Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Last Days in Taiwan

Today is the first day that feels like one of my last days in Taiwan. In the past month I've counted down with people and expressed disbelief at the decreasing number of days left, but I haven't fully, emotionally, comprehended it: thirteen days now.

A concept of "the end" never really hit me at the end of college. I just dressed up as Patty Mayonaise and ran down College Street drunkenly in the middle of the day and tried to ignore (and, when that didn't work, forgive myself for) the fact that I felt out of touch with my classmates, who, in a marvelous display of togetherness, roared to life those last few days. Of course it just seemed like everybody but me had a sense of who we were as a class. No doubt there were more than less of us who watched the golden boys and girls dance to Michael Jackson on couches those last few days and marveled at their self-assurance and comfort in that bizarre and supposedly defining moment.

In the weeks leading up to graduation we took long drives to beach. A dozen or so hours before graduation I watched the sun set over Portland from an island with my parents. Later that night Angie and I threw painted rocks back into the bed of plain rocks we'd stolen them from. I went to Dunkin Donuts in the dark hours of the morning with David and Nicky and watched the sun rise over the rooftops of Lewiston. Those were a fun couple of weeks--I don't mean to suggest that they weren't--but they were probably more strange than fun, laced as they were with regret and relief and anxiety.

There is an expectation now, as there was at graduation, to feel sad. And I do feel sad. I worry about crying. About how I never do when I should or when it would make someone I care about feel connected to me and me to them. I say, "It doesn't feel real," which is pretty meaningless but it gets at something people seem aware of. It's what I said to my co-teacher Maggie when she started crying a few months ago, and when she cried again and again in those that followed. She gave me a silver ring with two little blue gems shaped like leaves. They've already fallen out of their sockets. I like the ring better with just those empty places but I try to hide the ring from her.

My boss Annie cried when I signed my termination notice. I just grew quiet and felt the edges of my eyes drop down into my cheeks and felt the corners of my mouth turn down in a look of what--pity? I hope not. What I meant for the look to say was: you astound me and it feels good just to be around you and watch your eyes flashing with love and wisdom and when I think of you I won't sentimentalize you but actually wish I could see you and talk to you again. I didn't tear up until later that morning, in the middle of Show and Tell, thinking about Annie and listening to those little people speak in the accented voices I know so well, "This car so cool my mommy buy for me"... "Give me see! Give me see!"... "My home have that!" One by one they noticed my teary eyes. Some cocked their heads curiously. Others bit their lips and said meekly, "I love you Teacher Tofu" (Sophie-->Sophie-Dophie-->Dophie-->Dofu (which is how you pronounce "tofu" in Chinese)-->Tofu=the evolution of my new name). Jerry walked up to the front of the room and blew a spitty rasberry on my arm, kissed my cheek and climbed on my lap. Then the rest of them came to hug and kiss me, "I eat my Tofu!" and eventually take me down, off of my chair and onto the floor. We fell together in one big crazy pile. It wasn't so much my leaving that made me cry that day as a realization of my love for the children and what Annie's grace has meant to me this past year.

Today I felt like I was leaving Taiwan. Perhaps in part because Max was away last night (our first night apart in a year!?) and loneliness was pulling out my thoughts from deep within me. My senses prickled like static. On my bicucle ride to the MRT, I felt the familiar bumps in the road through my body. I watched the people around me waiting at the corner of TongAn for the light to turn green, felt the warmth of strangers pushing against me in the MRT and smelled the withering vegetables in a plastic bag hanging from an old man's cane. I thought about how big I feel all the time, about scrunchies, and about how everyone eats things out of bags in Taiwan. At Taipei Maine Station teenagers in love got on the train and started picking at each other in front of everyone. Two, maybe three more times I will pass by the healthy-food man behind his stand at the Shilin MRT station, and the woman who sprinkles basil and spoons relish into the China pizzas, and the woman who beads and glues together sparkly hair peices in the middle of the sidewalk. The Ikari Coffee Shop baristas who saw me almost every day for a year might see me one more time. They probably won't realize I've left. Do they know that I know the difficultly or ease with which each barista makes designs of milk in lattes? Or the way that one guy touches that one girl's hand sometimes, when everyone's rushing around and she looks frantic?

I got a 100NT cheeseburger with Kiah at Evan's today, which is something I did on one of my first days in Taiwan. Waiting for Kiah to get out of class, I sat on a bench in Shida park and watched fat babies roam around the foamy ground on tricycles. Beside me, a Taiwanese hipster smoked a cigarette while she smoothed her pageboy hair cut. I recognized my number when the waitress called it out into the park. This (I'm embarrassed to say) made me a little proud. I have spent a whole year on the outside of a city's conversation, and the truth is I often enjoyed being on the island of my ignorance. My thoughts have walls here. I can contain them. I can learn them well enough to write them down.

Kiah and I had a good time talking while she was supposed to be writing characters and I was supposed to be reading at Burger King, where we did not eat burgers. Burger King is the popular place to study on Shida and also the place where I used to go to escape Laohu the cat when Max and I were staying in Kiah's old apartment. Kiah helped me buy train tickets for the upcoming trip to Green Island with Jason and Jeremy. A little shaky with caffeine, I broke a salt shaker at MUJI. After an eventful afternoon I said a tortuously awkward "see you later" to Kiah. Still bothered by the fact that I can act so strange around someone I know and love so well, I drank a dark Japanese beer on my way home from the post office with the hope it might calm me down.

