400 Words

At 20, I got on a plane and flew from Vermont to Taipei. I had the name of a cheap hotel and I took a cab there from the airport.

Neon lit the night city with its weird and garish light. Wooden shacks leaned against concrete buildings; people squatted on the narrow streets, eating spears of orange fruit and sipping cups of tea. Dark-haired toddlers were everywhere, wearing jackets so padded that their tiny arms stuck straight out.

When I got out of the cab, everyone stared. This was a long time ago; foreigners were few and far between in Taiwan. Toddlers looked up at me –way up– and screamed.

I felt like screaming, too. My Chinese was bad. I was filled with fear. What had I gotten myself into?

Once in my cinderblock room I realized that I was starving, with only fish-flavored crackers left over from the plane to eat. But I couldn’t force myself out of that room. There was a deep bathtub, like a shoebox turned on end, and I drew my knees up to my chest and stayed in it, more or less continually, for three whole days.

On the fourth day, I emerged. It wasn’t bravery that drew me forth, but starvation. At the front desk three Chinese men milled about, chattering softly in Mandarin. At the sight of me they too froze and stared. The giant white American girl.

Nimen hao,” I said. “Wo feichang feichang e.”
Hi. I’m very, very hungry.

All three leapt into action. They conferred, then one guided me across the street to a small building. He nodded and smiled encouragingly and pointed to a rickety table, then to a menu handwritten on a piece of torn paper taped to the wall. I recognized the characters for potsticker, ordered three dozen and ate them all.

I was alone in what felt like another world. I had none of what I needed to survive: no friends, no family, no place to stay, no college-designed program abroad, not enough money. And I had a fierce and inborn belief that I had and would ever have only myself to rely on, there in Taiwan, or anywhere.

But I was wrong. All it took was one admission –I’m starving– from a scared and hungry girl, and strangers crowded around, wanting to help. The kindness in those men’s eyes has stayed with me always.

Living in a Rock and Roll Fantasy

debbie-harry-blondie-birthday-july-1-aShe was twenty years old, living in Taipei for half a year with the intention of improving her Chinese.  The city was large and gray and crowded. Pungent smells of cooking oil and stirfry and garbage filled the humid air.

It was a city of narrow streets, crooked buildings, packed buses and haphazard sidewalks onto which cars drove at will. She and two Chinese roommates lived in a fourth-floor walk-up just off Roosevelt Avenue.

This was a long time ago. The city was still under martial law, which in her then-ignorance meant little  more than that you were not allowed to hold dance parties.

This was something that she and two American friends who were also living there discussed at length. Why weren’t you allowed to dance?

She loved living there. Everything about the experience was new to her, including the fact that for the first time in her life she was deeply, truly a foreigner. She was a tall white woman walking streets crowded with Chinese people, and everywhere she went, people stared at her.

Small children came up to her in restaurants and touched her hair. Babies gaped at her wide-eyed, and when she smiled at them, they sometimes screamed.

Most people assumed she didn’t speak Chinese, and it was interesting to hear the things they said about her. It was also interesting to see their reactions when she spoke back to them.

After a while she got used to being stared at. So it didn’t surprise her when a small group of young Chinese men and women came up to her and one of her American friends on the street and asked them if they wanted to be rock stars.

“Sure,” said her friend Sally.

Sally had always wanted to be a rock  star, something she’d already confessed.

“Sal,” she began, but she didn’t finish. Sally was so happy at the thought of being in a rock band, even a Taiwanese rock band that was just forming itself and hadn’t yet rehearsed. How could she let her down?

“This is our chance!” Sally said. “This is our chance to be rock stars.”

The truth was that she herself loved to sing, and she loved music, and she loved to dance, but she had not even considered a life as a rock star.  Rock stars were cool and confident. They played things like guitars and keyboards and basses, while she played the clarinet. They sang wild songs in powerful voices, while she had sung alto in her high school and church choirs.

But Sally would not be denied. “Think of it,” she said. “We can be the stars. We can sing anything we want.”

The Taiwanese would-be rock band waited eagerly for their response.

“Okay,” she said.

They began rehearsing during the day, in the top floor apartment of a dingy building. Dance parties were forbidden, but rock band rehearsals were not. Was there any logic in this? No, there was not.

Sally was in her element. She, however, was not. The Chinese band members were so short, and she was so tall. They were so Chinese, and she was so white and American. They sang American rock songs with a thick Chinese accent. She didn’t sing at all.

What was she doing in this band? She wasn’t the one who wanted to be the rock star. That was Sally’s dream. She wasn’t the one who sang out with abandon. Ever. She was the alto, the harmonizer, the one with the blend-in voice. Not the soloist.

Meanwhile, she continued to attract attention wherever she went. Something as simple as ordering a xigua niunai zhi at a fruit shake stand could result in a long question and answer session with a small crowd.

Sometimes she tired of the attention and tried to be unobtrusive, but it didn’t work. The looks, the comments (“Wow, she’s tall”), the screams from the babies – all continued unabated.

One day, traipsing along Roosevelt Avenue, shopkeepers pointing her out to their customers, she felt something shift inside her.

It was impossible not to be tall.  It was impossible not to be white and American. It was impossible not to be foreign.

It was impossible not to stand out, so why try? It was impossible to be Debbie Harry, but why not just sing anyway?

So she did. Why not? In her memory, she belted out Living in a Rock and Roll Fantasy, but she doesn’t completely trust her memory. It was probably something like Amazing Grace.

Everyone stared. But they always stared.

She sang louder. Why not?

She has always remembered that day on Roosevelt Avenue. It was a grey day – in her memory, Taipei is a gray city, gray broken by splotches of color from clothes hanging on clotheslines draped across balconies of gray buildings – and humid. She was wearing her pink skirt and Chinese sandals, men’s because they were the only ones that fit her big feet.

Hello you, hello me, hello people we used to be.

Isn’t it strange, we never changed.