SARS and Scooters Aside, Still Here

April 27, 2003


“It was as if a vital evolutionary advantage had been bestowed centuries ago on those members of the species who lived in a state of concern about what was to happen next. These ancestors might have failed to savor their experiences appropriately, but they had at least survived and shaped the character of their descendants; while their more focused siblings, at one with the moment and with the place where they stood in, had met violent ends on the horns of unforeseen bison.” Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

As I’m sure most of you are well aware, I am much more the fret-endlessly-about-the-future type than I am the in-the-moment-but-likely-to-be-unexpectedly-gored type (to make use of de Botton’s dichotomy). As such, I have been reading way too many daily reports on the SARS situation in Hong Kong, trying to make the Big Decision about What To Do With The Summer. In reality, it need not have been such a trial; the research and language work in Taipei is so fruitful that I’d almost be crazy to leave at this point, SARS or no SARS. For those of you not reading between the lines there, I’ve decided to stay put, hunker down in Taipei, and ride out the Hong Kong SARS storm from a safe distance.

Having now made the decision and gotten approval from the proverbial man behind the curtain at the NSEP fellowships office, I can’t seem to break the “SARS news update” habit. I discovered this afternoon while chatting with a language partner that I can rattle off the stats of cumulative numbers of patients, deaths, and recoveries for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and note how these numbers have changed over the last few days. This can’t be a good thing. I’m trying to cut back, but the last time I went to the computer lab on campus, I opened the WHO website even before I checked into Yahoo!Mail. If this lasts much longer, I’ll seek counseling, I promise. Of course, go into any kind of clinic these days and the first thing they do is take your temperature as a SARS precaution…. maybe I’m just feeding off the vibes of SARS-obsessed East Asia.

And just how SARS-obsessed are we here? Taiwan is all about the “latest situation.” Actually, displaying a slightly inflated sense of self importance, and number of friends have asked about what my friends and family think about the new quarantine measures in effect at the Heping Hospital in Taipei, forcing me to admit that it was likely not headline news in Minnesota or Washington. Whatever you do, stay out of the local Taiwan English news sources – which inflate everything – and watch the CDC and WHO sites. Demonstrating a positively criminal tendency toward histrionics, the local media never fails to refer to SARS as “the deadly disease” or “the fatal illness,” giving the impression that the death rate is somehow higher than the mere 5% the real authorities will acknowledge. Actually, in a dazzling display of irresponsible journalism, the local news sources have painted the situation as so dire that over the weekend we had our first SARS fatality – a man learned that his wife and parents were all infected, and, convinced that he would be left alone on this earth, killed himself. The irony of the situation is that his wife and parents are doing fine and are expected, so far, to recover. There is an effort now to correct the overly fatalistic reports, but it is limited, as crises sell papers.

On a lighter note, the Forces of Chinese Medicine have kicked into effect, and the “ancient cures” for this brand new illness include increased consumption of green tea and sweet potatoes. One can’t help but wonder if the sweet potato farmers guild is somehow involved…. Spicy hot pot is also a commonly accepted cure for colds and other respiratory ailments, so there are hot pot sales all over Taipei as people flock to eat their way to better health.

Okay, enough of that; on to other topics.

On Scooting. One of the best things about living abroad is that you discover things about yourself that you might not have otherwise ever had cause to learn. For example, if I had never come to Taipei, I doubt I would have come to realize just how fond I am of motor scooters. In general, I am a proponent of the “know and accept your limitations” school of thought, which means that I long ago came to terms with the fact that I will not, in this lifetime, be the type of girl who dances on bars (sorry Holly), wears leather pants, or takes pleasure in riding any sort of two-wheeled motorized vehicle.

My first ride on a friend’s scooter was an unexpected pleasure – minutes after strapping on my helmet and grabbing on for dear life, I was watching the city speed by with delight. Part of the fun, I think, is speeding through the fresh air and strange smells with the freedom not to stop every three blocks to pick up passengers (like the bus) nor to wait behind a long row of stopped cars (scooters can weave between the cars to the front of the line), and then, of course, there’s the ease of parking – just find an open spot of sidewalk and stop. Scooters soon struck me as an economical, convenient and fun way to get around town; I was soon wondering why the scooter culture never caught on in Washington (of course, when DC got a few feet of snow dumped on it this winter, I did have the presence of mind to say, “aha.”