I tried to keep noticing things. I watched a woman standing in the entryway of her Xiamen shop pounding her kidneys. A towering wall of TVs on either side of her were all tuned to the same channel, featuring a news broadcast hosted by a woman with thick eyelashes and bouncy chin-length hair held back with a fat bow. The woman filling the screens had that childish tilt to her head, as if her skinny neck couldn't support the weight of all that hair and eyelash. This is a look people find so attractive here and it irritates the hell out of me.

A little farther down the street a man in an undershirt picked his nose and wiped his findings on his belly. A truck drove by leaking a smell of pineapple, and I witnessed a near accident when a couple of scooters whipped around the corner off of the exit from Yonghe. Standing before my apartment building searching for my keys, the boys who live next door looked up from their pet beetle and eyed me suspiciously. Almost inside the door but still making an effort to pay attention, I listened for and heard the hammered men across the street at the checkers table yelling (or seeming to yell, with these tonal languages a non-speaker never knows) at one another in Taiwanese.

These things, what is normal, will be for thirteen more days. Then it's no more Teacher Tofu, no more eating from bags, no more life-threatening bike rides and especially delicious Evan's burgers with Kiah. No more not knowing what anyone is talking about, no more Ikari romances to wonder about, no more running to catch a particular traffic light to shave a minute or two off of my walk from the MRT to school. These are the things that mattered day after day for so many days. And I will forget them as I've forgotten hundreds of other small things that once mattered, or were predictable and managed and turned normal. I want to lock this day down with words so that it doesn't slip into the past and out of my mind like days and weeks and years tend to. I hope the extraordinary qualities of this year give it some kind of membrane to protect it from that fate, or that writing will.

Monday, June 21, 2010

On Being Homewell

Every Sunday night I get a fuzzy view of my parents on my computer screen, mugs to mouth, sleepy hair and eyes and morning-time voices, “Is that my baby?” they sometimes say when I appear in a box on my dad’s laptop screen, occasionally with a mug of tea up to my mouth. In winter they sat in the sun room on the leather swivel chairs but now that it's nice out they usually sit on the porch while they talk to me. I can see a strip of brown wicker behind their necks and the yellow-green (so different from Taiwan’s blue-green!) of the background. Sometimes they are disfigured, discolored, pixilated and prickling with olive-green undertones like Leondardo da Vinci portraits. Sometimes they freeze with their mouths open as though they’re burping and I laugh and call Max to come look. In the winter they brought the computer to the window to show me the white lake, sky, ground, split with trunks and bare branches of trees.

This past Sunday I almost missed my date with them. I frantically signed on to Skype, felt such relief at seeing my dad’s name on the contact list and wasted no time calling him, fearing the name would leave and the chance to hear his voice, mom's voice. After connecting and disconnecting chords, enabling sound and internet sharing the video let us down. Catching just a glimpse of green and wicker chair and a lock of wavy red hair around an ear, I actually started to cry.

People here think of me as homesick because I talk to my parents every week. This always surprises me. I don’t feel homesick. I miss the comfort and friendship of my parents, miss witnessing the growing my brothers have been doing and wish that they were witnessing my recent unwinding. Despite distance and the weeks or months gone by without talking to my best friends I still feel connected and dependent on them, still take comfort in their loyalty and their intimate understandings of me. Sometimes when I get upset it is because I miss the feeling of my family's love and my friends’ love, or something goes wrong and I think about how much more right everything would feel if I could just be with so-and-so, but I don’t feel scared or inconsolable in Taiwan. I feel capable and present. It makes me happy to think of my homes, not sick. And while I’ve learned that I want to be closer to my parents and my brothers and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and neighbors, that I want to see them and touch them and witness their lives, I don’t feel lost without them, just a little less found. But then there I was crying after catching a glimpse of my brother Dusty’s long hair.

This past Sunday, for the first time, I considered the possibility that these observers of my life in Taiwan got it right, that I am a homesick person. All I know for sure is that whatever I am I am glad to be it.

Later I want to write about red bean treats, the runt of the classroom litter and the fact that now I meet with smells and sights and strangers as someone who has lived in Taiwan, with comfort and a degree of expectation and familiarity that startles me when I remember to consider it.

This is a place where I could make another home if I wanted to. But “wanting to” (or not) is the choice that forks roads and put a distance between myself and people I might have come to know here and ways I might have lived here. I’ve come to know Kiah, to know Max, and Sam, and myself so much better. I’ve made things, and stumbled upon or pushed through to new lookouts.

P.S. Cheers to the retirement of the “Sad Blog”--this one’s for you, Dad!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Last week I sat in a chocolate shop with a belly full of warm milk and my new computer, trying to write about how I like the Shida neighborhood best when its dripping and dark.

I’d just walked around the narrow market streets watching bored jewelry vendors picking their nails and twirling their hair, past women sorting just-delivered merchandise inside closed shops, cooks dumping buckets of dirty water into gutters, Taiwanese hipsters ducking out of low lit cafes and record shops to smoke cigarettes. The rain smelled bitter, a little like raw meat (the vendors had already filled their carts with chicken) or celery. A thin but foul trace of stinky tofu dashed through the unusually clean air. I saw a woman struggling to get a stroller out of an apartment building. The back wheel slipped on the wet edge of a tile stair, and, after a doomed pause, I heard the wail of the baby. For a while I heard only that terrible crying. I heard it so well I felt it like a cold wire beaded through my spine.

