Showing posts with label stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label stories. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Love and Cheap Sushi - my Valentine's Day meditation on dating for MyTaiwanTour

My second piece, just in time for Valentine's Day (not a holiday we actually celebrate, by the way, even when we were young and dating) for MyTaiwanTour.

It's the story of my date at Sushi Express - a restaurant I picked because I was new in Taiwan and didn't know better - with a friend who could have been something more, but wasn't. Eric Lin was not his real name, of course, but a dozen years on it hardly matters.

Plus, some thoughts on observing the dating scene from afar in Taiwan, as a boring old married lady!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Lurid Pink Pomegranates

My haul from the 2018 Taipei International Book Exhibition

Just so you know, this story has very little to do with Taiwan, though it comes around in the end. 

I started taking a greater interest in my parents' bookshelves in high school. They were voracious readers and book collectors, and had some fine and rare editions, but also quite a collection of paperbacks from the 70s that browned by half a shade every year. You could have measured my age by their wear and coloring.

Bored with homework - I never really did it, it just didn't seem necessary - I idly picked up a dusty copy of Madame Bovary one afternoon and slid right into a world of century-old female dissolution.

Two things were true then. The first was that I was a broad-shouldered, wide-hipped teenage girl: not fat (then), but certainly not lissome. You could tell I was either going to grow up to be strong and intimidating, or soft and...not. (I like to think I ended up being soft and intimidating, personally). I wasn't pretty, but I was outspoken, nerdy and weird. Sort of like now, but less refined in how I channeled that energy.

The second was that I obviously knew what sex was. I'd read quite a few dime-a-dozen romance novels just for fun. The ones from the library one town over, of a slightly higher caliber (better sex) than the ones that cost $1.99 at the supermarket. But, especially as you'll be shocked to hear that I didn't exactly have a parade of boyfriends in high school, I knew nothing of sexual politics - who and what society calls degenerate and why, gender-based power and subjugation, all of it - or sex and the human condition.

What I mean is, big girls from small towns tend not to know a lot about the world.

As you can imagine, I drank the sweet, sexy French corruption of Madame Bovary as I emerged from the worst trials of the gauntlet of puberty the way a small-town athlete slugs Coke after a match.

Soon after I began reading, at school we were tasked with an open book report: find a book we'd like to read - any book - and write about our impressions of it. I was already reading Madame Bovary, so I decided I may as well write about it. My English teacher didn't object, but he did call my parents. A small high school in a small, almost entirely Catholic town? She wants to read a book that doesn't exactly scream Family Values? Best to check.

I was in the room when Mom took the call. "Yes, we know. She's already reading it. Yes, of course she can. She can! She got it from us!... Hah! Thanks for checking, but what kind of people do you think we are? Do you think we're..hmph...parochial?"

And that's how, as my classmates stole their dads' racy magazines (this was in the nascent years of the Internet, before we all looked for porn online), I ended up writing an ear-reddening book report about 19th century French smut.

Except it wasn't really smut.

More obtuse readers might mistake Madame Bovary for a morality play, in which Flaubert sits in judgment of the spiraling depravity of a convent-educated beauty who could not accept a simple, clean country life. If that were true, it would have been read and tossed by a bored big-hipped girl from a small town without a second thought. But no - Flaubert was well aware of the limitations women faced in his day, and how that could lead to a woman venting frustrations she couldn't even communicate to herself let alone to those around her by making a series of escalating bad choices. It was quite possibly my first encounter with a man who understood this, and was sympathetic. Of course, it took years to really sink in.

It struck me how it was never made clear whether Emma Bovary was highly intelligent or just an average person who fancied herself high-minded: as it was with all women, her intelligence was just that irrelevant to her life, her marriage and her social environment. It also struck me that the issue was never that she couldn't accept her lot, but that she was never able to seek a life that suited her.

As I grew up and moved away, I had more opportunities than Emma Bovary and took them - and yes, privilege played a role in that. I am an educated middle class white girl after all. In any case, I refused to apologize for my more libertine tendencies - why should I? After all, cheese is available - and when I encountered a person or force trying to limit me, remembered Ani DiFranco's old nugget o' wisdom, which Emma herself might have expressed if she'd been better equipped to do so: you may be able to keep me from ever being happy, but you're not going to stop me from having fun. (Hey, it was the late '90s).

