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Monday, February 28, 2005

The Old Woman on the Stool

It is the third day of a long holiday weekend, and so far it has done nothing but rain. I haven't had time to write anything for this as I've been busy cleaning and working on a children's story. As part of the cleaning process, I've been going through a lot of memories - cards students have made for me, gifts given, and things written. March is almost here, and the months are disappearing. Time is relentless in the way it passes here...As Taipei memories have come and gone, so too have memories of other places - memories imprinted as short motion pictures that somehow come to mean so much more than the event itself. In other words, memories which come to represent not just a passing moment in time but a place, an entire set of experience distilled. This is a theme I find myself returning to over and over, with both the things I have been writing (children's stories excepted) and the pictures I decide to post. So here I post something I wrote maybe a year or year and a half ago. It is something I had forgotten writing, but as I read it just a short while ago, I was transported to my first apartment in ShiDa, a night market area which abounds with cafes, bars, and restaurants. It is near two universities, and a large number of foreigners take up residence there. It is, I think, one of the more vibrant areas in town. I hope you enjoy:

There is something about the early mornings in the neighborhood I live. There is something wonderful about the quiet, about the way the noises are quiet. I live in a market area in Taipei, and at night the streets are packed with people, usually groups of two or three, couples or friends - students from the nearby universities. There are also a number of foreigners (people like me) living around here, and given the amount of cheap, good food, dessert places, and cafes around, you can be sure to see at least seven or eight white faces on the walk home.
The thing one must understand about Taipei is how loud and crowded the city is, and thus, how rare it is to have quiet. Cars, scooters, bikes, people all the time. 7:30 in the morning and if you are in the wrong neighborhood here comes the sound of the trash collector, playing his ice cream siren song. Yes, the first time I heard the truck, I was excited because the day was brutally hot and I had just finished my first class, during which my confidence was kicked squarely in the balls. I followed the jingling, metallic, loud-speaker scratched sound of music, expecting to find a gaggle of the very screaming kids who had just shown me how hellish the coming year might be. Instead, I found a line of Taiwanese dutifully tossing their bags of trash into the prescribed trucks. Its not like in the States where you leave your trash on the curb in the morning expecting to find an empty, overturned can standing sentry, awaiting your return in the evening. In that particular neighborhood, the truck comes by in the early evening, and where I live now it comes by around 10:30 at night. If you are in one of those places where it comes by in the early morning, though, you can say good-bye to your peace and quiet.
It gets light early here, and if you are an early riser (or a late party-goer), you can find some quite wonderful moments in this city. You can find old people doing tai-chi in the park, or playing a steady rhythm on drums. You can watch as the pink light of the early morning mixes with the general gray of the city, creeping along the grimy buildings like vines, and the first actual sun glinting off the metal bars guarding so many of the balconies and windows here. And through the bars the sight of yesterday's laundry hanging, drying, waiting to be folded and replaced by today's. Shadows of lives. You can watch the sun finally break above the buildings that seem to lean inwards above you. The buildings that seem to be leaning in over the street, so narrow are the lanes, so close the buildings. In the summer, the first prickle of direct heat, the departure of the bearable. Cats and dogs strolling through the lanes, or a dog sitting atop an overhang, looking down at another, at you. A cat screaming, unseen. On the ground cockroaches scurrying rapidly, much larger than those in the west, almost beautiful. And as the sun is breaking out, looking up and seeing the trees that grow on the roofs, their arms spread out over the ledge, above the street, the pink blossoms growing from balconies, the ivy, all of it coming alive, the colors bursting like a sharp taste in you mouth...fruit after two months of rice or a sweet wine after two months of water.
I work at a preschool Monday through Friday, and I have to walk to the subway around 8 each morning. By this time, there is noise to be sure, but, as I said earlier, it is the quiet of this noise. There are no longer stereos blasting from each small shop, competing for your attention begging to be heard, to be noticed, There are not yet so many people competing to be heard. Now the sounds are simple. A single motorbike. The click of a chain on a bike as the rider shifts gears. The sound of a knife on the second floor of a restaurant, out in the open air, chopping today's vegetables - the repetition, the sharp fall of the knife on the cutting board. The clicking of high heels. A distant sound of traffic. The various food and fruit and vegetable stands doing their first business of the morning as they finish setting up their tables. The first haggling voices of a new day. Vendors who have been working side by side forever talking about one more day's worth of nothing in the rising and falling, sometimes harsh sounds of Chinese.
