I try not to think about China's missiles as I head for Taipei with Eli, Pauline, Isaiah, Adolph, and several hundred other people in a China Airlines 747. Last night Phil, a retired army officer, asked, "Aren't you worried?" He gets daily intelligence briefings, and the U.S. military is nervous about China's nuclear and biological weapons.
"Adolph's sister, Merle, is a China expert, and the State Department told her they're not worried," I replied.
"The military and the State Department never agree," he said.
So who's right?
This is the worst turbulence I've ever flown through, a strong reminder that we're 10,365 meters above the ground. At least it's rocking Isaiah to sleep, which is important. It's not easy traveling with a 21-month-old.
...Merle said China's trying to intimidate the Taiwanese into voting against the Democratic People's Party, the independence party, which anyway is unlikely to win. The election is March 18, eleven days from now. What if the independence party does win?
"What's your mother's name?" I asked Pauline last week.
"When we arrive we'll find out what you should call her," she replied.
That's where we're going, to visit Pauline's mother in Hu Wei. Then Eli and Pauline will go to China to buy merchandise for their store, and Adolph and I will stay until Isaiah gets used to his other grandmother. I don't know how she feels about this, since basically we're strangers with no common language.
In the meantime, it's fourteen and a half claustrophobic hours from Los Angeles to Taipei. My ankles are so swollen that when I got up to exercise, I had to practically pull out my laces to get my shoes back on. My feet are now on Adolph's tray table; I'm trying to keep them higher than my rear end. But my body is askew, legs slanting to the left, head to the right....
I just sat up. My ankles hurt, so I put my head on Adolph's lap and my feet up on the back of my seat. My body was still skewed. Then I noticed that if the man in front of Adolph put his seat back, he'd crush my head. I tried to get up. Ha ha. I began to laugh hysterically, for I was stuck. Lying flat on my back with my legs straight up in such a tiny space, I couldn't get any leverage. And I couldn't stop laughing.
...It's breakfast time here in the air, dinnertime in Taipei, where we'll land in two hours. We had a choice of scrambled eggs or rice gruel; I'm eating the latter and am surprised at how soothing it is.
"After the election you people in China may be at war with us in Taiwan," I say to Eli. Today's New York Times has a front page story and an inside page devoted to the tensions between China and Taiwan. Though an invasion is unlikely, the option the Pentagon takes most seriously is a "Kosovo-like missile attack."
When I woke up this morning at 5:30, I thought of our first morning in Taipei fifteen years ago, of all the action in the waking streets, of the park with crowds doing tai chi. That was the beginning of my tai chi stage of life.
However this morning it was grey and drizzly, and our 5:30 walk didn't turn up any tai chi; we couldn't even find the park.
Later. After breakfast all five of us went to the park Adolph and I couldn't find. It was behind a gigantic Chiang Kai Shek memorial, a vast expanse of concrete with large, temple-like structures. Exercisers were on a terrace, a few old men stretching, a group of eight middle-aged women sitting like Buddhas and meditating to music, several women dancing jitterbug, then cha cha cha. One woman was doing the 24 part tai chi form I do, without the music, more slowly, closer to the ground, and more intensely.
Isaiah joined the dancers. He's a natural, swinging his arms, spinning around, always in perfect time to the music, a beautiful, angelic-looking child. The Taiwanese think he looks like a foreigner, Pauline says, because he's too white to be Chinese.
So I did tai chi, danced with Isaiah, and wandered the city, despite my elephantine ankles.
A few years ago a Taiwanese friend, Xiao-Hsien, visited Pauline and Eli in Milwaukee and ended up marrying their housemate, Doug. Doug and Xiao-Hsien now live in Taipei with Xiao-Hsien's parents. "That's the custom, and anyway Xiao-Hsien worries that her parents would be lonely if we moved out," Doug said as we glutted ourselves with Japanese food at lunch. Actually the custom is to live with the husband's family. Doug teaches English at a cram school, a private school where students study intensely after regular school lets out in the afternoon, and on weekends. Cram also applies to Doug, who teaches 28 hours a week in addition to preparation and grading. His students range in age from seven to fifteen, and his classes range in size from 16 to 28. Since each class meets only once a week for two hours, he has hundreds of students.
"Hey, Doug, how long did you stay in Taipei when you visited Eli in 1986," I suddenly asked.
"Four days, and that was plenty," he told me, "I was out of money, all ready to go back to Milwaukee, and they bumped me from my flight at the Hong Kong airport. I threw a hysterical fit."
"Did it work?" I asked.
This time he's already here two years.
Right now I'm in our hotel room, sitting next to the desk. It's too low, or the chair's too high; my legs could fit under it only if they were two inches thick. This hotel isn't oriented towards office work. The rooms are very large with glass-enclosed bathrooms, frosted glass, clear on the bottom so the feet of the occupant are visible. The bathroom has a spacious Jacuzzi, and on the night table lies a condom in a fancy wrapper.
When you enter the room, you shove the key's tag into a slot to turn on the electricity; if you remove the tag, the electricity goes off. But you need the key to lock the door when leaving, so I'll have to wake Adolph to lock up after me tomorrow morning. The central control panel next to the bed is the only place to turn on lights, TV, radio, and air conditioner. I, being more mechanically minded, am sleeping on the panel side.
Since I hesitated to walk through the dark streets alone at 5:30 AM, Adolph escorted me to the park and read Chaim Potok while I did tai chi. First we did the 24, then someone placed me in the middle so I could follow a new form. In China everyone was in the same position at the same moment. Here some were fast, some were slow, some people embellished, others didn't, so the person I followed when I faced one direction was not doing the same thing as the person I'd try to follow when I turned around. An English-speaking woman told me she's there from 5:30 to 8:00 every morning. Maybe that's why tai chi is so different in the Orient: people are very serious about it. Two and a half hours a day seven days a week is like a part-time job.
When Pauline's mother, brother, and brother's fiancée were in Milwaukee for Eli and Pauline's wedding, Eli had to rush her brother to Columbia Hospital's emergency room for a pain in his hip. He was diagnosed two years later: bone cancer. He died a few years ago. His widow remarried, and she had a baby last November. Pauline called her yesterday. As they spoke, Pauline's tone of voice became somber: the baby is in the hospital and might have leukemia. Pauline commented, "She certainly has bad luck, first losing her husband, and now this." Maybe her bad luck is living in Taiwan, with its pollution and its high cancer rate.
There's also a lack of concern for safety. We managed to buy a car seat for Isaiah yesterday, but it's useless in taxis, since they seldom have seat belts.
We'll see her sister-in-law at the hospital in about an hour, but the baby is too sick for visitors. Notice I don't call her by name? I still don't have a name for any of Pauline's relatives. Today we visited her uncle at his trading company, where Pauline worked for eight years. We still know him only as Pauline's uncle. Her half sisters, father, brother, mother, auntie, sister-in-law, grandmother, her mother's husband, they've been unnamed characters in our lives for years. And now we'll be spending two weeks with her family. Will they have names? Will we like each other? I can't imagine this. I wonder about the division of labor in caring for Isaiah and the communication with no common language. Pauline says her mother's husband is an uneducated farmer who smokes and drinks. I'm not sure how she feels about her mother, who didn't raise her. After her parents divorced, Pauline and her brother lived first with one grandmother and then the other. Both her father and her brother died of cancer. So Pauline's luck hasn't been too good, either. Her mother remarried and had two more daughters who are now in college and come home on the weekends.
Later. Isaiah tends to suck his thumb. Yesterday I glanced at that poor thumb, which happened to be out of his mouth, and exclaimed, "That looks awful!" He had a gigantic blister, surrounded by redness. Pauline and Eli took him to a hospital this afternoon. It's infected, but the doctor didn't lance it, afraid Isaiah would continue to suck it. He just put him on antibiotics.
It's 5:30 AM, and I'm all dressed up with no place to go. Well, I have a place to go, but even if I got there, I doubt anyone else would make it. I could be wrong. People here practice tai chi so diligently, there might be a crowd, even in a downpour.