And that is how a work of 19th century French smut which wasn't really smut likely influenced my decision to eventually move to Taiwan. The alternate-universe girl who didn't see a future version of herself in Madame Bovary if she didn't insist on something better is probably not very happy.

And that is how I found myself buying an expensive hardcover edition at the Taipei International Book Exhibition, which ended this past weekend. I took one look at those lurid pink pomegranates on the binding and thought, "hey, I have lurid pink pomegranates on my binding, too!"

What I mean is, that book is a part of my formative years. And I ought to own nice editions of the books that have influenced me.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Greatest Hits from Brendan and Jenna Get Together: Live in Tainan 2007


So, thanks to work obligations, we found ourselves back in Tainan for the third time this year.

What I found sentimental about that, moreoso than over the summer, was that Brendan and I are nearing our 10th anniversary as a couple. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we got together in Tainan, and our very first picture together as a bona fide couple (rather than two very frustrated best friends who clearly liked each other) was taken at the Confucius Temple there.

That was on March 1st (or thereabouts) 2007, and as it is highly unlikely we'll be in Tainan on March 1st 2017 - though you never know, we could be sent back for work - this is about as close as we are likely to get to return to the city where we got together close to a major anniversary date.

So, of course we went back to the Confucius Temple and took the same picture again (above). I won't comment on how we've changed and how we haven't, I will note that ten years on, six of them as a married couple, we still have that undefinable spark. It may be a more comfortable warmth rather than, say, what happened last time which I am pretty sure entailed making out in the Confucius Temple - Confucius was surely not pleased - but it's there. Like the perfect teaming of a chaos and an order muppet. (I'm the Swedish Chef, if you must know). 


So, I don't have much about Tainan to say in this post - you can read that in my posts from earlier this year (one is linked above, here's the other). What I do feel like talking about is how we went back and did a lot of the same things we did ten years ago - without really thinking about it. A few things have changed: we didn't know about the life-changing food combination that is ice cream served in half a melon available at Taicheng Fruit Store (泰成水果店) nor about Narrow Door Cafe (窄門咖啡) and I am fairly sure our favorite bar, Taikoo (太古), was not open yet.

But coffee at Chihkan Towers just for the atmosphere? Confucius Temple? God of Hell Temple? Famous glutinous meat dumplings? Running into a temple parade? All the greatest hits from 2007 got played, and it was in fact very sentimental and lovely to re-live it like that, as Old Married People rather than Young Love. It's like dancing to the song you first danced to, if we danced, which we don't really.

Perhaps I was also feeling sentimental because it's the holidays - my mom loved the holidays and also passed away around this time of year (actually almost two years ago exactly). I have been thinking, as I put together an album of her photos, how much she also liked old man's tea (老人茶 or laorencha - the title of this blog, though that's not the reason), and how sad I am that we never got to drink it together in Taiwan. So, I think a lot about family, relationships and life at this time of year.

My mom in the early 1980s - I would have likely been a baby when this was taken.

Anyway, enjoy some photos. This first one is one of the common areas in our hotel this time, called Goin Old House Bed and Breakfast (and also bar, on the first floor). The rooms are simple, clean and a little old-timey/traditional, with very modern bathrooms, which I appreciate. And it's extremely central.


Track 1 on Greatest Hits from Brendan and Jenna Get Together: Live in Tainan 2007, coffee at Chihkan Tower:



Track 2: Temple Parade (this happened in Anping in 2007 but at the God of War temple this time):





Track 3: Let's eat some meatballs (肉圓 - the famous ones by the God of War Temple):


Track 4: Wandering the Backstreets







Track 5: The God of Hell Temple (東嶽殿), but the murals weren't as visible this time:

Track 6: Backstreets, Refrain


Bonus Tracks: Narrow Door Cafe:


Bonus Track 2: Taicheng Fruit Store:


Bonus Track 3: Taikoo Bar


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Of Balls

Sure, it only costs NT$250, but for that price it's a pretty decent wine.
While finishing off a bottle of inexpensive but good wine with Brendan last night, I got to thinking about all the usual stuff: you know, how great married life has been for the past year and a half, how lucky we really are to have such a strong relationship, and my doesn't this apartment look awesome, I could actually stay in most nights and not feel bored and hmm, if Tsai wins the election, will she be the sort of women's rights advocate in office that could really benefit Taiwanese women? and I should really read Shantaram, it's been on the shelf for a year and it's too bad that I love my career, really get on with my students, and yet am not happy with my company and it'll be a few months yet before I can make a change.

