October 2, 2009

Exploring Part II: The Gate To The Past And The Loss Of Humanity

I turn a corner, my eyes running along the street and eventually landing on East Gate, Hsinchu's most famous landmark and the unofficial heart of the city. I walk toward the giant stone structure, stopping to stand on the other side of the four-lane road that encircles the monument. Along the road, cars orbit clockwise and then tear from the landmark's gravity and carom off onto perpendicular streets, while along the outer circles of the sidewalk people move in all directions and without pattern or predictability. The entire spectacle reminds me of a solar system, or the structure of an atom, but without the laws of physics to govern the actions of the objects within the structure. There is only free will and change, and all of this spins madly around the sad, lonely relic of the past, its permanence a testament to both its integrity and its uselessness. "The world is moving much too fast for something so eternal. Buildings and people and beliefs and ideas must be born and die so that new ones can take their place. This world has no place for history" the people and cars say, failing to look up and see the beautiful sky darkening above the East Gate. "Remember" say the stone walls, but no one is listening.

I explore for a few hours, finding many shops that are of interest but nothing that carries any merchandise I cannot live without. The nice thing about having no money is that you begin to reevaluate what you truly need, and in the end, you realize that you can survive with almost nothing. Somewhere to sleep, somewhere to bathe. One meal a day. One pair of jeans, a couple t-shirts, a pair of shoes. A passport. These are the only things I truly need; everything else is a luxury that I can bypass at the moment. It seems that when the choice is present to "buy" or "not to buy", or deciding which thing to buy over some other thing to buy, an added element of stress is introduced into one's life. By completely removing the option of consumerism, I am no longer burdened by these choices and life becomes much simpler. That being said, I still believe that a pair of athletic shorts would improve the quality of my life, so these are fast becoming a part of my canon of "things I need to survive".

Eventually, I stumble upon a Nike outlet store not dissimilar to the one I saw at the RT Mart the day before, its entrance almost obscured by the sidewalk merchandise being flaunted by stores on either side. I go in, look around and am rather disappointed by the selection; after all, if I am going to be wearing these shorts every day, I want to feel comfortable - this means function AND fashion. I keep searching and soon find several more small outlet stores, each one much like the first in size and selection. (Note: One thing that is interesting about shoe stores in Taiwan is that ALL of the display shoes are wrapped in shiny plastic wrap to keep them looking new). After going in and out of several of these stores, I finally find one that has a pair of black Nike basketball shorts in my size. I don't bother trying them on, and pay almost $700 NT which I think is a little expensive by outlet standards, but the shorts seem pretty nice so I am not too concerned about spending a little extra. I'm sure I will get my money's worth from them. As I leave the outlet store with my small brown merchandise bag in hand I realize that I am very hungry and, having not eaten since lunch time, think that I cannot wait until I get home (because I have to FIND home first) before I eat. Once again, my familiar problem of not knowing any Chinese and thus not being able to place an food order plagues and limits my decision making, but I settle on a small shop called Pizza50 which is located right on the circle drive and stands in the shadow of the hulking, historic Gate. As I approach the window to order, I mentally justify my choice of restaurant - which most certainly is NOT a place specializing in local cuisine - by reminding myself how much I miss pizza and how hungry I am. We do not have Pizza50 in the States; therefore, it still counts as a cultural experience. Thankfully, the menu is subtitled in English, and although they have an expansive variety of pastas, wings, and other items one might find at a typical chain pizzeria-esqu place, I choose the "Hawaiian", which is topped with ham and pineapple. The teenager working the counter figures out what I want after I point and gesture in the shape of a large pizza with my hands (my options being an 20 cm [8 inch] pizza or smaller pizza-bagel) and my total comes to $180 NT, or about $5 US. Reasonable. I take a seat at one of the rusty patio-furnitute tables on the sidewalk and watch the cars pass, blurs of taillights and exhaust fumes.

The teenaged worker brings out my pizza about ten minutes later, and it is smaller than I expect it to be. I begin eating and notice several things immediately; first, there is no marinara sauce, or any sauce whatsoever, on my pizza. The cheese has been baked directly onto the crispy, thin crust, and thus the pizza is missing, in my opinion, one of the key elements of "pizza-ness" (to use Platonic terminology); second, there is CORN in the cheese. I'm not sure if this is a characteristic of my particular choice of pizza or of all Taiwanese pizza in general, but I am decidedly against it. I eat it anyway, not seeing a reason to waste perfectly good pizza corn, and the entire pizza is gone in less than five minutes. I am torn in my opinion of Pizza50, but my fullness and my relatively low starting expectations help to quell my disappointment in the lack of quality and, of course, the corn.

