Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Oh, Taiwan...

Sometimes I love you, and sometimes I can't draw my knife fast enough.

Take yesterday for example. Seriously, take yesterday! >RIMSHOT!< I got done with work by noon or so and was home with about 45 minutes to spare before my private tutee, Well (not a typo), showed up. It was well past time to ship my old roommate Erick's gigantor box o' stuff to him in the USA. This box nearly had to claim residency it was so large.

Seriously, there's no better way aside from a doctor’s latex ensheathed hand in the darker, tenderer areas of your person to assess your hernias and would-be hernias. I hefted this limbless monster to the elevator and then braced myself for the long haul two blocks south to the taxi hangout. There was no way I was going to heave it the four or so blocks east to the post office. (Oh, that hallowed post office, of it more ye shall presently hear!)

I made my sweaty, grunting way down Da En Street like some thin, white Atlas. Luckily for me, there appeared to be no one at the taxi depot. Lunch time. Splendid. I kept sweating. Soon enough a driver emerged and was ever so kind as to point at his taxi. Far be it form him to let me wait for him at the corner with my human-sized box. No. That’s fine. I’ll lug this hernia-generator over to you, Mr Driver Man.

In the taxi. To the post office. In the post office. I wedged the box on the shelf, completely blocking the teller window. The lady eventually got off the phone, squinted skeptically at my box, came out to me with a red ribbon tape measure, sized up the box and chirped, “Too big.”

“Too big,” I said, numbly.

“You have to make it smaller boxes.”

“Ooookay…. well,” I plowed on, knowing I also wanted to ship a couple books to friends in the USA, “can I ship these.”

“No,” she answered.


“We have no envelopes.”

“I can’t ship books?” I was incredulous, too tired to be furious, too outraged to be apathetic.

“No. You can’t ship books to the USA.”

“You mean, no one in Taiwan can send my books to the USA.”

“Go to 7-11,” she replied.

“7-11?” I knew you could pay your bills and stave off the munchies at convenient stores, but ship books home – when the post office can’t?

I had hit the icy brick wall of a foreign culture. There was nothing left to discuss. My “Western” logic was useless. The post office, didn’t you know, doesn’t have envelopes. So off to 7-11 I went. It was right on the corner, next to the post office. (I smelled a racket.) In I trundled and lowered the box onto the floor like it was the Ark of the Covenant. We’d come this far.

“Hi there,” I said to the cashier, fearing the worst, “I would like to send these books home.”

“You can’t,” he answered, with the faintest hint of a confused smile.

“I can’t. The lady at the post office just told me–”

“Go to DHL,” he interjected.

“DHL? Where is DHL?”

“Call this number,” he said. All the while he was holding a pristine DHL envelope in his left hand, waiting to hold at least one of my books. But no. I was face-flat against that cold brick wall. Foreigner. At least I had stopped sweating.

And then I stepped outside, carrying the Ark on my warm moist shoulder. I was sweating again. I caught another taxi home, asked the door man for DHL’s address, learned I need to take my passport there to mail anything and returned the box and books to exactly where they had been before. Taiwan, 1. Foreigner, 0, and counting.

Like I said, sometimes I just can’t draw my knife on Taiwan fast enough. Taiwan got me that time. Home looked very good all of a sudden. And then Is topped sweating. Well came over. We talked about his weekend (he was in a piano contest) and the Olympics (Taiwan beat Australia 3-0). We played a little 3-D Pinball for a break. I told him the story of the Bible all the way to Joseph and the subsequent enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt. His mother came over and my day was wide open.

Feeling a little jaded about my life in Taiwan, but still wanting to get some chores done, I headed out, to the streets, into the evening. And I once again experienced the twin faces of Taiwan. Only hours before I had been ready to blow my stack in the post office. But then, as if in an enchanted urban forest, I was aglow with contentment. I was getting around town. I was getting tings done. I was wending my way through this culture, using the Mandarin I know and fitting in as best as I know how. Taiwan wounds and Taiwan heals.

The summit of our reunion came when I got my bike chain tightened. I happened to see a mechanic shop and turned in. I was, after all, getting things done. He tweaked the links and I could see things were better already. I asked him how much, but he said my money was no good there. Ah, Taiwan! This is the Taiwan I know and love! The Taiwan where a man will fix a bike chain at a moment’s notice and wave off your money with a smile. Strangely enough, when he declined my money, I instantly thought of a Bruce Springsteen song. This Taiwan is the New Jersey the Boss is always crooning about. This Taiwan is small-town America before big time America gets the better of it.

I had another sweet taste of the Taiwan I love today when I stopped by the Church. I asked to speak with someone who, it turned out, was absent. The man that told me this had only moments before been playing with a six year-old girl. They were waving around toy bubble wands in a vat of soapy water. He went inside the get the address I could find the man at, and I was left standing over a six year-old girl stirring a vat of soapy water. She never looked up at me; she was possessed; she was playing with bubles. But then she suddenly said, “My name is Chi Chi.”

“Oh, um, your name is Chi Chi?” I asked, diffidently.

“Yes,” she said, stirring as seriously as ever. She’ll make a fine chemist someday.

“Well, uh, my name... is Eddie.” Eddie is my Asian-friendly nickname here. ELLiot is a little daunting for the Taiwanese tongue.

Despite all her fanatical stirring, Chi Chi wasn’t making any bubbles. I said, “You need to add water.”

“I am sex,” Chi Chi answered in a brilliant non sequitur. Without warning, she looked up at me full in the face and shouted, “Sex!” But of course: in Mandarin, “You need to add water” sounds a lot like “How old are you?”

“Yes, um, you’re six.” After a second prompting, Chi Chi took my advice and added some water. She resumed stirring like a mini-witch on amphetamines over a black cauldron. I was speechless. Who am I to interrupt such serious work?

The man returned, gave me the address, and off I rode. Taiwan, 2. Foreigner, 1.

Ah, Taiwan. Sometimes I love you.

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