Monday, October 27, 2014

Taipei People: Thinking of Home

Azaleas on the Taida campus
I have a very distinct memory of an evening on the campus of Taiwan National University ("Taida") in Taipei during the time I was a student there during the academic year 1979-80.

I was a student at the Inter-University Program for Chinese Studies (IUP), usually referred to as "the Stanford Program." Our program was housed in an old two-story wooden building on the southern edge of the Taida campus. The campus had a broad palm-lined avenue running down it's east-west axis, and there azaleas bloomed in the spring. (In China, one nickname for the azalea is the "thinking of home flower" (xiang si shu).)

On the evening I'm thinking of, I was on a walk on the Taida campus with my friend Melissa. Melissa was the niece of my landlady, and she and I would meet to do language exchange. As we were strolling along, enjoying the evening, we encountered an old man, who started to tell his story. I couldn't really make out what he was saying, though I had the impression that he wasn't all there; but Melissa listened to him for a long time, and afterwards she explained to me through her tears that he had been talking about his old home province of Sichuan, a place he had not seen since before 1949 and probably would never see again.  And, she lamented, this was the situation of thousands upon thousands of people in Taiwan.

"Taipei People"

Of course, I knew the history of the retreat of the mainlanders affiliated with the Kuomintang (KMT) government to Taiwan at the time of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) victory in 1949. But somehow I had not grasped the idea that people who had gotten out alive could still be tragic. Nor had I grasped the idea that every individual person's tragedy could have it's own particular flavor.

For a long time I've clung to a book called Taipei People as a sort of talisman. It is a collection of fourteen short stories by the author Pai Hsien-yung, each story about a person who ended up in Taiwan after the war. For a long time I had the book on the shelf, with a vague idea of what was in the stories; perhaps it felt like a violation to delve beneath the surface of each of those stories. I've just now started to study Taipei People line-by-line.

Making noodles
A story that feels particularly resonant for me is the one translated as "Glory's by Blossom Bridge": "'Glory's' is a restaurant, and the noodles it serves could stand as a tenuous link between distant Kweilin—the site of its predecessor—and Taiwan. All of the stories in the collection make use of allusions to particular regions in mainland China; this story's allusion to Kweilin is special, since that is the author's home province, Kweilin (Guilin). Through references to food, landscape, and the unique Kweilin opera, he suggests the particular poignancy of exile from that place." More than anything, the story is about the destiny of so many men who came from the mainland to Taiwan: ending up old and alone.

Noodles, Crimes of Passion, Birdcages

During our time in Taipei, my friends at the Stanford Center and I had a favorite hangout: a park on a back street, a few blocks north of the Normal University campus.

The park was called Yong Kang Park, after the street it was on. (You can see recent images on this blog: My Kafkaesque Life

We were fascinated by a small noodle shop, where an old man who we dubbed "Donald" continually made fresh noodles. (I don't know if they were Kweilin style.)

(We also had a nickname for the park, because of a sensational murder that occurred in the vicinity around the time we arrived in Taiwan; the victim had been found . . . well . . . never mind . . . ! But this, too, had echoes in "Glory's by Blossom Bridge.")

We were also fascinated by the morning parade of old men walking their birds.  This was something that we encountered from time to time after passing the night eating noodles, drinking Taiwan Beer, and sitting in the park talking and enjoying the sensation of the heat easing hour by hour.  As dawn arrived, dark shapes would begin to fill the park, and we would realize that a parade of bird owners, holding their cages, had begun. They were walking their birds.

Men and their birds
(Source: China Daily)

As college students in our 20s, we were certainly incapable of understanding the sensation of aging; I dare say most of us were incapable of deep love for a bird, as well. These things change with time . . . .

Kweilin (Guilin)

Years later, when I worked for an import-export company, I traveled quite a few times to visit our supplier in Guangxi province. I made multiple trips to the provincial capital, Nanning; as much as I try now, I can hardly remember the details of that place. But there was one trip to Kweilin (Guilin); and that is unforgettable.

Kweilin (Guilin)

It's only now, when I can think back on Kweilin, that I can appreciate the subtle irony of "Glory's by Blossom Bridge":  although the story's narrator insists that Kweilin is a place apart, more beautiful than any other city in China; and although the author of the collection, Pai Hsien-yung, was from Kweilin and probably felt that way; and although any foreigner like me would probably readily agree that Kweilin is the most visually stunning and special place in China . . . the truth is that every person from China thinks that his or her home town is the most special place in the world. And that is the beauty and the tragedy of Taipei People.

Related posts

Ever since I went there to study Chinese as a junior in college, I've considered Taiwan my "second home."

(See Taipei c. 1979 )

The bright yellow pack was cheerful. The sentiment expressed in the name was hopeful -- if hopelessly ironic. The beautiful seal script in which chang shou was written on the package were a reminder of just how much all of us loved soaking up every beautiful detail of the traditional Chinese culture available all around us at that time in Taipei. But must of all, Long Life contained the promise of connectedness.

(See Long Life, Connected Lives)

Part of what I loved about Du Hai was the way it used large pieces of fabric to convey the sensation of being in a boat among billowing waves, and the multiple uses to which they put the fabric - sea, clouds, sail, and more. Even a newcomer to modern dance, such as myself, could grasp what was going on.

(See The 21st Century U.S. Vocation: Extending hospitality to the next wave of immigrants coming to our country )