It’s interesting to me that I wrote some sentimental paragraphs about that neighborhood on that particular day but nothing about the baby crying. That is what I most want to write about now. It fits as an introduction to this post because it is a moment when the experience of a single thing knocked every other thought or sensation clean out of me and rang me hollow as a bell.

I have had a couple of good cries lately. Max read somewhere (I always find myself writing that, “Max read somewhere”) that when you cry you release toxins. They pour from you in the tears--different toxins for different emotions. I felt unburdened after I cried hard last Tuesday. My eyes burned and glittered and I was glad Max was there to witness what felt like a turning inside out. Maybe turning inside out seems right because those tears originate in my body, from the good body I forget about until the tears arrive still warm with the work it does to remind me of it.

I have had an unbelievably good life. I know this, in part, because the spiraling thoughts that recently made me sad enough to detoxify are incredibly puny. And because the cause of my sadness is so shallow the relief is shallow too. I only felt turned inside out for the rest of Tuesday evening, so when I called my parents on Wednesday I cried all over again. In search of explanation I attributed these tears to being far away from home or to the great bearer of blame--poor hormones. I even shared with my parents some of the puny and vicious thoughts that seemed to draw out the tears, and the questions weighing on me: How much does this shallow stuff really mean to me? If other things made me sad, would I give this shallow stuff so much of my time? Do I need to feel sad to feel alive? My dad said sadness comes inevitably, like a wave on the ocean, and it is okay to let it move you around a little bit even as you start to swim out of its pull. My mom reminded me to swim. She also asked the right question, “How long do you want to feel sorry for yourself about this?” and added, “It’s a decision you make.” I am unquestionably grateful for sadness--it can do me some real good. What bothers me is the cause of my sadness and the issue of looking for causes in an effort to bring it about. Like I wrote before, the relief was shallow.

I think I could just pull deprecating thoughts out of me like weeds but instead I let them grow in my conscience. This is in part because I secretly think this constant scolding will motivate me to be better. By better I guess I mean perfect. On one hand, being perfect sounds like being a robot, and of course no one wants to be like that. “Who wants to be perfect?” I say, like everyone says. But the truth is that I have some vague idea of who or what I could be if only I had the willpower to be it. And I’m constantly punishing myself for not being it. I also half believe (how unfaithful belief can be!) that once I flesh out this “better” self, “could” will stop bullying me. In truth I know that my relation to perfection is stupidly endless.

I realize that this is all so dull. I think self-deprecation and self-pity are terribly boring things to endure in oneself and in others. With this in mind I’ve spared readers the details of my pity parties. But, I think it can be worthwhile to express these habits of mind when one really aims for honesty because these isolating features of self experience too often overwhelm love. I am as nearsighted as anybody, but as far as I can see a lot of people are incredibly burdened by the ego and are missing the good stuff it cheats us out of. After listening to an NPR interview with Joan Didion about the book she wrote after her husband’s death, The Year of Magical Thinking, I tracked the book down at the library. I had heard Didion gagging on her grief and it affected me deeply. I thought I might find some honest things in that book, and I did. At times it was difficult to read. When I finished it I felt relieved to have a break from Joan Didion, and that seems to me to be proof of her honesty in some way. There is something brave about going to such ugly places in one's own mind. My own issues do not begin to compare with the experience Joan Didion went through when she lost her life partner, I only mean to make a loose connection on the points of self-centeredness and honesty.

There is a particular brand of sadness that knocks me out. It visits unexpectedly. Sometimes it comes when Max asks me if I “remember that time when” and I don’t because I wasn’t around. Tiredness reminds me of it. The year I wasn’t with Max I stayed up late into the night with my friends just to distract myself from my thoughts. That was the year I started waking up before dawn to finish all of my work or to take drives. The year my eye started twitching from fatigue and the year of themed dance parties and Chinatown. Often I think back on that year without feeling much, like now. Other times the inkiest sadness floods my throat and a very specific fear twists my stomach. When that happens I may as well be curled up in the stairwell of my sophomore dorm. When the feeling visits, it is as fresh as it ever was. When it brings me to tears and turns me inside out my relief is deep, even now. I feel tender and open and alive and these feelings linger. As difficult as that year without Max was for me, I was too desperate and exposed to play mean mind games. I was more forgiving of myself and others. The puny, shallow stuff is the stuff of a foolish fear that had no authority that year. For what I learned about the scope of my own humanity I hold that year in reverence.

Last Tuesday I said words that hurt Max because they were aimed at me. I think I knew they would hurt him. I manipulate words to hurt people--that is the way I am mean. It is the meanness of insecure people. Because I cannot bear to see Max feel bad I usually put down all my weapons before him. This how I came to realize how I am mean (there were the weapons at my feet) and how I am in love (there were the weapons at my feet). I love other people but not with the same abandon. With Max I come closest to feeling “selfless.” I admit there is something troubling about that declaration. It sounds weak and conventional. I erased a sentence like “I come closest to feeling like my "self."I will never stop wondering what the difference is between what we think and do and experience and who we are as selves. I do know that a self can be mine OR yours. “Ourselves” are two or more separate selves. If that’s the case I would rather feel like love. I don’t know many things, but I know that Max cherishes my self so that I might feel like love. I cherish his self so that he might feel like love. I know I am happiest to be a self, most grateful for what I am able to experience as a self, when I am with Max. I wish I was as good to other selves as I usually am to Max’s. I am probably the worst to my own. I have heard it said that monogamous relationships limit us, that we give to only one person what we might give to so many more. This makes sense to me in some ways but I also say it can be difficult to feel like love and that you should allow yourself that joy however it comes to you.