At this moment (I blame the corn), my stomach tells me that I must make way for the new addition to my digestive system. My stomach also makes it clear that this task cannot wait, it must be done NOW. Stupid, pushy stomach. Luckily, just as I am about to start panicking (as Hsinchu does not have an abundance of publicly accessible restroom facilities) I see a sign hanging from the corner of the Pizza50 building, brandishing a Pizza50 logo and an arrow that points down the alley along the side of the building. I follow the arrow and discover a small indoor dining room cleverly hidden in the dark avenue, inside the air-conditioning is burning and the tables and floors are clean. The room smells like disinfectant. I find a small hallway in the back of the room and make my way to the bathroom, my stomach beginning to knot in discomfort.

As I enter the bathroom, I am at a loss. There is no toilet. The only thing in the room, besides a single, bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, is a white porcelain bowl recessed into the ground with a small lever positioned behind it, a package of folded toilet tissues sitting on the sea-foam green tile floor at arm's length away. Well, hell. Now I remember reading about this in my research prior to leaving the States: Taiwan's infrastructure was not constructed with internal plumbing in mind, and therefore many public facilities, especially in older buildings, implement the "squatter toilet" for public use. I take a second to work out the logistics and positioning, and then... I will save anyone reading the unpleasantries. Suffice to say, it is a new and unforgettable experience. The luxuries we have become accustomed to at home do much to add a level of comfort to our lives, but also allows us to forget that, in essence, we are all nothing more than animals operating first on life's most basic levels. Money, clothing, fame, and power mean nothing when one is hovering six inches above a hole in the ground in the most degrading position known to man. It is truly a humbling experience. The squatter toilet is the great equalizer.

(Don't worry, my apartment has an ACTUAL toilet).

As I leave the bathroom and walk back out into the city street, I feel a clash between expectation and experience. The only other time I have had to "squat" to use the restroom has been on camping trips, and the closeness to nature allows one to ease more comfortably into undomesticated behavior, the trees and the feeling of seclusion easing the dissonance between the body's natural desires and the years of societal indoctrination regarding how a civilized person "ought to" behave. However, here there is no distance between civilization, with its norms and rules, and the natural and unapologetic acts that are so distinctly human. I feel a slight tinge of guilt, as if I had violated some unspoken statute and succumbed to the animalistic instincts that we are taught, from birth, to repress and to be ashamed of. I have desecrated the city. I look up to see the East Gate looking down on me, its illuminated face warmly watching me. It tells me not to worry, that it remembers when there were no buildings, no restaurants, no internal plumbing. It tells me it remembers a time when human beings embraced their humanity, their human-ess, instead of drowning themselves in technology, in materialism, in progress. Look how far we have come, but at what cost? Have we sacrificed what it means to be human, or enhanced it? The old Gate doesn't know the answer, so I start walking on.

I pretend to know the way home, but I am not fooling anyone. It is completely dark now, and as I walk my skin is showered in a endless multitude of colored lights, their reflections dancing on wide, wetted eyes. I try to remember the path that David and I went the other day, but cannot recall the specific street we took, so I settle for a general course of direction. All of the small shops begin to look the same, seemingly familiar but too analogous to give me any confidence in my bearings. I walk for a half-mile or so away from the busy commercial area around the East Gate, the sound from the people and cars dying away as the streets become less traveled, the lights becoming less generous. YES! Up ahead I see the Windance Center, letting me know I am on the right path. Thank God. It is getting late and, although I know crime is almost non-existant in Hsinchu, I still don't want to be slogging through the streets in the dead of night.

I keep walking for what seems like hours. I'm not exactly sure where I have gone wrong, but the street I am on does not lead me to my doorstep. In fact, it seems to be leading me out of town, but I have walked too far to turn around now. I continue on, fingers crossed, until I begin to pass some familiar sights. FInally, I run into my old friend Jinguo Rd, and I am ecstatic to have found my way back to my way back home. I walk the last mile or so home with a light heart, proud of myself for having navigated the city without using or map or once asking for directions, though I doubt it would have done much good anyway. At home, I immediately take off my clothes and get in the shower, washing the sweat from my body and the dirt and blood from my aching feet. I estimate that I have walked somewhere between four and six miles, and the toll is already being felt on my inactive muscles. After the shower, I put on my new shorts which fit perfectly and lay on my back on my "bed". The mesh of the shorts feels cool and soft against my legs, and I am grateful I now have a third option between khaki shorts and nudity. I close my eyes and fall asleep with all the lights still on, my hair still wet from the shower.

1 comment:

  1. Tom Johnson, man of the world.

    Stump and I had a similar experience yesterday, where we walked down to the nearby creek and built a rock dam, just like we would have when we were 12.

    Okay, so it isn't really similar, but your stories inspire me nonetheless. I completely feel as though all of the distractions present in my life are keeping me from getting down to what I want to do, but maybe I just don't want to do them bad enough?

    I don't know the answers. I do know, however, that I, too, will be a teacher soon, and that my kids will already know English. You = fail.