Taiwan, part 5: Nerds on the Hunt, Interdimensional Trash Disposal, and the Immutable Law of Rob’s Umbrella

You learn very quickly in Taiwan never to go anywhere without your umbrella. Rain here has all the easy predictability of a ninja raid. One minute you’re walking along, enjoying the shade from a few afternoon clouds, and the next you’re waiting for Noah to float by going, “If I’d known it was going to be this bad, I would’ve stocked more food.” Such was the case yesterday when, foolishly, I forgot to bring my umbrella. Now this in and of itself should have been a warning. It’s an immutable law of space-time that if I forget my umbrella and there are clouds out, it WILL rain. That’s it. You can inscribe that in marble and sink it to the bottom of the ocean to be found by distant generations looking for guidance in whatever dark lives they’re living. Thus sayeth, and all that. But as I was saying, yesterday we all went to the district around Taiwan Normal University, which is chock-full of interesting shops and food stands. At some point, and I wasn’t aware of this until it had already happened, we split up into two groups. I went with Duanying, Xuebin, and a girl who’s studying comparative literature in our department. We’d already bought an odd assortment of snack food—running the gamut from Snyder’s honey-mustard sourdough bits (one of my personal obsessions, when I can find them) to fried meat in Thai chili sauce—which was making for an equally odd walk because, for reasons unbeknownst to any of us, there isn’t a trash can to be found anywhere in Taipei. The streets are squeaky clean, but there aren’t any trash cans. I don’t understand how that works. Not at all. Somehow we also seemed to be the only people walking the streets with armloads of trash, like the world’s last boxcar hobos, everyone else apparently having deposited theirs in some kind of interdimensional portal, there being no other explanation available. We each must have commented on the strangeness of the situation fifteen times. And so it was that when we fetched up at the door of yet another second-hand bookstore, we had to carry our garbage inside, feeling like filthy vagrants until the owner smiled and said we could stack it outside the door. I asked him where I could find a trash can and he just laughed, “There aren’t any.” I’ll refrain from commenting on the state of a society where a person can cheerily note that there’s nowhere to put trash except into your pockets.

Our trip has in many ways been a pub-crawl progression from one bookstore to the next, and even to a few stores that are simply second-hand curio shops with a few books in the basement. I personally approve of this method for organizing a trip. In my opinion, the perfect vacation would be in a city that is absolutely overflowing with interesting bookstores and cafes, with mountains nearby so you can enjoy hiking in between the book shopping. My friends agree wholeheartedly, making us about the most concentrated source of nerdness Taipei has seen this season. Before we got to the snack food street yesterday, for example, we were waking along with no particular direction or goal, taking in the sights, when I spotted a sign from across the road and pointed. “Bookstore!” I yelled. Eight heads whipped towards the shop I had pointed out. I half-expected to look up on the roof and see someone wearing horn rimmed glasses and carrying a dog-eared copy of Gravity’s Rainbow blowing a conk shell to summon all nerds to the conclave. We dashed across the street like a pack of hounds on the scent of a deer, probably even making some of the same eerie high-pitched squeals my old dog Polly used to make when she took off after something. This kind of nerdness crosses cultures, and even languages. If you’ve dedicated yourself to the humanities, particularly literature, there’s something about a bookstore that is impossible to resist. And it doesn’t even matter if you don’t understand anything in it. It helps, of course, but it’s not the key thing. I would get excited walking into a bookstore selling works entirely in classical Farsi, and my classmates are no different. Here, my impulse has been merely to stock up on some items I would be hard-pressed to find in the U.S. or the mainland, but given how long it takes me to finish one book, I don’t ever expect to work through everything I buy. I look at it in the light of future interests. I want to have these things on hand for my graduate work in the States. It really isn’t that crucial, though, because any program worth its salt would make sure you have everything you need. It’s a little different for my mainland friends.

