Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Why I Like Taichung

[As I mentioned, this piece was submitted a few days ago for a local Taichung magazine essay contest. Results will be announced by July 31, whereupon oodles of prizes are sure to flow through the streets right up to my door -- or something. But as a loyal FCA reader, you get the inside scoop, fresh, piping-hot, early press! I was ecstatic about trimming this down to 392 words before sending it {400 word limit}, but then kicked myself because I forgot to make a two-word edit I realized I could have made just as I fell asleep the night before. A writer's woes. Anyway, despite submitting it at a billowy 392 words, it now reads at a tight 390 words. A writer's small victories. I'm also pleased by the fact that I don't even mention "Taichung" until 70 words in and that I never once use the canned contest phrase "I like Taichung because...".]

Taiwan is a frontier, a border world, straddling the wild, wild West and the wild, wild East. In the north, Taipei leads an ultra-hip march into the West – out of murky Hakkan hills – and surges into itself like a hydraulic. But the hydraulic becomes a world to itself. Taipei is almost boring in its cosmopolitan insularity. There are no locals because there are no outsiders. No one fits because everyone does. Why bother trying to fit in, since I automatically do? So much for the allure of foreignness.

On the other end of the spectrum, and of the island, are places, like Tainan and Gaoxiong, which easily become self-conscious photo-negatives of the north, clutching Taiwanese heritage like rafters on the rapids. But the raft becomes a world to itself. In the south, I’m stifled knowing I’m being watched, knowing I’m an interloper on Taiwanese soil. Why bother trying to fit in, since I know I never will? So much for the allure of home.

But then there is Taichung, Taiwan’s frontier, open, and closed, in both directions. The quintessential Taiwanese city. Not too far north, not too far south. Not too urban, not too rural. Not too rabidly Westernized, not too stubbornly Taiwanese. Not too hot, not too cold: the middle porridge, just right. Taichung – the middle city, the mix, the mixed-up – is my quintessential city, where I can be who I am: a mix, mixed-up, a foreigner in the middle of Taiwan.

Living abroad, I’m not simply a Westerner. Living abroad, neither am I simply a native Taiwanese. I am not just another anonymous “global citizen” who happens to find himself on a small Asian island – that is, I’m not a Taipeier. I am also not just another anonymous Taiwanese; a foreigner, I do not belong here. A foreigner, I need to learn the language, the customs, the people – without ever deluding myself I understand them. A mix, mixed-up in the middle, in Taichung, where I am free to be foreign without automatically being cliché or intrusive, free to fit without fitting in. Taichung knows my secret, and I hers: we both fit, and don’t fit. Taichung affirms my mixed-up uniqueness, and I hers. As secret allies, we stand together in the middle, both mixed, both medium. We’re both middle porridge; and somehow, mysteriously, that makes everything just right.

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