This week I came across a store selling DVDs; on a flat screen, the Princess Bride played in English with Chinese subtitles, begging pedestrians to stop walking and become mesmerized in the store. It was funny to see a film that I knew so well in this unfamiliar city, so I fell for the ploy and became mesmerized for a time:
The scene showed the Fire Swamp, where Westley and his love, Buttercup, reunite and where they encounter the ROUS. They escape gurgling quicksand and Westley heroically staves off the aggression of the disgusting ROUS, only for Buttercup to nearly be incinerated by the forest floor’s bursts of fire. Fortunately, Westley hears the warning sounds, pulls her to safety, and (spoiler alert) they survive the Fire Swamp.
As I took in the scene, from one of my all-time favorite films, my mind began racing the gaps of metaphor, jumping between the experience of Westley and Buttercup, as they embrace the challenges of the Fire Swamp, and me, as I experience life in Zhongli, Taiwan. Certainly, I haven’t found or fought any rodents quite to the standards of an ROUS. (And I think that my quest to find love would more likely have led me to a certain second-grade teacher in NYC than to Zhongli.) But I do recognize similarities between our narratives. We each must cope with successive unfamiliarities and in both of our experiences the sounds of our surroundings play formative roles in creating our environments. Okay, this metaphor’s a stretch, I know, but bear with me: I hope that by conveying the sounds of my day to day, you will hear my experience at a quality that my description wouldn’t manage to produce. Bzzz, Chatter, ‘Ice Cream’ Says the City.
It is true that the bzzzzz of mosquitoes is everywhere, created both by the insect and by mopeds buzzed by riders throughout the city. Brrrrrr…Bzzz! You know the sound. I do too, and its what sent me to a Taiwanese hospital last week after I had woken up on three mornings with the left side of my face swollen shut, an allergic reaction to clustered mosquito bites on my cheek. (I’m sweet, so they like my blood.) You can bet that my antennae are particularly tuned to the frequency of mosquitoes, and I am less than happy when I recognize their presence. Ugh, why did God make mosquitoes and why have they followed me to Taiwan?
I have also been surprised by the buzz generated from mopeds in the city. I rented a U-Bike (one of those sturdy bike-rentals that you can find catering to tourists in most cities) on several evenings after dinner and pedaled it silently along the streets, only to find myself amidst 25 mopeds at almost every traffic light. Streets are narrow, gasoline is expensive, traffic can be deafening. Also, I have seen the smaller, base-model 50-cc mopeds being inexpensively sold for the equivalent of $50 USD, so you begin to understand the swarms. The buzz seems to find its way everywhere, and it swells evermore (as do my puns).
As we continue through this imaginary forest, there is so much noise that you don’t understand. When you hear birds chirping their songs of commerce, you don’t know whether to be interested, concerned, or whether to laugh, and it becomes easy for you to block out without perking your ears too much. I think I have found this to be the case when I walk through the city as well, surrounded by a culture for which I still have little concept. Think urban streets and sidewalks, filled with vendors of food, clothing, electronics, etc., all marketing themselves, bartering loudly on a Friday night. In tonal Chinese.
Though I have learned some basics in Chinese, I certainly do not speak the language and this really bothered me when I first arrived. However, I think one of the greatest leaps I’ve made in my first three weeks is to become more comfortable among a foreign ecology of language and culture. Unless I recognize that the store owner is specifically confronting me, I have learned to treat the conventions she uses in the same way that I treat other city noises, and I don’t process the message as I might, even subconsciously, in a more familiar setting. Chatter away, my friends; I’m sorry, rudimentary sign language is likely the most I’ll understand!
‘There must be ice-cream trucks everywhere, every night!’ is what I thought when I heard the tinkley tune of an ice-cream truck each of the first few nights I spent in Taiwan. I used to love the ice-cream truck that would stop in Reedsport, my hometown, on my childhood’s hot summer days—I always got the ice cream sandwich, chocolate-chip cookies on either end of vanilla ice-cream filling. But no, garbage trucks in Taiwan have adopted the tune, and they broadcast it loudly and sweetly as they drive around the neighborhood every night.
I even learned that the tune has changed throughout the past decade, from Beethoven to childhood songs to… K-Pop next? According to one article. As with any large city, Zhongli (population almost 400,000) is bound to have a significant need for garbage collectors, and the tune is a PR campaign by the sanitation company in addition to a friendly reminder for residents to come streetside for garbage pickup. The tune broadcasts directly to my taste buds. Mmm my mouth waters, but why do you tease me in this way, Taiwan!
Certainly the sounds of my surroundings are not restricted just to the buzz of the moped, the chatter of the vendors, and the sweet tune of the garbage collectors; I’m sure I hear a thousand other words, sounds, and noises every day, even every hour. But those are for future posts. I should probably take this opportunity in case you’re worried that I’m in some place as dire as the Fire Swamp, I’m not. That really was just a wild, espresso-induced mind jump of metaphor I came up with; things are actually great, and most of the experiences are much more pleasant than they are deadly. But you could minimize one dangerous experience; if you feel like helping me to quit salivating every time the garbage truck comes, vote here for the sanitation company to choose a different tune.