Sunday, November 6, 2011

Glue Dots

While we were in the USA, we bought the materials necessary to make our wedding album in Taiwan. We knew that similar materials would be hard to find and likely more expensive here, even though photo printing is fantastically cheaper.

It's true, too: just try finding a nice, classy photo album that doesn't have pictures of cartoon dogs and cats and stars and babies and dodgy English ("Forever My Always Friend!") and fluffy clouds made with the spray-paint effect of a mid-90s version of MS Paint. Try finding an album that doesn't force you to fit in exact rows of regulation-size 4x6 photos in little slots with no room for sizing, spacing, tableau creation, artistic scrapbook-like additions (I'm not into scrapbooking per se and can't stand the little theme stickers, but the papers are nice and some elements of it work nicely in dedicated photo albums) or any sort of classy presentation. Muji sells a few versions but they're all very plain. A few souvenir shops sell pretty Chinese-style decorated ones, but inside it's all 4x6 photo slots, not blank paper.

And just try finding acid-free photo glue, glue tape or glue dots. They exist, but are frighteningly hard to come by. It seems that in Taiwan you either buy a cheap album covered in puppies and kittens and stick your photos in there, or you get pro photos made and the photographer prints up a book for you - standard for weddings and pictures of daughters in princess costumes and occasionally over-indulged Maltese dogs. Although DIY was a big thing in Taiwan several years ago, these days people just don't make their own fancy photo albums and they certainly don't DIY their wedding albums (we ran into the same issues DIYing our wedding invitations. Apparently nobody does that) - so the materials are hard to come by.

What's my point?

Well, we go into a photo store - you know, similar to one of the Konica ones with the blue sign - which prints photos, sells camera batteries, frames and photo albums with puppies and kittens on them, and a few with roses ("The love is our special bonding") and ask about acid-free glue to make a photo album.

After getting over the initial shock of the idea that two people would make their own wedding album, they said that they did not, in fact, carry such glue.

The thing I noted was that one of the women immediately got on the phone and called not one, but three - three - other stores to find a shop that sold such glue for us. First she was sure that there was a place in Shinkong Mitsukoshi that stocked it (no). Then that there was one "around Taipei Main" (yeah, just try walking around Taipei Main asking random people "Do you know where that store is that sells acid-free glue?") and finally she found it at 誠品.

Now, in the USA it wouldn't work this way. You'd drive to Michael's in your gas guzzler, wander the football-field sized cornucopia of DIY goodies (including whatever you need to make a cornucopia), find your acid-free glue dots in the scrapbooking section, and pay for them. You might not even talk to the cashier. Then you'd hop back in your car, possibly get lunch at Panera, and drive home.

In short: zero social interaction.

In Taiwan, this stuff is harder to find, you're never sure which store or even which kind of store carries what (ask me someday about finding leaf skeletons), and half the time it's just luck or knowing someone who knows where to get it.

But then you walk into a place like this one, in some random lane off Roosevelt Road, and the clerk really helps you, and you chat with her, and she tells you how she'd like to make photo albums too but the materials are so expensive, and you pet someone's dog, and she makes a few phone calls, and the next time you come in she recognizes you and asks you if you found the glue you needed.

This is one reason why I love living in Taiwan.

It's easy to get in the car and go to Michael's, but it's infinitely more rewarding to actually talk to people. Forget real glue dots for photos - these small interactions are figurative, social glue dots that form community.

I realize you can do this in many parts of the USA, but my experience has been that it's just not that common anymore, especially with the rise of suburbs and the patterns of interaction they create between people (ie, no interaction). What I find interesting is that my experience is the opposite of what you hear many Americans saying: you always hear about friendliness and everyone knowing everyone in small towns, and the meanness of big, scary anonymous cities. My small town was OK - not too friendly, not too unfriendly. I couldn't go to the pharmacy on Main Street and have the guy behind the counter know me by sight or name. You can go out and be warmly greeted, but not because people actually know you, and rarely because they remember you. Whereas in cities where I've lived, sure, if you leave your neighborhood you're anonymous but if you are doing anything - shopping, drinking coffee, taking a walk, waiting at a bus stop - people from your neighborhood know you, recognize you and greet you. I think this has everything to do with the fact that in those neighborhoods people got in their cars (if they even had cars) a lot less.

