Thursday, April 26, 2012

Colors: Reason #25 to Love Taiwan

An unrelated photo, but one I like
I know I haven't blogged much recently, and that will probably continue into the near future: the family illness issue has turned out to be, while not the worst possible scenario, pretty damn bad. I'll say that words like "prognosis" are now thrown around, with their worst possible connotation. So, if I'm not much into blogging until I process this, or if I don't write much of import or substance, I'm sure you'll understand.

And now, since I don't know how much longer I'll be in Taiwan (at least another year, maybe two, after that who knows, but at some point I'll have to go home for an extended period), I thought I'd eschew substance and write this country a weird little love note. 

I have to admit I don't really know exactly why I love it here so much. I can't pinpoint it. As much as I try to look for the beautiful, and the vibrant, a lot of the architecture really is hideous, or at least completely lacking in aesthetic consideration. That's true even if you are looking past the squat cement buildings and looking for the interesting window grills, little shrines, old bricks, street-level liveliness and all the other things that, aggregated, make the place look pretty interesting if you just seek them out. I have to admit that the weather in Taipei mostly sucks - it's more or less the one big drawback to living here. While I feel the constant sandpapering of culture shock has helped me change and grow as a person, it does get on my nerves on occasion, as it would with anyone living in a foreign country. I can't point to politics and say "it's better than back home" (although in some ways, it is), I can't say that Taiwan is a better place for women to live than most Western countries (it's the best you'll do in Asia, but from a global perspective, you can do better - although I no longer believe that America fully belongs on that list), and there's something annoying I can say for every two great compliments I could give this country.

So why am I so attached to this place? What about it has made it the place where I've chosen to live - rather than New York, Washington, DC, China (shudder), even India, or any other country where I could conceivably live? What about this place makes me so optimistic about life here - what makes me stay? It's not just that the good outweighs the bad for me, because I could also say that about India (but not China). It's not that I've gotten "stuck" here - I've actively chosen this life, and the fact that I have not left it and do not, as much as I can control, intend to leave it, is also a choice. 

All I can say is that when I picture the places where I've lived, each one is tinged with a very specific color. Maybe there are tiny specks of other colors in there, but there's always one dominant one.

With India, it's muddy, sandy brown - sure, the panoply of colorful clothes, signs and even rickshaws (when they're not yellow) come to mind, but under all that is the dun-colored landscape - even down south where it's infused with green. I see dirt roads and dry heaps of rock. I see dust in the air and in a film on the buildings. An appealing, earthy color despite the fact that when you get down to it, what it says is "wow there's a lot of dirt in India". Indeed there is. But not in a bad way - at least mostly not.

With China, it's flat gray. Overcast gray. Ugly cement building gray. Highway underpass asphalt gray. Who would want to live in that? China had dirt just as India did, but something about the whole experience imprinted a more human dirt - a pollutant, a factory made toxic grime - rather than a sunny, muddy natural one.

With Washington, DC it's chalky white. Memorial on the Mall chalky white. Marble white but without the luster. When I lived in Rosslyn, a fairly boring neighborhood in Arlington, VA, I would walk up to the Carillon out past Iwo Jima and look out over the city - and the majority of what you see from there is that marbley-chalky shade of white. This is also a good metaphor for how impenetrable I found that city. Even at young ages (single and twentysomething), people would judge you based on your answer to "What do you do?", and "DC society" was something I felt I'd never really scale, nor did I want to.

And with New York, I would have to say brick red. Sure, it's hard to actually see a lot of that particular color, but something about the vintage architecture and the feeling on the street was very brick-colored to me. And, despite being both bigger and infinitely more complex, I've always felt that New York was a place I could get into, unlike DC - and brick red reflects this.

Finally, Taiwan. For all of Taipei's gray buildings and gray skies, when I think of Taiwan the color that comes to mind is green. Green like Da'an Park. Green like the trees along Dunhua and Ren'ai Roads. Green like the mountains - rising in the background of Taipei and beyond. Green like wet markets and vegetable vendors selling their harvest on the street - like stacks of green onions, fragrant melons and bags of sweet potato leaves. Even in the grayest cityscape of Taiwan you can usually find specks of green. I mean, heck, I even found some along Zhongyang Road in Tucheng Industrial Park - a place you'd expect to be ugly as sin (and it is). And yet, this, just along the side of the road, on a concrete guardrail where the road goes over a creek:

It's a comfortable green, a living green, a farmland green even where there's no farmland. It's a green I can live in, unlike the gray of China or the white of DC.

Not to get too sappy, but I've come to realize that for me, there are places that have a certain synergy - a groundswell of something, that makes a place feel like somewhere worth caring about. It attaches to you, the way a kitten or a dog imprints on a person and bonds with that person quickly and permanently. I felt the same way in India - a weird, almost patriotic bond that ensnared me very soon after getting off the plane (that weekend where I cried with culture shock and homesickness notwithstanding), where you can almost feel the same sort of pride and attachment to a place as the locals or natives of that place themselves feel. Where it hurts a little emotionally to see something bad happening there (like the urban renewal scuffles in Taipei, or the bombings in Bombay - although these events are of course of very different magnitudes) where in any other place you'd just think "eh, that's bad news". 

I really do feel that way - I come from a place of "manufactured civic pride", a hometown that has a school varsity mascot and a "Day" where it comes out to celebrate itself with a street festival downtown, but few people actually seem to feel that pride beyond a few half-hearted cheers. A few might, but most people I know from my hometown might give a few "rah rah rahs" out of obligation, without a true sense of belonging or town pride. There's no synergy - at least not for me - no groundswell, no attachment, no imprint. Highland, New York may as well not exist for all I care, even though I spent most of my childhood and teens there. Its color is a middling yellow, if you're curious.

So coming to Taiwan, where people have a real love for the place, has had an impact on me. The same for India, but I do find life in Taiwan to be easier. The whole "developed country" thing, and the relative ease with which I found good work, and the feeling that I get that learning Chinese is both an endeavor of great utility and beauty all contribute to that (learning Tamil, as little as I did in one semester, was an endeavor of beauty but hardly one of lifelong use). 

All of this has formed a sense of attachment to Taiwan that I can't really explain, but I can at least describe. It's why I look beyond the ugly and search for the lively. Why I look beyond the bad (while acknowledging it as necessary) and search also for the good. 

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