I like to sit at the Starbucks on the corner of Heping and Roosevelt in the morning before I go to work. I sit at the booth along a wall of window and look at people’s toes, hairs falling over foreheads, expressions of exasperation or amusement, a purple mole as big as a fist, hands like an old friend’s somehow. I enjoy this collage of life and the spotty thoughts and feelings it rouses. But if I pay close attention to my thoughts and their implications I find that many take root in criticism and fear. I have spent so much of my life this way, just barely connected to the world around me, or connected by shoddy wires. But sometimes sadness peels the plastic coating just a little bit and the point of connection spits and fizzes and for a time I am differently exposed.

I’ve tossed out at least a dozen lines with no idea of what I might catch, without any expectation I’ll catch anything at all. I realize I returned to talk of wires--the wail of the baby strung my spine and now my connection to the world comes down to dated technology. I wanted to write something honest to myself about self-pity. In doing so I learned something about how much I’ve grown out of old hesitations and into new ones.

I wanted to throw a line out about the potential of sadness, about the issue of its inevitability and about how the quality of sadness seems to matter. I wanted to articulate the difference between the feelings and thoughts that clutter and those that present themselves to us in overwhelming isolation, that hollow and ring us. Love overwhelms like that, Joan Didion writes that grief does, a baby wailing on an empty street brought every cell to shudder and the thought of not having Max in my life does, too.

Why do I like Shida best in a melancholy mood. I feel like it has something to do with the allowance of sadness, especially quality sadness. And so it might just be as simple as this: I probably could not bring myself to write these things on a sunny day. And so, every now and then, bring on the rain.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"My Best Friend" by Brian

Who is your best friend? a girl? a boy? Someone you always play with? or someone always be good in your class? My best friend's name is Alex. He is not very special. but we know what eachother like, and I always play with him.

In the break time. we always play games, talk to him. we can talk about anything, about toys, cell phones, hip hop music and somethings about home. sometimes, we share music and book, and I think it is the most intersting thing I have done in the school. Also, we go to KOJEN study English too! He studies English every Wednesday and Saturday, and how he is k8.

Many people said, "Healthy, Family and friends is important", and now I know what is means because I have my best friend Alex to do something with me.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Company I Keep, The Company I Crave

It figures that the day after posting “Running” I twist my ankle.

Right in the middle of a good run, just past the bulldozers widening the bike path, I slipped on a stone. I couldn’t stand for ten minutes or so, and while I sat in the dirt pile by the murky water I wondered what the hell I would do if I couldn’t walk at all. I hobbled back to the school. Into the evening my ankle swelled up like a softball, and the next morning my boss, the great Annie, made me an appointment with a Traditional Chinese doctor. I barely filled out some paperwork (it was entirely in Chinese except for “email”) before I met with the doctor, who pressed parts of the bulge and bones in my feet and told me not to eat “spicy, bananas, ice, beer, vinegar.” Then the woman behind the counter set me up beside a steamer. It was an ancient looking contraption--a murky beaker strapped to a pole, wrapped in a stained cloth. The liquid inside was mud-colored and smelled like wet trees. I sat on a little wooden stool just barely tolerating the burn of the steam, not just on the swollen part of my ankle but all over my foot. The old woman next to me watched with a bemused look on her face while I heaved and winced. In subsequent visits I’ve watched people back away from the steam a little bit or cover their injured body parts with the wash cloths the nurses provide, but I didn’t know any better on my first visit. My only example was that old woman, leaning into the pain.

After that hot experience I sat in a chair waiting to meet with someone who would move the qi around my ankle with massage and traditional topical medicines. The people receiving treatments in front of me were spotted with bruises from a treatment that involves attaching translucent cups, like suction cups, to specific part of their bodies to collect blood there. I had seen my boss's perfectly circular bruises a month or so before and I was nervous. The man who called my name, or something close enough to my name, had a kind face and I relaxed. He very gently took my foot in his hands and read it, pressed certain parts for more information, which he found in the looks of pain or ease on my face. Very tenderly he rubbed an amber salve into my skin that twinkled like menthol and massaged the area around the swelling, up into my calves and around my knees. When he cracked my toes and moved my foot around it popped in strange places. Then he took out a rectangular cloth coated in a dark and thick layer of something cool that smelled like black licorish, wrapped it tightly around my foot, put a brace on my ankle and asked me to come back the next day.

“Suh-fuh” he calls me now, and he smiles whenever I come in. Since Tuesday I keep a little ways away from the steam and I know he will be gentle with me so I am not nervous while I wait for him to fix me. Already my ankle feels a lot better and the swelling has gone down. Sometimes I feel little zings of pain in my knee but when I go in to the doctor that kind man presses it away. And all for 3 USD.