And then this: it's been five years. I'm applying for permanent residency after Chinese New Year. Would I have stayed this long if I'd been single.

No, probably not. 

Why is that?

Of course, I covered this in Why Are There So Few Expat Women in Asia?, but it kind of got buried deep in the (admittedly long) post, and wasn't very personal. This post is my attempt to personalize that a bit.

I'd said there that a lot of expat women leave after a few years if they're single, because it's just plain harder to date (whereas in some regards it's easier for expat men), even if you like the local guys - which, for the record, I would if I were single.  Married or enrelationshipped women - yes, I made that word up - seem more likely to stick around in the foreign country they've chosen - especially in Asia. It's been my experience in Taiwan that the long-term expat women I know here are all married or in relationships.  In Turkey I noticed that it was quite a different tale: plenty of expat women stuck around, and more than a few married Turkish men, not unlike a lot of the expat men in east Asia.

Clearly, when the dating market opens up to reveal more opportunities, the women tend to stay just as long as the men. I'd like to think that a choice to move abroad or move home is one made individually, for reasons other than romantic prospects but rather for reasons ranging from desire to see the world, to learn a new language, to engage in another culture, for other academic pursuits or because you genuinely enjoy English teaching and the best opportunities for that happen to be in non-English speaking countries.

And it's true that I moved abroad without worrying about romantic prospects, and I happened to get lucky (heh heh). I wasn't here to date - I was here to see more of the world and learn Chinese. I didn't even know yet that I wanted to be a career teacher/trainer/whatever it is that I do because on any given day my job description feels different.

Yet these noble ideas - that one should make these choices without thought to dating - just isn't the case, and it wouldn't have been for me, either.

If Brendan hadn't existed, or we'd never met, or our relationship never worked out, here's what would have likely happened:

Brendan moved to Taiwan about halfway through my first year in Taiwan. I was not planning to leave at the end of that year; at the time my plans were to stay for 2-3 years depending, see if teaching was a good career fit (I'd started to love my evening teaching job back in the USA and hate my corporate desk job, which clued me into the idea that I would do better in a career such as teaching) and then either move home or move to another country.  I knew before Brendan came that I would not stay at Kojen past my initial contract, so I would have still changed jobs. I might not have ended up at the company I did - although who knows? They were looking at just about the right time.

I probably would have stayed in my tiny, slightly crummy room in an otherwise nice apartment in Liuzhangli for awhile longer, until I got a new job and could afford a small studio or at least a better room in a shared apartment.

I probably would have dated a couple of guys, be they expat or local. Those relationships, as most tend to do, probably would not have worked out. Although I'm sociable, I'm not exactly an "every weekend at a different social hangout" girl, so there probably wouldn't have been more than one or two. I think that estimate is accurate because that's about half the number of guys I typically dated in a few years in the DC area.

My social circle wouldn't have been appreciably different, except it would lack some people, including one whom I consider to be a very good friend, because those friends came through opportunities brought about by Brendan.

So I probably would have a social life that involved seeing friends for one outing a weekend, occasionally going out on a weekend night if invited (I love making plans for meals or outings for friends, I make drink plans far less often and mostly go when invited). I would otherwise work, take pictures, go hiking occasionally, hang out at cafes and then come home and be alone. My expat male friends, few as they are, would be dating local women at either a far greater frequency or intensity than any dating opportunities I would have had.

Not too unlike my single life in DC, except I had more dating opportunities and, within my own cultural context, it was easier to make friends. I saw those friends more, because in the USA we seem to place a greater emphasis on time spent with friends vs. at home, with family or working than in Taiwan, where people seem to see friends less.

