Taipei Sketches

What registers with you are the masks.

You have deplaned at Chiang Kai Shek Airport in the late evening, and already, problems: the woman with the luggage cart as wide as a boat slamming into you, and as you extricate yourself, her bags topple, domino-like. Preoccupied with your shin where her cart hit you, you stalk off, and as you do so the other passengers whisper at you disapprovingly: Sir, you should help her … why don’t you help that lady? And then of course, the woman confronts you, starts shouting at you in the Taiwanese dialect, demanding why you just left her after causing such a mess, and you are no mood to say anything except, Why did you drive that thing up my ass! in English, over and over. To hell with you! she retorts, or at least you think she retorts – no, it is clear, some phrases do not hide behind language’s veils.

So you are bundled toward a bus that smells like mothballs – Where are you going, where are you going, the driver chatters. Too exhausted to try and explain, you point at the Taipei Train Station painted over one of the luggage compartments on the underside, and immediately he nods, agreeable: Good, good. Inside is damp and cool, the windows tinted, and the highway looks all the more immaculate through this layer of darkness. Signs are clear – Taipei 30 km – and you are awake again, expectant, ready for this new place, as your feet play with the foldable steel bar that is meant to be a foot rest. Then the bus slows as it passes through a toll, and you see her, the toll collector, in what could be a lab coat, her nose and mouth covered by white fabric. Even behind the window you can smell the gas fumes, and you want to call out to her: That mask won’t do you any good! You need something with a real filter!

And as the bus cruises down the ramp and onto bumpy Chungching North Road, you see the masks everywhere: scooter riders, old women hobbling down the street, a man pulling his down to sneak a puff at his cigarette. You have not learned yet that the Taiwanese will always err on the side of caution, that if there is even a hint of rain, the umbrellas will fan out everywhere. So you see these masks and wonder: What have I gotten myself into? What unseen toxins are in the air?

***

Every day, like clockwork, it rains at 1:30. You sit indoors and watch it fall from the building eaves, great drooling rivulets of it. Times like these, you brew tea in the electric water heater, and watch the air conditioner blow the steam away from the top of the cup. The rain usually abates after an hour or so, and you step outside, into clean puddles, blissful air, the smell of concrete steaming up. Trees planted all by their lonesome by the side of the road are abundantly moist, ready to burst. A whole family rides past you on a single scooter – man and wife, two children, all of them crammed on it like a circus act, their naked legs and slippers splashed as they round a curb and hurry off, the wife’s hair blowing behind, the son’s legs stuck boldly out.

***

On your first day in town you wander the alleyways and main boulevards in the afternoon, and it is all the same: covered walkways and dirty brown architecture, riots of signs and cars stacked bumper to bumper, as if someone has taken the very idea of an urban place and condensed, compressed, intensified, until it is right above your head, hemming you in on all sides, ready to crush you. If there were a sun – and there is no sun on this day, just as you will learn that there is sun on very few days – you would not be able to see it.

But like many places in near-tropical climates, the city awakens at night. Places like McDonald’s and My Family’s Spare Ribs become landmarks, meeting places. The night markets open for business, and you are swept up with the waves of crowd, sensations pared down to fragments: the flash of clothing for sale here, the scent of fried dough there, the liquid-like sewage that you nearly step in, the relief of a strategic blast of air conditioning from an open doorway. The same signs that blended together in daylight now burn primary. The face of one sign has been torn away, and underneath are two tubular lamps crossed together in an X. A department store nearby pipes music through outdoor speakers, the latest Emile Chau song, Love Follows, and from now on you will associate that song with the cool fluorescent store lights, the chopped ice and syrup you bought moments before, the department store basement where you found the soft biscuits with the pineapple fillings, the digestive cookies which may have no effect on your digestion at all.

You need a rest, and take refuge in a club anchored with heavy wooden chairs and tables. Some sort of class is in session. The lead guitarist is explaining the history of the blues, and he is now discussing Muddy Waters. The young crowd, simple in their white shirts and blouses, nod at his words. And then the guitarist launches into the skittering chords of Got My Mojo Working to demonstrate a point, the rest of the band swoops in to join him, and as they boogie quite creditably, you observe the street outside the window, where people walk without stopping and headlights intersect. You are reminded of science fiction films, minus the heaven-high skyscrapers.

***

You buy a bicycle because a car is too much of a hassle, and the procedure for a scooter license is draconian, as your expat friends like to say. Riding in traffic is like being the pea-sized fish in a pond or aquarium, constantly bullied and fleeing. Public buses cut you off, and spit exhaust at you as an additional insult. Once after a close call you shake your fist and yell at the driver, and with a single bloated incessant blast of his horn, he makes a dead set at you. Sure enough, in your attempt to escape, you collide with a food stand and tumble to the pavement. He has achieved his objective.

