One Zongzi Too Many

So it’s been nearly four weeks since my return to Taipei, and just 10 months after I left. I moved right back into my old room, and the combination of this and the fact that I’d been traveling pretty constantly for more than a month, meant that my first thought when I woke up that first morning in Taiwan was, where am I?? and then, having located myself, found I was unsure whether I had ever actually left, or had simply dreamed the last year. Upon contemplation, I was hoping that I hadn’t dreamed it, because I didn’t want to have to redo all those visits to and research at the National Archives. (editor note, added later in light of subsequent events) Be assured that procedures at the Archives applicable to lowly Georgetown history students are a bit different than they are for Sandy Berger. Our pants aren’t as roomy, for one thing.

In fact, the time has really passed (as I’m sure you’re all aware), and I am really back on my old stomping grounds. I even went back to my old school to register for night classes, two evenings of Chinese a week to supplement my days in the archives. Actually, it was there that I discovered that all is not the same, really: my Chinese has fallen off a bit, and requires some serious attention. You might ask what clued me in. Well, I suppose the moment was when I was about to fill out the school’s registration form, and I looked across the desk and very politely asked the young women behind it if I could please borrow her nose.

The Mandarin word for pen is bi, and the word for nose is bi zi. By sliding that extra zi sound on the end, I turned a simple request into a ridiculous one. After all, everyone in Taiwan thinks I have such a pretty nose – so high – so what on earth would I want hers for?

I’m already pretty settled into a return here: days at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archives, evenings classes, homework, and roaming around Taipei nostalgically sampling all of my favorite foods. I’ve been back to our favorite Korean place, along with the best Buddhist Vegetarian Cafeteria in Gongguan, the noodle place across from church, and, of course, an all-you-can-eat hot pot restaurant. You gotta love Taiwan – it’s 99 degrees every day, and we’re going out for hot pot.

I arrived, this time, just ahead of Dragon Boat Festival, which means that I was just in time to eat zongzi, sticky rice, meat, and vegetables pressed into large triangular shapes the size of your fist and wrapped in bamboo leaves. To be perfectly honest, at this point I suspect I’ve had one zongzi too many. It is common to give them away to friends and acquaintances, and I’ve received a great many, not only from my friends, but even from the ladies at the archives, who heated them up and gave them to me to eat while reading (so much for document preservation, I guess. Full of festival spirit, they came around the reading room later with chocolates). I brought a zongzi with me for lunch yesterday, but when the moment came, I found I just couldn’t face it.

Just when I got all settled in, however, it was off to Washington for the Fulbright orientation. I’m still just about the most tired I have ever been in my life – I’d just started adjusting to DC time, when suddenly there I was, back on a plane heading west once more. Interestingly, I had the same crew on my Tokyo-NY and NY-Tokyo flights, and they remembered me (not that I’m so interesting one must remember me out of a passenger list of 400… I think the fact that 95% of the people on the plane both ways were Asian worked in my favor) and greeted me like an old friend (well, for New Yorkers anyway. What I actually got was, “What, going back so soon? Don’t you like your country?”) In general I think that the US-based crews of these Northwest trans-Pacific flights much prefer Americans to Asians – some effort at training them in cultural understanding is badly needed – and whenever I fly these routes I’m always uncomfortably made into an insider in all the complaints about the other passengers. As unfortunate as this is, there are perks: on the flight from Tokyo to Taipei, the American flight attendant supplied me (in coach, of course) with a personal DVD player and my pick of movies because I looked so tired, he thought I might want a low-energy way to pass the time.

My biggest complaint about these flights, aside from flight attendants who are mean to everyone but me, is the food. I know that complaining about airline food is, by now, somewhat cliche, but I have my own specific complaint: Northwest (and many other airlines) have no concept of vegetarianism. I always order the lacto-ovo vegetarian meal, and this can have really surprising consequences. On one flight, I was served a meatless pasta and bread – all fine – but was denied the salad given everyone else on the flight. Sometimes they give me the salad, but no dressing – I’m a vegetarian, Ranch is clearly out. For breakfast I am almost always given oatmeal and peaches with a side of rolls and melons – i.e. starch and fruit with some more starch and fruit. At “snack time,” it’s more bread like the rest of the passengers, but unlike everyone else, no Twix bar, which is apparently not vegetarian. On flights in and out of Tokyo I am inevitably denied the standard desert in favor of a Japanese cherry gelatin (which if it really is gelatin, is less vegetarian than the chocolate cookies my neighbor eats while I watch with envy). I once nearly tackled a flight attendant in order to demand that I be given ice cream like everyone else. One of my favorites will always be the British Airways flight on which my vegetarian meal was the exact same cheese sandwhich everyone else got – except it did not come with water and a Kit-Kat. On Northwest, everyone is served a beverage with dinner – but not vegetarians, we apparently do not take in liquids. I’m sure red wine and diet coke are inherently carnivorous anyway.

Once freed from the enforced diet of eating special meals on flights, however, life got better, though I had a genuinely bizarre experience on Wednesday. So bizarre, in fact, that I’m still not sure what to make of it. Wednesday night I left the archives and headed off for my Chinese class. I was dead tired (jet lag times twenty), but the Starbucks was much too far away and I just wasn’t up for sticky sweet Taiwan coffee. I stopped in 7-11 to buy Diet Coke, but discovered they only had regular. No matter, I thought, I’ll just walk up the street in search of the next convenience store. Generally this works – in any Taiwan city, you can throw an NT dollar in any direction and hit a 7-11, Happy Mart, Family Mart, etc. This is why I suspect that for about a half an hour that Wednesday evening, I actually entered the Twilight Zone. I walked and walked and walked – twice as far as the Starbucks and back again – and did not see the familiar lights of any one of these chains. I was apparently too tired to make the rational choice to just buy regular coke and forget it, so I walked and walked, and walked. It took more than a half an hour before I finally saw the familiar red, orange, and green stripes of the 7-11 shining in the distance. A good thing, too, as the situation was starting to freak me out – where did all the 7-11s go?

This was an impossible task – a feat worthy of Hercules – to walk 30 minutes without finding a convenience store, and yet there I was. When I finally happened upon the store, I burst in and dashed throught the aisles, grabbing a diet coke and holding it aloft like the Holy Grail. It was only as I paid for it that the feeling came: that deep, personal embarrassment that comes of having gone to ridiculous lengths for the sake of something utterly unimportant with the sort of single-minded determination that can only be an e arly sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Today I’m not going to play around. I’m going to start at the Starbucks – it’s safer.

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