Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Always Running

So here it is. My worst moment so far. I’m sitting on the tenth floor of Sogo Department Store in the heart of downtown Taichung with my back to the play area where my two eldest daughters are screaming and vaulting on inflatable trampolines into ball pits colored like vomitous rainbow sherbet and I’m facing this blindingly bright stuffed animal display of Mickey Mouse and Sponge Bob Square Pants next to a Hello Kitty Boutique and Build a Bear, and I’m ready to go back to our new apartment overlooking the whole city and stick my head in the oven. Just dose myself in kerosene, slit my wrists and jump into an erupting volcano of liquid magma. Why you ask? Well, it all started three days ago when we left Korea by plane and landed in this county, or should I say, this non-country, of Taiwan.
Leaving Korea is easy. We awake, the bags are already packed, and take two rental cars to Kimhae airport. There is myself, SungJoo, my two Korean in-laws who will continue to live with us in Taiwan, and SungJoo’s middle sister EunJong who helps watch our three daughters. We’re business class and check in quick, through customs and immigration control, our boarding passes ready, we head on to the plane.
Here’s where things take a nasty turn.
SungJoo agonizingly described the blood curdling cries from our one year old on the 13 hour flight from Portland to Korea, to which I must admit I was thankful I’d left a few days later. Now I can attest, as this time Lauren Kinu screams the entire flight, her little ears and nose plugged up and popping, and Xi’an and Rebekah climbing over and under seats, banging on the windows, knocking over drinks, squirrely and relentless. After the two hour flight, when we finally land in Taipei, my nerves are shot.
Now the race through Taiwanese passport control and baggage claim begins. Me carrying both my daughters like sacks of potatoes over my shoulders, my stress level rising as my in-laws run off or SungJoo scowls in my direction when I ask her ridiculous questions like, “You have the visa paperwork, right?”
This has got to get easier.
It does. I think.
We are met by two Taiwanese drivers who pile our belongs into their mini-vans and trek us the two hour ride north to the city of Taichung. Once outside the bustle of Taipei, the stretch of highway to our new home is full of barren industrial sprawl. Desolate bridges over dry rock river beds, electrical towers stretching toward distant temples, lonely farm buildings made of corrugated steel and clusters of villages centered along side roads in rows of two story cement houses and a smell I can’t detect. I see the disappointment on my in-law’s faces. South Korea is also a developing nation and so their fierce pride forces them to be overly critical of other Asian nations. “Why is it so dirty here? And the air is so filthy. We cannot even run the air-conditioning. I think our Korea is much more advanced.”
Then there’s the Chinese language. The symbols are everywhere and resemble a daunting Rorschach ink blot collage of blurry flowers and fireworks, spider webs and alien life DNA strands. We pull off at a rest area which is identical to every other Asian roadside pit stop I’ve eve stumbled upon from Japan through Thailand. Loud pop music blaring from speakers, fried potatoes in cups, and hot dogs on sticks. The smell of gas and oil and cheap trinket souvenirs is overwhelming and I stand urinating in front of this poster that had the same round headed smiling cartoon figure depicting a growing nation all over Asia: Happy man with the electrician belt fixing the city. Happy wife holding the baby on her back. Happy brother and sister in short pants flying a kite. Yet, the language is so much more complex. Turning, I see another poster that warns in English: “Please do not use cell phones when driving,” and above that is the Chinese translation. Astounded, I count over forty-five characters in the sentence. What were they possibly able to say in that amount of space? I’d always known each Chinese symbol had numerous interpretations, depending on how it was pronounced, did that mean the cell phone warning could also be a beautiful poem? An intricate political slogan? A treaty of reason? It is foreboding and fearful and impressed again the difficulty that lay before me if I were to ever assimilate into this culture.
After the long drive we finally arrive at the Evergreen Laurel Hotel with its red lantern entrance and boys in white bell hop hats and uniforms and check in. Immediately SungJoo is assaulted with Chinese, a challenge she was up for fifteen years ago but now I see her struggle and frustrate herself. I try to reach over, put my hand on her shoulder, but she steps away as if my touch carries no soothing power anymore as well, another change from a decade and a half ago. There is just no place for me next to her as she speaks in English, as if asserting her ‘American-ness’ now to the world, making demands, arranging plans, pointing with her finger and directing.
We occupy two rooms on the fifth floor. Both have two beds, a TV desk and chair sofa. SungJoo, myself and Xi’an and Rebekah will share one, my in-laws are in the adjacent room with Lauren Kinu and the crib. Xi’an turns on the TV the moment we enter. The Disney Channel in Chinese. Goofy and Donald are racing a hot air balloon against Black Pete and I learn my first Chinese word of the day: “Miska Moossa” the name of Mickey Mouse.
That night we are driven to a massive shopping center complex amidst this growing section of downtown called “Tiger City.” The wind howls and it is much colder than the tropical breezes I was lead to believe. This part of town is also under development, as is much of Taichung. Around us there are forty story apartment complexes wrapped in netting and rebar, vacant grass fields heaped in garbage next to sleek faced banks with marble pillars and glassy windows, rows of tenement houses held together by bailing wire and worn black tires, and rows of motor scooters by the hundred, all parked in perfect order, their steering wheels pointed in one direction. It is ominous and inspiring, that the will of a collective people could be all moving toward constructing this city, this country, this international market, this eventual Asian power, together. All united together. Yet still, not even recognized by the Chinese government as a place that exists outside of its larger Big Brother. I am reminded of this the first letter I send home, written on room stationary at the hotel bar, a throw back, I tell myself to a more romantic time, when the smiling woman in green jacket at the front desk said, “Please, remember to write, ROC, on your letters. We are Taiwan, but we are still the Republic of China.”
“Will you ever not be part of China?”
“Maybe someday. When we are finished growing.”
“When will you know you’ve finished?” I couldn’t help myself.
“When we are standing still.” The seriousness of her eyebrows cause me to laugh.
Transition. I think to myself. Even countries must always be moving, unable to rest, stagnate, stop treading water or else they’ll drown.
The next three days are a hotel blur of lounge acts, room service, breakfast buffets with runny scrambled eggs and cold black coffee, bottled water, scrubbing sippy cups in bathroom sinks with a toothbrush next to rinsed-out socks, smiling Chinese people with English nicknames, jet lag, diaper changes on clean sheets, random English memorized from phrase books, front desk questions, house maids, shower caps, styrofoam slippers, night strolls, blog postings, incomprehensible street names, oversized chopsticks, corporate phone calls, frantic Chinese character memorization, 7-11 runs, shampoo and body lotion in tiny little vials, and room keys the shape of tongue depressors.
All a blur. All to keep me guessing if I am coming or going. All to keep me awake at night laying on the cramp bed thinking. “You’ve got to slow down. You can’t keep up this pace.” Then I would doze off and be awakened by Xi’an’s foot kicking me in the ribs or face, sitting up quickly and thinking, “Go faster!”
I am totally and completely off balance.
And then it happens. On the morning of the third day Rebekah dumps a bowl of miso soup all over my computer. She does it right in front of my face while I am on the sitting on the floor trying to email and skype and feed the baby and ward off the cleaning lady till the afternoon and make sure my in-laws have enough time in the sauna. I watch in horror as bits of tofu and slimy seaweed chucks ooze through the keys and wipe frantically with my shirt, making it worse.
It is the end of my computer and link to the outside world. Within two hours, letters will no longer type on my screen. In three, I am unable to reboot. And by that afternoon I fear everything on my hard drive, including my first novel, which is a final chapter from finishing, is lost forever.
I frantically look for help. But no one understands a word I am saying. I point to my laptop. I show them the empty miso bowl and replay the incident. The woman at the front desk smiles patiently, the bell boys in white uniform shrug their shoulders. There is nothing I can do.
The next day we are going to move into our new apartment. It’s all been arranged and so that afternoon we ride to Sogo Department store and wander floor after floor purchasing essentials: a rice cooker, blankets, bags of rice. We’re an Asian family and we’re under construction too, I guess. I carry my computer with me. Excited momentarily, I pause inside an Apple Store but the repair man can offer no solace, instead writing an address to a computer store downtown in Chinese. Dejected and pissed, I force an argument with my wife who takes off with the stroller in a cloud of disgust and I go in the opposite direction, taking my two wild daughters to the tenth floor play area to sit on the outside bench and sulk. I’m an idiot. A big fat, royal dummy.
So here I am. My unhappy wife pushing a howling jet lagged infant around a shopping mall in a stroller bumping into surgically masked store employees in mini-skirts and matching cardigans. My Korean in-laws upset they cannot find Korean soy sauce instead of Taiwanese and wondering how they will ever rest on the marble floor of our apartment if it is not heated like the floors in Korea. A fat faced, bowl cut of a six year old brat chasing my daughters around the play area growling. And me. Captain dumb as a box of hair. Feeling dejected and sorry for myself. So what do I do? It is then I decide to go back. Go back to the beginning, when it was just me and my eyes that see and my hands that touch and I go back inside myself. Bury it deep. Deep as embers, and laugh. Laugh at it all. I tell myself, remember this. Remember every frustration you’ve ever felt. Suffer through it. Make it last as long as you can, and just laugh. So if you ever leave this life you’ll know. Everyday that comes after will be worth it, once you decide to finally stand still.


