Saturday, June 02, 2007

Learning to Count (Taipei, 1989)

The Taoyuan International Airport was packed with people and smelled of garlic. For the first time in my life, I felt tall. It was Double Tenth Day, the national day of the Republic of China. On the eighteen-hour flight from New York, Dave and I had moved beyond xie xie, and could now also say "you're welcome" and "excuse me" in Mandarin.

We took a bus into downtown Taipei. I looked at the street signs and couldn't read them. My brain perceived the symmetry and elegance of the characters, and strained to go beyond form to meaning, but for now it was all appearance. I saw a Ronald McDonald statue with an arm open in welcome outside the familiar golden arches.

The first night, we slept on cots in the YMCA. The next morning a cockroach as big as a mouse scuttled across the floor. We set out for breakfast. We walked past a 7-11 and were drawn inside by the familiar logo, but inside everything was different - pots of eggs boiling in tea, pork buns wrapped in plastic, dried squid, and red bean drinks in cans. I was hungry and I bought a glazed bun that had a chunky greenish paste inside.

My skin felt sticky in the sub-tropical humidity. Because it was cheaper and more comfortable, we moved to the South Asia Hotel, furnished in purple and pink and in the red light district. We ignored the cries of women next door in the Australian filmmaker's room. Or maybe it was the cats yowling in the alley.

Dave and I rode down the elevator in the morning with a Filipina with hair askew and thick blue eyeshadow. We walked past the little tables where they'd serve pork noodle soup, and to the market stalls where stall owners were frying giant meat dumplings (guotie) on enormous pans. We'd get six or eight of them in a pink plastic bag.

When we bit into them, grease dripped down our chins. We'd practice saying the numbers in between bites. They were full of oil but they were good. They anchored us to the place. They made us love the whores we lived among. They made us know how to count to ten. At least we knew something. At least that.

To get anywhere else, the concierge downstairs had to write our destination on a piece of paper. Still a child, I'd hand it to our taxi driver, and off we'd go.

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