You are sick of horns in general. The Taiwanese use horns for everything, from Get the hell out of my way! to Hey, the light will turn green in ten seconds, so get ready, to I know you see me coming, but I’m going to blow my horn anyway, just to be totally, totally sure.

You last about a week before you must finally admit to yourself: I need a mask. So on a friend’s recommendation, you track down a chemistry store buried in a back alley. Among the test tubes and microscope lenses, you find a charcoal filter mask. It is a spiffy creation, in stylish black, with two round filters mounted on each side of the mask and adjustable black straps. Your breathing is labored in the beginning, but you soon adjust, and you grow accustomed to the condensed moisture coating your lips and nose. Soon you even wear it walking down the street, especially if it has not rained in a while. Policemen cast suspicious eyes at you, as if you are a thief about to raid a bank.

And yet, although this mask has become a second skin, you sometimes head into the hills on the outskirts of town, and although it is hard, brutal work, it is worth it because at the very top you loosen the mask so that it hangs down around your neck, and you look at the smog and the depleted rooftops below for a good long while, and you stand on your bike pedals and let the momentum carry you down the hill, knowing that when you hit bottom the air will be poison again, but for now it is clean and fast and dry, and the mask bounces around your neck as the wind bathes your face.

***

The balding Caucasian man seems to live in the sweltering underpasses beneath intersections. Gaunt and dressed cleanly in jeans and T-shirt, he strums a battered guitar and sings what could be a Beatles song, or a copy of a copy of a Beatles song. A case beaten up a few degrees more than the guitar is open to receive donations. You have seen him perhaps twenty or twenty-five times at various locations, and he is always singing. But finally, one night, a particularly uncrowded night at the underpass at Nanjing Road and Chungshan Road, he suddenly lets his guitar drop with an echoey thud as a trio of laughing college students, immersed in their own conversation, pass by. I don’t play free for monkeys! he snarls in English, with an accent you guess is either Eastern European or plain crazy. You hear me? he yells at the departing students, who are unaware that he is addressing him. You Taiwan people are all monkeys! Still they do not pay attention to him, or maybe they do, just at the edge of their consciousness, but the laughter of their conversation is buoying them as they climb the stairs, back to the street and the fine night.

***

Walking is an adventure, an uncertain step towards doom. Sidewalks are about half the width of a typical U.S. sidewalk, and you must beware of the sudden drops from concrete to torn-up gravel, the cars bouncing onto the curb, the illegal hawkers who spread their clothes out in front of you, but have become adept at packing and disappearing within seconds, in case of policemen. Busy air conditioners drop water on your head from above. Sometimes a restaurant exhaust pipe blasts greasy heat at you. Scooters buck and roar, their honks diminished but insistent, and park at all angles, eliminating a clear corridor. Men idle in place as their girlfriends or wives rush into the Seven-Eleven for a quick purchase. Once you had a fever, and you dreamed that every scooter in the city was idling in place, riderless, for the riders had died of carbon monoxide ages before, and yet their motors ran on and on, eternal.

***

The expat has been here for thirteen years, and yet he still looks blonde and young, as if he has just stepped off campus. He has invited you to his house up in the hills, and even as you are impressed by its size, you puzzle over the lack of furniture, the crumpled bits of newspaper everywhere, the unshakeable feeling that the interior has been exposed to wind and rain and mud. The expat, absolutely fluent, is now working for a local politician, drafting English speeches. He is comparing Taiwan with mainland China, and recalls a pick-up basketball game he had once with students in Beijing: They were really trying to take my head off … they have this mean streak, this violence, to them … he shows you the bedroom, and his house suddenly makes sense, because this space is lived in. The rest is merely incidental, storage, an additional barrier. There are red velvet curtains, a single queen-size bed, and shelves on every wall, the shelves jammed with CDs, mostly jazz. He mentions that they have opened up a new jazz bar downtown called the Brown Sugar, and one of his favorite pianists is gigging there tonight. You nod absently, for you are too wrapped up in the CD library before you – there must be a few thousand here, three thousand easy. Blues, imports from Japan, concert bootlegs (there’s Miles at the Fillmore, six CDs worth of it), everything conceivable. The expat is now raving about the latest Dave Douglas disc, but you think: This is what happens when you live here for this long. You must find refuge from the pollution, the traffic, the heat, the rain, so you surround yourself with music, with karaoke, with videos, walls of it, museum and mausoleum.

