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.