I would have looked at the expat scene in Taipei - nightlife that I'm mostly not interested in (with some exceptions! Going out occasionally is fun), maybe a few clubs I could have joined, but generally just as I see it now: something I dip my toe into and can enjoy, but never really felt I fit into (although I feel a bit more fitting-inny now that I am friends with a small group of younger married women like myself who also defy the young-guys-here-teaching-at-Hess-for-a-year and the older-family-types-with-kids-at-the-American-school, and I know a few student types - I tend to get on well with the grad school crowd). I would have concluded that, in part, I felt a bit out of it with the expat crowd. Not unwelcome, but a bit like "young single foreign women who aren't particularly pretty have a tougher time socially here than back home".

I'd have looked at local life in Taipei and probably dipped my toes into that more, as well, but likewise still not felt like I fit in: turns out people don't invite you out much when you don't fit into a circle of coworkers, classmates or family.

Then I would have looked back at my social life in DC, and then my dating life. I might not have chosen to move back to DC in particular, but I might have concluded that as a single woman, if I wanted a better shot at having good relationships and having one of those turn permanent, and if I wanted lots of friends to have good times with both in the interim and beyond, that my chances of that were far better back home, or in another country.

Perhaps I would have done the CELTA as I did in Istanbul, had the great fun that I did, made friends on the course, and decided that for a good social life, Istanbul would have been a great bet. And I might well have stayed, despite the fact that it would have left me a bit emotionally torn. Or I might have picked another Mediterranean country.

All through this I'd be a bit angry at myself, thinking what, are you not the nomad and adventurer you thought you were?  Are you really going to go home now because poor widdle Jenna doesn't have enough widdle fwiends and nobody wants to be her boyfwiend? Awww. I thought you were made of stronger stuff, and I thought you knew that traveling the world would come with its share of loneliness. Are you just another Typical Girl, who needs people around her instead of fortifying herself? Are you weak? Do you not have the balls you thought you did?

(I admit I have a mortal fear of being seen as weak. That's a good post for another time, if I ever feel like revealing that much about myself).

And of course the final few sentences of the above are ridiculous, and in their own way, sexist, but it's only honest of me to say I would have thought them.

And I would have felt conflicted and angry and a bit sad, but I probably would have also felt lonely and  lacking social and dating opportunities - even though they exist in Taipei, I would have found them, as a single foreign woman, insufficient - but in the end I probably would have moved on in my predicted 2-3 years.  The fact that I didn't, that I instead married and nested a bit and started to feel a bit settled (and happy about that, which I never thought would happen) and like Taipei was home. But a big part of that is that I do have a family here. I have a husband - and a cat and (for the time being) a sister. I might have never felt that way if the whole marriage thing hadn't happened, or if I had not at least found myself in a serious relationship.

I'll leave it at this: in 2003 I celebrated my birthday in Pakse, Laos. I was in my early twenties and in Laos by myself (not long before I'd seen off Brendan in Beijing, from where he returned to Korea). I spent my birthday alone,  hiking up the crumbled, rocky ruins of a temple carved into a bluff outside of town. It was humid and buggy and I'm sure I looked like hell. I'm also sure as hell that I didn't care. I got to the top and sat at the edge of the bluff, the craggy black building blocks of the temple tumbled down below me, mostly in a scraggy pile, but a few were strewn further out into the verdant landscape.

Nobody had yet sent me birthday wishes in e-mail and this was long before Facebook. My only birthday wish before the time difference made it my birthday on the East Coast was from myself. I was young and I didn't mind being alone. I looked out over the tops of palm trees to lush rice fields dotted with beasts of burden and I thought to myself: this is great - how often can one say that one climbed a ruined temple in Laos on their birthday?

But several years later when I hit Taipei,  this was what my "birthday alone" was like. It was not good. It was not adventurous. It was not ballsy. It was just sad.  I still wanted - and still want - to travel the world and have adventures, but what I realized was that I didn't necessarily want to do it alone.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


Stairs up Jingling Mountain on a foggy day, our goal forever elusive 

The weather today has inspired me to write about Hailongtun.

