Winds of the Pacific
Taipei stood before me like a labyrinth, just like any other city to any other traveler. My companion needed a new pair of eyeglasses, so we walked into a shop near National Taiwan University. Instead of a cute Taiwanese girl, we got to talk to the storeowner himself. My companion picked out a pair, but we were told it wouldn’t be ready for a few days.
“Sorry but I’m only in Taiwan for three days, I need something now,” my friend said. The storeowner reached into the cabinet and pulled out a box of contact lenses and handed it over to us. “My apologies, sorry couldn’t help you, why don’t you take this for now?”
I was stunned. Our first reaction was—man, what’s going on, where’s the catch?
We walked into another shop next door, where they promised to get the glasses done the next day. They also took my friend’s old lenses and put together a make-shift pair and told us to use it for tonight. Both were very ordinary shops on the street, but we left wondering if the authorities purposely arranged all this to impress us with a fake sense of Taiwanese hospitality.
Another anecdote came when I took a taxi to Yangmingshan, a national park north of downtown Taipei. I had accidentally left my phone in the taxi. After friends tried calling the hotel and taxi company, the hotel told us that a cab driver was just there to drop off a phone left his in car. To tell the truth, I didn’t know how to react. I called him up to offer him a reward.
“What do you mean? This is how we always do it.” He said. He also told me that he just came back from a trip around the island with some friends, and plans to go to the mainland in the near future.
“Hey I have QQ and Sina Weibo accounts, what’s yours? We can keep talking online.” He asked. That moment, I felt like the two sides couldn’t be closer. “By the way I also have Facebook, I can add you as a friend!”
“Sorry, uh, we don’t have Facebook in the mainland.”
“Oh yeah, that’s right.” He said. “Sorry I’ve gotta go pick someone up, talk to you later.”
Maybe I am just lucky to run into really nice people. Maybe my experiences are just isolated incidents. If I stayed a few more days, surely I will see the decrepit infrastructure, the toxic forms of populism, the dissatisfaction of the people, the paradoxes in the society. There are no perfect places, no perfect institutions, no perfect cultures. Within the Chinese-speaking world, maybe it’s not the best, but we’ve got nothing better for now.
I don’t want to delve into the politics. As a writer from the mainland, I just feel lost. A pervasive feeling of loss. The society I grew up in spent a few decades teaching us to be violent and vengeful, and then a few more decades teaching us to be selfish and greedy. Our parents destroyed our culture, our ethics, our ability to trust, our faith and consensus, but failed to build the utopia that was promised. We may have no choice but to keep doing the same things. As a writer, I have to constantly worry about whether my words will step on some line somewhere. I assume people have ulterior motives when they treat me with warmth. Other than self-survival and competition, we have lost interest in everything else. This is how we have come to define ourselves.
Yes, I have to thank Hong Kong and Taiwan, for protecting Chinese civilization. Even when we have the Ritz Carlton and the Peninsula, Gucci and Louis Vuitton, wives of local officials with more money than their leaders, movie budgets 20 or 30 times theirs, the World’s Fair and the Olympics, but, on the streets of Taipei, I didn’t feel any bit of pride. Whatever we have, they already had; whatever we are proud of, their taxpayers will never approve; whatever we should be proud of, we’ve already lost.