There are other, less obvious, advantages. For example, if you are on a scooter and you are not sure where you are or how to get somewhere, there’s no need to pull off the road or even roll down a window to ask for directions; simply pull up next to another scooter-driver and make your query. For dating couples in conservative Taiwan (where most public displays of affection are still considered “icky,” in the words a Taiwanese friend), the passenger can ride around town hugging the driver tightly. Of course, the disadvantage here to couples dressed up is that the driver is usually the guy, and if his female companion wants to wear a skirt she can have a pretty tough time of it. There are really only two options – either hike up the skirt and bare a great deal of leg (flashing the general public in your effort to mount and dismount), but have the comfort of knowing you are firmly positioned on the scooter, or ride “side saddle” and risk falling off on your way around a corner. I’ve done it both ways and am strongly in favor of the former, but then, I’m an immodest American.

Up until this past weekend, I had only ever been a passenger. Since I am a rather accident-prone driver, the idea of my hitting Taipei traffic with any kind of machinery (from a bicycle on up) is terrifying (and would terrify the locals, if only they knew…), that I had thus far refused all offers to give it a try.

Last Saturday my friend Zheng-se offered me a ride home on his scooter, but as soon as we got off the main roads, he pulled over and told me to hop off for a second. Not suspecting why, I did so and watching, in horror and dismay, as he slid back on the seat and motioned for me to take the position of the driver. “Can you ride a bike?” he asked. “Sure,” I said, “but it’s not the quite the same thing, now is it?” “No,” he explained, “This is easier – no peddling.”

Well, okay, but it’s still pretty tricky your first time out. (Yes, Dylan, so regretting not taking those motorcycle lessons now. Next time, for sure.) Zheng-se speaks very little English, and my motor scooter vocab is somewhat limited, so it was a mostly pantomimed explanation of the gas and breaks and so forth. I started off okay, if a little shaky – I’m not sure I’m strong enough to control the steering on his scooter – but soon we were careening toward a large wall while I, panicking, tried to figure out how to stop. I stopped us about two inches short of the wall, breathing heavily and my heart pounding.

I just have to say here that someday, Zheng-se will make a great dad; I can just see him teaching his kids to drive. He was so calm and so unperturbed through this whole incident (and all the while, I noticed later, prepared to reach around me to grab the brakes if necessary). While we sat there a few inches from the wall, he gently and patiently explained, “Try either applying the brakes or hitting the gas, not both at the same time.” This was a good tip. We’ll call the whole lesson a success because we are both still alive and I, ultimately, did not hit anything, but I’m a long way from buying a Harley and heading to Sturgis.

On photocopying. My research has led me to a number of items published at various points in the Cold War by either the government of the R.O.C. or (on occasion) by the P.R.C. dealing with Overseas Chinese Policy. These little paperback books are usually around 100 pages long, printed in absolutely tiny type, and contain something relevant to my dissertation (or what I think my dissertation is about today, anyway) on practically every page. Because I can only check out five books at a time and read Chinese very, very slowly – not to mention the fact that these sources are frequently items not available outside of Taiwan – the obvious thing to do is copy them in their entirely. For anyone morally affronted by my cheerful embrace of outlawry and illegal coping, I’d like to point out that the books I² talking about here have all been out of print for 20-50 years. I swear to you this: I’d buy them (and thereby ensure that the minuscule royalties got to their hardworking authors) if I could.

I’m sure many of you are aware just how long it takes to stand at a copying machine to copy a bunch of hundred-page-books from cover to cover. In the best of circumstances, this would be less than pleasant work; in this case, it is grim indeed. One of the major problems I have encountered is that the R.O.C. books are published in the traditional Chinese format; that is to say, from back to front, with the lines of characters running vertically on each page from right to left. Needless to say, this takes a bit of getting used to (on a side note, I have unfortunately thus far proven to lack the hand-eye coordination necessary for neat vertical highlighting. My language partner, after viewing the key points and problem phrases I had highlighted in one article, kindly suggested that in the future I use a ruler to guide my hand).

Being in traditional Chinese format also means that the numbers are all written in Chinese characters, not Arabic numerals… including the page numbers. The Chinese character for 1 is a horizontal line. The character for 2 is two parallel horizontal lines. The character for 3 is three parallel horizontal lines. (From 4-9, different characters with rather distinguishing characteristics are employed.) Pages 1-10 cause me no problems. But page 11 is a pair of horizontal lines, which at first glance looks like a 2. Page 12 could be a 3, and 1 and a 2 to make 12, or a 2 and a 1 to make 21 Page 113 has five lines, as do pages 23, 32, 122 and 131 (and, in longer books, pages 212, 221 and 311). Granted, you can page forward and back a bit to figure out where you are, and it is usually reasonably easy to figure out if it is page 311 or 23 (that is, of course, unless you accidentally open the book “Western style” and start trying to read from the end). But sometimes you have to look closely for a minute or two to figure it out.