***

You want to see a movie, something American, anything to remind you that there are other worlds besides this one. It is a summer afternoon, and the street air is wavy with the heat. You buy a ticket for about $8 U.S., and the cashier writes a number and letter on the ticket in thick felt tip pen. It turns out that this theater has assigned seating, and the writing denotes your place. You are at the far right, up against the wall, at the most awkward angle, although there are perhaps only ten other people in the theater. You relocate yourself to the center. At first the ventilation is a relief, but soon you are shivering. Halfway through the movie the cell phone of the man next to you beeps. He answers it: Hello? Yeah, I’m watching the movie. Oh, it’s all right. Not what I expected. Someone else in the theater, an English-speaking person, yells: Hey! Shut up! There is a moment of stunned silence, but then the man with the phone shouts back, in English: You shut up!

The movie ends on a properly somber note, the death of a hero, tragic love unfulfilled, and as the music swells to accommodate the end credits, the screen goes blank, the lights snap on, and a woman says in a clipped voice, Thank you for coming, please go to the nearest exit now. Disbelieving, feeling like you’ve been kicked in the gut, you stagger into the blinding sunlight, the humidity: They cut off the credits! They ruined the mood! The reason is all too obvious: they want to cram as many showings into the day as possible, and thus credits are expendable. How utterly practical, how efficient, how soulless, you think.

Years later, when you are back in the U.S., you will watch a movie with a friend. You will enjoy the stadium seating and the THX sound and the proper temperature control, and in the midst of the movie your friend’s cell phone will ring. Your friend will answer: Hello! Hey, yeah. I’m watching a movie right now. It’s not bad … And despite yourself, you will remember the theater with the assigned seats, and the righteous anger of the man on the phone.

***

The dumplings are spread out before you, as plentiful as flowers. Mounted a few inches overhead, fans the size as your palm drive away flies. How many? the woman asks, and you are relieved by the question, for in mainland China everything is a question of weight, and you have no idea whether four jin will be a morsel or platefuls. So you say ten, and she deposits them in an almost translucent plastic bag. You pour soy sauce into the bag, and spear the top dumpling with disposable wooden chopsticks. It is a lucky day, for you have pulled the two sticks apart perfectly down the center. You must shepherd the dumplings with your tongue so you are not burned, but the filling is just right, with pork and ginger and bits of scallion, and it is all hot and salty and smooth as you swallow it. And before you know it, you have eaten all of them, and a beatific smile spreads over your face, and the woman chuckles at it, probably because it reminds her of young children and their unalloyed responses. Laughing yourself, you say with great satisfaction: Ten more, please.

***

You do not trust hotels, for you hear that surveillance cameras are at work, not for police purposes, but to catch noontime trysts between lovers, instant budgetless porn. These videos are repackaged and sold, and you have heard a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a woman’s friend happening upon one of these tapes, and the friend’s dizzying realization that the woman on that bed, doing those things, is her. And then there is that popular woman from the Democratic Progressive Party who was having sex with a famous businessman, or was it the mayor of Taoyuan? All these incidents blur together. Regardless, their intimate moments were caught on spy video, and have been released on VCD. Curious, you buy it and watch it, but the grainy footage reveals little, nothing beyond an R rating, not that you expect it, because intimacy is a very idiosyncratic thing, and certainly nothing to be understood if you are not actually there.

***

The Club KK — jokingly referred to as KKK by some of the expats – is the color of steel. Unlike other clubs you have been to, the dance floor is uncrowded, yet the Taiwanese have perfected the art of dancing in place, and stick to their usual routines, the appearance of motion if not the sheer energy of full, free movement. Women stand along the wall, all dressed in black, seemingly waiting for someone to call them out, but no, their boyfriends are there – they are just in the shadows, drinking and smoking with each other, biding time. All the while, house music alternates with unusual English selections, and you cut loose on the floor with a sloppy grin when a familiar song comes up: Whoa, oh …you gotta keep ’em separated …

At just after midnight, the music is cut short and the house lighting roars to life. The anonymity of darkness gone, the dancers stand and stumble about self-consciously. A group of policemen are now making their way through the crowds, and instructing everyone to sit down at a table. You ask your friend what is happening, and he says:

The police have received complaints about the noise. Now they are checking IDs. If anyone is underage, then they close the club. This happens every night.

The inspection process takes an hour and a half, and during this time, no one is allowed to leave or move. You fiddle with your passport, and you even order a few drinks, but it is no use. The mood is dashed. Eventually they reach your table, and a few questions are snapped at your friend. He mumbles his replies so you cannot hear them, but you can see one of the cops staring at you from beneath his cap, and from his complexion and bony arms you can tell that he must be at least five years younger than you. You show your passport, and after a cursory look they nod and move on.

The houselights dim, the dance floor is bathed in an aquamarine glow, and the music pummels as brutally as before, but the crowds are breaking up, having lost the desire to cut loose. Couples are heading for home, or perhaps an MTV house, for many people live with their families until they marry. A long line of taxis putters outside the club, stretching down the deserted street and around the block, insects dancing in their beady headlights.