In 2002 and 2003 I lived in Zunyi, a small town (which meant that it had less than a million people) in Guizhou, southern central China.

While it got colder there than it does in Taipei – it even snowed twice - the weather, especially in winter, was generally about the same: overcast and dreary for days on end, cold, drizzly.  Although I lived on the refurbished “old street” (which was the newest part of town in terms of building age), the smoke from hundreds of coal stoves would fudge up the air as much as Taipei 101’s fireworks did last night. Leaving the New Old Street, other than the mountain park and the river and one memorable temple, the city became a mostly indistinct blur of white tiled, blue-glass windowed concrete monstrosities stretching down wide roads for miles.  Puncturing this was the train station, some thoroughly horrific public bathrooms, one so-so park, a “night market” that was put to shame by even the most humble Taiwanese night market, and a casino with a giant plastic Sphinx out front, topped off with a generous helping of neon. It wasn’t a classy enough place to warrant LEDs.
The giant medicine gourd in
Dragon Phoenix Park

 I found some escape in the mountainside park, which did have a network of fairly respectable hiking trails, and a giant cement medicine gourd, venturing pretty far out of town in that direction on several occasions – even in winter. Soon, I started to venture further into the countryside, renting a bike towards the end of the New Old Street  and riding out past Gaoqiao (the way I consistently mispronounced that neighborhood made it sound like “gaochao” or “orgasm”) and towards the rice fields to the west of town. Out past there was a park and pagoda where I’d stop to rest, looking at the 8 demigods’ symbols painted above (a medicine gourd, a flute…some other things) before riding back and returning the bike.

 With more than half a year gone by in Zunyi, I was starting to feel like I’d never figure the place out before I left. Not just Zunyi, but China, which I was starting to feel was a more exciting place in Western fantasy than in reality: the name “China”  conjures up temples, pagodas, a rich musical tradition, delicious food,  richly brocaded fabric, or at least some sort  of modern equivalent to these things (seeing as I knew that people generally did not live in pagoda’d and pavilion’d houses anymore, and not everyone sat around all day painting calligraphy or playing the zither). At least you expect scenery, historic sites that look vaguely authentic, food you can trust, maybe a lantern or two, and some adventure.

You’ll get the adventure – if  “ did this bus just drive up a flight of stairs FOR REAL?” is your idea of it (it is for me!) – and the food generally was fantastic, at least when it wasn’t bitter gourd, some other weird roots or things, or mostly bone, fat and sinew…but the food supply was (and is) so untrustworthy that eating was a risk unto itself. I survived…with three fewer teeth than I had going in.

I did learn how to cook some amazing dishes and I was introduced to the life-changing, or at least digestion-changing, concept of 花椒, or flower pepper, though.

But the historic sites are mostly gone or covered in bathroom tile, everything else is basically a concrete box (also covered in bathroom tile) and few really care about any of the traditional, well, anything. There was scenery, but views of it were so gummed up by pollution that even that was a let-down.

And yes, I was starting to wonder what on earth could possibly keep me in China. Wouldn’t I be better off returning to India or exploring some other part of the globe? One not covered in tile? What was I doing in China and was Zunyi a place I could really settle into for longer than my one year contract?

Ruminating on this and marinating in coal smoke, the other two foreigners and I decided to try and find Hailongtun: the ruins of a 13th century fortress with a bloody history about 30km outside of town. It was the site of a battle between Ming dynasty forces and a ruling clan in what is now Guizhou and part of Sichuan – it was build by the regional ruling clan, which by the end of the 16th century was in direct conflict with the Ming court. A bloody battle took place and thousands, if not tens of thousands, were massacred here. The head of the ruling Yang family killed himself along with two concubines. as he was outsmarted by the Ming soldiers.

We also knew that we were in for quite a climb if we attempted to get here, but then doing anything in China felt like quite a climb, if not physically, then mentally. I handled this feeling well in India, but for some reason getting into the groove of it was not working out in China. Where in India my memories  are sunny, colorful, occasionally mud-colored but always warm, when it comes to China my thoughts turn a cold, dingy gray, not unlike the side of a cement wall in winter.

