daddy, I thought. […]
The birdmen bobbed up and down, perpetually smiling. Suddenly girls were appearing on the stage, wrapping their bodies around the young men. Big dudes ran out of the wings, unwrapping the young girls from the birdmen’s bodies and carrying them off the stage. There was one girl after another, and sometimes we would be only a couple feet away from them as they were dragged offstage.
I will never forget the girl who required four men to carry her off. She was spasming, her pink baby-tee pulled up around her chest to reveal soft white rolls of fat, her sad little face knit in anger and disappointment. “I JUST WANT TO TOUCH THEM! I JUST WANT TO TOUCH THEM!” she wailed over and over.
This is how long ago I moved to Taiwan: When I got here, there were no smartphones. Facebook wasn’t even a thing. If you wanted to make friends, you had to find a place with other people in it and make yourself appealing.
Since 1997, the best place to make friends in Zhongli has been The River. Legend has it that some of the people you’ll find there have been occupying their stools lo these twenty years… Continue reading “The River”
The quick answer to this question is no. American adults aren’t expected to give their parents a big lump of money at Christmas the way Taiwanese adults give their parents money at Chinese New Year or on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. Continue reading “Do Americans give their parents money?”
This is the night market that foreigners mean when they say “the Zhongli night market.” Actually, there are lots of night markets in Zhongli, big and small, near and far, so better to refer to it as the Xinming Night Market to avoid any confusion.
I live riiiight next to this night market. When people hear that, they assume I go to the night market a lot for meals, but I don’t. The food is delicious in all the unhealthiest ways, and I can’t be eating grilled sausages and fried pancakes all the time. Continue reading “Zhongli Xinming Night Market”
I watched The Brand New Testament as soon as I could after seeing the trailer. Totally dig any project that purports to pursue the answer to the age-old question: What if God were one of us?
According to this film, He’d be a giant asshole in Bruxelles, which would be a veritable Garden of Eden if God weren’t such a maladjusted sadist. There is a nod to the fact that he might be a bored genius, which of course I can totally empathize with, but nonetheless He’s a bastard who enjoys other humans’ pain and suffering. He finds it amusing, from drafting Murphy’s laws to orchestrating terribly ironic human tragedies like not being able to spend your life with the one person you love. He’s the cosmic-scale version of the shitty kid who for laughs stomps out ants and pulls the legs off spiders. Continue reading “The Brand New Testament movie review”
The time I took an off-license cab from the airport
I’d been living in Taiwan for two years already. I knew the drill. I knew it was NT$400 to get a tab from my house to the airport. It was NT$600 to take an official airport taxi home. I wasn’t going to give anybody NT$200 (US$6) extra for the same trip.
On my way to the official taxi stand, a few men furtively approached me, whispering “Taxi? Taxi?” I pointed my chin at an old man, the least-dangerous looking one. He gestured for me to follow him into an elevator. I figured we were getting into his taxi parked in the basement. Instead, we got out and hailed a bus. The whole time the old man, kept chattering that I should continue going with him, but I couldn’t speak enough Chinese to ask for the details. He grabbed up one of my big suitcases himself and pulled it onto the bus.
I looked at everyone on the bus and looked at the old man. I didn’t know what was going on, but the old man had a friendly face. This is how stupid girls like you die, I told myself. At the same time, I was annoyed about being on a bus. The whole point of taking a taxi was the comfort and convenience of being in a car without having to stand and hold a greasy pole in a smelly bus full of other people. But before I could decide what to think, whether to be scared or angry, the old man was shooing me off the bus.
Now we were at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. In Taiwan, you rarely ever have the luxury of feeling like you are in the middle of nowhere with no other people around as far as you can see. But on this dark night about ten years ago, I felt like I was alone with that old man at a brightly lit gas station in the middle of empty lots or rice paddies, but no houses or night markets or police stations or parks full of nosy old grandmothers and noisy children to mark my presence or my imminent disappearance. Now I was alone with this old man, me and my baggage, at a lonely gas station on a dark night. I was going to die trying to save NT$200, the price of a beer or a 12-inch sub sandwich.
The old man gestured for me to wait a moment at the edge of the gas station, on the border between light and dark. He disappeared down the road. My heart jumped and my mind twirled. Was I standing there waiting to die? How could I get away? Where could I go? Did he have a weapon? Was he going to bring me somewhere and rape me first? Did he have friends? I imagined the headlines my mother would read. Who would notify her that I was dead? How long would it be before they would find my body? Surely they would find my body. What if they didn’t even find my body and my poor mother never knew what happened to me?
The man came back in a beat-up Camry, an old brown, boxy thing. I had thought at least I would be riding in a yellow taxi, just not an airport taxi. This was just some old guy’s car. I was about to get in some strange old man’s car.