Now I’m sitting on a bench at the park near home. I’ve tucked my dirty hair beneath a sweatshirt (it’s a perfectly chilly day) and I’ve brought a glass of wine to the park with me. After class this morning Max and I stopped by a breakfast place near school and ate sao bing jia dan--scrambled eggs sprinkled with green onion, fried in oil and dropped into a split open, fresh and flakey slice of sesame bread. Max ordered warm soy milk too, which I happily helped him drink. I get nervous after class because the whole afternoon lies before me, so empty of obligation or company. I have a love/hate relationship with Wednesday afternoons too, which are all mine.

Two Wednesdays ago the weather was beautiful and I road my bike all around Da-an, picking up books at the public library and riding through Da-an Park and neighborhoods around Zhongxiao Fuxing I had yet to discover. As the afternoon wore on I started to crave my porch at home. I had overpriced coffee on the second story balcony of a miniature restaurant on Shida, near the street Kiah used to live on. From there I could watch the comings and going of lots of university students in their shiny layers and feux glasses. I am in awe of these Taiwanese--or specifically Taipei--people who attend to every detail when it is all I can do these days to take a shower and find anything at all to wear. In the past few years I have dipped in and out of enjoying and resenting clothes. Nothing in stores or markets fits me quite right and what is stylish here does not suit my body at all. I’d look like a kid dressed as a pumpkin for Halloween if I tried to make Taipei looks work for me, so I’m left with a few stretched out jeans and t-shirts that smell permanently of car exhaust. So, it must have been in a t-shirt and jeans that I sat on that porch sipping coffee and reading the excruciatingly gentle Gilead feeling very lonely.

Parts of that book--when the old Reverend talks about touching his wife’s wet hairline or about the sad miracle of his old age and his son’s youth, made me cry. I wonder how much I cried for my own loneliness, for the fact that I had no one in Taiwan to come to my rescue and a sleeping family and friends on the other side of the world, and how much I cried for the beauty of Reverend John Ames’ recollection of loneliness. I hope I’m capable of empathy like that, not just projection, or--even worse--comparison and contrast. But sometimes the only ways to navigate the distances between people are through strategies of relating as insufficient as those.

I haven’t made many friends in Taiwan. I say that it’s because I’ve always known I was leaving, or because all the people I meet are Kiah’s friends and I feel a strange obligation to know them through her and not through my own experiences of them. Marilynne Robinson, when asked about her private and solitary life, says there is just too much to read to spend a lot of time being social. She also says that there is nothing more human than a novel. Like an egg cracked and dropped on a pan, that idea sends my thoughts in 360 degrees and every one of them solidifies. I'm left with no single response or feeling about that idea. Besides Max, Kiah, and Sam, novels have been my best company in these past eight months or so. There was Reverend John Ames, sitting with me on the balcony of a rickety and rat-infested cafĂ© in Taiwan, sharing the difference between what he feels and what he wishes he felt (which, as far as I’m concerned, is a most poignant gap very rarely revealed). If it’s between that conversation and the sort I might have with a new aquaintance that goes like, “Where are you from?” or “How long have you been in Taipei?” I choose the former. I don’t think I’m in danger of becoming a recluse. I love to talk and listen and touch and be touched. There is an amount of freedom, though, in feeling that I could live almost anywhere and live through a great many things so long as I had paths to the root of what it might mean to be human.

And there are characters come to life in my own imagination, fleshed out in the stories I’ve written. There’s the anemic, manic and manipulative Garth. There's a nameless narrator with a bad habit of making caricatures out of actual people, surprised by the dimension and unpredictability of a girl named Sal. From Helen’s mind I wrote pages and pages, but my understanding of her is not so clear. I’m only really certain she’s selfish and imaginative and diagnosed with mental disorders (which tells you very little, I realize). And now there’s a middle-aged woman, also selfish but more stuck, trying to refigure her place in a fractured family (I realize that this sounds like a corny query letter…). I’ve abandoned her for awhile and picked up a first-person voice of an American girl in Taipei, privately tutoring two girls from very different Taiwanese families that ultimately challenge and form her cultural understandings (ditto...). We’ll see how this one goes.

We have four months left now. Soon after arriving in Taiwan we talked to Mark, Max’s dad, about visiting in March and it seemed like such a long way away. It’s hard to believe he already came and went. When his mother, Vivian, came I ached a little bit for my parents and when Mark left that same feeling gathered and glowed in my throat. These four months will pass as quickly as the last four did, so I must spend them well. I must appreciate the kindness of the people in this place and commit to memory the particular combinations of rust colors and turquoises and lime greens, the density of the jungle mountains wrapped around the tile-coated city, the wonderful feeling of ordering successfully in Chinese, and the capacity of little children to love and forgive an exasperated teacher. Mark’s presence helped me re-see these things I love, as the company of fresh eyes will. When I walk past the organ stand on Tong-An I forget not to look. Mark held his breath past the same smells that used to gag me. “Used to." Since his visit I’ve realized I don’t smell the tea eggs in Seven-Eleven anymore. Besides my sense of smell, I truly wonder how you--you who I will soon talk to and listen to and laugh with and call to come rescue me on lonely days--will find me changed in four months time, after twelve months away.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


It’s been weeks since I last dipped into this blog and I think too much time has passed for me to fill in the last few days of our scooter trip as if my memory of it has the same quality now as it did when I still had sand in my hair. I’ve added pictures and fixed up some spelling mistakes, taken out descriptions or metaphors that sound inaccurate or unnecessary now, as I do with most of these posts. I always miss mistakes before posting and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to kick the habit of reading what I meant to write instead of what I actually wrote. This is probably something I shouldn’t confess publicly because the jobs that make my mouth water require me to be perfect in that sense. Ah well.

