Effie returns on Tuesday to China. Ma Ying–jeou has won the elections. After their wedding ceremony yesterday, the bride Huan Yi–ju, and her groom drove directly to the polling station in Nantou. Greeted warmly by the voters she said, “Although getting married is one of the most important events in our lives, voting in the presidential elections is even more important.” The sprouts on the palm tree are pushing their way out.
Traveling across the world, from America to Taiwan, it has taken me six weeks to be present. Three weeks for the body to arrive and another three for the two to merge. Forms begin to connect to their source. I know the bodies of the early morning swimmers. I recognize their faces, their individual movements: the man with white hair, his neck bent slightly forward, who sings in the water and after all the other swimmers have run out, he then sings the loudest, part song, part release from the woes of the world; loud, full throated; then he runs smiling from the waters, ready for the day; the one woman who also stays longer than the others and swims alone; she’s short and squat like an Innuit, and enjoys surfing by herself. I watch her go under again and again. She ignored me for weeks but now, she, too, waves and shouts, “Good morning,” as she runs for the showers. And I shout, “Zou Ann” to each of them as they pass me. I’m recognizable in my bright pink jacket, the only foreigner on the beach. I’m mostly the only foreigner around and the only American I’ve met on the campus.
On Saturday mornings, between 6:30 and 8:30, the barber arrives on the beach. I decided to take a chance since I don’t like leaving the campus and I don’t like hair salons with cell phones and chemical smells. Two weeks ago when my Chinese was still at its minimum, I sat down on the stool, pointed to my head, and then cupped my thumb and second finger together indicating an inch. She nodded, smiling. I sat on the stool and breathed deeply figuring this is surely the world’s best kept secret hair salon, sitting outside, watching the sea. I also wondered if I’d understand how much the hair cut would cost. In the States my neighborhood haircutter charges $25 so I figured as prices are about a third, it should be $8. When I was done, she announced “Ee Bae.” I knew the answer! One of the main focuses in our class is money, we are drilled about quickly responding to numbers: 100, 1,000, 10,000, 100,000 and 1,000,000. The young men in my class soar with delight as we must quickly unravel and call out in Chinese: 6,489,17,396, 423,087. I usually bristle as to why we must spend so much time with this when a shopkeeper can easily write down the numbers. Nevertheless, it was a great delight to understand “Ee Bae,” which means NT$100 and equals three U.S. dollars.
Without intending it, my eating habits have changed. I only eat breakfast and lunch. Rarely dinner. I am staying at a small hotel by the beach. They serve large breakfasts. Each morning at eight, I eat a banana, sliced orange or grapefruit, sometimes watermelon; then 4 scrambled eggs, mushrooms, fried lettuce, carrots, several plump green beans, mashed potatoes, which are all served in a black iron pot, lavender tea and one piece of toast. It is a great deal of food, but then I wake at 5:30 and I need the energy for three hours of intense classes. I’ve also noticed that either the lettuce or the mushrooms act as an excellent diuretic. At lunch, I eat at a big table with eight or ten of the women who work at the University’s Administration Office. From the day I arrived, Vivian, who is one of the directors of this office, welcomed me and we’ve become friends. She invited me to join them. The others at the Office call her Ma Ma. She’s not forty but in her quiet way she looks after everyone and so there is great warmth and merriment at the table. Lots of laughing. Lunch goes from about 12:30 to 1:30. Everyone brings their own food and there is always an extra treat that someone brings to share: chicken soup, guava and fruit whose names I don’t know. I’m the dark chocolate source. Vivian orders an organic lunchbox for me which changes every day. It includes soup and has at least eight vegetables and costs two dollars. They tell me that here are so many varieties of vegetables in Taiwan that you can’t eat them all in one year. Amazing! On the eastern side of Taiwan, there are excellent conditions for growing food.
After lunch, I take the bus up the hill and return to school for tutoring or translating Journey to the West from Chinese or go to the American School to tell stories. Other times after class I return to the hotel, take a short nap and then find one of the staff at the front desk and, depending on their availability, I stand at the desk and we work from ten minutes to one hour on Chinese and I help them with their English. They are amused by my determination to learn as well as surprised as their parents are retired and not very active. I’m touched by their kindness, their eagerness to laugh, their responsiveness. I watch how hard they work, how diligent they are. Depending on the person, our relationship has deepened with the weeks. With some it remains superficial, with others, especially Jason, we talk about our families, art, politics. From the day I entered this little twenty–four room hotel, intending only to stay a week, I knew this was my place. It is filled with flowers and has a family feel because of the warmth of the staff. Vivian and my Tzu Chi friends tried to convince me to get an apartment off campus but this hotel is a refuge for me. A small paradise. From my window I sit at my desk and can see the sea and the mountains. I look at my lavender orchid, my small statue of Gwan Yin from Fo Guang Monastery and my fern that I’ve been nourishing since I arrived and bought from the students who were selling the plants they had raised from seeds for two dollars each. I will take very good care of it until I leave and then give it to Jason.
(This post was written on Election Day in Taiwan, when incumbent President Ma Ying–jeou won a second term.)
Week 5: Learning/Birthing and Chinese Characters
Week 4: Celebrating the First Month
Week 3: Learning in Kaohsiung
Week 2: One to Another
Week 1: An Unlikely Story