But I digress. I haven't felt the same warmth in the USA as I do in Taiwan, and I don't necessarily think it's just because I'm a foreigner (all those old townies and obasans who sit outside gossiping in their social circles, deeply embedded in their neighborhood community, are not foreigners). I don't think the owner of a store in the USA would be likely to call three other stores to help me find what I needed because she didn't sell it (maybe in some places they would - it just hasn't been my experience). I'm not at all sure that same owner would remember me the next time I came in (although that, in Taiwan, might well have a lot to do with my being a foreigner, especially living in a neighborhood with so few of them around).

Now, I'll end on a sad note. We're moving soon (in a month, in fact). We're not leaving Taiwan, just moving from Wenshan to Da'an, to a gorgeous refurbished apartment that we fell in love with on first viewing (wood floors! a dryer! a water filter! a bathtub! stucco walls! a tatami-floored tea alcove!). I've felt really great about changing apartments but also sad about leaving my little Jingmei enclave and saying goodbye to all the vendors, old folks, shop owners and various loiterers I greet daily. Sad about leaving my favorite night market and knowing the vendors who I buy dinner from. Sad about not occasionally waking up to the sounds of the chickens squawking from the chicken vendor one lane over.

Near my apartment is another residential building of roughly the same era (when everything that was built was ugly), with an awning and old chairs by the entrance. I used to sit outside and gossip with the old ladies who gathered there. The nexus - the glue dot - of this octogenarian (and older) clique was Old Wu, who lived on the 2nd floor and had a decrepit old dog named Mao Mao. He was killed when a scooter hit him a few years ago (I was very attached to Mao Mao and I did shed a few tears). Even if the other old ladies were out napping or taking care of grandchildren or wandering around, I would often sit outside with her, and pet Mao Mao when he was alive, and shoot the breeze. Even when that breeze was the first hint of a typhoon blowing in.

Her health was deteriorating before we left for Turkey. I noticed that the glue was coming a bit loose: the old ladies no longer met under the awning, what with Old Wu in the hospital and not there to hold court. They moved to the temple goods store (you know, gold paper lotus offerings, incense etc.) next to Ah-Xiong's shop. I joined them there a few times, but there aren't enough chairs and it's too close to the chickens, which, frankly, stink.

I knew that Old Wu didn't have long, but I didn't think I'd never see her again. I guess I figured, those ladies are pretty tough, and most of them are surprisingly ancient. Old Taiwanese ladies never die, right?

Well, she succumbed to her poor health and passed away while we were in Turkey. I only found out when we got back, and suddenly those empty old chairs were a lot sadder, now that I knew their unsat-in condition was no longer temporary. I cried a fair bit on the way back up to my apartment and was extra winded when I got to the top from doing so (another reason to move: six floor walkup in this place. No more).

Old Wu was my glue dot in Jingmei. She and her group, whose ages totaled must have topped 500, made me feel welcome, like I was part of a community. I didn't feel like a foreigner, a novelty or something strange or different. They'd seen a lot in their lives (a lot - anyone that age in Asia has) and a young foreign girl was really nothing chart-topping. They just accepted me as another part of their life experience (and also told me all about my husband's arm hair and how many kids we should have, but that's another story).

I don't believe in signs. I really don't - but if I did, a case could be made that the end of an era has come and it's time to leave Jingmei - not because Old Wu passed on (I'm not so self-centered as to believe that the universe killed an old lady just to tell me to move!) but because my old lady gossip circle is no more, and because it's just different now. I feel released, pulled off a page, and it's time to find a new glue dot and adhere somewhere else for awhile...even if that somewhere else is technically just up the road.


Kathmeista said...

RIP Old Wu! Love this post and the concept of glue dots. I also feel like Taiwan has a stronger sense of community - the park at the end of my lane is the main hub for me and every single time I walk my dog there I get at least one greeting from someone I know there, from the ladies selling veges to the old blokes chatting about life to the qi gong crew to the Mums with their kids. I do wonder though if this community will continue once the older people start to pass on. I really hope so!

Three cheers for your new place and to finding new glue dots!

Kawa said...

I've moved from place to place so many times that I can relate to what you're experiencing about leaving a familiar community that somehow 'anchors' you to a place that's become your new home. I've never been able to put a name to it and I too like your concept of 'glue dots'. I've actually quoted this to a friend of mine in Australia in an email. I've been here more than 3 months and this place is starting to feel like home to me. Like anywhere else, there will always be something that doesn't sit well with me, but that's just how humans are. Being happy is always a choice that one makes.

I enjoy reading your blog and have been following your adventures since June of this year. I was in the midst of packing to leave Perth in August and your stories about your life in Taipei were a great comfort to me. By the way, congratulations on getting an A for CELTA.