...We should be leaving for Hu Wei now. Instead Pauline, Isaiah, and I are in a hospital waiting room, and Eli and Adolph are at the station, changing our tickets for a later train. We were in this hospital yesterday, too, when we visited Pauline's sister-in-law, who's a nurse. We showed her Isaiah's thumb, she thought the infection looked serious, upsetting us all. So we're about to see her baby's doctor. For over a month she went from doctor to doctor, hospital to hospital, trying to get a diagnosis for her son's illness. Yesterday, right after she'd told Pauline he might have leukemia, she found out he doesn't. He has a blood infection.
...And now we've seen the doctor, and he lanced the blister.
This is a large, clean, modern hospital, bright and cheery. We walked in through the emergency entrance. The corridor was wide and lined with green gurneys the way sidewalks here are lined with parked motorcycles. On almost every gurney was parked a human being, most sleeping, some attended to by family members.
...We're finally on the train for the three-hour ride to a village near Hu Wei, where we'll meet Pauline's family. After our long wait for the doctor and another wait to buy medicine, it seems amazing to have made it at all.
Once the rain let up, I did go to tai chi this morning, and loved it! The woman I met yesterday took me aside to do the 24, then placed me in the middle of the group for the forms I didn't know. At 7 AM her tai chi master came, put on music, and lead everyone in a flowing form, a tai chi dance, just my style. If I lived in Taipei, I'd come here every day. After about ten minutes, however, I had to go to the hospital for Isaiah's thumb. That's the thing about being a grandmother: I'm caught up once again in thumbs. Instead of my emotional well-being hinging on three children, there's a slew of extra people whose lives intimately affect mine.
Every trip is a cornucopia of the unexpected. When family's involved, the intensity increases, and my last few trips have all been family trips. Two years ago I helped Adolph paint his sculptures at Neve Shalom in Israel, a year ago I went with Eli to buy merchandise in China, five months ago Adolph and I brought my mother, who has dementia, to Mexico to live near my sister, and now here I am in Taiwan to help Isaiah's other grandmother. I could never have expected my life to turn out this way, family affairs all over the world.
The talk about China bombing Taiwan, in the New York Times, in every English-language paper here, in the headlines every day on CNN, does make me nervous. Everyone speaks as if countries act rationally. In reality they're no better than the irrational people who lead them. I told Pauline to leave Isaiah's passport and plane ticket with her mother, just in case we have to make a quick getaway. The world's brimming with disasters. Why assume Taiwan will be okay?
A missile attack isn't the only threat. Doug said, "Hu Wei! That's where they're having all those little earthquakes. Well, none of them is more than five on the Richter scale." I hadn't even considered last year's earthquakes nor the fact that one was near Hu Wei. In September, after the second earthquake in Taipei, I sent Doug an Email: Another one? He wrote back that he ran into the street in the middle of the night, and Xiao-Hsien laughed at him. Once she realized that people had died, she was annoyed that he'd run out without her.
For fifteen years Eli has tried to get Adolph and me to go to Hualien, a spectacular gorge and hot springs, the most beautiful spot in Taiwan. This time he arranged for us to go with Doug and Xiao-Hsien. But Doug can't get time off. Today we learned there have been dangerous mud-slides, and the roads are closed.
...The village we're riding through looks like one big rice paddy, water-logged fields stretching between buildings. Where do people walk? Our train is pulling into a sooty, industrial city...I timed our last stop: two minutes, seventeen seconds. Eli warned us that when we arrive, we'll have to work fast to get our luggage off before the train starts up again. This stop was less than two minutes... It's gray and rainy. Maybe those were puddles, not paddies. In any event, we're not going to Hualien. Our hot springs will be the Jacuzzi in Taipei. So we don't have to worry about mud-slides, just missiles and earthquakes... Cows grazing next to a factory... Rice paddies well within city limits... A telephone. There's no way to be free of irritating electronic rings.
We're closing in on Pauline's mother, and Eli and Pauline drop little hints: "You'll probably be glad to get back to the hotel after staying there. It's much more comfortable than Pauline's mother's house." "If you don't like something at dinner, just leave it. Don't say anything." "Remember everything they serve you is good."
"Well, Eli, can't you tell them the doctor put me on a low fat diet?"
"Yes, I'll say you have a heart problem."
They warn me about narrow sidewalks, bad driving, the mother's husband's smoking.
This has been a fascinating train ride, rice paddies mixed into urban areas, stretching to the edges of train tracks, resting next to belching smoke stacks. I wonder if the water kills off weeds in paddies, or if the farmers still have to pull them out. The train has bay windows, set low, so the viewer feels as if he's in the landscape. Ornate Buddhist temples are sprinkled among square cement-block buildings.
Less than a half hour to go. Pauline must be nervous...
The young woman standing next to our seats is blatantly in love. She tilts her head and smiles broadly into her boyfriend's face. Her hand rests on his, fingers partially intertwined. He's in love with her, too, talking gently as they both read a newspaper over a seated passenger's shoulder. A dog-faced teddy bear hangs from a ribbon around her neck. They both turn around to look when Isaiah begins to cry.
At a seafood dinner in a private dining room, we were the guests of honor, surrounded by Pauline's mother, her mother's #4 sister, Pauline's cousin and four second cousins, her mother's only brother and his wife, her mother's husband, and her mother's mother with whom Pauline lived until she was eight years old. We felt an immediate emotional connection with the grandmother, and she couldn't stop hugging us.
When she was in Milwaukee for Pauline's wedding, Pauline's mother was so pancaked with makeup I couldn't imagine what she was like underneath. Here she's normal-looking, rather attractive, and very petite. We now have a name for her: Masa. I asked what she thinks about the Chinese threats against Taiwan. She said, "It all depends on how the election turns out."
"You mean there could be trouble if the independence party wins?"
"Yes, but they have no chance; two branches of the Kuomintang are fighting it out." She's not worried; she thinks Taiwan and China will reach a negotiated settlement.
Maybe I don't have to worry about missiles, maybe I can forget about earthquakes, but there are other, more personal things that have the potential to derail me.
5:15 AM, and I've been up for two and a half hours. Masa is coming to wake me any minute so we can walk to the park to do Qi Gong and dance. She says they don't do tai chi around here. It's pouring outside. I hope we're going. We're sleeping on the third floor; Masa, Irene, and Masa's husband on the second. The three flights of steep stone steps have one-foot spaces between the posts in the banisters, wide enough to fit two Isaiahs. It's as if there's no barrier at all. That's one thing that concerns me: keeping him, a kid who's a climber, away from the steps. Pauline says that when Masa watches him, he'll never be out of her sight.
Another concern: the fire on a hot plate in the living room, for boiling water for tea. It's ignited by gas from an adjoining tank. After the cigarette lighter, the second thing Isaiah picked up last night was a burning coil left on the floor to keep away mosquitoes. Hard candies and peanuts on the table, the front door opening right onto the street, we have some childproofing to do. When Isaiah was here a year ago, he wasn't yet walking.
Then there's the smoking, Masa's husband blew smoke right into Isaiah's face, and the drinking. Masa's brother downed beer after beer last night before he drove us home from the restaurant. I was thankful for Isaiah's car seat and the Buick's seat belts. So here we are, still alive after the first twelve hours.
Now I'm in the living room, all set to go, but where's Masa? Either she's still sleeping, or she went without me, assuming I wouldn't go in the rain. I'd go by myself, but I don't know how to lock the door behind me. I'm here on the magenta sofa, eating candy-coated peanuts and looking at the cigarette lighter on the coffee table in front of me and the gas tank to my left.
The rain has let up... Hah, surprise! I unlocked and opened the sliding doors, expecting to be right on the street, and I was in an entryway with a garage-type metal door that I don't know how to open.