I helped him put my suitcases in the trunk and the backseat. I took the passenger seat in the front. There was no headrest, though. If he didn’t try to rape and kill me, but we got in an accident, I would certainly die from whiplash. He asked my to repeat my address, and I did, explaining that I lived by the new Sogo in Zhongli. He was familiar with the area. I took it as a good sign that he wanted to confirm our destination, an indication that he actually wanted to take me there and not to some abandoned country shack where a bunch of gangsters would assault me to death.
My breathe was fast and shallow. I carefully read every sign on the higway, desperate for to confirm that we were definitely going to Zhongli. We passed the first exit, and I wanted him to take it, even though I knew my house was closer to the second exit. When he took the second exit, I felt like I could afford to stop imagining myself jumping out of the moving car.
I looked at the old man, and he did have a friendly face. Grandfatherly. I imagined he had a grandson, a little boy too young to be awake at this hour. A little boy who needed money for food, clothes, tuition, etc. A little boy who wanted a bicycle. Obviously, Grandpa wasn’t rich, or he would be driving around in this beat-up old Camry missing a headrest, driving strange women home from the airport for NT$400. He was taking a big risk: he could be charged a lot of money if he got caught. He did what he could to minimize it, though, parking his car a bus ride away from the airport. He wasn’t technically picking up passengers from the airport. I bet he was already counting the money in his head, NT$400. Not much, but a start. A few trips like this, and before you know it, Didi would have his new bicycle, a red one with a bell and a flag. There’d be enough money to pay his school bills for the next semester.
He turned and turned and I recognized my neighborhood. We were on Yanping; there was Carrefour, now the Ring Road, and yes, that’s right, this is my street, and just left here, this is my building. What a nice old man, I thought. Poor guy with his old car, just trying to make a buck. I’m not rich, but I don’t have to work that hard for my money, and nobody else needs it but me. When he put both my suitcases on the sidewalk, I gave him the full NT$600 fare, imagining he’d put the extra money toward the imaginary bicycle for his imaginary grandson.
This was drafted (but not posted) in 2012, shortly after I returned to the U.S. after six years Taiwan and China.
One of my co-workers remarked that without even looking up he knows it’s me walking across our big office because he recognizes my shuffle. Before I could even explain myself, he told me he figured it was from my time in Asia. Something about the way I walk makes him think of a Japanese geisha or a Chinese woman with bound feet, he said.
I knew what he was talking about. It’s a walk that I became so familiar with in Taiwan/China that I didn’t even realize I had adopted and exported it. It’s the walk of a much daintier woman who is afraid to own her personal space. It’s the shuffle of a bullied girl who is trying to disappear, or the handicapped stride of a woman running in high heels. It’s Nathan Lane’s Albert from The Bird Cage. It’s a Spice Girl. It’s affected.
(Once a Chinese woman in Shanghai was getting on my nerves because she jogged, but kind of stomped her feet, whenever she needed to move across the office. I turned to another Chinese co-worker with a clenched jaw and asked her if she’d noticed how annoying and loud it was every time So-and-so ran across the office. “I think she’s trying to be cute,” she said. And she was: It was supposed to be a dainty, girly traipse, but she was slamming her feet down and not landing on her toes.)
Then there’s also the way I eat. I make Chinese food* for J. As we are eating with our chopsticks, I realize I am shoveling rice and pork into my open maw from the bowl I am holding up to my mouth. His bowl sits on the table and he eats a one bite at a time. He can feed himself with chopsticks, but not as efficiently as me because I am not picking up up my food, I am sweeping it into my mouth. He doesn’t say anything, but I put my bowl down on the table and try to eat Chinese food like a Westerner, without too much enthusiasm, without anything that looks like desperation.
The worst has been the way I can’t remember not to be opportunistic in crowds. There’s so much respect for personal space in the U.S., but I can’t suppress the instinct that I developed after years of trying to get anywhere in Asia. I dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge down the cereal aisle. “Whoa,” says J. I’m so embarrassed, but there’s no good way to explain to someone that there’s no other way to get through a crowded grocery store in Taiwan. I’ve perfected these skills over six years and now they are useless.
You can predict some of the things you will miss about a place when you leave after spending a meaningful amount of time there, but it’s harder to predict the ways you might change. I grew up in Taiwan–I was there from the time I was 23 until I turned 28, and then I spent another year, another birthday in Shanghai. (Also I went to high school in Hong Kong.) I knew that I learned a lot about live and love, figured out that I didn’t want to teach, etc. I didn’t know that I had absorbed different ways of taking up and using my space. I couldn’t have realized that until I got back “home”, and actually it’s been hard for me to break these relatively new habits.
It’s interesting, though, to think about the different ways people take up and use their personal space, and why culture and population might have an impact on how our relationship to our space is structured.
*My Chinese food was never very good, but I was “homesick.” And at the time, I had no plans of returning to Taiwan to live. I was doing what I could.