Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Rest of the Story

There was a whole scene that got cut out of my Taiwan story. Karen said she edited it this way specifically so that I could publish that part elsewhere, which was a nice consideration. I do intend to try to get an audience for it somehow. I’ll start with you.

This section starts at the end of our hike along the train tracks, and describes dinner at a sort of bed & breakfast (well, bed & dinner) establishment Sarah and I stumbled into. I remember that I was a little apprehensive going into the situation—what if I couldn’t talk to anyone? What if the food was weird? What if I committed a faux pas? Pretty quickly, though, we relaxed and stopped worrying so much, and that’s when the fun began. I didn’t get all the conversation, and in fact, the food was a little weird. But it was, as they say, all good. Well, not the maple gelatin, but everything else, once I’d let go of my need to understand and anticipate every little thing, was great. It’s one of my favorite memories from that summer.

We finally decided to turn around when we got to a dark and forbidding tunnel full of imaginary snakes and spiders. The hike back to town was uneventful, with no train wrecks and no further epiphanies.

We’d heard through the backpacking grapevine that the town’s railway workers were eager to supplement their income by renting out rooms to tourists, and this turned out to be true. For the equivalent of $12, we were invited to have dinner and spend the night at the home of a boyishly jovial conductor named Mr. Gao. He was no taller than either of us, and was still wearing his uniform, with a hat that fell over his eyes and sleeves that hung down to his knuckles. If he had been on the train that had almost run down (or at least bumped) a couple of Americans earlier that afternoon, he kept it to himself.

We just had time to wash up before dinner. As I was taking off my muddy shoes, I overheard Mr. Gao in the bathroom explaining a quirk of the plumbing to Sarah. “Thanks,” I heard her say in Chinese, “I’ll tell my peng you.” Peng you. Friend. She’d called me her friend. A jolt of happiness made me smile, and for the second time that day, I had the feeling something important had changed in my life.

There were about 10 people at the dinner table. We spoke a pidgin of Mandarin sprinkled liberally with English. I picked up that the others were railway employees who came and went with the waxing and waning of tourist crowds. I wasn’t sure I understood who lived in the house and who didn’t, but it didn’t matter. The sunny Mr. Gao made us all feel like we belonged, heaping our rice bowls with more and more food. He brought dish after dish out of the kitchen, bok choi with garlic following shrimp and mayonnaise chased by chicken, stir-fried squash, and bamboo made with local shoots so stupefyingly tender and nutty that Mr. Gao said that he forgot his name whenever he ate them. A few of the offerings did challenge my teenaged palate, like the brown jelly that looked like consomm√© but tasted like Aunt Jemima pancake syrup. (I slid my portion into Sarah’s bowl when Mr. Gao made one of his many trips into the kitchen.)

I wondered aloud what some of the more exotic items were, and each time I asked, Mr. Gao jumped up from the table, bounded downstairs, and returned a few minutes later with a dot-matrix printout describing the dish in English. When one slip came back with the single word “tripe,” I decided to stop asking. I never found out what the next item was, a fibrous, tasteless, branched thing that looked like a diagram of human bronchial tubes. (Years later, when someone happened to ask me what the weirdest food was I’d ever eaten, this was the first thing that popped into my head.)

I can’t say that everything in my life became clear that day. I couldn’t identify half the things in my stuffed belly, for one thing. I never learned the names of all my dining companions. I hardly understood the obsession with China that had made me want to study in Beijing, and nobody really had a clear picture of the massacre in Tiananmen Square that had re-routed me to the island formerly known as Formosa.

So it’s true that I was still, in many ways, the same baffled teenager who had gotten on a bus with a near stranger that morning. I still barely knew where I was or how I got there. But for the first time in my life, I had some idea of where I was going.

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