Isaiah had a great time last night playing with his second cousins once removed. I suspect they thought he was the cutest kid in the world as he ran and danced nonstop. I can hear him waking up now. I dread watching him here. I like to childproof, then let the child do whatever he wants. Chinese child-rearing is more controlling.
It's hard to imagine what a small child is thinking when he's inundated by so much that's new. Isaiah is out of control right now, his actions more sudden and aggressive. And hard to imagine what it will be like in three days, when his parents disappear, and he doesn't know when or if they're coming back.
I just heard noises, heard the garage door opening, and thought, oh no, Masa went to the park without me and she's already coming back. But it was her husband.
...I took a walk alone, carefully orienting myself. After all, it's very easy to leave a new place and not know where to find it when you want to get back. I did that once, 42 years ago in Prague. I've never done it again.
...Since I got up at 3 AM, I've walked, found my way back, written, talked with Masa's husband, visited Pauline's grandmother, and now we're headed for a temple in a village an hour away. Vertical election banners flutter from every available pole. Pauline pointed out the isolated neon-lit booths occupied by scantily-clad girls selling betel nuts along the highway. "They're trying to attract the men, especially truck drivers," she said.
I'll bet that explains a surreptitious exchange I observed when we arrived at Grandma's house. Masa's husband removed something that looked like a blob of candy from a package and handed it to Pauline's uncle who slipped it into his pocket while Masa's husband put the original pack back into his pocket. Then they both took out cigarettes, as if all they were doing was smoking.
"Was it green?" Pauline asked.
"I know part of it was white."
"Yes, they're white on the inside."
As a little girl, she hated going out alone at night to buy her grandma and grandpa their betel nuts.
...It's only 7:30 PM, and I'm exhausted. It's special to come to a culture on the other side of the world and find ourselves part of an extended family. And the past twenty-four hours have been one long family party. Her family didn't want Pauline to marry a foreigner. Though those feelings may still exist, everyone hid them. Anyway, we're a novelty. And they've probably fallen in love with Isaiah. Masa's brother's fifteen-year-old son, Jeremy, spent last night and much of today as Isaiah's entertainment committee.
Masa's husband was a school janitor until he retired two years ago. He now spends his days raising rice, peanuts, and vegetables on a plot of land right outside of Hu Wei that he and his siblings inherited from their father. There's no particular growing season for his crops, but he does alternate between rice and peanuts on the paddy section of the land. Apart from missing the routine of a regular job, he likes this more. He uses pesticides, too bad. But where on earth don't they? Pesticides are one more layer of pollution landing on all that's eaten. He uses "very little" on the vegetables, but what's very little to someone who smokes?
The barber is poised to cut Adolph's hair. A haircut is not merely a haircut, perhaps because this morning's Qi Gong teacher is the barber. First she gave me a shampoo and head massage. Then she rinsed my hair in a small back room as I relaxed on a reclining chair. We returned to the front of the shop for a back, shoulder, and arm massage. She banged my back with the sides of her hands and pulled my fingers before she finally cut and dried my hair. After she massaged Adolph, she tried to tell him something about his hands and veins and shoulders. I'm sure it's nothing he'll be happy to hear. Well, he's tight in his shoulders, and he slouches. I'm always fighting the slouch in me.
...Pauline came into the barbershop to check on us. The barber had been trying to tell Adolph that his circulation is bad and the massage will help. Pauline says massage is always part of shampoos. Some people never wash their own hair; they go for a shampoo the way we might go to a chiropractor. At some barbershops in Taipei people don't get haircuts at all.
Eli, Pauline, Adolph, and Irene, Pauline's half-sister, who's an English major, all went to the doctor with Isaiah. There was no room in the car for me. That's why I have time to write. Irene took a two-week vacation from college, so we'll have someone to interpret after all!
When we went to that Buddhist temple yesterday we traveled in three cars, an entourage of fourteen. Isaiah slept in his car seat all the way there. It was raining as usual. Pilgrims streamed up a main street lined with food vendors. Buns, fruits, meats, deep-fried sweet potato pancakes: we ate our way up to an ornately carved temple crowded with worshippers holding bouquets of incense sticks. Pauline's family went there to pray; we went to look.
After that we drove to a second, smaller temple, propped up in spots by tree-sized poles because of damage from last fall's earthquakes. Then we started back. Isaiah was crying, and we weren't sure why, perhaps because he understands that he can no longer suck his thumb, and he has no substitute. He shows no interest in the pacifier Eli and Pauline bought him, except to toss it back and forth over his shoulder. The whole trip back he was miserable. He bit his hand; he took his shoes and socks off and brought his big toe towards his mouth. We stopped to change his diaper, it was dry. I was afraid the new car seat irritated his crotch, glad Pauline had the responsibility for taking care of him and not I, not yet. His mood brightened for a moment when Jeremy stuck his head in the window to say hello to him.
Adolph and I both expected to go back to Masa's to nap, but our destination was Grandma's house and dinner.
6 AM, and I'm not going to tai chi because Eli and Pauline leave early this morning. They said the Chinese don't childproof, they just watch their children every minute, and we can't keep telling Pauline's family this is dangerous, that is dangerous. We have to break them in gradually.
Of course Isaiah is not a Chinese child. He's not tightly controlled, isn't carried around constantly. When Chinese children are put down, they behave. We took a long walk last night, baby in stroller. I doubt I'll be taking Isaiah on any walks. There are no sidewalks, cars are parked right up to plate glass, and pedestrians weave in and out of moving cars and motorcycles. The stroller almost got hit once because cars cut in front of us to make right turns and the view of the stroller was blocked by Eli, who was pushing it.
Everyone is worried we'll be bored. My only concern is Isaiah's well-being. I'm never bored, especially in the midst of such an exotic culture.
People here control their animals even more than their children. Masa and her husband have a large white dog tied up across the street on a short rope twenty-four hours a day. No one walks him nor unties him nor brings him into the house. Eli said they probably wanted a dog, then didn't know what to do with it. At Grandma's house two dogs live in tiny cages, a dozen doves in a larger cage, geese in another one, and a chipmunk in a cage so small that all he can do for exercise is nonstop backward somersaults. It's not cruelty. It's the misguided human attitude that animals were put on earth only to feed and entertain us.
Grandma's home is half house, half clothing factory, with huge piles of vest pieces, cut from pink and red flannel, and of completed vests. I went down a hall thinking it led to a master bedroom, and it didn't. It led to an open area, a kitchen in one corner, parked motorcycles, a truck, and clothing piles occupying the rest of the space. Seamstresses came in and out of a large workshop. We ate in the kitchen around a circular table loaded with plates of shrimp, squid, tofu, spinach, bok choy, soup made with a fresh-caught fish, sliced cow's stomach, pig intestines in pig blood. "No, no, you don't want that," Pauline warned whenever we reached for the wrong dish.
The shrine occupies an entire room, altar on one end with Buddhas, gong, cymbals, and other instruments, floor covered by tatami mats, piles of pink vests on the left side of the room, a sofa on the right.
Pauline had told us that when they left Hu Wei last year, her grandma, who's eighty-two, was very upset, sure she'd never see Pauline again. I knew she was the person Pauline most wanted to see this trip, since each time could be the last. I didn't know how much the grandma cared. That explains her intense attachment to us, especially to me, as if she were silently saying "Thank God she's in good hands."
She and I walked arm in arm when we visited the temples, and later, when we toured the garden of potted plants on the large paved area in front of her house, a kumquat bush, bonsais, flowers. In the living room she sat next to me on the couch. She spoke to Adolph and me in Japanese, assuming that since we spoke neither Taiwanese nor Mandarin, that's what we would understand. When it was time to leave, she clutched my hand and asked me to spend the night.
