Letter From Taipei

Voice Card  -  Volume 33  -  John Card Number 11  -  Sun, Nov 20, 1994 3:04 PM

Roger relayed the following letter from my cousin Dave, and I thought other Archipelagoans might find it interesting. Dave is a young business lawyer and was recently transferred from San Francisco to Taipei. He speaks four or five languages fluently, is widely travelled, and has always been a shrewd observer. Here is his first dispatch from the Orient:

October 15, 1994

Well, it's taken a while, but I'm finally getting settled and used to my new surroundings. It's hard to believe I've been here a whole month already.

I've got a finished medium-sized two bedroom place on the sixth floor of a seven-floor apartment building in the eastern district of Taipei. It's a fairly modern building, complete with elevator, and not that expensive by Taipei standards (about US$1,200 per month). The apartment is fairly clean (I've only had to kill one cockroach, albeit a three-inch one), and generally comfortable, although the rock-hard bed took some getting used to. It's got a few extras, like a (sort of) operable washing machine, working air conditioners, and a little rock garden, which make up for the things that don't work like the kitchen hot-water faucet, a few light bulb sockets here and there, and the do-it-yourself telephone wiring.

Once my sea shipment arrives (it's supposed to be coming next week) I'll be content here, at least for a little while, though I suspect after about a year or so I'll want to move up to a classier place. My only concern is that there is only one way out of here, out the front door and down the stairs. Let's hope we don't have any fires downstairs.

My neighborhood is a colorful one. I'm on a small side street a couple of blocks off one of the major Taipei arteries. There are a lot of families nearby; I sometimes trip over little kids playing in the streets when I come home from work. As with most areas of Taipei, there are no zoning laws, or at least none that are enforced, so my block has a couple of dry cleaners, a small drug store, a scooter repair shop, a teahouse, two barbershops and three stores I can't yet identify. And that's only between here and the corner. Within a five-minute walk I've got probably a dozen noodle shops, a couple of vegetable markets, several tea and herb stores, and other general assorted mom-and-pop places. I've made friends with the owner of one of the local noodle shops, which is where I usually end up having dinner these days.

I'm settled into my office at work, and enjoy the people. We have five Chinese lawyers, four of whom are my age or younger, three American lawyers, including myself, and another dozen receptionists, secretaries, paralegal, another staff, including the office memo, a high-school student who works part-time as the office gopher. I'm finding I prefer the smaller, know-everyone office to be more friendly than the huge S.F. office, although the S.F. office has by far the better view.

The office staff has been extremely helpful to me. Our office manager has been dealing with my landlord, our accountant has been helping me set up bank accounts and explaining the amazingly inefficient banking system, and everybody has been offering to solve my every problem. I'm fortunate that I'm getting so much help, because, unfortunately, I'm still putting in long hours, and wouldn't have time to figure it all out on my own.

Taipei is a very different place from the U. S. and from Japan. The impressions I got in February - crowded and colorful - continue to be reinforced. Everywhere you look there are people, physically very homogenous, like Japan, but much more individual in the way they dress and act. In contrast with Japan's solemn, orderly streets (comparatively speaking), Taipei's teem with animated, jabbering crowds. Sidewalks are rough, where they exist, and are shared by people, bicycles, mopeds, dogs, vendors, construction materials, parked cars and whatever else can fit on them.

There are signs everywhere advertising everything; on the major streets, you see a lot of trendy English-language signs, but the English disappears quickly as you get away from the department-store districts. Traffic is horrendous, with buses, cars, taxis, trucks, mopeds, bicycles and pedestrians all competing for space, but moves faster than it looks, mainly because Chinese drivers will go through, around, between, and across anything in their way, signs, lights and oncoming traffic be damned.

Characteristically, the only rule that gets consistently obeyed is the unwritten one: Thou Shalt Not Hit Anything In Front of You (Those Behind Have Brakes). It takes some getting used to having taxi drivers whip in and out of lanes without even a perfunctory glance in the mirror. Taipei's activity doesn't stop at nights; shopkeepers close when they feel like it, and the city remains full of lights, colors and people well into the morning.

The one, significant exception is the restaurant industry; despite Taipei's reputation for the best Chinese food in the world, Chinese restaurants rarely serve past eight in the evening. The crime rate is low, at least for violent crime; recently the newspapers have been decrying the rise in teenage moped gangs, some of the members of which have been caught carrying (gasp) knives.

