Just as election season begins to heat up, KMT County Councilman Lin Cheng-yin (林政賢) oversees the daring rescue of a sofa pulled from the Taoyuan sewers, reminding residents to please stop flushing household furniture.
It was a crayon-drawn Sunday afternoon in Taipei, like a picture hung up in a kindergarten classroom, with streaks of sky blue filling every inch of the page to the edges of the crayon-green grass and bare brown trees. White propeller planes grazed the yellow sunflower sun. Orange rays zapped winter blues into pink summer reveries.
It was my last weekend at the school. I was a little scared about what lay beneath — the big black pit of irrational fears — but there was something about the present, with its colors and metropolitan noises — buzzing, screeching, zooming — that rolled out before me a blank loose-leaf page and a box of pastels.(Photo: Letters I Wrote)
When my friend suggested going to a “mammoth exhibit” last Sunday, I just thought the gallery she had in mind was really big.
Upon entering the basement gallery at Taipei’s National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, an Ice Age-era woolly mammoth reconstruction (pictured above) roars over visitors. The mounted skeleton is only one of the “really big” big-ticket items on display at Yuka: The Woolly Mammoth. Still, the exhibition’s more diminutive headliner is what leaves a more lasting impression.
Yuka is a shockingly intact carcass of what scientists believe is a 10-year-old mammoth cub that was found frozen in the Siberian tundra. It’s fair warning that the experience is much more hallowed than you may anticipate — and all the better for it. Belying the exhibition’s plush mascot and gift-shop souvenirs that depict a cuddly cartoon version of the now-extinct descendant of the African elephant, the exhibition is likely to leave visitors with a much more viscerally raw experience. The feeling is wrought by the marvelous, though crudely wizened carcass of a once-majestic creature — a tiny child, really — which may have been brutally hunted in a coordinated attack of lions and humans, according to the Guardian. Yuka, stunningly preserved, is much more than just a stack of old bones in a museum. (Admission NT$280; ends on March 2, 2014; photo credit: Letters I Wrote)
If you spend enough time in a foreign country, even the most stark cultural differences have a way of melting away like a bad mood in the summer sun.
Sure, every country comes with a set of cultural ticks that can be irksome. Argentines really do arrive late or not at all to appointments, and it’s not personal somehow. Random Taiwanese shop owners have a loving penchant for interrogating foreign strangers like in-laws, extracting marital status and salary range quicker than a credit-rating agency.
But living abroad isn’t only about the outward observations. The real gems are directed inwards when you start considering how you are perceived by local people. In Southeast Asia, Western foreigners often vent about being stared at and scrutinized. But the stares, I’ve found, are often fixed on the thing being done, not who’s doing it. Remembering this has brought about worthy self-examination as it did on my recent stroll through Taipei with a friend.
In Taipei, easily the most orderly city I’ve ever spent much time in, the social code that governs how a proper pedestrian should behave are followed strictly to the letter: jaywalking is unheard of, people unanimously walk on sidewalks and risks are averted by dutiful observance to traffic signals — unremarkable stuff unless you’ve lived in South America. One surefire way to spot a Westerner here is that we’re the only ones ever seen sprinting Jackie Joyner-Kersee-style across the street to beat the crosswalk signal before it turns red: nine times out of 10, we’re not even running late for anything.
As my friend and I approached an intersection along Taipei’s Roosevelt Road, I glanced at the pedestrian signal — the kind that doesn’t simply blink the red “stop” hand or the green “go” stick figure, but counts down how much time you have to cross. Four seconds flashed on the screen, which to us, was the visual equivalent of an Olympic starting gun being fired, prompting a mad dash across a ten-lane boulevard. Our gold-medal-winning stupidity revealed itself at the midway point of the boulevard, when the crosswalk’s clock expired, and growling cars kicked up dust and began racing hell-bent on all sides of us.
Adrenaline, apologies, prayers to dead relatives and an amateur bob-and-weave strategy learned from playing video games like Mario Kart, ushered us to the other side miraculously intact, as my friend and I keeled over, huffing.
We hadn’t yet noticed the crowd of deservedly horrified onlookers pooled around us, until the wordless reaction of one woman seemed to speak on their behalves.
"Where the hell are you going in such a rush?" she asked through a confused glare.
