I spend (what some would say) an inordinate amount of time sleeping these days. I eat, I throw up, I go back to bed, I drag myself upright for maintenance purposes – shower, laundry, pick up the kids, cook – then I escape. In books, in dreamland, where there is no worry, no nausea. Sometimes I wonder if I will have the strength to go on.
Let me dream of twenty years ago.
I heard about the chance to teach in Taiwan from someone I knew at a party. I got the details from her and called PJ for an interview the next day. We arranged a time and place to meet and there I sat, outmoded business suit and all, waiting in vain for a man who would never come. I raced home to call him and when he finally called back to excuse himself (unavoidably detained) I begged him for the job. I said I would be perfect for it, that I had taught English in France (to the kids I babysat), I loved Asia, my mom cooked Asian food growing up, my sister was Korean, etc. He ended up giving me the job over the phone, sight unseen. I think he was tired of trying to find people who were willing to go.
They needed someone to come earlier than the other three teachers they hired so I volunteered – the only thing I couldn’t abide was sitting still and waiting. So I went first. On the day of my departure I remember sharing with my younger brother how scared I was, that it felt like what I imagined childbirth to be – once you got to the point, there was no way to back out; you just had to go through with it.
I flew on the long flight to Seoul (or Tokyo) where there would be a layover before heading off to Taipei. When I arrived in Taipei at nine at night, the warm muggy heat hit me with an unwelcome blast – such a heat despite the torrential downpour of rain. It was monsoon season. A young woman met me with a sign indicating my name. She helped me carry my heavy suitcases through knee-deep puddles up several flights of stairs and over a bridge to where the bus station was. We still had a nearly 3 hour bus ride to Taichung.
Once settled on the dark bus, the air conditioning biting through our drenched clothing, the rain pouring ceaselessly against the windows, she handed me something to drink. I took it gratefully, but one sip of the sweet seaweed drink made me hand it back to her as politely as I could. I stopped trying to communicate when I realized she understood nothing of what I said. She would just pat my hand and say, “okay, okay.” We arrived in Taichung and there were met by the school bus driver who loaded my luggage and took me to the boss’ home where I was to stay until the other teachers arrived three weeks later.
I took a shower and immediately fell asleep before she could bring me a fan, only to wake up in the middle of the night soaked in sweat.
Eager for independence, I left her home after only a couple of days saying I wanted to get settled in my new home before the other teachers had arrived. It was a small house in a tight alley, closed in on each side and in front and behind. The back porch touched the back porch of the house the next alley over. Lines were strung with clothes hanging between balconies. Someone practiced the piano. Cats fought. The music I heard on the street was not an ice-cream truck, but a garbage truck, calling us to bring our garbage.
The house did not welcome me. There were large cockroaches, and I saw a dead spider as big as my hand, hanging from one of its legs on the wall. And it rained and rained. I once ventured out and got lost in the alleys, but I had the address written in Chinese so I took a cab back home from only a couple of blocks over.
I had arrived on Sunday and it was not until Thursday that I started to feel more like myself. At school, I pulled the brighter kids out of a combined class to make a class of my own. I think taking the best for myself (including the largest room) and the fact that I did not arrive with the other teachers to take our visa trips out of the country together put a wall up between the other Americans and myself. I was often lonely.
But I learned Chinese quickly. In those first days at my new house, the grandmother of one of our students came to check on me (she spoke no English at all). And when she was about to leave, I indicated the door: how do you say this? She understood and taught me “ki-mun” (open door) “gwan-mun” (close door). A Chinese teacher at the school befriended me and offered to teach me Chinese, so I would come to each lesson with a notebook of all the things I wanted to know how to say and my own code of accents and spelling to make the pronunciation comprehensible to me.
I learned fast and spent a lot of time with the Chinese teachers. After about six months in the country, I took a cab and the driver asked me, “Are you English?” “American,” I replied.
“Where are you going?”
“To Chungking University. Kuo-Kuong Road and Jong-Gwa Road. From there I will direct you.”
“You’re very pretty,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said with a smile. I understand everything he’s saying!
When it came time for my first visa trip out of the country, I chose Seoul because I wanted to see where my sister was born. I could have chosen better. This was not the most tourist-friendly destination in all of Far East Asia (at that time). I barely ventured out of my room to visit and ended up writing and illustrating a children’s book while I was there. I came home (to Taiwan) grateful to have gotten that ordeal out of the way. I was a reluctant adventurer.
I can see flashes from those times, as if in a dream. I remember the orchard we visited that was sunk down into the earth with the tree branches weaving a green canopy over our heads and the farmer waving a big stick to scare the pythons away. I remember the crowded Nan-Men Road at night with its food vendors lit up – sweet garlic eggplant, beef, seafood, green leafy vegetables, eggs … you could buy rice, soup and three different toppings for just $2. There was the hot rice gruel with dried shrimp for breakfast, or the salty egg crèpe with spicy sauce and milk tea, or the soft steamed buns. I remember sitting on the back of a motorbike in a crowd of smoke waiting for the light to turn, and visiting the temples with red roofs, the gilded statues, the green lily pads and enormous koi fish in the ponds set in the blazing sun.
I was young then, and I dreamt of glory. I dream now of the past. I wonder what I’ll dream of when I’m old, and whether my life as a mother to young children will be just as infused with color.