Going down the mountains into Kenting Sam’s scooter hit something on the road and skid out from under him. He landed on his side and the scooter on top of him. Luckily we weren’t going very fast around the sharp corners. My heart quivered like a rabbit and I was pretty useless trying to pull the scooter off of him, but he just brushed himself off as best he could, checked out his road burn, and rode back down the mountain. He’s all right now, but the rabbit feeling returns to me when I think back on it.

Besides that, at this distance, I will just say that the last few days were colder than we would have liked, but that the sun peaked through clouds every now and then. I was the most scandalous woman on the beach in nothing but a bathing suit. We played volleyball with friends of friends and ate on patios of restaurants along the least offensive strip we passed. I learned some things about Chinese and Taiwanese politics from graduate students we ate with. Most importantly, I met Adam’s friend, Alfie, who is truly great.

We drove the scooters to Kaishung and made plans to take a train and send the scooters back north by truck. Alfie’s family, his great aunt and his cousin, were kind enough to let us stay with them in Kaishung. I had a strange sleep on a very hard bed in a room with both of these women. Two large beds were pushed together in the dark, and, in the very same moment, the three of us lay our backs down on them. I tried not to breath or move in the silence and it took me a while to fall asleep.

I won’t soon forget the trinkets on the cousin’s desk, little women warrior figurines and hello kitty merchandise, a framed picture of a very pretty girl, stacks of polyester blankets in the corner of the room and the sound of the rain falling in the alley; those are the things I woke up to.

I stayed in bed for hours that morning and read a story about a prostitute brought to America from Vietnam by a soldier lover and then abandoned. I won’t soon forget how much that character loved apples.

For a while now I’ve wondered at how little we remember well. There are oinly a handful of vivid memories in the palm of my mind. Their apparent significance baffles me, for in retrospect they seem just barely symbolic and little else. I wonder if the quiet intensity of that morning in Kaohsiung and the memory of apples will keep. It’s about as exceptional as anything that has so far.

It was good to come home with Max, as I anticipated it would be. February disappeared and then it was March. That sounds like a cop-out, and I guess it kind of is, but nothing sticks with me about the end of February. The weather was as moody as a teenager and now I have a cold. We watched bean seeds grow or not grow and adopted a new kid into the Giraffe Class, an Indian kid named Bhanu. I have gobbled novel after novel. Lately, with reading, I feel like I've burnt my tongue and can’t taste anything anymore but I keep eating and eating anyway. But this food, the stuff of Marilynne Robinson, is so good it finds its own new taste buds. I’ve picked up running again. Even in this thick air it begins to feel like it used to--just difficult enough. My legs ache in the best way and I'm craving vegetables. And best of all my head feels cleaner.

I want to write some things about running. A man whose name I can’t remember right now writes that meditation is not about escape but is about putting oneself in a place to think what they actually think and to take note of those thoughts as evidence of neurosis that cause suffering and that one might work through and out of. He says it a lot better than that, of course, and I would track down the quote but that book’s been returned to its owner. He writes other things about meditation too, but, as with everything, that is the only shell from the beach I carry with me. It relates in this way: when I run, I think about the simplest things in the simplest terms. Because of the amount of physical energy running requires I always have very little left over to put towards mental exercise. My thoughts are less edited and without direction, put together like someone beading a necklace with her eyes closed, and I come closer to learning what I actually feel about things. I think that is a good place to work from, like tending to the wounds themselves instead of just adding more bandages. I share these labored-over and perhaps seemingly personal thoughts with you on this blog, but some of my running thoughts will never be written down or spoken out-loud. Some of them are very ugly, like so many secrets. They are also gifts, I’m realizing now, and reason enough to keep running.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Scooter Trip

Day 1 (Saturday)--It didn’t start raining until we were up in the mountains, past the right turn we would have made had we been going to the jungle town of Wulai again. We stopped at an intersection somewhere near Pinglin to put on all our rain gear. In all of our warmest things we got North America-cold in our toes and fingers as we looped up the hills. Max says at some point he had to remind himself that he was just cold and that he used to spend months and months that way. We left early in the morning, before seven, with the hope we might see daylight flood clear skies but the light stayed dim all the way to Ilan and through most of the afternoon. It was just that kind of thick day.

In Ilan we made our first stop. Long before we rode on it we saw the flat land like a spread quilt, not unlike American suburbia from the sky, only the patches were rice paddies instead of yards.

We walked around Ilan looking for breakfast. The town was slung in red and gold signs, red lanterns and carcasses. Inside stands, women ripped apart chunks of flesh with their hands while chatting neighborly with customers. Picture raw hearts pierced through shiskabobs, pig heads with still-hairy snouts resting on tables, and young girls and boys hunched over buckets tearing out chicken feathers. These market streets smelled like rain and blood. The main street, which smelled less bloody, was very busy, which sort of surprised me because it was New Year's Eve. The electronic stores blinked, the jewelry stands twinkled. Whole families sat together around fold-out tables on the street, filling their mouths with dumplings.

We found a breakfast place down a market street and ordered san ge dan bin and warm nai cha. The boys ordered Taiwanese-style breakfast sandwiches too. It was a good place to warm up a little bit. When we asked about bathrooms, the cook asked a little boy lead us to the door of the family home, right through the living room and kitchen, past a grunting grandmother, to the family bathroom. "Happy New Year," the boy said in Chinese as we walked out of the house, before picking up a toy gun again and pretending shooting his didi.