Eli and Pauline are waking up now, and I feel terrible for Isaiah. Yesterday morning Masa and I did make it to the park. Although she'd said there was none, the group next to us was doing tai chi. I wanted to learn the new form, but I knew Masa expected me to do Qi Gong with her. The Qi Gong was graceful, but it entailed back stretches and knee bends which I shouldn't do, nor did I want to. I wanted to do tai chi. The Qi Gong teacher came up to me, our faces a foot apart, to give me a close-up view, inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth, breath abdominally. However I was thinking about tai chi, wondering how I could do it without hurting Masa's feelings. Then the Qi Gong was over, and the tai chi was still going on. So I joined in, and Masa went to her dancing. They were doing the 24. Some knew it well, some didn't know it at all, and no one was in time to the music. Then they did the new form very slowly, and it was easy to follow. Afterwards I went to the dancing, women only, doing folk dances, Greek and Russian circle dances, then mambo, then tango, always specific steps, sometimes simple and sometimes fancy footwork, clap your hands, link elbows and whirl around, in sync, never any improvisation. I felt like an oaf, all those tiny feet in dancing shoes and my clodhopper tennis shoes, all those lithe bodies and my 140-pounder, all the dark hair, and my white-blond, all the people who knew more or less what they were doing, and my foundering footfall. I enjoyed it for awhile, but soon was waiting for it to be over. After forty-five minutes I stood aside and refused to do anything more.
Everything's tricky. Was I hurting Masa's feelings when I did tai chi instead of Qi Gong? When I left her without a partner at dancing? When we went shopping and I offered to pay for the vegetarian buns, coffee, and fruit?
Eli and Pauline left three hours ago. They made it clear to Isaiah that they were leaving for awhile, and he wailed. Adolph and I tried to console him, but I felt like crying, too, for him. Masa came inside and reached for him, but he ran away. She grabbed him, picked him up, brought him outside, and he stopped crying immediately. How nice! Adolph and I went for a two-hour walk.
Eight days minus fourteen hours since we left home. What happens to the concepts of early and late when I awaken at 4 AM, and it's 2 PM in Milwaukee? Eight days minus fourteen hours, time's onrush enveloping me. I grab bits and pieces of events with my pen, the rest continues upstream, becoming part of my life but not part of my journal. Isaiah's cheek is infected from a mosquito bite, another round of antibiotics. I lost part of a filling, and the sharp edge makes my tongue sore. But I'll go to a dentist only if I absolutely have to.
Yesterday's walk led Adolph and me to a school. The outside wall was designed to look like a castle. Inside the gate a half dozen 5-year-olds, peacefully blowing bubbles, were excited to see us. They joined forces and pushed the gate open for us to enter. The school, run by a Jesus Saves sect, was for 5, 6, and 7-year-olds. The teacher asked about our religion, and I told her we're Jewish. That seemed acceptable, maybe even interesting. From the courtyard I could see that the Christian school was back to back with the elegantly carved roof of a Buddhist temple.
I exclaimed, "Ooh, look at that!"
The teacher said, "That's evil."
Sure she was having a language problem, I said, "Evil means bad."
But that's what she meant. "They believe in a different god."
Onrush of bits and pieces. At dinner last night I asked Irene if Isaiah behaves differently from Chinese children, and she said, "Yes, he likes to eat by himself."
Pauline had told me it's hard for Masa to walk, so I suggested she ride her motorcycle to the park this morning, and I walked alone. That made it easier to go directly to tai chi. No Qi Gong and no dancing for me. When tai chi was over, I wandered through the park until I found another tai chi group to join.
Later. We're at an art class with Pauline's youngest auntie, Jasmine, and her husband, Lucas. The instructor, surrounded by six adult students, is giving a lecture. There's a still life set up near him, four of the world's fattest carrots on a grey cloth. He draws ten squares on the paper mounted on his easel. Now he draws triangles, circles, X's, and lines in the squares and writes in Chinese. I don't know what he's doing. Maybe he's diagramming the carrots, a concept that makes me want to burst out laughing.
He turns the paper on its side and upside down to indicate, I think, that it doesn't work any other way...Maybe this has nothing to do with carrots. Maybe he's there and the carrots are there, unrelated. I think he's talking about depth and about the image expanding beyond the page. I see two different palettes waiting to be used by two different students, yet the oil paints are squeezed out in equal amounts and in exactly the same order on both of them.
Adolph is sculpting Jasmine, and I've been talking to Susan, a 36-year-old woman who is designing a pot. Now the painting instructor wants to do a portrait of me, so I have to stop writing.
...I never did find out what the instructor was demonstrating; I do know that the Chinese approach to art is so different from ours that I was amazed when he drew a very alive portrait of me. Adolph said, "He got the giggle underneath." He gave me the portrait, and I bravely offered to draw him. Despite my rustiness, it turned out well. So I continued. Both he and I drew Lucas. Then I drew Jasmine while she posed for Adolph.
Jasmine and Lucas took several of us out for lunch. All the dishes were placed near Adolph and me. I complained that no one else was eating much. They said they had plenty, the food was mainly for us. I was very aware that if we emptied a dish, that might indicate there wasn't enough. If we left too much, that might indicate we didn't like it.
Before we went back to Hu Wei, the pottery instructor gave Adolph clay for sculpting Masa and her husband. But Masa refused to let him. She said he could do it only if they were dead, or if they were gods. Instead he'll sculpt Jeremy and Irene.
We're now in a teahouse. I'm sipping rosebud tea, the center of the transparent teapot filled with petals. Adolph's sipping lotus tea. When we left, we told Masa we'd take a walk, sit in a teahouse, eat at a restaurant, and go to the movies. She's been feeding us so well, we thought she should have time off. But things aren't that simple. I hope our going out to dinner won't make her think her food isn't good enough. For lunch and dinner we eat fresh greens and eggplant from her husband's plot, chicken, tofu, squid, bean sprouts, fish ball soup, and turnip cakes.
Last night Adolph and I expected to go out for dinner since Masa, Irene, and Isaiah had gone to a wedding. Masa's husband was home when we were ready to leave at 5 PM. He pretended to eat and then pointed at the clock. Uh oh, maybe he wanted us for dinner after all. I was afraid that if we said we'd return at 7 or 8 o'clock, we'd eat at a restaurant and come back to find a full meal waiting. I indicated we'd be back at 6. He made a frantic phone call and I thought maybe he didn't want us back after all.
We took a walk, returned at 6, he was still there with no dinner prepared. I walked my fingers along the desk and turned a few corners to indicate we'd take another walk, showed him we'd eat, and then I walked my fingers back. He made another phone call, but seemed okay with our leaving. We wandered around looking at toys for Isaiah, peeking into restaurant windows, enjoying Hu Wei's main street, which is a conglomeration of vehicles and humans intermixed. I'm getting used to it, for me. I still wouldn't take Isaiah for a walk.
Suddenly we heard someone calling our names, and there was Jeremy, yelling from across the street. What a coincidence, I thought. Except it wasn't a coincidence.
It was Pauline's uncle that Masa's husband kept trying to reach. He was supposed to cook dinner for us but was waiting for Jeremy to get home from cram school. When Jeremy arrived, they cruised around in their van looking for us! Well, they found us, and they whisked us back to the house to eat.
"Vote for me and life will be better." Here's a cavalcade of trucks with loudspeakers and men dressed in white, trying to get people to vote for the #2 party. The parties are numbered, like Pauline's aunties. Jasmine is #11 auntie. The independence party is party #5.
The election is in two days. I asked Susan, the potter, whom she was voting for. She said she didn't like anyone. "The #1 party candidate comes from privilege and doesn't understand that there are still poor people in Taiwan who need help. The #2 party candidate is a demagogue. The #5 party candidate has no reason to use the word independence. It only antagonizes China and basically Taiwan is independent already. This is a middle-class society which has no desire to become one with China, but he doesn't have to say it."
"Are the Taiwanese are afraid of China?"
"Yes, we're afraid of their missiles. But at least there'd be some warning beforehand, there'd be negotiations. I'm more afraid of the earthquakes. There's no warning at all. Two thousand people were killed last September."
"Who do you think will win the election?"