Other than Fragrant Mountain Temple (香山寺) and the buildings in my neighborhood considered historic sites for their significance during the Long March (you could see the roof of the building where Mao Zedong was elected to the Communist Party Central Committee from my window), there wasn’t much of historical significance in Zunyi. I guess having even what it did was a feat: the town was mostly spared destruction of its culture and relics because of that  significance in Communist history. I thought seeing something of genuine historical significance would reaffirm my faith that my year was worth it, that I’d be amazed by something. That maybe I would be brought a little bit closer to the country I was living in by our shared values regarding the importance of history (Cultural Revolution notwithstanding, and leaving most of that history not standing).

It didn’t seem like it would be that hard - it was mentioned in a book published in English, which was a rare thing in itself, to find good tourism information on Guizhou in English. There even seemed to be a bus that would take us close by, followed by a short hike.

The first time Jenny and I tried to go was just before Chinese New Year – we stopped in a random town where the bus route ended, maybe 17 kilometers outside Zunyi. We asked around for “Hailongtun” in piss-poor Chinese, and were led up a street to a hiking trail. We were told it was a 5-hour walk each way. It was already 3pm. We turned back, after snapping some photos of New Year fireworks for sale.  As we were waiting for a bus, a guy with a van stopped and asked us where we were headed. I tried to say that we had wanted to go to Hailongtun. I don’t think he quite understood: he arranged for us to take a bus which we thought was heading back to Zunyi. Instead, the driver said, he’d take us to Hailongtun.


Oh, but from where he would drop us off it was a two-hour hike each way. We tried protesting but it wasn’t working. Finally we just let him drop us off, praying that wherever we ended up there, would be another bus back to Zunyi. He let us off in some other random town with one place to stay, one liquor store, a few street stands and a village atmosphere, and bid us a nice hike. It was already getting a little dark out.

We did catch a bus back to Zunyi, with the promise to try again in a few weeks. This time we brought Julian, whose Chinese was considerably better than ours but who, like me, wasn’t as fast a hiker as Jenny. We took the bus back to the second village and started out again. Villagers said that in fact it was a four hour hike, and to start from Jingling Mountain, “just over that way”.

Pagodas and farms on the way to Jingling Mountain
OK, misinformation was nothing new for me after life in China and India, so we rolled with the ever-changing time estimates of how long it would actually take to get there, and starting points that seemed to float around with no fixed center, as though the goal didn’t even exist. We grabbed some water and food and headed down the dirt road to the Jingling Mountain trailhead, passing rice fields and a few rustic pagodas on small hills.

Then the stairs began, and with them, fog.

“I hope this clears by afternoon,” Julian said dryly, knowing as well as we did that fog in the mountains of northern Guizhou, once settled in, basically never clears.  We trudged up stairs – miles and miles of stairs, not unlike hiking in Taiwan – into ever thicker fog and a bit of drizzle.

“Maybe it’ll look better in the fog, you know, more mysterious and otherworldly,” said Jenny hopefully. Ever the optimist.

More stairs. We passed a temple, and then another. Nobody had told us that Jingling Mountain was dotted all the way to the top with increasingly beautiful temples, many of them untouched by the scourge of white tile. Most appeared to be Dao/Chinese folk religion in affiliation rather than Buddhist, but it is sometimes hard to tell. We stopped at a few to admire the architecture, idols and incense and chat with the shrine-keepers, who walked up these miles of stairs every morning  and down them every evening.

 The stairs led on, sometimes sharp-edged concrete, sometimes rough-hewn stone, sometimes packed dirt, but they didn’t let up. At one point it felt like we were ascending to heaven. We passed a small turn-off with a shack down the way and asked again there if we were going the right way “no, no, don’t go this way, keep going up the mountain,” the woman told us.
Incense burner (photo by Julian) in one of the temples on Jingling Mountain

Well, alright then. I just hoped that we wouldn’t hit the top of Jinglingshan only to discover that we had to descend the whole thing and ascend the next mountain, and then go back and descend, ascend and descend again. We’d started early but there wasn’t enough time in the day for that.

