The following morning, A Sunday, I wake at 5:45 a.m. The small trapezoid-shaped window glows with an intense white light and looks like the door to Heaven. I squint, my eyebrows lowering in the middle, my forehead creasing, and go to touch the lighted pane. Go to talk to God. But the Creator does not wish me a good morning in any audible tones, and in the white sky I begin to see shades of grey and blue lightly brushed into the canvas. The sun, already awake for almost an hour, is tugging at my shirt sleeve like a puppy wanting to play. "Not now, sun. Seven more minutes." But the small cluttered guest room is heating like an oven, and the sticky feeling of morning, of dead skin, keeps me from returning to sleep. Instead I write for hours until I hear Connie stirring at around 9:00. I wait in "my" room to give her a few minutes alone to go through her necessary wake-up routine, then slowly slide open the opaque glass door leading to the living room. "Up so early?" she says. I just smile.
Today is (hopefully) the last day of my search for an apartment, and the time between now and the 11:00 appointment is killed by online conversations while the Taiwanese version of "Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader" serves as background noise and eases the space between the sparse conversation. I like Connie and David (who has since come out of hibernation), and it seems we have already settled into the level of comfort that allows for these gaps in conversation and does not feel awkward or strained. 11:00 finally rolls around, and the air-conditioner and light switches are "closed" (which is the literal translation in Chinese) as we exit. Out into the whiteness, out into the traffic, out into the World.
Princess Peach is quickly becoming my loyal companion, and although she can't go more than 40 m.p.h., pulls ridiculously bad to the left and is pink, I am considering making Connie an offer for her when I start making money. So far we have escaped every perilous situation we seem to find ourselves in, and I am beginning to think we make a good team. If she were a horse, I would give her a carrot. But then again, if she were a horse, I would be dead by now.
Equestrian nonsense aside, we eventually arrive at the 4th (and final) appointment to look at apartments. The sun in running its hands down my neck and into my collar as I hop off Peach, old-West style, and survey my surroundings. "Have I been here before?" I ask, fairly certain that I am wrong. "Yeah, last night," David laughs. "The Flower Market is right over there...where we ate Sizzling Platter" he says with a nod of his head. I see that he is correct; we took this road to get to dinner last night, but the darkness of the night makes it seem like a shadow in my memory, a ghost that I am not sure was ever there. We walk up to the correct number where a young man with hair standing straight up is waiting, also dressed in the exact same manner as the former real-estate agents. Apparently there is either only one real-estate company in town, or this particular firm has cornered the "Hell-hole that only a foreigner would live in" market. He is leaning against his black motorcycle which I am very impressed with, but which David doesn't think is all that great, and he and Connie make small talk in Mandarin until the landlord pulls up in a dark blue compact car.
The landlord unlocks the front door, talking Chinese as he does, and we enter into a very clean and tiled foyer-esque area which looks like it could serve as a waiting room. The stairs do not have a railing as we ascend to the second floor, walk down the hallway which is enclosed but still feels like a motel, and finally reach the door at the end of the curved and narrow path. The landlord opens the off-white door and we step inside, hesitantly, as if entering a tomb. I am actually fairly impressed by this apartment. The walls are white, the ceiling is white, the flooring tiles are white and clean. The living room is a 6 ft x 6 ft box, complete with couch, T.V., mini-fridge and sink (which would constitute my kitchen). Not a lot of space, but nice. The bedroom is actually a SEPARATE room (Whoa! Two rooms?! I could get lost with all this space!) with a full sized bed, desk, and tiny bathroom. It is also very tidy and everything smells fresh, like someone just mopped with bleach. The landlord follows me around, pointing to the amenities and saying their name is Chinese, as if helping me to learn the language. I appreciate this and smile every time he does, knowing I would probably do the exact same thing. Just outside the front door, he shows me the small room which houses the apartment's own personal washing machine, which is a convenience I may not be able to live without, considering how much I've been sweating these past three days. After a few minutes we exit, and the landlord says he has ANOTHER place for us to see, also listed at $7000 NT. However, although this second place is on the first floor which is nice, it is almost identical to the first apartment but lacks a certain...(for lack of a better word)...feng-shui. I rule the second apartment out within seconds of entering. As we make our way to the front door to leave, we thank the landlord and the quiet, fluffy-haired real-estate agent for their time. Connie and David can see that I've already made up my mind, and as soon as we are out of ear-shot, they say "You liked the third one, didn't you?" I smile a big smile in agreement and say something about how it just felt better. I don't know why, but the big red door just made the last apartment feel like...a home. Maybe not my home necessarily, but less like a hospital, hotel room or prison cell. I still don't know what a place would have to look like, smell like, or be like for it to feel like MY home. Maybe no place ever will. Or maybe, like Zack Braff says in "Garden State," after we leave the houses of our childhood we won't feel home again until we eventually make a new home, one for ourselves and our own families. Until then, we are all homeless, just a bunch of 20-somethings trying desperately to fit in and make the best of what we have until what we have is what we've always wanted. This idea of homelessness is both disconcerting and comforting, and it is something I have come to peace with in the last few years. It is the ultimate rite of passage. We ALL must go through it.