We paused, considered, locked eyes for support, then replied through an oh-well shrug of our shoulders.
"The modernization of Europe and the USA took some two centuries, but in Taiwan ‘that span has been compressed into a few decades, dating back to the late decades of Japanese colonization.’" — In Search of Criminological Tradition: the Development of Criminology in Taiwan.
The photo shows a northwest view of Taipei from Taipei 101’s observation deck. (Credit: Letters I Wrote)
One step beyond your imagined limitation is a secret place of revelry without morning, riches without envy.
"Keep walking," I say to myself as I brave a dark walk through an overgrown forest. I went in search of a lost necklace, whose value was only revealed the moment it went missing. I feel cold, tormented by my failure to cherish a gift. Now, as a redeeming test, I press forward into a place were fears are written in the ink of night — and conjured.
A patter of footsteps rustles leaves on all sides at once, impossibly. A screech sounding both distant and near, canine and avian, rings out.
"What was that?" My thoughts turn to the killer stray dogs of Tiger Head Mountain that run ruffianly on the hills, hunting scarce food in whatever shape it comes in.
I whip around.
Through the beam of my flashlight something flashes into sight, then disappears into darkness. The exact form of its body is hazy in my memory. It was black, four-legged and agile. But its eyes, I remember … eyes of solid gold. Surely they were only reflecting the orange din of my battery-powered torch. Surely.
Fearing its return, not knowing where it fled to, I pause and survey the area. Where am I? … There is a clearing up ahead that I don’t remember seeing by day, a crossroads. I walk closer and there at the fork is a clue: this is a cemetery. Carved into a shoulder-high block of stone is the laughing face of a gargoyle with red-stained lips. In Asia, the mythical beast is meant to ward off evil spirits, but with a face like that, I’m suspicious about which side it plays for, maybe just its own.
"I’ll come back in daylight," I say to myself, knuckled by defeat, and dart up the footpath as the beam of my flashlight slices wildly through the air.
Perched on a nearby hill, the woodland beast with golden eyes watches over the spectacle. Coiled at its foot is a certain shimmering strand.
A man giving a thumbs up holds a banner that reads “We the people want to establish a new and independent state,” in Taipei’s Ximen District, on Sunday, Nov. 17. Protesters marched near a busy pedestrian mall to advocate independence from mainland China two days after The Gambian government announced it would break diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The mainland Chinese government denies having any prior knowledge of the decision. (Credit: Letters I Wrote)
A nurse in pink scrubs accompanies me with soundless footsteps into a room where a doctor waits behind a desk. His face is covered by a surgical mask revealing only eyes.
"If you are positive, you have to leave the country, do you understand?" the eyes ask.
I had forgotten about the island’s deportation policy. Stranded at the outpost of indecision, I sit dumb. The doctor repeats the question but his voice becomes more distant as the examination room begins to shrink smaller and smaller until it is the size of a pea that rests on my outstretched palm. I can see myself inside the miniature clinic sitting unnaturally stiff as if someone had just admonished me for my posture. I instinctively open my other palm to find another pea-sized world, my parent’s home in New Jersey where I sit on a tautly made bed in the same wooden manner. There is no meaning to glean from these side-by-side visions; they are nothing more than two Shroedinger scenarios.
"Yes" — a syringe juts into the crook of my arm, as the palm-held peas roll to the floor and vanish in the way that dropped objects tend to do — "I understand."
"Do you want to continue?" the eyes ask.
"Yes" — a warm ruby-red liquid floods a glass vile — "I do."
I have never been squeamish about needles or blood. Such horrors dull early on in an accident-prone childhood, especially for a middle child that sustained himself on platitudes for emergency-room bravery. Under stark white hospital light, seated on the crinkling paper sheets of an operating table, as machines blinked and beeped, and hairy-armed doctors stared with thrilling detachment at the gash in my thrice-scarred face, I learned that we’re only scarecrows. Flesh is our cloth, blood is our hay, and with beady button-eyes, I watch the slow drain of stuffing.
The vile is full. I look up. The doctor is no longer before me, but a second masked nurse in pink.
“Take this to fourth floor,” she says, then flies away like a pink crow.My friend meets me in the hallway. I show him the vile and we exchange confused looks. How strange that a hospital would trust a patient to carry the sample. “What if a patient drops it?” he wonders. But I have something else in mind.