About three quarters of the way up, Jenny got sick of our slow butts and decided to hike at her own pace. “I’ll meet you there,” she said.  It was true that she was reasonably fit while Julian and I sputtered up the stairs like the duo in Absolutely Fabulous.

We really didn’t have a choice, although I was filled with dread, because rather like my gut feeling that I would never really settle into China, I had an instinctive knowledge that we had approximately .00001% of a chance of making it to Hailongtun that day. So if not there, where would we meet her? Julian could speak Chinese, I could get by in Chinese, but Jenny couldn’t, although she could quite literally run circles around us athletically. She might make it to Hailongtun but would she make it back? We two probably wouldn’t make it to Hailongtun but we could get home just by asking nicely.

Julian and I trudged upward, hitting one final temple and being told that Jinglingshan’s summit was only about 10 minutes up some more stairs.

The temple had a dragon fountain into which you could throw tokens – one renminbi for five, or something like that. If the token landed on the dragon sculpture and not in the bowl, you could make a wish.

I bought the tokens and added something to the game – completely made-up, but I felt like a lot of rules of life and even courtesy in China were basically made-up, slapped together ad-hoc or sometimes not even as necessary but for the explicit purpose of being inconvenient, so it wouldn’t really matter if I made up my own fortune telling superstition it wouldn’t matter to anyone, man or god. I  asked a question each time a coin was thrown, and if it hit the dragon, a heads-up would mean “yes” and a tails-up would mean “no” (the heads were Mao Zedong and the tails were some kind of flower, the tokens were cheap aluminum).               

Two of my coins hit the dragon. I’m not using that as a narrative device – it actually happened. Ask Julian. I made two wishes and asked two questions.

It was now mid-afternoon, and the fog hadn’t let up. But we knew that it wouldn’t. We also knew that we had very little time to actually get there, because we absolutely needed to start heading back.

We decided to go for it. I don’t believe that a stone dragon in a fountain on a temple as a magical fortune-telling device, but I knew, I just knew, what was going to happen.

We walked the ten minutes – for once someone was accurate in their assessment of how long it would take – and hit the summit.
Without fog, the view would have been spectacular. You could feel it in the air. We were surrounded immediately by open space and further on by other mountains and valleys. It would have been stunning. Life-altering, even. Maybe enough to make me reconsider my fairly lackluster opinion of China.

There was fog, though. All-encompassing, all-engulfing white out. You couldn’t see past the stone fence surrounding the platform on the summit, not even down the mountain slope beyond. Nothing. I shouted into it. There was an echo, but that also told me nothing. I called Jenny’s name. Nothing. I screamed it. Nothing.

Of course, the trail ended there. There was no descent. There was only back the way we’d come. Dead end, no Hailongtun, not even a trail we could have taken if we’d had more time. I can’t help but see that as metaphorical.

We turned back, stopped partway down at the turn-off and asked again.

“Of course that is the way to Hailongtun”, the woman said.
“Why didn’t you tell us before? Why did you tell us not to go?”
“Because it’s another three hours’ walk from here. You’d never have made it.  If you go the other way at least you can go to the peak of this mountain.”
“Did another foreigner go that way?”
“Yes, but she came back awhile ago.”
“Did she make it to Hailongtun?”
“I don’t know, she couldn’t speak Chinese. Probably not. Are you hungry?”

She fed us some rice, tofu, cauliflower and carrot cooked in basic Sichuan seasoning. I wolfed, Julian, who doesn’t care for Sichuanese flavors, barely ate. We offered to pay her, but she’d have none of it, even after we offered three times.

This was one thing I liked about China – this and the bus that drove up a flight of stairs. Sometimes, when you least expected it, people were kind. Even people who led you down the wrong trail earlier.

We walked back to town and caught a bus back to Zunyi, fog-dampened and exhausted.  We warmed up a bit and then went to Jenny’s apartment, where she was also huddled in front of a space heater and not concerned about us. “I figured you’d make it back.”

“Did you make it to Hailongtun?”
“Nope. You?”
“Oh well…next time?”
“Next time.”