  1. Hey H!

    I recently found your blog and I love reading your stories. I hope things will get better from what i read today, but I'm sure they will.


  2. H I would love to skype with you sometime if you get the chance so shoot me an Email!

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  4. Mr. H,

    I'm really jealous you're in Taiwan. From what I saw of it, it was definitely one of the most beautiful places I've traveled to. I couldn't stop taking pictures of the countryside and temples, especially. Once you're all settled, be sure to take your family to Kaohsiung! :)

    Take care,

  5. Hartenstein!
    I am so sorry for your laptop; if there's anything I can do from here, please let me know! I assume you've gotten a temporary replacement or internet source, but here's my best attempt at a translation of events into Chinese:

    我的女兒把一碗湯到到我的電腦上。有沒有辦法修理或把電腦的硬碟重新處理找回全部的文件? 謝謝!

    Hopefully you can print that out and show that to someone who can help. It basically says "My daughter poured a bowl of soup on my laptop; is there anything you can do to fix it or help recover the files? Thank you!"

    Fight through, H. Here's a quote for you: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance" (James 1:2-3)

    If once you're settled down you need somewhere to take your daughters for fun, there's this amazing water park/amusement park adjoined in Taichung (or somewhere near it). It's the equivalent of Disneyland/Six Flags adjacent to Water World. Some rides may be a bit scary for your daughters, but it's a lot of fun and really cheap compared to the US (of course). Here's more info:

    Good luck with everything, and I hope things get better soon,
    Valerie :)

  6. I can't really describe how I feel correctly when I saw the last paragraph.
    There was something made me feel very blue, but I don't know how to digest it.
    There are too many emotions pop up suddenly. I feel that I want to cry but I can't cry. This is harder than just cry loudly...When heart is buried, all feelings are numb. I really do hope you can break away from all difficulties.