Deep down, I think we all know who was behind the recent explosion in Taoyuan of Florentijn Hofman’s supersized bathtub toy: Rubber Duck’s evil gay twin.
There have been moments lately when I walk around Taoyuan on some overcast day like today, and overhearing a snippet of jibberish, or being handed back my change with an obsequious bow from a convenience store clerk, or walking through a night market and seeing some claw deep-frying in a pit of gurgling oil, or walking past a shirtless old man chewing beetle nut outside a smoking temple, and all that was exotic is amiss, I start to wonder, what am I doing here?
"You’re homesick," a friend said flippantly like it was closed case.
"But how can I be homesick if I don’t want to be home?" I asked.
I knew it was something else, but I didn’t press the issue. My friend was ornery having just returned from a six-hour misadventure after falling asleep on the high-speed train and ending up at the second to last stop. Listening to his non-story about all the things he didn’t do while thumbing around in a strange train station, waiting to get back on his rightful course, I realized exactly what I was feeling.
Or is this just how people get on overcast days in October? I tried to think back to a time when I felt some long stretch of certainty about my proper place along the space-time continuum. Being honest with myself, there haven’t been a whole lot. Of course, there was childhood but that was for a lack of knowing any better. There was the rush of walking into my first unpaid newspaper internship in New York, thinking: this is where life begins, chapter one. But that feeling was on loan — a low interest-rate student loan. Such is the life of a nomad, I guess. There have been flightier moments when I experienced something like universal harmony. Most of them involve me kicking my feet in laughter and struggling to keep wine from spilling on my white shirt at a friend’s wedding … remember Heather’s wedding? As the sun was setting on the putting greens where the four of us had stolen out on a covert mission, I loosened my tie and rolled up my shirt sleeves to the elbows, and you kicked off your heels, and we lay in the grass in our nice fine clothes. We must have heard our names called because we were so stupidly happy there. Brushing off the grass, we staggered back to the tent where the band was playing our favorite song (but couldn’t remember which one the next day) and your dresses swirled as you turned.
I wonder, while riding the elevator up to my apartment, am I supposed to be here? I laugh at the privilege of asking such a question, as I enter my studio on the seventeenth floor. I walk to the window and look out at the gray city as if a cityscape knew anything other than about staying put. It did not. Although I noticed that one of the plants on the windowsill is dying — about a week’s worth of death has set in — and there’s no one else to blame. And yet, the dilemma is much the same: nurse it back to health or toss it out and start over?
Summer is like the childhood friend that spends the vacation bunked up at your house. She gets to work occupying all the empty spaces that obedient young people hope to fill in one summery stretch. Day by day, her seductions cool though. She bogarts your life, flirts with your brother, and one day you catch her rifling through your sock drawer and it will plague you until you are gray what it was she was looking for that afternoon (because she knew that wasn’t where the jewelry was). Finally, a wood-paneled station wagon arrives. After a wooden goodbye, summer leaves down the gravel driveway, kicking up dust, and you feel nothing but relief.
September is a freckled friend from down the street. Months ago, you thought she was goober, but now you want to kiss her for being so kind and true. Twirling a soft tuft of her auburn hair, you tell her in roundabout ways that you love her, and you do — until the end of fall; then once more when you’re grown and maybe she’ll have stuck around to believe you this time.
The joy of moving to a new place, whether that place is around the world or around the corner, is watching it slowly filling up with things. You hardly notice it happening until one day everything is brimming over like a cup left outside in a storm.
Over the past months of Taiwan’s rainy season, drip by drip, my tiny world that once fit inside a seam-busted suitcase had gotten all stocked up: clothes in the closet, socks in the drawer, plants in the window, books on the shelf. They aren’t just objects accumulating, but proof validating that a person can go almost anywhere in the world and not only survive, but make themselves right at home. And learning this about myself makes me far less vulnerable to spills.
A protester waves a flag emblazoned with an image of Taiwan yesterday outside Taipei’s Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. In the wake of Japan’s recent nuclear disaster, a strong grassroots effort is growing to block construction of a fourth nuclear power plant near Taiwan’s capital city.
On a misty afternoon, a crowd of revelers in white and yellow rain gear gather at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (國立中正紀念堂), in Taipei, Taiwan, for a celebration of Buddha’s birthday.