***

The restaurant is having some promotion for a certain beer, and young women in red one-piece swimsuits greet you as you enter. This appears to be their only function, for the regular waitresses are attired in silk chipaos one might find in Chinatown. Ribbons run diagonally across the swimsuit women’s chests diagonally, as if they have all won a prize, but the ribbons are all the same, plugging the beer. As you eat, they stand by the door, but it is already late and no more customers are coming. They huddle close together, whispering gossip, and every so often stifled laughter breaks out. At these moments they look like high school girls, and it dawns on you that they probably are high school girls, minus the makeup and their professionally conditioned hair and the long legs which end in soft felt slippers.

***

The taxi drivers are different, you discover. Sure they have the same casual brazenness that characterizes most taxi drivers in the world, but you have read the newspapers, and you know they are involved in politics: this cab company is affiliated with the New Party, this taxi company is with the KMT. You have seen them at election time, plastered with endorsements, candidates’ faces, party flags. You have heard of brutal knock-down fights between drivers of different factions in the midst of traffic jams. You understand that many have steel bats in their trunks, so as to fend off thieves and political opponents.

And yet this taxi driver is eminently reasonable. Indeed, talking to him about mainland China, he adopts an almost Zen attitude. I’m not worried about an invasion, he says. I don’t believe that Chinese people would kill Chinese people. What’s the point? And if I’m wrong, well, I’m wrong.

When he learns you are from America, he asks if you have been to Tibet. You answer you have not, and he sighs. I want to visit there someday. And he pulls a sun-beaten book off his dashboard. This is my favorite book, he says. It is in Chinese, but you can decipher the title: The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.

Interesting, you say, and it is as if a door has swung wide open with a great gust of wind, because now the driver is talking, talking, talking, discussing all the important concepts from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, ending every other sentence with don’t you think? You can’t understand any of it, but even as he honks at the traffic and pulls race-car turns, he talks on and on, awed by the very ideas he is expounding, and all you can is nod vigorously, not wanting to break this spell.

But eventually you reach your destination, feeling like you have missed out on something important, and to make up for it somehow you give him a generous tip. He accepts it with a near-embarrassed laugh; the concept of a tip is still new, and somewhat exciting, to the taxi drivers here. He pulls out, and from the curb you get a glimpse of the well-worn book on the front seat before the traffic claims him, into the tiger’s mouth as the locals say.

***

Your bicycle lasts four months. You think it is all safe and locked up in the subterranean garage of your apartment building, but one night you come down and find the kick stand gone, a few screws left over on the ground. You lock it in a different spot of the garage, right up against a heating pipe that scalds your hand when you accidentally brush it. The next day, the front wheel is missing, and the amputated bike is crumpled lopsided on the ground. For a few hours afterward, you stalk around with murder in your heart, wishing with all your might that you could have been there when the thief was doing his work, just so you could take one of those steel bats to his head. But what can you do, when the nearest bike shop is a good mile off, and the only way to get the bike repaired is drag it all the way, and up that hill? The next day, sure enough, the back tire and gears have been stripped, and nothing is left but the frame, a few loose screws and brake wires. Now you can do nothing but laugh – it is as if you have witnessed a century of erosion, finished in a few calculated moves.

***

Friends do not last long here. You suspect that perhaps you are ignoring something, that the Pig and Whistle up in Tienmu is as exciting and lively as they say, or the karaoke houses are more social than you give them credit for. But for you, the city is a progression of faces and bodies, like landmarks passing by your window. Many are pleasant, some are good for a quick drink at the Blue Note or Sirduke’s, but always there is the time of parting, the long walks down Central Taipei’s boulevards to the nearest bus stop or MRT station, and during these silent minutes the memory of the friend you were chatting with moments before seems to evaporate.

The city changes, is always changing. Clanging construction at all hours. Bumpy roads on the outskirts of town are replaced with smooth pavement, and then the pavement will crack and wither under the heat and humidity. Every few months, another local election, more minivans with loudspeakers bouncing crazily atop them, as if they have just been glued there, chirpy female loop recordings: Vote for the person who will make a difference for you…But your acquaintances are timeless. Always at the same job, faces unaltered by the passing years, talking about moving or returning to America as if America is like an extraordinarily expensive dinner. You would not be surprised to return in five or ten or twenty years, and find the same people, the same faces.

You ride the new MRT line from Chunghsiao Station to Mucha. It is dark, and as the train bumbles down the two-story high track, the buildings are blunt and majestic. Yes, there was never a doubt before, and there is none now: Taipei is more flattering in the dark. You sit at the front of the train, staring at the front window, at the track that seems to float there, as lights blur together, passengers depart, and finally, you are alone in the garish yellow décor of the lead car, standing there like one who is at the prow of a ship, as the train rushes on, and you are intoxicated by the emptiness and the distant lights.

– 2003

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