We move in 3 weeks to a much splashier apartment in a more central location. Today I had no class - which didn't bother me too much because I have worked enough this month to earn a nice chunk o' change - so I schlepped up to Asiaworld Mall to peruse IKEA and Nitori to price items we might like to buy for the new place. I didn't buy much; it makes more sense to do that after the move, but I did buy a floor cushion from Nitori that I believe will soon be discontinued and some Glogg (it's that time of year!) from IKEA. Otherwise I spent my time wandering about and noting down prices of various items we may choose to buy.
After my wander, I stopped in the Asiaworld B1 restroom, and a memory came rushing back. Many of you know that recently, Asiaworld underwent a massive renovation and now no longer looks like the slightly ratty, dinged-at-the-edges department store from the '80s ('90s?) that it is. Now it's flash: maybe not as flashy as the new Tianmu Sogo, but plenty flash. The bathrooms used to be one step above MRT bathrooms - not that those are bad, but that in other department stores the bathrooms are all swanky with makeup areas and mirrors with vanity lights and cushioned pink chairs. Now, Asiaworld's ladies' room matches that aesthetic.
But not so long ago, it was just a restroom, and a kind of forgotten one at that. Way back in the day I was shopping at IKEA - I do that a lot, I'm totally addicted to home decor - and I went to use it.
There was an attendant. She doesn't appear to be there anymore, but I haven't forgotten her. She was 70 years old if she was a day, and looked like she'd had a tough life. I said 你好 and smiled, and thought that was it. While washing my hands she started talking to me. I couldn't place her accent, because she was clearly learning disabled or had some sort of disorder or intellectual challenge, and her speech was a bit slurred and lisped, but not in a way that reminded me of a stroke victim. More in the way of someone who's had a lifelong disability.
She told me, unprovoked and unasked, about how her family came to Taiwan around 1949, or rather half of them did. I couldn't understand her well enough to tell if she said she was from Jiangsu or Gansu, but either way she (the eldest daughter), her brother and her father came over while, for reasons that she didn't make clear, her mother and younger sister stayed behind, ostensibly to follow later.
"But they killed them, they just killed them!" she said. "Dead! I never saw them again! Or my uncles or aunts. Dead!"
She talked about how a lot of people who came over were able to get back on their feet and establish themselves and their families (those with closer ties to the KMT or who had government/military favor, mostly) and how they're mostly rich now, but not everyone was so lucky. I already knew this: I have a student whose father came over in '49 who worked as a bus driver. They didn't have much. His children are successful through hard work, not favor or socioeconomic inertia.
"We had nothing, and I couldn't go to school. I had to stay home. They thought I was stupid. And they killed my mother and sister," she repeated. "Dead!"
I have no idea why she told me all this, and more. Maybe, being a foreigner who indicated she could speak Chinese (although "你好" is hardly an indicator of that, plenty of locals think it means you're fluent), she felt she could unload on me, but not others. Plenty of foreign women, many of whom must speak Chinese or at least seem like they can, also must pass through that bathroom, though - after all, it's right next to IKEA. I have no idea if she told her life story to all of them, or singled me out. Or maybe she just told everyone and got fired for annoying the patrons (that would be sad - I was affected by her story but not annoyed). Old Fang - my ancient Hakka neighbor who was given away as a child because her family didn't want another girl - did the same thing, but foreigners are more rare my side of Jingmei. I stick out.
Or maybe it's just that she was old, and old people, like the bathroom attendant and Old Fang, like to tell their life stories.
Either way, it did affect me deeply, but I didn't tell anyone about it. What would I say? What would be the point? I filed the story away but never quite forgot it. I always remember her when I go to IKEA. I haven't seen her in years.
Taiwan has changed a lot since then. In another part of the city, glass and steel glitter above wide, clean streets. Department stores are full of wealthy and upper middle class Taiwanese shopping for Georg Jensen business card holders, Patek Philippe watches, Coach bags and Anna Sui accessories. Starbucks and high-end cafes and bars litter the city. It's not uncommon to get cut off, as a pedestrian, by a Mercedes or BMW. You can see the change right there in Asiaworld, where she used to work (maybe she still does and I've been missing her shift, who knows). Gone is the dingy basement bathroom and the old lady attendant, and here come the young xiaojie in short skirts, pink gloves and little hats shouting "WELCOME!" at you in shrill Chinese, imitating department store girls in Japan.
I can see the change even in the five years I've been here, and I arrived well after Taiwan had undergone its most aesthetically powerful changes.
It's easy to forget, as you wander ever more modern streets, that the pain in this country still runs deep, and a lot of the people you meet have suffered hardships you can't - you really can't - imagine (and I say this as someone whose family mostly escaped the Armenian genocide. I can't imagine that, either. Not with my comparatively privileged life). The wounds, in places and at times, are still raw. The younger generations have mostly forgotten or have reconciled, but memories linger. Like an earthquake fault line, it runs deep, and it's not going to go away soon. A hundred years, maybe, and maybe not even then. And the pain runs deep on all sides - not just the Hoklo, not just the Hakka or aborigines, not just the waishengren, who didn't all escape from Taiwan's not-too-distant past unscathed, either. Their kids shop at SOGO, but they remember. It's part of why I am so interested in the stories of the elderly in Taiwan, just as I know my own family stories from relatives who have since passed, and a few who are fortunately still with us.
It's also a powerful reminder that life is not fair and people, for better or worse, don't alway get their just desserts.
I left Asiaworld at about 4:30. The sun highlighted slate and peach clouds hanging over Taipei Arena. The warm colors that filtered through made even Nanjing E. Road look attractive, and let me tell you, that's an accomplishment. The air was warmish, the wind cool. I was wearing soft old jeans, a green jersey-knit top and super-soft shawl given to me by my mother-in-law. I clutched the cushion from Nitori to my chest as I walked to the bus stop in this weather - not quite winter, but Thanksgiving is coming - it all felt so soft. The soft heather clouds, the luminous late afternoon sun, the shawl, the cushion, a bit of cool breeze, also soft. I got on the bus. I felt conflicted. I feel so comfortable in Taiwan. Soft, even. I feel safe. I feel secure.
And yet, I remember the bathroom attendant.