Except I knew, without really knowing, that there wasn’t going to be a next time, not for Hailongtun and not for China. I knew that I wasn’t going to renew my contract, and that I wasn’t going to stay in China. I did not yet know that I’d end up in Taiwan, or that I’d find both the settled happiness and adventure here that I couldn’t find in China. I did not yet know that I was going to marry my best friend, or that despite having a few ugly facades and terrible winter weather that Taiwan would suit me  remarkably well. Not because it is easier – although it is – but because something about life here, the more laid-back attitudes, the fraternity and hospitality, the fact that it’s full of (often) pollution-free scenery and history unencumbered by concrete and tile, sits better with me.

I didn’t know a lot, but I did know, somewhere deep in some internal organ in my gut, that my failure to find Hailongtun represented my failure to feel at home in China, or to be able to say anything more complimentary than “it was an interesting and adventurous experience. You could say it changed my life. It certainly ruined my teeth and my respiratory system.” I will say that while, like not reaching Hailongtun, I never did feel at home in China, that rather like finding all the lovely temples dotting Jingling Mountain, I did have a lot of adventures along the way.

I guess that’s all you can ask of a year abroad, so I don’t feel gypped. My year in Taiwan opened me up to the possibility of Taiwan, and for that I am grateful. I have found many Hailongtuns here.

So as for my questions to the dragon fountain on the highest temple of Jingling Mountain.

For the first question, I asked “Will we ever make it to Hailongtun?”

For the second, “Will I ever see China as more than a brief adventure, a pit stop, a place to explore but not feel at home in?”


And no.

I won’t tell you what I wished for on top of that, but both my questions and my wishes came true.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Old Hakka Lady Speaks!

I just thought I’d share a few choice quotes from our conversation with an old mountain-climbin’ Hakka lady, who we ran into while hiking to Yuantong Temple (圓通寺) in Zhonghe a few weeks ago.  She was praying at a pretty interesting shrine  as we approached and stopped to chat with us after we tried to figure out the meaning of some graffiti nearby. I'll post a picture when my camera stops being annoying.

Joseph originally thought it meant “The  KMT and the Communists should  get together and take over Taiwan”, but she said no, some “bad DPP people” wrote it and it says “The KMT and Communists are going to get together and take over Taiwan” (implying that this is a bad thing). She went on to ask us about ourselves and have what I can only describe as a transcendently funny chat with us – all in Chinese, of course.

Some of her more interesting quotes:

“Are you married? Yes? Have kids? No? Oh, good! Don’t have any. I have three and they were a big waste of my time and money. I gave up my life to raise them and they don’t take care of me. They’re not filial! Just don’t have kids. It’s better. I wish I hadn’t had them.”

“Taiwanese kids don’t study hard enough.” (I disagreed, saying that compared to American kids, Taiwanese students were total bookworms). “No! They don’t! They are not hardworking like we were. Every day I had to walk up and down the mountain with a basket of fruit on my back. Every day! I had to study, too, even though I was tired from carrying so much fruit. Try to get a Taiwanese kid to do that now. They can’t! They’re lazy.”

She was delighted that we could speak a few snippets of Hakka, especially Joseph: “Oh, your girlfriend is Hakka from Miaoli? You should definitely marry her. Hakka girls from Miaoli are the prettiest and the most hardworking. She will work very hard and be a good wife.”

“ You know, Taiwanese girls, they like white men. That’s because they want to have beautiful babies, so they want to have babies with foreigners. Usually they like the white ones, but some of them like the black ones, too. I don’t know why. They are so dark and their teeth are so white!” (She said it, not me!)

“Oh, your eyes are so pretty!” (to me). “They look just like Chiang Ching-kuo’s…” (me: “Um, I don’t think my eyes resemble Chiang Ching Kuo’s”). “…wife!” “Huh?” “Your eyes look like Chiang Fangliang’s eyes!”

For those who don’t know, Chiang Fangliang, Chiang Ching-kuo’s wife, was Belorussian. It is true that being Polish and Armenian, I basically look very Eastern European and Chiang Fangliang’s facial structure does somewhat resemble mine. That said, I Googled pictures of her – her eyes are quite clearly brown and mine are blue. I just don’t see the resemblance.

Monday, November 21, 2011


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.