Taipei!  Taiwan!  Here I am.  I’ve been here for one week now.  It’s strange to be back in Asia after such a long hiatus.  When I first came to China in 2005, I was a different person.  I didn’t know what I was getting myself in for.  Since then I’ve evolved, become more astute, and studied some Mandarin.  It still feels like an adventure, but there’s more intention behind it.

That being said, Taipei is not at all like China (or any Chinese city I’ve been to).  It has elements of mainland China (decrepit, ratty looking stores filled with junk, old guys with their shirts rolled up, sketchy looking street stands), but it’s jumbled together with 7-11s, a multitude of restaurants and clothing stores of various quality, and an unquenchable mania for syrupy, iced beverages.  You’ll be walking along some giant boulevard that’s indistinguishable from all the others, and suddenly stumble upon some peaceful, stylish artists-cafe, where you can drink tea from alishan and peruse cute embroidery.  That, combined with the mind-bending heat, sort of reminds me of being in NYC in the summer.

But it’s more languid here.  You can sit around, drink fresh mango juice and get a massage in the subway while all the young aspiring yuppies are running by in their miniskirts and jagged Japanese-style haircuts.  The choice is yours!  (I know which side I tend towards).

It’s a busy city, but there’s none of the edginess that characterizes American cities, very little of the same socio-racial-class tensions that are like boiling magma waiting to erupt.  People are more homogenous and middle class.  It’s not much of an issue, as far as I can tell.  I have yet to encounter a “bad area” or feel unsafe anywhere, walking late at night.

When I explain these things to other Americans, they are sometimes incredulous.  Citizens of large, powerful countries so often think that the world exists only within their borders.  How can you have a city without angry black people? Without stabbings, and homicides, and riots?  It’s a tough balance.  The same energy that fed Louis Armstrong, the Beats, and Google, is also one that creates the 3rd world ghettoes of downtown Richmond, and now, so many parts of Oakland (it seems everywhere in Oakland has dangerous areas nowadays).  We just take it for granted, living amidst violence.  As long as We are above it, then..too bad for them.  Let the others rise above it.  That’s the American attitude. Ce’ la vie.

There’s a lot of fresh fruit: mangoes, papayas, passionfruit, pineapple, guava, are all in season right now.  It’s great.  A lot of Chinese food (obviously).  Various other options I have yet to explore.  There’s a big Burmese district I want to go to soon.  There are various migrant worker populations here undoubtedly doing the dirty work: Indonesians, Burmese, Indians, and even a few ravenous young West Africans who have a gleam of money, pure money, in their eyes.  My first night, I walked by a large mosque and chatted with a young guy from Mali who had been all over the world in search of profit.  He talked at me without pausing, like he was on meth, namely about how to skirt the law.

My first day I walked through the blistering, tropical air, and sat in Da An forest park.  All around me, traffic surged, but as soon as I entered the park, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cicadas emanating from the giant banyan trees.  A few couples strolled idly, as well as the requisite old man practicing gong fu, or just walking in some weird “healthy” way (yes, we have this in SF, too).  I saw on a bench, eating some packaged sushi (which is sold at every corner store), and tried to grasp where I was, trying to remember why I had come here.  Eventually I started remembering, but it took me a couple days to grasp the enormity of my life shift.

On the internet, one can read the oft-repeated stereotype of Taiwanese people being incredibly friendly.  Some of my (female) hostel mates have stories about families ferrying them all over the place, and over the top hospitality.  Nothing like that has happened to me.  I have stared at maps for long minutes, looking obviously confused (and obviously, a foreigner–no hiding it here), thinking, “any second, someone will rush up to help me!”  But no.  No strangers (outside of my hostel) have approached me the whole time I’ve been here.  I have found people to be very cordial, but fairly indifferent or preoccupied if they don’t know you.  In that way, I suppose it is much like any other big city, anywhere.  Certainly it is preferable to the “look at the alien monkey” thing you get in China, although I do see people looking at me, and I am very self-conscious of looking quite different from 99% of people around me, it is just not as overt.  The exception is when I have had some connection or commonality with people: i.e. talking to a saxophonist in the Blue Note Jazz Club, or when I was in this artsy cafe where the operators were clearly creative types–in these cases I felt a great warmth, much greater than when meeting people with supposed commonalities in the states where there’s a much greater sense of pretension associated with such labels and preoccupations.  (“Too much of a good thing” to quote Andy, in regards to the Mission District, but true for SF overall compared to a not as developed, less cool place like Taipei).

Right now, another thunderstorm is rolling in.  Learning Chinese is also a bit like the erratic, subtropical weather.  It comes in bursts and spits, sometimes you’re just burning and not moving anywhere, it’s so damn hot, at other times it’s pouring!  Thunder, lightning!

–and then everything’s starts to flow together a little more, yeah?  It’s a little like hearing a fuzzy station on the radio, perpetually adjusting the frequency.  Sometimes you just hear static, other times you catch maybe 20 0r 50%, and if you’re lucky, maybe short bursts of perfect clarity.  One could say my purpose here is to tap my mind into this other frequency, until I am on my bicycle, and the sound is arriving clearly, as I compose new music.

A Taiwanese-Bhutanese international-hippie guy in my hostel by the name of Huang taught me an expression: suiyuan, (隨緣, I think).  It means to sort of go with the flow, the way he explained it; that definition, if the characters are right means, “to go according to destiny.”  Being in a foreign place, a new life, new experiences, one certainly learns (or remembers) how to do this.  Such is my present life.

Advertisements