Eight is your last chance for peace. After that and it gets too loud. Even then, the main streets are packed, the subway that I ride overfull. It spreads like a virus from there, from the main routes, into those narrow lanes that I have come, if not to love, then certainly not to hate, until by late afternoon there is no room to move. Until the signs attached vertically to each building start shouting at you louder and louder as the neon grows brighter, staining your retinas. Until you forget it is possible to be alone. And this, in a rather elliptical way, is how I come to why I love mornings in my neighborhoods the most. The short glimpse I have every morning of one person, the same person. An old woman on her worn, wooden stool.
Her stool is low to the ground. It is positioned just outside of the door to what I assume to be her home. The door is always open just enough to give a glimpse of a rack of dirty dishes and a wooden table in the room beyond. Her face is worn. Perhaps worn is an understatement. It is something far greater. There is not hint in her face of the young woman who must have once existed. There is no hint of past beauty. No hint of youth. She sits on her chair, and watches everything and nothing it seems. She sees me walk by. She sees the woman next to her, the woman who every morning at this time is out beginning to prepare the pork dumplngs she will sell throughout the course of the day. She sees the man riding the bike with a large wagon attached to it, the man collecing trash and recycled goods that have been left on the street by people too lazy to take them to the pick-up point the night before. She hears the bells he rings on his bike.
But how can I be sure she is aware of these things? There is a look in her eyes, something faraway. Perhaps I am here influenced by her face in general, for it seems that a person with a face like hers must have experienced real difficulties in life. Did she flee China, losing a husband in the process? Did her daughter grow up to decide that she was not meant for a traditional life, that she would forego marriage to pursue her career? A daughter who would never listen to her mother's reasoning voice, who would ignore the pleas, the shouts, the harangues, and eventually moved out without even a good-bye.
I see this woman sitting on her stool, her expression never changing, an expression that at once hints at tears ready to spill and eyes that have long been dry. I see her and I think of my own grandparents, on the other side of the world. Perhaps I am biased, but when I am home for visits, when I see my grandmothers, it is impossible not to see the youth and the beauty they once possessed. My father's father has had many health problems in recent years, and now he is frail. It is difficult to stand, to walk, to do many simple tasks. But still, he is always ready to smile, to laugh, to offer a hug. My mother's father, he is 91. He is a short man and he has struggled with back and foot problems the last few years. And yet, he, more than anyone I know, is possessed of a burning desire for life. This desire comes through in his eyes, his laugh, in the steel-gripped hand-shakes he has for me whenever I visit.
I do not mean this to be about my grandparents, though. It is about the woman on the stool. What fascinates me about her face is that even though it remains expressionless, or rather, in fixed expression, there is no hint of frailty. I can not tell if hers is an expression of resignation, of reflection, or if, after all that has passed in her life, she just does not give a damn. Perhaps she is sitting on her stool with her expression fixed specifically because she doesn't care about anything anymore, and she can't think of a better way to pass the time than to watch people walk by in the morning. Or maybe, she keeps her expression intentionally fixed as it is, as a way to suppress the laughter she must stifle as she watches people whose faces are filled with hope for each new day.
I never see her anytime but in the morning. But then, I usually do not return to my neighbood until nine or ten in the evening. Soon I might well be moving away from the neighborhood altogether and I wonder if I will see her at all. Maybe she is out there in the evenings, though. Maybe she is in the shadows, hidden behind the illegal booths selling jewelry, T-shirts, socks, mobile phone covers. Maybe she sits directly under the garish neon lights, the lights that distract searching eyes. Maybe she sits in the shadows under the lights, watching the young couples laughing and holding hands, sharing ice cream cones or a bag of fruit. If she is there at night, I would like to see her face sometime. Is it still expressionless? Do the tears come now? When she sees the youth in faces that must seem so foreign to her own. Or maybe she is cackling, her witchy laugh hidden away behind the cacophonous sound of another evening in Taipei. Cackling at the youth that will one day disappear, that will someday stare out from behind wrinkles and moles and sadness and life, and maybe just then try to understand what she is doing sitting on a stool every morning as Taipei comes to life.


Anonymous Natalia said...

It will always amaze me how you can analize in such detailed way someone you don't know.
We've gone to Shida again after that, did you see this lady?

12:14 PM  

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