Sunday, January 18, 2009

Gunga Din

When I was a kid I loved Kipling. He gave me Mowgli and Baloo, Rikki Tikki Tavi and Danny Deever, and that poem “If” that says, “You’ll be a man someday, my son,” which if Rudyard didn’t say it, I might never have known. Yet for all his number one hits, I’ll never fully forgive him for Gunga Din. What can I say, I’m no revisionist, but the lines, “Though I’ve belted you and flayed you, by the livin’ Gawd that made you, you’re a better man than I…” Blimey and Bullocks that’s crap, even for a ten year old reading poetry in a barn loft, and still to this day, the notion of a noble savage with a heart of gold ticks me off to no end.
Surprisingly though, I’ve been thinking about Kipling and Gunga since arriving in Taichung because our first real connection to the city has been our Nike appointed Taiwanese driver, Raymond. Soft spoken, a permanent smile plastered on his face, he has taken us everywhere: To Fengle Sculpture Park to ride swan paddle boats, to the HP service center to scoop miso soup out of my keyboard, to Wagor Chinese immersion school to watch the children practice their red lantern Lunar New Year dance and possibly enroll Xi’an, to the Metropolitan Park, to Sogo department store, and everywhere else in between. Always smiling. Always bowing. Always rushing to open our door and fold our stroller into the van trunk. I haven’t the heart to tell him we're not worth the trouble, that we're not some family of dignitaries that can’t step out of car door by our own power or is somehow going to get ax murdered and left for dead if we venture out of our apartment unprotected.
Yet he’s been invaluable, and with three children and two in-laws, Raymond has become an integral part of our life, introduction, and survival in the city. Of course, we could make it without him. Part of the joy of living in a foreign city is not accepting help but forging ahead and making mistakes and having adventures and living to tell the tale. I’ve hunkered down in foreign cities before, and I could load a kid on my back and two under my arms and go native on a city bus. I probably will start doing that in the coming weeks, but for now, Raymond provides me with the one thing every father of three tiny girls needs, a well deserved breather.
His exchanges with my wife are pretty much the same every time. We’re in the back seats, he’s in the front. Raymond has worn the same orange and blue stripped shirt everyday for a week. SungJoo will say, “Raymond, could you put on a classical music station when the children are in the car.” Or she’ll say, “Raymond, drop us off at the apartment and then you can go home.” Or something in Chinese and Raymond will grunt back an answer.
Privately though, our exchanges are more hilarious.
The day we moved into our apartment, a four bedroom flat on the 19th floor overlooking the People’s Park, I was sent out to buy lunch for our moving crew, and Raymond drove me to Subway. Once inside, the menu looked the same as any random sub shop in America. The same yellow interior, same green uniforms and messy cutting board of soggy lettuce, thin tomato slices, and handfuls of black olives, even the oil and dressing. Yet the similarities stopped there, and I recognized immediately that trying to order a sandwich here in Chinese would be absurd. So of course, I proceeded.
I looked at my lunch order sheet, scribbled hastily by my overstressed wife: “Two tuna on wheat; three Italian on white; four veggie on wheat rolls; two meatballs on German bun.” Ridiculous, I know. When suddenly I feel Raymond leaning behind me, looking over my shoulder.
“Do you need any help?”
“No, thanks.”
He draws closer. “This… big order. Are… you… sure?”
Raymond is very soft spoken and I know that he is being polite and helpful not intrusive, just like I know that he is gracefully lying when we invite him inside to have Korean buffet with us and he declines saying that he has just eaten lunch, when all he’s really had is a sport drink and a couple dozen cigarettes. The problem is that I don’t know enough of the Taiwanese culture yet to word it correctly to him that I want to try it on my own. Do I allow him to offer assistance three times so that he can save face? Should I take his help and just stand aside? What is the correct behavior? These are the times I miss the classroom so much because everything comes out between the desks and the books, and usually I am the one learning more than ever I taught.
Besides, Raymond had already driven me two blocks to the restaurant from our apartment, a distance that would have taken me about two minutes to have walked. I wasn’t about to have him help me order sandwiches. I had to sink or swim on my own. In fact, I was sort of hoping to crash and burn. I looked at the two smiling girls behind the counter, their hair tucked into pony tails behind green visors and bowed back. Do your worst, I thought. It’s just deli sandwiches. What bad could possibly happen? I begin to make my order.
“Ni Hao, Er ‘Tuna Sandwich on Wheat’, qing gei wo.”
Both girls squint their eyes and lean so far forward I think we are going to bump noses.
“AND, San ‘Italian on White’, qing gei wo.”