The city's major drawback is the pollution, which is awful. On some days the fumes have been so bad that I've felt dizzy. The Danshui river, despite its name (which means "clear water"), is the filthiest river I have ever seen, a filmy, foamy, and black. Locals tell me it's improved over the past few years; apparently it no longer catches fire as often as it used to. To counterbalance the pollution, Taipei has few trees and only a handful of mostly small, unkempt parks, so I'm beginning to see why on weekends the roads up the surrounding mountains are jammed.

I've been spending weekends exploring Taipei's neighborhoods and tourist attractions. The National Palace Museum's collection is breathtaking, although the Taipei city museum also deserves respect. The city's two largest parks, the Chiang Kai Shek and Sun Yat Sen memorials, are impressive, and serve as family gathering places on weekends.

Taipei also has a number of temples and shrines, usually tucked away inside nondescript neighborhoods and bumping up against houses and office buildings. I fortunately had the chance to watch the daybreak ceremony at the Confucius temple on his birthday, September 28, although I am still marveling at having successfully gotten up at 3:30 a.m. to do so; it was, as expected, a very formal, ritualized ceremony, and very well attended, although probably at least a third of the several hundred people who got inside were Westerners. Taiwan's national celebration was on the 10th but got preempted by a late taiphoon.

I'm still trying to figure out the weather here. I arrived into killer, D.C.-like heat and humidity, with literally breathtaking pollution, but less than a week later the weather turned dry, clear and mild, like S.F. weather, and stayed that way, with occasional gaps, until yesterday. But last weekend we got hit by taiphoon Seth. Even thought the eye of the taiphoon missed Taipei by a couple hundred miles, the winds were terrifying, and kept me awake Sunday night wondering if my windows would hold up. Monday morning the alley behind my apartment was filled with debris, everything from corrugated roofs to broken potted plants to a file cabinet and a car muffler. I found out later that the typhoon killed eight people and did significant damage to a couple of local fishing villages. Typhoon Seth was Taiwan's sixth this year, which in itself is rare, but also came unusually late in the year. Apart from the typhoon, I've also felt four earthquakes in the month I've been here, so the wind and earth gods seem to be doing their best to welcome me.

The people here so far have been very friendly and open. Although westerners here are relatively rare compared with Tokyo, the Chinese seem much less perturbed by westerners than the Japanese. I don't feel like a walking museum exhibit and my entrance into stores and museums meets with yawns instead of consternation.

Like the Japanese, though, the Chinese share an exaggerated belief in the incomprehensibility of their culture for westerners. They are very impressed with my less-than-impressive Chinese, amazed that I can order food in restaurants on my own, and flabbergasted that I can find my way around the city on the patchwork bus system. I can't blame them for their surprise, though. For many of them, their only contact with westerners are with the American expatriate crowd, most of whom hang out together and have made embarrassingly little effort to learn any Chinese.

Socially the Chinese are very conservative, as might be expected in a homogenous society. Conformity is expected (though not to the extent required in Japan) and gender and race roles are much more clearly defined. There also seems to be a greater expectation that you'll look out for yourself, and a correspondingly lesser sense of obligation towards others, than in the U.S. I've watched construction cranes lift ten-ton loads of steel directly over heavy traffic, presumably on the theory that if the load slips, the squished drivers will have been victims of their own poor judgment in driving underneath an obvious danger. There's also a tendency, probably deriving from China's long history of rule by bureaucrats, to circumvent or ignore laws except those that are being enforced that week.

My Chinese is coming along, though slowly. This is really the first language I've tried to study while working full-time, and it's frustrating not to have the time and energy to devote to it that I'd like. I'm sensing progress, though, to the point where I now can read simple newspaper articles with the help of a dictionary. I'm finding it fascinating how well languages reflect their underlying cultures. Unlike Russian, which suffers from an overabundance of rules, or English, which contains just enough rules for maximum efficiency, Chinese has so few written rules and so much flexibility that to be able to choose naturally among the infinite ways of expressing any given concept, each with its nuances and shades of meaning, you'd have to have grown up with it. The same characteristics that make Chinese so frustrating, though, make an ideal language for poetry. I'd love to be able to read the masters.

Getting onto the internet is proving more difficult than expected. Our office software, contrary to my expectations, is complicated and unreliable, and all messages go through one office terminal, so I'd rather not use that channel. However, computers are still curiosities over here, and not many people outside of universities or big business know or care about electronic communication, and even if they did, nothing over here happens without government approval, which will be a long time coming. I'm pretty sure there are illegal gateways over here, but I don't know where to find them. If a message from me suddenly appears on your terminal, you'll know I've found a way, but until then, I'm afraid we'll have to rely on the mails.