Historical hypotheticals are useless but tempting to consider. Would Chiang Kai-shek’s son ever have democratized Taiwan if Mainland China hadn’t liberalized its economy? Did the protestors occupying the Taiwanese legislature owe their right to protest to the very authoritarian regime they hoped to resist? As I walked through the Sunflower Movement’s rain-covered tents on the last day of the occupation, I enjoyed letting these questions bubble up and float away, unanswered. Other, more personal hypotheticals were more difficult to shake, however. Would I have stayed in Taipei if I hadn’t been accepted by the grad school of my then-SO’s dreams? Would I be an English teacher, like many of the people who once laughed and rode bikes through the city’s northern tip with me? Would I be a better person? Happier?
It’s always dangerous returning to a place where you once lived, not unlike reading an old journal or—worse—old email archives. One of the things that’s nice about Mainland China is that you can return to a place you lived for two years and find it unrecognizable with not a stone left unturned in the most literal sense possible. Last year, when I finally returned the street in Shanghai where I’d spent my first fragile months ever living outside the US, I was relieved to find a terrible hot pot restaurant wedged into the storefront where my favorite restaurant had once sat. I had moved on, and so, in its own way, had the landscape. Even the grass field in front of the towers that held my classrooms seemed smaller, somehow. I only noticed this because I have a very distinct memory of making an embarrassing long distance phone call from its center one sunny afternoon and yelling through my shamelessly public tears that my life was “so much better” without the person on the end of the line. The lady doth and did protest too much, and as I couldn’t imagine doing that kind of protesting on a lawn so small I couldn’t pretend I was out of earshot of others, I was relieved to find that I was right; the field was smaller, and more buildings had been built, which gradually shrunk it to its present, not-so-private size.
Taiwan is a different place, though, with a different rhythm that tells a decidedly different story in my narrative of how I got here (wherever “here” is). Tellingly, very little about it has changed in spite of my friends’ claims to the contrary. When I finally trudged my way through the downpour to the intersection where I used to live, I was almost disappointed. Even through the opening of a new subway line (which means that were I to live there now I would definitely not be able to afford my room with hollow floors in a weird boarding house for single women), nothing about the area had really changed. Yes, there were entrances to the subway peeking out of the sidewalk, and yes, there were a few new hip, tea shops, probably for the morning commuters who now rush through what was once a middle of nowhere that most of my friends refused to visit. But I still recognized everything. Here was the building where I once stood transfixed, watching the couple moving in orchestrate a lion dance on the sidewalk to exorcize any lingering demons. There was the terrible fast food restaurant whose mustachioed mascot I had learned to hate during the month I lived only on its 30NT bowls of rice and pork trimmings. And my old apartment—I could see it from the street, which was strange. Had there always been a parking lot there? Maybe not, but just across the way was the dumpling shop where I had once done an interview for a Taiwanese food TV show, hungover and in my pajamas, believing no one I cared about would ever see it since I was leaving the island the next week anyway.
I was wrong about that, of course. During my first day in New Jersey, I stumbled into my new office, soaked from another, different downpour, only to find my catchphrase cackled back at me by the department administrator, a charming Vietnamese-Chinese-American woman who had a habit of watching Taiwanese travel television online. “They’re like Taiwanese hamburgers!” she crooned in an imitation of my terribly-accented Mandarin. To her face, I winced, and later, to someone else’s face in someone else’s cramped dorm room, I cried.
That the dumpling shop should have outlasted my time in that department—and come to think of it, the administrator’s time as well—seems outrageous by Mainland Chinese standards, and I was halfway down my old street before I finally convinced myself not to be so shocked that all of the shops and restaurants where I had wiled away the hours of that misbegotten gap year still existed. When I arrived at the park where I had once danced to songs played by an aboriginal band much to the horror of the surrounding Taiwanese citizens, I was relieved to find a placard explaining the history of the street to me, its former resident. “Old businesses compete with newer ones,” the placard explained in Chinese, English, and Japanese, “and this is part of what gives this area its vibrancy and charm. Can you spot the stationery store in this photo from the 1920s?”
I couldn’t , but then again, I didn’t try very hard. The rain was still coming down in a strange, pulsing rhythm; it would pour hard for three minutes, and then mist for five. Again, and again, and again. “Taiwan Touch Your Heart” all the bus stops and airport billboards had proclaimed when I’d lived there, but I’d always been one of those people who felt the island more clearly through my stomach. I ate lunch three different times, marveling at how like my memories everything looked and tasted. Here, in the dumpling shop, the paint is chipping and they’ve begun to experiment with hanging what may be art on one wall but not the other. There, at the jianbing stand, an egg pancake is still 35NT but 40NT if you add cheese (a real indulgence for me when I lived there). Further on, I would find that the street where I had first arrived had changed completely, so much so that I walked past it three times before finally recognizing it by the name of the side street perpendicular to it (the particularly indelible and near inexplicable “Roosevelt”). Now there is a taco shop, a large open cafe, and a collection of bright pink signs by the local neighborhood association protesting the taco shop and open cafe for the “noise and pollution” they bring to a neighborhood that I could have told them was never ever known for being quiet or clean. In 2009, my cab driver dropped me off directly in front of the hostel where I would live for the next 10 days while I searched for an apartment. Thanking him, I immediately walked further down the lane, ignoring his calls from the cab that I had already arrived and was in fact leaving my final destination. As I stood outside a different, similarly-named establishment, I sat on top of my oversized suitcase, brushed away the mosquitos, and cried loud, stupid tears in the hot sun.
I cried, but not before calling the same person I’d called to disavow from a field in the then-suburbs of Shanghai only a few months before. What good, then-me must have thought, is feeling sorry for yourself if no one else knows they should feel sorry for you too? Standing on the street this past week, looking at the exact, unturned stones where I had wept into the first of many expensive international phone calls, I wish I could have tapped that girl on the shoulder. I would have told her to retrace her steps; the place she was looking for was 20 meters back up the street, exactly where the cab had dropped her off. It would be difficult to stop there, though. I might want to tell her to be not irritated but apologetic to the woman who would come, eventually, and let her into the hostel without blaming her for her stupidity. I would want to tell her to get used to crying alone, especially in airports. And I wouldn’t be able to help myself; I would have to tell her to think carefully the morning after she comes home from a perfect night out and decides to apply to grad school because “otherwise she’ll never leave this island.” It turns out, I might say, that there are worse temptations to yield to than being a willing prisoner on a tropical island for the rest of your life. It turns out, I might murmur without meaning to sound menacing, that even the right decisions can leave you plagued by useless questions that do not easily bubble up or float, harmlessly, away.