"It's evenly divided at the moment." That surprised me. I thought party #5 didn't have a chance! Despite China's threats, that's whom Susan will probably vote for. I wonder how China would react if it wins.
A political science major who taught high school for ten years, Susan is now a "housewife and mother." She and the art teacher wondered how we teach art in Western culture. Adolph said, "I don't teach how to paint something, I help students find their own way to paint it."
...A truck with a loudspeaker campaigning for party #1 is passing by.
Last night when I was washing up for bed, I noticed my eyelids and the area under my eyes were purple. Oh God, what now? I decided to ask the doctor about it when we brought Isaiah there this morning, but this morning the purple was almost gone.
Isaiah's appointment was a follow-up for the infection on his cheek. He's now on still another round of antibiotics. At least his thumb is better. The hospital is a mob scene, parents carrying babies that look like they were plucked out of Chinese prints. Parents walk freely into the doctor's office with their kids, undress them, and talk to the doctor in conveyor belt fashion. When I noticed the doctor using stainless steel tongue depressors, I watched her carefully to make sure she kept the used ones separate. She did.
Adolph dropped our clock at 5:07 AM. I definitely did not feel like getting up to do tai chi. The clock still said 5:07 when I left at 6 AM. I did several forms with the first tai chi group, two more with the second. In the afternoon I walked the same route with Masa, Irene, Adolph, and Isaiah. We ran into a man who recognized me from tai chi and told Irene I should ask the master to help me. Hmmm, bad sign. I thought I knew the 24 pretty well.
Pauline had said that the first tai chi group is a class that costs 600 NT... Party #2 is blaring past in a caravan of three or four vehicles. Tomorrow is election day; I hope the next day isn't missile day.
Or should I be more afraid of earthquakes? While Adolph and I were in a children's clothing store last night, the ground began to shake and kept on shaking. I felt a moment of panic, realized I wasn't sure what to do, thought of running into the street. The shopkeeper grabbed her telephone. Maybe she was calling to complain about a heavy vehicle or an SST.
A little later I tried to ask a different shopkeeper if there had been an earthquake. He drew what could have been a map and made two X's. He seemed to be saying it was a truck. Still the ground seemed a lot less stable than it had earlier in the day. As I write, I'm noticing the vibrations of every passing vehicle on the teahouse floorboards. Damn, I just ate all the fried noodles that came with my rosebud tea. I should have had more self-control, but it's hard when it's right here in front of me.
All the homes in the area have entryways that open right onto the street with a sliding metal door that resembles a garage door. The entryway is a kind of garage, often containing motorcycles or cars, but also chairs, tables, dressers. Masa's has two sewing machines, two motorcycles, and a couple of chairs; it's their porch. At the back of these entries are sliding screen doors and sliding glass doors, so basically the whole facade is open, at least to passing observers, and to cars, which can pull right into the living room, not the ideal place to park. At least one family on the block does just that. And every home we pass has the TV on in the evening.
I knew Pauline comes from a large family with lots of aunties. I didn't know it's a close family nor did I expect to like the family members as much as I do. I didn't know her mother and half-sister would be so vigilant with Isaiah, nor that they'd so willingly take on the child care responsibilities. I was afraid they'd go out frequently and leave us with Isaiah in their house of baby pitfalls.
The French music in the background here functions as a lullaby for me. Water gurgles into a gigantic ceramic bowl of swimming fish; two exotic caged birds chirp. The teahouse interior is wood, with dark beams; through the window I can see a tropical courtyard. People walk to the rear, leave their shoes outside sliding doors, then disappear into private cubicles. My pot of rosebud tea steams over a flickering candle.
Last night we bought an electronic translator, and the salesman set the menu in English. I type a word and hope the right Chinese word pops onto the screen. I'll try it with my second tai chi group. They're anxious to communicate.
It bothered me that the first tai chi group is a class and I was free-loading, so yesterday I went up to the master and took some money out of my pocket. The other students rushed over, "No money, no money," and laughed. ...Adolph is telling me that my right eye looks swollen and I should go to an eye doctor. I probably should also go to a dentist. I don't plan to do either.
In the first tai chi group, everyone's movements are relatively in sync, though their levels of experience vary. A couple of loose-limbed younger men move with a flourish, tai chi as performance art. The one directly in front of me is surely aware it's his movements I follow, a bit of older-woman-younger-man chemistry that makes life more interesting. Certainly there's nothing like that in the ragtag second group, a strange mixture of five or six people who do tai chi under and around the trees, never in sync. The master is a funny-looking old man whose movements are short and controlled, more suggested than actually taking place. Though they know almost no English, someone managed to say, "Come back tomorrow."
Since many Americans do tai chi these days, it's probably not unusual for an occasional traveler to join in in Taipei. In Hu Wei there aren't any foreigners around. I've seen only one other person who could be.
....I had four pots of tea and Adolph had about two before we finally left the teahouse to embark on a search for new reading glasses. We'd walked pretty far when the tea began to take effect. As I selected a watermelon at a fruit stand, I said to Adolph, "Let's buy this and then go back. I've gotta pee," to which he replied, "You, too?" In fact he couldn't wait, so I tried my "Ce zuo zai nar?" routine, which people always understand in China. They don't in Taiwan. Finally I typed "toilet" on my electronic translator, and in that instant, it became worth the $107 we paid for it.
Irene's sister is home from college for the weekend, scattering medications, cosmetics, and everything else in her suitcase on the floor where Masa, Irene, and Isaiah have been sleeping. I followed her around and placed all the dangers out of Isaiah's reach.
I told her her Chinese name sounds like the English name Charlene. She liked that, so I had the honor of naming her.
Masa, her husband, Irene, Charlene, Adolph, Isaiah, and I all went together to the college across the street today. It was very much like voting back home, streams of people coming and going, separate booths for privacy. Each person brought a pink slip with him and had to show an I.D. at the door of the room in which his ward voted.
Eli and Pauline called us from the Canton airport yesterday. Eli is vomiting and feverish and has diarrhea but won't go to a doctor. It's hard when you're away. I don't trust the doctor Isaiah went to. She gave him cold medicine for a slight runny nose in addition to the antibiotic. Isaiah was wound up last night, moving nonstop, climbing, rolling, sitting, standing, squirming, still going strong at 11 PM. I thought he might be reacting to the cold medicine and told Irene to stop giving it to him.
Adolph has a sore throat, but otherwise is fine. He's on a reading binge, four books in eight days after several years of reading almost nothing. Of course there's no English-language TV, two big sets but even CNN is in Chinese. In fact we have no idea what's going on in the world. We haven't yet found an English-language newspaper.
As we walked along the street yesterday, an Englishwoman approached us and asked why we're here. She said only a half dozen foreigners live in Hu Wei. She's been here a month, teaching at the American School, where neither the teachers nor students are American.
Jasmine and Lucas picked us up at 4 PM yesterday. A few blocks later, they pulled up behind another car, consulted with the other driver, then told Adolph and me to get into the other car. I thought it was very strange, till I found out why. They know I do tai chi and wanted me to meet Waiting Lion and Joy, who are very serious about tai chi. Waiting Lion said she'd been fat and tai chi helped her lose a lot of weight. We stopped at an aboriginal monastery in the mountains, and while we waited for Jasmine and Lucas to arrive, Joy and I did the 24. Afterwards I said, "You can tell me what I'm doing wrong." The answer in their eyes was: a lot. They suggested I do tai chi with them every morning. There are only five students and two masters.
We all went to Mei Wei's modern home on a mountainside. I assumed we'd have dinner together, but around 6:30 I noticed Mei Wei was very upset, and I thought, oh, we're leaving before dinner, and she wants us to stay. That all goes to show how far off I can be when I don't know the language. Her state of mind had nothing to do with us nor with dinner. It was the election results! Chen, candidate #5 of the independence party, the party that had no chance, the party China fears, was the big winner.
