Zhongli, Taiwan 中壢
I didn’t come to Zhongli for sightseeing. If anybody does, I hope they are easily pleased. Still, there are a strong handful of foreigners in the city, more than I remember. I don’t know who they are, where they’re from, what they’re doing here. It’s obvious to me they’re not English teachers –the usual field for foreigners in Zhongli and my previous position- if they were, they’d be in class now.
I sit in a booth looking out one of the large windows beside the entrance to Ocean Café, a location frequented by foreigners. Outside of the entrance, two picnic tables are set up on a small porch, which ends only feet before the road. There is enough space between the road and the end of the porch for a few people to park their scooters. Two dogs sit, waiting for their caretaker who is eating inside. A foreigner, I’ve seen him before but we’ve never spoken. He has his dogs well trained.
He is sitting by the window on the other side of the entrance with a group mixed of equal parts foreigner and native Taiwanese. With all the sound they’re making, I have to fight the impulse of looking at them. I sneak peeks from time to time but it’s a quick trip for my eyes back into the lines of the book I’m no longer reading. My emotions tend to jump on my face. No mask of formality has ever been able to hide them. A simple glance would show I was irritated. I doubt they would care. Otherwise, they might try to control the volume of their voices instead of being belligerent on the wine of their asinine humor.
“Where is New Zealand again? Its somewhere in Mexico, right? Yeah, it’s definitely like a province of Mexico. I’m sure that’s right. But, I forget. Mexico, right?” Enter here cacophonous uproar of laughter followed by jokes of the same trend. This is the second time they’ve gone through this bit. I hope there is a wrinkle of an inside joke that I’m missing out on. I’ve heard laughing extends life expectancy. I’ve also heard pessimists live longer than optimists. All respected truths seem to have an equally respected contradiction.
A change of scene is required. There is no consideration of when or where I’ll go. The time is now and the place is Idea. As I exit the stage I allow myself a look at the company that motivates my leave. They’re stepping back and forth between English and Mandarin. The cross-culture conference would sound lovely were it not for the force of the volume. Their waltz equates to something more like a mosh pit. Its fun for some but the neighbors are still wishing they would stop it.
Selecting the route to cross from Zhongli into Zhongyuan is like a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ story where every choice is the best one. There is the passage by the field of flowers set in front of the cityscape of Zhongli. When you pass at sunset the orange backdrop lights the city on fire. Clouds rise above as a symbol of the devastation while the field and trees sit safe in shadow anticipating their opportunity to reclaim the land.
There is the path under the bridges that weaves between supports, passes over train tracks, and through an alley too narrow for two scooters side by side. Somehow, people manage two lanes of traffic anyway. There are multiple tunnels passing under the tracks as well, only wide enough for a scooter, each one bending and twisting while lights illuminate the path in blinks and your hands in front of you are there and gone and there and gone and the wall on each side threatens to push you over and leave you at the mercy of scooters trailing behind you.
In Taiwan, if a city has a respectable population they’ll have a night market, if not multiple. Walking through the streets of a night market is a developed skill. Even on weekdays, crowds of people browse through vendors lining the street. It becomes unimaginable for cars to pass through. But, some still try. They inch along behind the pedestrians walking in front of them. People pass on foot ignoring their presence. Everybody is more interested in the food, clothes, phone accessories, toys, food, flowers, clothes, games, and other things, but mostly food and clothes.
I put on my blinders and go straight for the dumplings. It’s a short line at the popular stop tonight. I only needed to wait five minutes. With my box of dumplings in hand I pass by two juice stands, a few vendors selling an assortment of meats, and the stinky tofu stand. When I first came to Taiwan the scent of stinky tofu was unbearable. Worst of all, the odor would carry 30 yards so you would smell it way before you saw it. It’s a popular food among Taiwanese, and an even more popular food to push on foreigners. Today, I hardly notice the smell. I’ve also begun to understand the appeal of the taste
I escape down one of the side streets that still have plenty of restaurants and shops, but there are less people making it easier to breathe. Near the end of the street a sign covered in vines sticks out from an old brick building. If it wasn’t for the smaller sign in front, people might know this café as that place with the vines on it, or the café without a name. Idea is a better one.
Upon entering Idea, the same fluffy white dog lays at the entrance. There used to be two. She is large and looks like a show dog past her prime. Much of her hair is shaved down to help her cope with the summer humidity. She doesn’t move. She doesn’t want to attract the attention of admirers from her show days, but she gets them anyway. Plenty of people pet her as they pass by. I often did as well, until I realized the sign written in Mandarin above her specifically says not to.
Walking through the lobby of old wooden furniture – not vintage old but past its prime old- there is often someone waiting for you. Sometimes, I am recognized and let to go straight through. But, in my three years of coming to Idea there have only been two people I’ve seen working there since my first day. I assume they’re the owners. I haven’t been here in a while and I don’t know if they remember me. They wouldn’t say anything if they did.
One of the men has receding, graying hair but that has not deterred him from maintaining the same ponytail hairstyle. He is always wears a plain shirt and a pair of sweat-shorts that younger crowds may consider too short to be appropriate in public. I don’t consider myself the young crowd anymore, but even I think it’s a bit much. The other has nothing about him that might stick out in a crowd. The thing about him that grabs attention is his manner. One wouldn’t even notice him if they weren’t looking for someone to notice. He has never spoken a word to me. In fact, I’ve never witnessed him speak to anybody, but he does communicate. His language is one of eye contact, head motions, body language, grunts, and mumbles. It is effective for what it requires. Their employees do the talking for them.
The staircase is narrow and stays in the theme of aged wood. If you stand taller than five feet six you won’t make it to the top without ducking or learning the lesson of paying attention to ceiling heights. At the top of the stairs is a stand with a broken typewriter, a balance in a dusty glass case, and an antique lamp. Going through the halls on the wood planked floor are record players, speakers, and more typewriters. The jazz playing from the speakers signal that at least these are in working order.
The chairs are backed with red velvet but the cushions in most of them have been worn. I can feel springs in my back. The jabbing is not too severe. I sit by myself at a table for two looking down on the street through a window with two cracked panes. On the wall straight across from me hangs a confederate flag. But, even they have seemed to acknowledge the new movement of removing the symbol from sight, not by taking it down but they do have a new picture hanging in front of it.
It’s quiet, except from the welcomed background of jazz music. The rhythm has always made me want to dive deeper into it, learn more about it, and more about the artists. Anytime I do I seem to lose a bit of the appreciation in the process. Most things lose appeal when they lose novelty. It seems this is something with which I’m required to bear. To always be an observer, admirer, or frustrated customer in the background of a scene. As of now I am the only one in the scene.
In this café when I am sitting alone, it is one of the few times I feel like the world is uninterrupted. I expect some large group of college students will come in, push some tables together, and muck the whole scene up. They like to travel in groups here. I’ve tried, but I can’t understand the appeal. Even with just four people it becomes difficult to be genuine. There are too many interactions happening at once. I don’t know how anybody can focus on one.
I came here to read and write, but I haven’t started yet. Even my box dumplings sit to the side of the table unopened. Maybe I’m waiting for someone to come in and make it difficult to focus. They’ll be here. Maybe the expectation sides too much towards pessimism, but that’s okay. I don’t laugh as much I used to.
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