So, you ask, what’s the big deal with copying? Why look at page numbers at all, just start at one end and flip to the other, copying every page in between, right? Well, the thing is, when you copy something long you zone out a bit, and only intermittently come back to reality to check your progress. I always copy books back to front at home, to save me the trouble of flipping the pages around later (wait, at home I never copy whole books, but obey the US copyright laws unswervingly. Wink, wink, nod, nod). Here, that means starting at the “front” and copying to the “back,” so sometimes I have to stop and look at the page numbers to make sure I haven’t inadvertently reverted to habit and reversed course. Of course, when I look at the page numbers at certain points in the book, I get a mess of horizontal lines and no real indication of where I am. This is how I have several times found myself getting caught somewhere in the 111-112-113 range, for example, and copying the end of the book twice and the beginning not at all.

The thing to do, clearly, was turn the project over to a professional. Try walking into Kinko’s in the US and asking them to copy a whole book, and you I’ll quickly learn the nuances of copyright law. If you’re gonna be a copy pirate, ya gotta sweat it out yourself over a hot copier. I asked around a bit here to see what the copy shop policies were like, and the uniform answer was, “Why wouldn’t they copy the whole book? They get paid by the page, the whole book means more money.” Ah, the triumph of capitalism.

But wait, there’s more. Not only did the campus copy shop copy my little books for me, but they copied them back-to-back, enlarged the type, and bound them like paperbacks with lovely green laminated covers. They even put the titles on the thin little spines, so they can sit on my bookshelves and be clear about their contents. In short, my copies look about fifty times nicer than the originals. All this for less than US $3 per 100-something page book. Gotta love Taiwan. Now I scan the library shelves and catch myself thinking, “Gee, what else can I have copied?” rather than, “Gee, what else do I need?” I have not – so far – engaged in extraneous copying and binding, but I’ve had several close calls.

Incidentally, for any of you who erroneously believed that the bulk of the propaganda battles across the Taiwan Straight during the Cold War were coming from the communist side, all you’ve got to do is look at my little books (well, and read Chinese) to see the truth. Nearly every book on PRC policies published before the 70s (and some well after) refers to the Mainland as “gong fei” – the Communist Bandits. So book titles are things like, “The Communist Bandits’ Overseas Chinese Activities,” and “Remittance Policies of the Communist Bandits.” Sometimes additional adjectives are added for clarity, like “The Thieving Communist Bandits,” or “The Illegitimate Policies of the Communist Bandits.” One book makes it a regular policy to refer to Deng Xiaoping as “Deng the Bandit Xiaoping,” which brings to mind some sort of high-kicking kung-fu hero and does not go well with any picture of the real Deng, even the one of him in a 10-gallon cowboy hat at his first American rodeo. Incidentally, after deciding to recognize the mainland in late 1978, we got an “American Bandits” reference, but that was short-lived and likely suspended altogether when the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act became clear.

On language exchange. A few new classics from my friend and language partner Sharon. Last week she asked me if I enjoyed watching “horrible” movies; the key word here should have been “horror.” Later she asked if women dressing up for work in the US usually had to wear suitcases. I explained that suitcases were generally frowned upon as being too stiff to sit in and not covering enough to be considered modest, but that suits were always acceptable workplace attire. Of course, my own language mistakes are not always so innocent; in class last week I said something that, I’m sorry to admit, translates to “outrageous f***.” I was trying to say “Archives.” At the time I could see in the tears of laughter from my classmates that I had mis-spoken; it was not until later that I had some time with my dictionary to figure out the exact nature of my mortification.

Of course, language mistakes can be on the government level as well. Yesterday Sharon and I had a language-exchange “outing” to the Taipei Water Park. For eight months I’ve seen this sign without bothering to read the characters to see what it’s called in Chinese. I’ve just seen the words “water park” and thought about waterslides and wave pools. Imagine my surprise, then, to enter and discover that it is a park – and museum – devoted to the history of drinking water in Taiwan. I wish I could say it was enlightening, but a whole museum on the developments that led to the Taiwan tap water you can’t even drink without boiling anyway? The park was lovely, though.

Hmmm, so much for short commentaries – this, incidentally, is what happens when I start writing on my laptop at home instead of saving the update for the uncomfortable computer lab (did I really just write a long email mostly about photocopying??) but at least it is time not spent on the WHO website. Take care everyone, and stay out of Canada.

Copyright 2004 by Meredith Oyen