"It's very scary," said Mei Wei, "He bought all his votes. He was mayor of Taipei, but he hasn't had national or international experience." Mei Wei's husband said Chen wants to bring back Taiwanese culture and get rid of Chinese culture. Her husband's father came here from China with Chang Kai Shek. Her husband and his father don't like China's government, but their hearts are Chinese...
Later. After fifty years, the Kuomintang suddenly is no longer the party in power. The country's vibrating with excitement. After dinner at Mei Wei's, where party #5 was the enemy, we went to two victory celebrations where everyone was ecstatic.
Doug called from Taipei this morning and asked if we'd felt the earthquake on Thursday night. So that WAS an earthquake, not a truck rumbling past. I should have known. It lasted long enough to be a fleet of trucks. Eleven days, one earthquake, and one electoral upset.
There were four voters at Mei Wei's dinner table, three different votes. Lucas was the only party #5 supporter. He was anxious to celebrate, and there was no celebration at Mei Wei's. His omnipresent cell phone rang several times. Half the people in Taiwan have pocket-size versions, constantly ringing, some with special melodies. We three women agreed that they're extremely annoying. However I was glad for Lucas' calls. They were invitations to victory parties.
We went to a teahouse. In the back room about twenty young people sat around a large table drinking beer and tea and snacking on tofu squares, dried blood squares, pistachios, peanuts, and seaweed. They sang, gave speeches, and cheered loudly. A woman was fascinated by my electronic translator, changed the menu from English to Chinese, then couldn't get it back to English. For the next half hour she was pressing buttons, trying to undo the damage.
Once she succeeded, we went to a private home. About thirty people, mostly male, sat in a rec room filled with golf trophies. They drank beer, wine, and fresh-squeezed orange juice, chatted excitedly, and every now and then glanced at a giant video screen at the far end of the room.
One of the guests lives in Pasadena and has dual citizenship. He'd come to Taiwan the day before to vote, the first time in twenty years he's voted here, and he was going back to the States the next day. He said thousands of people came back to vote, 90 or 95% of them for party #5, the candidate of the people, a man who cares about social justice. Seventy-five percent of the Taiwanese electorate voted. He personally had expected #5 to win, but not by such a big margin. The other two candidate were very rich, this man comes from humble beginnings.
"Someone said to me that he bought his votes," I commented.
"How could he buy millions of votes? It's the other two who bought their votes, they're the rich ones."
Yesterday morning Joy and Waiting Lion picked me up at 5:50. There were the three of us and the two tai chi masters. We did the 24 three times, then Joy showed me what I do wrong. When I transfer my weight, the transfer should be very obvious, then I should turn my body. The movement of my body should move my arms. I should be careful to stand straight, body relaxed but not out of control. I began to feel there was nothing I do correctly. Joy has studied only eight months, yet the way he moves is the way I should be moving. And getting to move that way seemed like a damned long journey. Part of me wanted to never again do tai chi.
Afterwards they invited me to have breakfast with them and their master, Wu Sir. I couldn't say no, though what I wanted was my bowl of muesli with bananas and raisins at Masa's.
We drove to a fast food American restaurant, and they asked me if I wanted a ham and egg sandwich on white bread or pancakes. I thought, wow, they think they have to get American food for me, and I said, "I'll have something Chinese, like buns." I didn't realize they were ordering out, that their computer graphics office was in the same building, and that's where they planned to eat. They ordered American junk food for themselves and Joy went running to get me something Chinese. He came back with a cup of hot soy milk and deep-fried crullers wrapped in a deep-fried crepe. As we sat and talked, I broke off tiny cruller bits, which tasted like grease, and looked longingly at their ham and eggs on white. I could barely swallow the little I ate. Before I left I forced myself to say the cruller was very good, but I don't eat much for breakfast. Then I went back and had my muesli.
Maybe they thought that after the food faux pas, I wouldn't show up this morning. Of course I did. After doing the 24 three times, Joy started to teach me the 37, just the first few movements. If I can get that right, it'll apply to everything else. I felt like a clod. Transfer weight, rear foot pivoting, then turn body slightly. Raise arms slowly, as if they're floating. Move as if I'm swimming. Make sure all parts of the body are properly aligned.
Wu Sir came later; he brought a videotape of the 37, in English, for Joy to copy for me. He asked me to show him what I'd just learned, exactly what I wasn't prepared to do, but did anyway. He aligned my body, adjusting my hips, my legs, my shoulders. After that he told me to push him and see how relaxed his body is, that it's like pushing nothing. Then he wanted me to relax my body so he could push me. I thought I wasn't relaxed enough, but afterwards Joy asked if I'm a dancer. Waiting Lion and another woman each pulled up a plant and showed me the roots, to indicate that my feet are firmly rooted to the ground and it's hard to push me over. They said I'm very strong.
"I swim and bike and walk and I did yoga every day before I got involved with tai chi," I told them.
"That's why your body is so free." I guess I wasn't quite the clod I felt I was. Too bad I have only three days left to work with them.
Yesterday was a hot and sunny Sunday. At 10:30 AM we set out for auntie #4's house in a village an hour away, Masa's brother driving his van, Masa's husband driving their car. Grandma insisted I go with her in the van. She held my hand most of the way, comparing our fingers, telling Jeremy that she couldn't talk to me because we speak different languages. Of course she did have Jeremy to interpret. Though he hasn't studied long, Jeremy speaks English very well. He studies it at cram school twice a week.
Dinner began immediately. Most of the adults sat at a large round table in the kitchen, some stayed with the children in a spacious living room dominated by several black leather couches and a photographic mural of a waterfall.
After dinner the caravan set out again, for a mountain park next to a river. It sounds nice, but wasn't. There were no trees, just a few canopies for shade on this tropical Sunday. Adolph, Jeremy, and I sat with Isaiah in a slice of shadow while everyone else strolled. Jeremy ran all over trying to keep Isaiah out of the sun and away from ledges, the river, and the road. We were delighted when it was time to leave. Then someone asked if we wanted to walk or ride to a bridge about a half mile away. "We'd love to take a walk, but Isaiah shouldn't be in the sun, and neither should we." We put Isaiah into the car seat, and Masa's husband drove the three of us as far as the bridge, then parked and motioned for us to get out. We refused.
"Isaiah can't have any more sun," I repeated, and pointed to his red face. I told Adolph to give Isaiah some water, and he drank every drop in the bottle. Masa's husband left us in the car. Eventually he returned and tried to get us out again. We again refused.
"We're on strike," I said to Adolph.
I worried as we waited and waited and waited. Finally I got out, found Jeremy, and asked him to get Isaiah more water. Jeremy, the only other person who recognized that Isaiah should stay out of the sun, brought us water and a box of tissues and made cold compresses to wipe Isaiah's face, which by then was beet red. Isaiah grabbed the wet wad, divided it, and held one half on the right side and the other on the left side of his face.
We're on our way back from buying tickets at the train station in a neighboring town. Adolph and I have only three days left in Hu Wei, then Isaiah's on his own.
Those betel nut booths seem bizarre. During the day they blend into the landscape, at night they add a garish quality to the countryside. As we drove past one just now, a buxom, scantily clad woman walked out of her booth, a mini-skirt surrounded by rice paddies. No one wears shorts or tank tops, yet here are these women...
The first time we were in Taiwan, I was intrigued by the unexpected Buddhist temples that thrust passersby on busy Taipei streets into mysterious worlds of carved monsters and Buddhas, gongs, drums, and incense. Here in Hu Wei, the religiosity is even more evident. At night we can see that almost every house has a room set aside for a shrine. Today most stores and homes have an altar table in front with offerings of fruit and sweets, and a large metal can with flames leaping out. People feed imitation money to the fire for deities in the other world, hoping they'll answer their prayers.
Pauline called and said Eli is fine. His food poisoning lasted only a day, one less thing to worry about.
On Sunday at auntie #4's house, the TV showed scenes of riots. We asked where they were, and someone said Japan. The whole family watched as the sirens and rioting continued uninterrupted. It seemed strange that everyone was so interested in Japan. Of course it was a miscommunication: the riots are in Taipei.