Back on scooters, all three of us sporting ponchos now, we picked up an escort. His name was Eddie and he was intrigued by our foreign faces and the bundles attached to our scooters. To get to Hualien, and, before that, the Taroko Gorge, we had only to go straight on route 9, but he insisted on guiding us. We chatted with Eddie at red lights and learned that he is from South Ilan and was on his way home from Taipei to celebrate the New Year with his family, like everyone else on the island. We told him we were on the lookout for waterproof foot coverings and he took us to the right kind of shop, talked to the woman working the shop, and waited while we put the waterproof gear on. He even waited for Max and Sam to purchase some beetlenut, crack off the top of a couple of nuts with their teeth and begin to spit. He thought it was pretty funny that the wai guo ren liked bing lan, laughed and declined when they offered him some beetlenut. He turned off 9 at one point and I looked down the little road her drove down, hoping to get a sense of where he grew up.

Silly pictures in ponchos:

The rain cleared as we got closer to Taroko and Hualien. 9 crept nearer to the coast and finally we were right alongside it, reveling in epic views. We hollered through tunnels and blazed through town after town, past rows of banana trees with their clumps of fruit bursting through the burlap bags farmers had wrapped around them. People sold these bananas and other fruits at road-side stands. Whole families sat beneath umbrellas and shacks. The little kids ran around barefoot, the older men and women sucked their teeth and sat back, but more often than not the young women looked meticulous, as they do so often in Taipei, with perfectly combed and pinned hair, the same trendy sweatshirts, shiny leggings and neon sneakers.

By the time we got to Hualien the sky was sunny. We drove deeper into the gorge and set up camp beside a collection of cheerful Taiwanese families before it got too dark.

See a little bit of color in the trees? That's where we camped.

For dinner we headed into the mountain town of Tienhsiang, and, for about 10 USD, devoured delicious food at a New Year's buffet hosted by a Catholic Hostel. Full and exhausted, we went to bed soon after returning to the campsite.

Day 2 (Sunday)--In the morning we saw more of the gorge in daylight. We visited a temple and took a walk along the edge of a mountain. These pictures do better than words--look!

Around lunchtime we left Taroko to continue south. We stopped in Hualien, which was quite busy and bright and beautiful, tucked between smoky mountains and the Pacific. We ate omelets and vegetable pasta at a bakery on the main strip. (So yummy! Coffee/tea, fresh baked bread, omletes, orange juice, soup/salad… all for 200NT!) By then I felt strange. Before getting back on the scooter I took medicine and fell in and out of sleep all the way to the campsite on the water we’d read about in the Lonely Planet Guide. Most of the official campsites had been snagged so we set up our tents in “rest pagodas” close to the water and planned on playing dumb if we got in trouble. It was so beautiful there, with that quenched green color in all the grasses and shrubs and up into the mountains on the other side of the road, by then the “scenic highway” 11.

Night fell fast, just as we finished setting up the tents, and I fell asleep with it. Max and Sam went somewhere nearby for a Taiwanese-style fish dinner, then made a long trip to the nearest 7/11 for water. They woke me up and fed me medicine and then set off fireworks with kids hanging around the camp site. (Throughout the whole trip we heard sporadic cracks and pops, whistles, and saw carnations burst open in the night, leaving the smell of gunpowder in the air.) Sometime in the early morning hours after my fever broke the wind picked up and brought rain with it. The rain-cover began to beat on the tent like a broom on a rug. The wind sunk the walls of our tent and jammed into one side of the pagoda. At one point Max had to get up and tie it down with bungee chords.

Day 3 (Monday)--When we woke up for the last time the rain had stopped but the wind was still unforgiving. We laughed at it and packed our things quickly like all of the other campers eager to be done with the weather. We were smack between Hualien and Taitong by then, and only 5KM from the “marker” of the Tropic of Cancer, which excited Sam, who is a self-confessed sucker for cartographical landmarks.

Throughout that gray afternoon we passed through fishing villages with Catholic churches and graveyards instead of 7/11s. We saw hundreds of rice paddies protected by floppy scarecrows hung up on poles and sometimes crosses (which is sort of strange when you think about it). Though the road was flat and straight, mountains loomed over our right shoulders. The tangled tropical growth wove into a matted blanket of green color, up into mountains that became paler blue as they faded into the distance. To our left it was always the water, also extending in layers of blues toward the horizon.

In one town we passed a dead dog on the side of the road and a little boy’s firecracker hit the back wheel of our scooter. A couple of towns later Sam’s scooter stalled. It started back up ten minutes or so later at the touch of a confused mechanic, and because we were in a fishing town with an aquarium significant enough to make an appearance in the guide book we stopped in to look at lots of clown fish, two reef sharks, and an incredibly rotund bottom-feeder looking as depressed as any living thing possibly could. We also saw lobsters with bolts of neon through their bodies and feelers as long as yard-sticks. After the aquarium we walked through the fish market--another smelly and wet market--and watched fishermen mercilessly take knives to fish bellies. Women brush barbeque sauce on the whole squids sizzling on grills. Sam tried some fish soup with big hunks of meat and a gingery broth and then it was back on the road.