The girls look at one another and then nod. “Are you trying to speak, Chinese?” One askes in very clear English.
Suddenly I am thrilled beyond belief. My Chinese sounded even remotely comprehensible. I try to hide my smile. “Hao!” I nod. “Hao!”
The girls erupt in laughter. I mean, they almost fall over. It’s embarrassing. But I don’t care and continue ordering, making it all the way through, taking the works on all the sandwiches. The gross slimy lettuce, the pepper, the mayonnaise, I don’t care, just load sandwiches up. What matters most is that they recognized I was speaking Chinese. Ha!
The girls do it just right, just like they have been trained. They wrap the bread in paper and stack them atop one another like Lincoln logs and place them in the sack and ring me up. The bill comes to over a thousand NTS, which is just over thirty dollars. I pull out my little rubber band full of folded Taiwanese money and start counting and calculating figures in my head when suddenly it becomes obvious to me that I don’t have enough. I’ve got a bill that I cannot pay. I’m one hundred NTS dollars short.
I smile and put up my hand, I’ve forgotten the phrase for “Please wait a minute,” the one that SungJoo taught the girls when we were standing in line at the water slide in Sculpture Park almost a week ago. There are customers behind, they are smiling, isn’t that what Asians do when they’re upset and angry? They smile? I’d read that somewhere. Suddenly I was a complete and bumbling fool. Stammering and racing in my head, searching around for help but finding nothing. There was an American English teacher in a booth working some romance of this young pretty girl. I’d been listening to their conversation while the sandwiches were being made and he sounded like a douche bag. I’d rather be water boarded than ask that guy for help. There was a tin can full of UNICEF coins on the counter. I could cause a diversion and swipe it, then try to pay one cent at a time? No good, too many eyes on me. It was then I remembered Raymond. He was back in the van. Turning and motioning, he smiled and waved and raced inside, opening his wallet and bailing me out the 100 NTS, the equivalent of three American bucks.
Thankful and laughing, the drive back was full of secrets. “I will not tell… your wife… okay.”
“Raymond,” I put my hand on his shoulder. “This is going to be the first of many things we’re not going to tell my wife, … okay.”
And just like that, Raymond and I were no longer driver and employer, we were pals.
It’s funny, that night, after all the movers left, and the house was full of clothes in piles and old bed sheets and quilts and kid toys and books from back home, the essential stuff that we’d had delivered, I went for a run. I finally had my running shoes and a good pair of shorts and I threw on my headphones and tore off around the new apartment. There’s something about running at night in the city, past park benches and traffic lights, over crosswalks darting in and out of traffic, dodging scooters and leaping curbs. It feels like you’re flying, and that run, especially the first in a new city, leaves such an impression. So that night, as I flew past pagodas and strange hedges, Buddhist temples with candles lit up and steaming noodle street vendors, and the faces. People just stopping in their tracks as my naked white legs pass, and I always wonder what they’re thinking. Oh, that’s an American, it must be, look at the way he runs, look at the way he doesn’t cover up his body, only an American would be that way. Or do they ponder what I’m thinking: Look at this cool city. What is that writing? I can’t believe I’m so lucky to be here.
As I return to the front of the building and take out my key, a metallic stone like object with a sensor inside the unlocks the font door, it looks like some kind of jewelry you might ask a pretty girl to wear around her neck or wrist. I see Raymond in the van waiting.
“Ray, what are you doing here?”
“Your wife… she not come down?”
“No, I think we’re all done for the night.”
“Oh. Then I go home.”
“Okay. “ I pause, wanting to say some kind of thank you for earlier that afternoon, but again I didn’t know enough of the culture. Would I be offending him if I brought it up again? Did it make me lose face? I just didn’t know. “You’re a good person Raymond. I like you.” I say, not caring if it sounds strange.
“You also good, Brian. I … like…you too.”
We laugh and bow to one another and Raymond drives away.
When I got back into the building I stepped away toward the first story swimming pool. It was dark and there were shadows on the water and a slight murmur from the traffic. I slip off my shoes and decide to dive in, but I’m nervous at first and test the temperature with my toes, not too cold. But a total head first dive? Into the dark? I put my hands on my knees and lean forward, staring down into the blackness. I count one, two, three in Chinese, the same I used that day at the sandwich shop. Ee,… Er,…San,… and leap into the bottom of the pool, my whole body instantly submerged.


  1. Hey H.

    Raymond sounds cool...glad you made a friend!

  2. bring not enough money to shopping, kind of embarrassing but taiwanese does it all the time.
    it could be forgave, i suppose.