...I'm writing in the entryway, and Masa just came out. She's putting cookies, candy, watermelon, bananas, and star fruit on an altar table about a meter wide.... We bought some of the fruit, so maybe we, too, are praying. Now I'll find out whether the offerings remain there until they rot. Masa waves lighted incense in the air, then sticks it into the fruit and the bag of cookies, not into the watermelon. She brings out the paper money.
As I was washing dishes this morning, I said to Adolph, "The major pollutant in houses after the toilet is the sponge in the kitchen sink." A little later he said to me, "Masa must have heard you. She bought enough sponges to last ten years," and he pointed to the tannish stacks in the corner. I took a closer look and saw it was paper, not sponges, enough for a hundred years of phone messages. However I see now it's not for messages. It's the imitation money burnt for the gods, and it's on the altar table. Smoke from the incense curls over the fruit and cookies and candy and paper. We leave in three days. Will the fruit still be on the table? I was figuring on those bananas for breakfast.
On last night's TV news a Kuomintang leader was hit in the face by a flying egg over and over and over again. Rioters repeatedly broke the same car's windshield with sticks, possibly flagpoles. Police in riot gear turned their hoses on protesters; protesters threw eggs and cans at police. Reporters interviewed emotional participants, battered victims, Kuomintang leaders. We watched for an hour though we couldn't understand a word. We did know the rioters were members of the Kuomintang demanding that their leaders resign because they lost the election so badly. We filled in details by reading the Taiwan Post. That was a major accomplishment yesterday: we finally found out where to buy an English-language newspaper.
Masa's husband arrived on his motorcycle and is chatting with someone seated near the little store next door. Now he places a can about two feet high in front of Masa's altar table. Masa comes out, wearing a pink shirt, black gloves with fluffy red trim, black dress slacks, high heels, and a motorcycle helmet. She gets on her cycle and takes off.
...I went upstairs, came down an hour or two later, the offerings to the gods were no longer there. So I guess I'll be eating my bananas after all.
We're staying at Masa's a total of thirteen nights. She cooks lunch and dinner for us almost every day, and we bought cereal, milk, bananas, raisins, and Nescafe for our breakfasts. When we try to figure out what to do in return for her hospitality, we hit dead ends. At Pauline's suggestion, we brought her several bottles of chewable vitamins from the States, hardly sufficient for all she's done. Last night I drew portraits of both Masa and her husband, and Adolph did a sculpture of Irene. We tried to invite them out to dinner, but Masa said that would be embarrassing. Almost anything we thought of could be construed as an insult, an implication that what they had wasn't good enough. Then we thought, they have a washing machine and clothes lines on the roof, but no dryer. It seems we've finally figured out a gift.
While we were at the art class today, Masa, at my request, found a dryer. When we got back, Irene and Isaiah were napping, so with the help of my electronic translator I asked her the price. She told me 7000 NT. I took out the money. She wouldn't touch it. She, her husband, Adolph, and I drove across town to a household appliance shop. The owner sat us down on stools and poured us tea. Two men carried the dryer out to show it to us. Since Pauline had warned me that some just spin dry, I made sure it actually had heating elements. Then I asked Masa if that was the dryer she wanted. I paid for it, they put it into a truck, and the truck and dryer followed our car to Masa's house where the poor driver, carrying the dryer on his back, crashed it right into the front door, which wasn't rolled all the way up. The man and the dryer remained intact. The door fell apart. Oh God, we try to do a favor and it turns into a disaster!
Masa's husband immediately reinstalled the door.
Adolph did a great sculpture of Lucas today in the pottery room. In the painting room everyone was painting the same still life with flowers in exactly the same way. Even though the real flowers were arranged in a vase, there was also a painting of the vase of flowers for the students to copy.
1 AM. I had too much green tea in the afternoon, not caffeine-free, first after lunch at the piano teacher's house, then when buying the dryer.
There's a definite problem in this country about saying no. There's tradition. When everyone sits around a table drinking tea, it's not nice to refuse. There's politeness. I had that problem this afternoon. Susan and Jasmine were sure I wanted to see the important landmarks in town in a car, and I couldn't convince them I just wanted to take a walk.
That was my fault. So she wouldn't think I was leaving out of boredom, I'd warned Jasmine ahead of time that while Adolph was sculpting Lucas, I'd wander around the town. She immediately asked Susan to drive me, and Susan was eager to take me to see the town bridge. Or maybe she wasn't. Maybe she wanted to work on her pot but felt she should entertain me.
Although it did seem to be the town's obsession, the long, 47-year-old bridge did not particularly interest me, until I tried to find the river it spanned. I discovered there no longer was one. It had dried up and was now a series of farm plots on which local squatters grow vegetables. Most of the country's produce is grown here in central Taiwan, giant cabbages, greens, garlic, rice, sugar cane, corn, pineapple, soy beans. Susan told me the village is known for its soy sauce.
After the bridge, we went to a 180-year-old temple, less ornate than modern ones, and talked to the custodian much longer than I cared to. Finally Susan said, "It's 12:15. I wonder if they're still waiting for you."
"What time did Jasmine tell you to be back?"
"At noon. But if they already left for lunch, you'll come home and have lunch with me."
"I'm sure they're waiting," I snapped. There was no reason for us to get back late, except Susan wanted me to have lunch with her.
Actually only Jasmine was still there. Susan dropped us off at the piano teacher's house and went home for lunch without me. The pottery teacher, the painting teacher, Adolph, Lucas, and about a half dozen other people had all been sitting around, waiting to dig into an elegant feast, while Susan chatted with the temple custodian.
Last week Susan said she'd vote for the least of three evils, probably Candidate #5, and that's whom she ended up voting for. She said the people of this middle-class, farming region voted heavily for #5, a man with humble beginnings. The election split families. Her father had warned her, "Don't come back home unless you voted for #5." So she would have told him she had, even if she hadn't.
...Despite our night of partying, I managed to drag myself out of bed when the alarm went off at 5:15 and make it to tai chi, as usual five minutes late. Time disappears for me early in the morning, at home or away. I operate in slow motion, a tendency I have at any time of day. Luckily I draw fast and write fast, so the creative aspects of my life get squeezed in. I'm excited that I finally am learning some tai chi basics that Jimmy doesn't communicate sufficiently, since he's not teaching one-on-one.
Joy and Wu Sir have been wonderful the past five mornings, two handsome young men going out of their way to set me on my way. Feet here, hands here, hips facing here, transfer weight, turn, motion comes from flank, body moves hands and arms. We've done the first minute of the 37 dozens of times.
I've often noticed how much the Chinese respect their teachers. Whenever someone says, "My teacher," he says it with reverence. After Joy and Waiting Lion introduced me to Wu Sir, Waiting Lion said to me, "We really like our teacher." I did, too.
Here teachers teach The Way, in the States they teach, hopefully, how to find your own way. The teachers I've met in Asia, at least when it comes to tai chi or qi gong, remind me of the tribal chieftains I've met in Africa. I sense a calmness, warmth, and wisdom. Then again, maybe it's all in my head.
Many Taiwanese have Email. When they see edu in my Email address, they immediately ask if I teach. They sometimes ask me anyway, when they learn I'm an artist.
Our art has been going well. Adolph has now done four sculptures, and I've done several portraits. I begin each drawing with a bit of trepidation. If I'm sufficiently relaxed about what I'm doing, my subject quickly appears on my paper with a minimum of lines. And looks alive, that's what counts.
We're on the train to Taipei. It was hard to say good-bye to Isaiah, even though I'll see him in two weeks. First his parents leave, then we leave. That's difficult for a two-year old, even one who's surrounded by adulation.
We're staying at the same hotel, lolling in the Jacuzzi before bed, watching CNN in English...
