Yes We Can

Entry by: Godai41

6th February 2015
Yes We Can:

Tainan Style

On one section of Ta-Tung Lu, near a post office, there is one of those ditches (in Texas they're called bayous) that passes between two sections of pavement and makes people perform a strange leap over it and up an awkward step to the next section of street. One day, soon after my arrival in Tainan, after about a week of leaping and climbing every time I left my lane, someone constructed a single piece of stone bridge. It held, somehow, and for a few days I walked across it in comfort. Then, when I went out another day, it had collapsed and fallen into the ditch. From then on, until today, it lay in the ditch and people are again leaping and climbing.

I tell this story only because it is vintage Tainan. The gap had been there until someone spontaneously got it into his head to "fix" it; it broke and will stay broken until, one day, someone will spontaneously pick up another makeshift bridge and establish it. But when, where, how, or why no one seems to know or care.

I came to Tainan so my wife could see her mother, father and country. She hadn't seen her parents for three years; she had been away from her country for five. I was anxious, at the same time, to see the schools she had attended and the streets on which she had peddled her bicycle, and to taste the foods she had devoured as a child and young adult.

From the Chiang Kai Shek airport we bussed it quickly to downtown Taipei and found and boarded the bus to Tainan. Three and one-half hours, a Gung-Fu film, and a brief nap later, I saw the outskirts, the rows of bicycle, herb, and stationery shops, and the myriad small openings that held eateries steaming, frying, boiling, barbecuing a variety of foods.

After our jet lag wore off, we settled into our routine. I wrote each morning. After lunch and a nap, we took a cab or a bus downtown to the church, and after my wife, an organist, had practiced, walked around Tainan, seeing people, streets, alleys, temples, old friends of hers, and more.

At first, Tainan is not user friendly. Street signs are all in Chinese. It took many inquiries and three weeks to find a map of Tainan, a gift of the Tainanese director of a local English school. The map was in Chinese. There were no English guidebooks available; one had to be a detective to locate an English newspaper--I found a steady source only after two weeks. For the tourist part of me, there were no Tainan postcard scenes or, for that matter, any postcard scenes. People spoke little English, although they smiled a lot, and my one year of Mandarin Chinese didn't go very far among people who naturally and rightly prefer to speak Taiwanese. Tainan itself is, as my wife said, a museum, but a labyrinthine museum. As Squire Gaylord, a character in William Dean Howells' A Modern Instance, says of Boston: "The city cramps me; it's too right a fit; and yet I can't seem to find myself in it." Even Taipei, as big and crowded as it is, seemed more accessible (easier to swallow, digest) than little Tainan.

Tainan seemed to have no center. Each night we walked in our neighborhood down Ta-Tung Lu past stationery shops, photo stores, and bakeries. How could one neighborhood support so many photo shops? During the day, the various temples and their individual gods helped me make some small sense of the city, but there was no map I could refer to, no rationale to each cluster of stores that would help me reinforce my daytime experience. The Ta-Tung Lu bus stops downtown turned up at the oddest places, and I could never find any of them on my own, although all the busses always cost seven NT (about 25 cents). When my wife began to show me her childhood hangouts and shrines, and we began to find paths between one and another, the shape of Tainan started to form in my mind's eye.

My centers of balance were the church, the hotel which sold the China Post, the train station, etc. I went back and forth among them. I began to get one segment of Tainan under control, but I still couldn't venture out from it. This tremendously active small city or town, home to motorcycles, U-turning cabs, and bicycle repair shops, and with no English books other than those intended to teach English, was a thorny one indeed. I was never sure why I or anyone else needed to be anyplace in the city. Where one went and why one went there seemed as arbitrary a matter as when and by whom the bridge over the ditch would be rebuilt.

At home, the routine was less arbitrary. My wife's brother and his wife directed from the house a 24-hour-a-day business sewing ornamentation on wedding gowns for export to England, Italy, and the U.S.A. Workers at no special times and deadlines regularly came and went, the former picking up materials and pay and dropping off finished work. Two times during the 40 days my wife's nephew went to school to check on his summer homework. Only my retired father-in-law seemed regular, coming and going to his part-time job at a toy factory at 7 a.m. and noon respectively six days a week. A few irregular social occasions seemed the most routine we could get up: a late Thursday evening, local professional-old buddies drinking night, a day trip to a mango field at harvest time. Still, elusive Tainan maintained its status as the center of our eccentric circle.

Yet, Tainan takes hold of one, and one could do much worse than Tainan. I lived five minutes from a safe park, which contained a monastery, a temple, of course, a swimming pool, a concert hall, and baseball fields. How fertile! My father-in-law took us along to his Saturday evening (11 p.m.) meditation class. One night past midnight while walking home from the class the railroad warning lights came on and the romantic cars from somewhere sped past our now quiet corner, transformed now into a cow crossing as we watched, silent, in awe.

Tainan will triumph. Paris would admire envy its aloofness, its natural resistance. People will stare you down, pretending they don't recognize Western faces, but Tainan still captures one.

It is bereft enough of activity to make it an unplanned artist's colony, a haven for hard workers cut off from social activity or even the advertisements for social activity. Its charm, beyond its midnight trains and affable herb doctors, its school girl bicycle riders with what must be the world's best posture, is its very resistance, which, finally, acts in reverse, takes hold of one, and doesn't let go.