As soon as we reach the scooters, Connie is on the phone with Maggie the plain but attractive real-estate lady, telling her that I have decided to go with the apartment she showed us yesterday. Connie's voice rises enthusiastically several times during the conversation, and I listen intently as if my attentiveness will make Chinese easier to understand. When she is finished, she enthusiastically tells me the good news: Maggie has explained to the landlady that a poor American boy wants to rent her apartment, and she has agreed to drop the rent to $6000 NT a month plus utilities, which is an unbelievable $182 US. As if that weren't exciting enough, she has also agreed to forgo the usual practice of requiring the first THREE months rent + deposit (equal to one month's rent) upfront, instead breaking it up between the first two months. Therefore, instead of paying $28,000 NT right away (which I don't really have), I will now be able to pay $14000 each month for the first two months (which I still may not have, but I will worry about this when I get there). The landlady has agreed to meet with us tomorrow to go over the lease, and Connie has instructed her to meet at the school after classes tomorrow . As long as everything goes well, I should be sleeping in my very own apartment before the end of my 5th day in Taiwan.
As we straddle our respective scoots, Connie and David offer that they are, once again, hungry. This is becoming a recurring theme with them, and I can see their affinity for food rippling out through the entire Taiwanese culture. The Taiwanese people LOVE to eat. For some reason I am having a hard time embracing this ideology; perhaps it is because I'm being especially frugal, or maybe it's because, despite my adventurer's spirit, some of the food is still a little...questionable. But no, it is something more than this. In America, eating is always a means to an end: A means to socialize, a means to do business, a means to celebrate, a means to sustain. It is background music. In Taiwanese culture, food IS the end. Sure, other activities may occur during the eating process, but it is eating itself which is always most important. The Taiwanese view a meal as an event in itself, and thus can enjoy it to its fullest. I feel like the popularity of themed restaurants with all the shit on the walls and the fast food culture has divorced Americans from the joy of food for its own sake. So many distractions. Are they to distract us from discovering the truth, that the food isn't all that good and thus not worth our complete focus? Or are we too consumed in the complexities of our intricate social obligations to allow this simplification, to allow the stripping away of everything besides the basic appeal to our senses and our souls?
The venue for lunch has been selected, and we drive the scooters to a small restaurant where the grill and kitchen are outside almost on the sidewalk and the dining area sits behind the kitchen and through a large glass door. It is small, maybe only six tables, but cool inside. The humidity has increased considerably since the morning, and the air is beginning to taste like rain. I am thankful for the escape from the swampy, graying afternoon. We sit down, and as I try to pick out recognizable characters from the large permanent menu on the wall (I can almost tell what "beef" and "chicken" are now). David is already ordering on the small white ordering card. "Im just going to get a bunch of guotie (pronounced "gwo-teah" like "yeah") and shuijiao (pronounced "shway-gee-ow") for all of us." David then informs me that the english versions for these are "boiled dumplings" which are sticky pastries usually stuffed with pork or beef, and "pot stickers", which are the fried version of the aforementioned dumplings. Sounds good, and they are. They almost remind me of Italian food, but like everything else here, they have a distinct Asian flavor that is in all the local food but which I have not yet been able to identify. Once again, lunch comes out to about $100 NT a person, or about $3 US, and we all leave very full, our stomachs telling our brains that it is time for a nap in order to digest all the fried food. But the afternoon is far from over, and we must fill every minute of the last free day before both Connie and I begin the new school year. Under the cloudy sky we ride, and I imagine our scooters cutting visible wakes in the dense air behind us as we head for the F.E. 21 Mall in downtown Hsinchu to do some serious (window) shopping.