We each ate a vegetarian bun at a Chinese restaurant. Then we came here, to a Western-style fast-food coffee shop for coffee, preferring that to the hot soy milk available at our first stop. The woman at the next table is eating a fried egg sandwich on white bread, a hard-boiled egg on the side, while I try to orient my breakfast towards bringing down my cholesterol, coffee, cookie (oh well), and antioxidant vitamin and flax oil pills.
Someone is eating a hot dog for breakfast. The translation of American food into other cultures is comparable to our watching CNN in Chinese, or imitating tai chi without knowing what's going on inside.
I spent two hours at Chang Kai Shek Memorial Park today. The woman I met last time did the 24 three times with me, then the 42. Her tai chi master came at seven and did his graceful tai chi dance. I followed his foot patterns, and my arms somehow fell into place. Whether I was a swan or an ugly duckling, I loved it.
Whenever I do tai chi in Asia, I meet someone who seems to be in his 60's or early 70's, and turns out to be in his 80's. Three people today, 79, 80, and 83, surprised me. Tai chi is a fountain of youth. If it's done correctly.
Adolph and I have both been struck by the friendliness of the Taiwanese. In Hu Wei, we needed a taxi to bring home a suitcase we'd bought and asked the department store salesgirls where to get one. Giggling with delight, they asked a friend of theirs to drive us. When we were taking one last walk down the Hu Wei main street yesterday, a car passed us, parked in front of us, and a woman got out. She'd seen us walking along before but didn't have time to stop. She'd lived in Michigan for two years and knows there's nowhere in the States that's anything like Hu Wei. She was worried that we'd be afraid, walking in all that traffic.
Perhaps I haven't sufficiently described the traffic pattern, or lack of it. It's the worst I've ever experienced. There's no place for pedestrians although the streets are full of them. We have to walk between parked and moving vehicles, and I can't figure out the rules, if any, that guide the vehicles except that people usually drive on the right-hand side. We saw a policeman giving a motorcyclist a ticket, couldn't think of anything she might have done that would warrant one, and decided there must be a problem with her registration. After all, motorcyclists ride on the sidewalk, if there is one, ride on both the right and left-hand sides of the street, speed, go through red lights, cut in front of cars. What's left?
The pedestrian has to keep on moving in a straight line, and not veer, hesitate, stop, nor change direction. The driver figures you'll be out of his way by the time he gets to where you are.
We bought so many clothes and toys for our grandchildren, we now have four heavy suitcases. When we decided to take the train to Taipei, Irene was worried. She said the bus would be much easier with so much luggage. She underestimated her countrymen. People helped us getting on and off the train, and a woman even helped carry our bags to a taxi stand when we got to Taipei.
...I'm sitting on the windowsill one flight up looking down into a narrow side street. Two women have been chatting for the past fifteen minutes, so intensely they haven't noticed me. A violin-maker works across the street at this level two buildings over. Cellos and violins hang on his balcony. A girl of about ten comes out of a store with a violin case strapped onto her back; her mother gets on a bike, almost falls over, straightens up. The girl climbs on over the rear wheel. The mother starts to pedal and, whoops, stops dead. The violin is bumping the wheel. It has to come off her back and sit between girl and mother. Toot! A couple of people press their backs against a parked car to let a green van pass. A cat's scratching itself on a balcony. Here come Doug and Xiao Hsien to pick us up.
Last night we toured the night streets with Doug, Xiao Hsien, and two of their friends. We wove through the night market packed with venders, motorcycles, and people and ended up in Snake Alley, fifteen years after our last visit. Now it feels like just another market, booths in long arcades instead of in the open air, just another market, but with its bizarre aspect: the snakes.
I was standing next to Xiao Hsien's classmate, Tina, and Adolph was pulling me away, "How can you watch this?" But I figured I came to Snake Alley to see what was going on, no matter how many winces crossed my brow. Tina and I squeezed into the crowd of spellbound men, women, and children gathered around a hawker who held a live snake by its neck. He gestured with the animal, opened its mouth, pulled on its tongue. I squirmed but made myself watch. Finally he slit the live snake down the middle, pulled out its heart and left it beating on the counter, pulled out its liver, then bled the snake into a pitcher of water and hung the carcass with a clip next to several other dead snakes. The heart continued to beat.
He emptied the liver bile into a small container of water and emptied the blood from the heart into the pitcher of watered-down blood. He poured the bloody water back and forth into another pitcher to make sure it was well mixed. Then he placed three shot glasses on a tray, filled one with diluted blood, filled another with diluted bile, and filled the third with a special wine. He placed a large bowl of snake soup on the tray. "The soup is very good," said Tina, who was giving me a vague play by play. "It's mostly men who drink the snake blood. They believe it will make them strong and give them better sex."
"So any man who drinks it is publicly admitting he's not happy with his sex life," I said. That didn't stop the old man who pushed through the crowd and sat down at a table in the restaurant behind us. The hawker brought him the tray, and he emptied each shot glass in one gulp. A younger man sat down at the table, and I could see the hawker preparing another tray. I could also see Adolph coming to drag me away.
From the snake arcade we went to the red light district where fifteen years ago we'd seen dozens of nubile prostitutes on display in tiny shops. There were only a few shops left, with young girls in everyday dress. The betel-nut sellers looked more like hookers than they did. Adolph was disappointed.
...We're scheduled to land in Los Angeles at 6:30 PM, though we left Taipei at 11:30 PM. We'll have five hours in the airport, then a four-hour trip to Milwaukee. I wanted to check on Isaiah before we left Taipei, but the language problem seemed like too much to deal with on a telephone. I also wondered about Irene and Masa. Isaiah, normally so sweet, was on a high energy roll, letting out ear-piercing shrieks, throwing things, banging into walls and doors. I imagine it's in part from the loss of a thumb to suck, in part from finding himself in a strange place cared for by unknown people, his parents merely voices on the phone, which he refuses to let go of when they call. And then there's all that doting.
We're already back eleven days. Eli, Pauline, and Isaiah are on their way home, on that long journey to wide open spaces, for certainly that's a major difference between here and there. Gaylord Nelson mentioned in a speech last Saturday that Taiwan has twenty million people in one fourth the living space of Wisconsin. No wonder there's no room for both people and vehicles. Too bad vehicles have the upper hand. No wonder rice paddies go right to the walls of buildings. Though Taiwan is relatively prosperous, it still has the famine diet that uses every edible part of the animal or plant. As I write this I think of Lucas popping a fish's eyeball into his mouth, of Masa cooking with the hardened stalks of greens that have bolted, of cow stomachs and pig intestines. There's no vacant land. Every empty lot contains garden plots when examined more closely. In Hu Wei, people have garden pots, pots alongside buildings, pots on roofs, Grandma's garden of pots on the asphalt in front of her house. The land distribution fascinates me, farmers, like Masa's husband, living in the connected buildings of the town and farming outside city limits.
With such a dense population, it's not surprising that garbage seems to occupy every available spot, not surprising that some people, though not as many as there were fifteen years ago, wear face masks outside.
The garbage and pollution make the tradition of removing shoes before entering the house even more important. At first I found it annoying; it's a nuisance to keep taking tennis shoes on and off. Then I began to appreciate the uncontaminated floors. Of course there is a slight obsession with cleanliness and order. The subway in Taipei was spotless, not even a piece of paper lying on the platforms nor in the trains. No eating nor drinking is allowed. Doug was once stopped for chewing gum. Outside the subway, outside the house, the street may be dirty and chaotic, but inside, everything's clean and ordered.
At Mei Wei's house we ate outside about fifteen feet from the kitchen. I sat on a bench near the door and watched the intriguing dance as people brought platters and plates from the kitchen to the table, sliding out of shoes and into slippers, out of slippers and into shoes.
Are people so ordered inside their heads? Not when they're protesting their Kuomintang leaders. Perhaps tradition is a form of order and control. By that token, it's easy to understand why Pauline's family didn't want her to marry a foreigner. I'm sure that's one of the reasons she was worried about our staying with them. But no prejudice showed, at least we didn't notice any. And everyone loved that little foreigner named Isaiah.