Try imagining, if you will, that the U.S. government has completely banned about 50,000 of the most interesting books written in the country over the last 50 years. When I say banned, I mean they are NOWHERE to be found, unless you’re one of the lucky few who can find a place to download an illegal copy. You know of these books, and have at least read about some of the content, but there’s been no question of actually reading any of them. They’re like pirate gold. Then you’re sent on a university trip to Toronto, where you know every single one of these books is lurking somewhere. And sure enough, as you scour the stores in the city you see one title after another popping up in discount bins, on feature racks, and sandwiched in between random volumes in the basement of a store that also sells old ham radios and peculiar handbags. Try to imagine that you find, as Xuebin recently did, a three-volume set of one of the most famous pieces of fiction written in the past thirty years, and it only costs about $2.50. You’d probably hyperventilate. Xuebin did. He was delirious. One piece of pirate gold after another has been appearing as we hunt through the city. I gave up long ago even attempting to identify the writers whose works were being unearthed. I just stand back and watch the fur fly. About every five minutes I hear someone squeal and whip something off the shelf, drawing the rest of the group quickly over to admire and envy the discovery. I usually congregate with them, nod intelligently, then walk away to see if I can find something I recognize. Which I do only part of the time. I’ve got a pretty good working knowledge of the various movements and writers, but I’m not in the same league as my classmates. They’re playing for the Yankees and I’m playing for a suburban softball team. A very good suburban softball team, but a softball team nonetheless.

One other comment on what it’s like for a mainland Chinese bookworm in Taiwan: there’s no guarantee they’ll actually get any of those books back to the mainland. Most of them are SERIOUSLY banned. But most of the people in our group are such committed nerds that even the possibility of being able to possess some of these books is worth taking the chance that they’ll get snatched away again.

When we split into two groups and headed off towards different parts of the snacks and bric-a-brac district, I noticed the clouds beginning to gather, which wasn’t surprising given the immutable law of precipitation that derives from my remembering or forgetting to bring an umbrella. Sure enough, within minutes we were sheltering under an awning. The others wanted to continue on, so the two girls got under one umbrella, leaving Xuebin and me with the other. There’s another social law that apparently crosses cultures, and that is two heterosexual men just can’t share a single umbrella, unless it’s one of those massive golf umbrellas under which a lacrosse team can shelter. This one wasn’t. It was cheap fold-out model that Xuebin bought in a convenience store in the dorm basement, and was roughly the size of a mai-tai umbrella. Duanying and her friend just laughed at Xuebin and me as we exchanged dubious glances. I opted in the end to simply dash from awning to awning, which fortunately wasn’t difficult given the sheer number of shops clustered together. The bookstore we ended up in also didn’t have a trash can, or said they didn’t, and when the proprietor told me we could leave the trash outside, I took it upon myself to walk a bit more to find a trash can. I didn’t, and once again I foolishly forgot the immutable law of precipitation. This time there were no awnings, and only a few large trees clustered in a small park on a traffic circle to offer protection when the deluge finally did come. It was one of those classic situations where you get twenty feet out the door, away from easy shelter, and within literally three or four seconds the sky explodes into drops of rain the size of Kaiser rolls. I was standing under a fairly thick canopy of leaves but was still getting wet, so I decided to just dash the twenty feet back to the store. I made it, but I was completely drenched. And I still hadn’t found a trash can, so I had to do the dash with an armful of junk. Hobos of the world, unite.

The bookstore we had fetched up in was the model second-hand shop. A collection so eclectic that even I was impressed. Hu Shi’s diaries? Obscure Taiwanese poetry? A book of essays on the history of Chinese scholars? They even had a large box of English books that were just as random. As with all nerds, we quickly separated out and settled into our own little worlds. The owner had chosen to play a CD of French cabaret music, which somehow fit perfectly. I looked out the big bay window in the front of the shop an hour later and the Kaiser rolls were still falling, which meant we weren’t going anywhere. But then I looked around me, at the shelves of second-hand Chinese pirate gold, and at my classmates hypnotized by just about everything they saw, and just smiled. I hadn’t had an English conversation since I left Tianjin, had spent most of every day wandering through Taipei, and was a part of one of the most impressive book hunts in history. It might get a little better, but it doesn’t get much better.


2 Responses to Taiwan, part 5: Nerds on the Hunt, Interdimensional Trash Disposal, and the Immutable Law of Rob’s Umbrella

  1. Joel says:

    The bookstore crawl for banned books sounds like fun. I’ll give you a clue about the garbage, at least in nicer apartment complexes like where we use to live: walk-in refrigerators. I had to get more personal than I wanted to be with one of those one night: The Last BC Pill in all of Taiwan

  2. Pingback: Hao Hao Report

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