The next big city we came upon was Taitong. We had planned to stop by the train station for information about tickets back to Taipei and room on the back of a truck bed for the scooters. We purchased tickets for Friday and received confirmation that there were such services available for moving scooters around the island. We only saw the outskirts of Taitong, the city where Max and I stayed with Vivian before shipping out to Green Island. We had a place called Taimali in mind for our next campsite. There was no designated camping area in this town but the guide book said it was fine to sleep along the beach. Worried about the falling light we took a turn toward the beach as soon as we hit town and traveled down empty roads leading past eerie factories sectioned off with wire fences. We found an entrance to the beach but saw a nearby sign saying “No Camping” so we decided to get back on the road and look for a place on the beach closer to town. We set up camp next to big rock puzzle pieces. Ancient looking raft-like boats, made of what looked like tree trunks and pieced together with thick ropes, rested in the sand near the entrance to the beach. From a perch over the wall a spotlight scanned the shore. The spotlight did not hit our tents but we watched it a little nervously while we ate our 7/11 dinners and wondered about the four wheeler stopping and starting along the beach. Eventually it passed us by. Max and Sam made a fire and roasted pumpkin seeds on driftwood branches.

Day 4 (Tuesday)--We woke up early the next morning, before seven, to the puttering of scooters and the heave-hos of men pulling the strange boats into the still water.

At the next town we joined a long line at a popular breakfast place and ordered vegetable sao bin, dan bin, milk teas. For a while the road to Kenting was flat and the salty breeze was just a little bit warm, enough to tease us. We took a little detour to check out some of the hot springs we had read about in the guide but south of Taitong, we found sad evidence of the tsunami in leveled ground and pock-marked towns littered with driftwood, rocks, trash, splintered wood from houses, sheets of painted metal and tiles. We were bumping along a rocky road toward a hot spring when a police officer stopped us. He told us that the hot spring was no longer in operation in brief Chinese and did a tsunami impression that involved a lot of flailing. Another police officer in that same town offered Sam a water bottle and wished us a Happy New Year, as did so many of the people we saw.

We found another hot spring a little ways down a different road. It was a small operation at the foot of some hills. Families had set up camp in the parking lot and in the covered pools and patios a hundred or so people swam or sat or ate. We felt many stares but everyone was friendly. The pools stank of sulfur, a smell that reminds me of the well water we used to drink at 46 Lakeside Drive. My stiff body melted a little into the warmth and realigned.

By this time we’d taken to smaller roads. One road on the map led nowhere but a real busted town, with piles of driftwood like dug-up dinosaur graves. We ended up at a modest country house guarded by tied-up dogs. Their shirtless owner motioned for us to turn off our engines, bowed in gratitude when we did, and returned to pulling weeds out of his garden without any explanation as to why a marked road led to his house. He didn’t even seem surprised to see us there. I won’t forget the bemused look on his face, a peaceful and kind face like the face I imagine on Rin Poche.

We turned around and Sam hooked us back up with more major roads. Throughout the entire trip Sam did most of the research and navigating, and I am so grateful for that. These last roads took us up into more mountains. They were packed with travelers in cars and on bikes, which amazed me because some edges were without rails and caused my stomach to leap up into my throat. I never got tired of looking at the mountains folding into each other and the strip of ocean in the triangles of their meeting places. Toward the top of the hills the trees hid these views but it was nice to ride through dense forest, too. Back at sea level, fleeing farther and farther south, the plants began to look dried out, the grass shot out in browns and cream colors like grasses on Green Island and Maine. Once again, we saw the black rocky hills standing at the edge of the ocean. The water ate away the base of these bold hills but along the grassy tops of the crags kids ran up and down. The wind exhausted us. We stopped so that I could take a picture.

Cars started piling up closer to Kenting. When we saw “Smokey Joe’s Tex-Mex and Steakhouse” we knew we’d made it to the cheesy tip of Taiwan. It started to rain so we put our ponchos back on and weaved around the cars and pedestrians. We rode almost to the next town before we realized that we’d missed the turn for the campgrounds on the west side of Kenting. We rode back toward the water and came upon a rest stop, where other people had decided to camp, before we found the official campground. Though we weren’t on the beach, from that rest stop we could enjoy a view of the water and the company of playful kids. By the light made from our neighbors' generators we set up our tents between a big rock and a tree and hopped back on the scooters to look for some food. We made an accidental detour and drove down some completely black roads, which reminded me of country roads around home. We passed a few towns and gawdy hotels and finally we were back on the main strip of Kenting, which was even more disturbing by night than by day. Along the sidewalks we followed the herd past the food stands, keeping an eye out for an affordable restaurant. We found a place not too far down the road. We ate on the porch outside and felt a little like zoo animals sipping our beer and eating our fried rice and Thai chicken while kids pointed and tugged their parents’ shirts. Their obvious fascination surprised me, because there seemed to be as many foreigners in Kenting as in Taipei.

After another long and dark trip back to the rest stop we fell asleep fast. The trip had felt like ours alone for such a long time, it unsettled me to bump up against people again, to see such ugly, in-your-face (albeit sometimes fun) commercialism. How much better it is to share a beach with nothing but a spotlight, rafts, fishnets and even a four-wheeler. We’d heard about a festival in Kenting where lots of foreigners from Taipei and elsewhere had gathered but we decided to stay clear of that.

Day 5 (Wednesday)--

Day 6 (Thursday)--

Day 7 (Friday)--Home!