A Driving Lessoncar
By George Irby

Living in Taiwan is an adventure. My sister told me that she guessed it was no longer necessary for me to do drugs anymore because every day must be like an acid trip. She was right. Although, sometimes it's more like a carnival. I can't imagine any amusement park ride which is more exciting than traveling on Taipei public transportation. You have the same jolts, high-speed thrills and death-defying, daredevil antics; the only difference is that instead of just thinking you're going to die, you actually can.

You do, however, as with anything else, get used to it. Only foreigners and old people get tossed around when the bus driver slams on the brakes or guns it at a green light. The locals have an inbred equilibrium and barely sway as the behemoth bus lurches and weaves, thundering through the city streets with some unknown, hell-bent urgency.
The taxis, of course, are worse. These men were obviously born with a death wish. I remember the first time I got in a taxi here. I began to buckle my seatbelt, as was my habit in the States. The driver grinned, revealing blood-red teeth; spittle the same color flecking the corners of his mouth (if you think smoking is disgusting, Taiwanese have the habit of chewing betel-nut, which causes the mouth to fill with foul-smelling, crimson colored saliva. It necessitates excessive expectoration and tends to permanently stain the teeth and gums of the chewer). With a chuckle, he babbled something in Chinese and motioned for me not to bother. My friend who was with me said, "The way they drive here, that's not going to make much difference if we have a wreck. Probably just end up a cripple instead of dead."
I took his advice.
As I have stated in previous issues, in Taiwan, a stop light doesn't always mean stop. But, I should also point out that a one-way street has traffic flowing in both directions, drunk drivers do not lose their license and a two-lane road is wont to accommodate up to five lanes of cars.
I'd been here about three months before I had my first accident. One night after a long day at work, I was taking a taxi back to my roof apartment. As always, I told the driver where to stop and he pulled over to the curb. I opened the door about ten inches and ... WHAM! A motorcycle collided with the door. It had been trying to pass between us and the curb and had hit the door length-ways.
The driver got out and inspected where the motorcycle had damaged his taxi. The door was jammed and unable to close completely. The motorcycle was apparently fine. The fiberglass shield on the front had buckled and popped back into shape the moment he backed off. My driver walked over to the where the motorcycle had stopped and I, of course, was expecting fisticuffs to ensue. However, they merely talked quietly for a few minutes and then the motorcycle drove off. The driver walked over to me.
"You should be careful," he told me. "I no work for 2, 3 days. Need fix door." He didn't seem to be angry; just sad. "You give me $NT3000." That was more than $US100. I had it in my pocket, but hell! That guy had hit us! Being an American, I was accustomed to the notion that pedestrians always have the right-of-way. This guy was trying to teach me that in Taipei, pedestrians had damn well better watch their ass! I wanted to explain all these things to him, but judging form the level of his English, I merely told him,
"Call the police."
This was to be the refrain I would continue to repeat for the next hour. It was already late; about 12:30 or so when the accident had occurred. I was desperately in need of sleep and from my vantage point could see my apartment beckoning, eight floors above. My driver and I were not so much arguing. Rather a kind of call and response reminiscent of '30s work-gangs: he, gently explaining in stilted English his economic situation, the cost of repairs, his opinion of my lack of proper caution and, of course, his request for the money; me, like a coo-coo clock in response, always on cue,
"Call the police."
And then repeat.
I literally thought it was going to go on all night, but then he finally gave in. We walked across the street, found a telephone and he called the police. He was sure to mention I was a foreigner, so that when the police finally came (it was about 2:00 now), they were of a special branch called "the foreign affairs police." One was in his forties, the other looked like he was still in high school. Anyway, they were both very serious and very, very scary. These guys could speak English; especially the senior partner. He could speak English good! However, I didn't know if I should be thrilled or dread the prospect. Flashbacks of being pulled over by the cops back in Mississippi raced through my mind. Only it was worse. Now, I was the "black boy" about to be interrogated by the redneck "boss-man." I decided to play a submissive role.
"The taxi-driver says he told you to be careful as you were getting out of the cab," the older policeman said.
I remained silent. I had my head bowed, and I'm sure I looked guilty, despite my feelings of innocence.
"Hey!" He barked; like a wake-up call to jar me out of my humility, "That's his opinion."
Apparently, they were not like Mississippi policemen and our common educational level and class affiliation was a greater joiner than "race brotherhood." I told my side, after which they both began to lay into the driver. They castigated him about all manner of things for about 15 minutes, none of which I could understand, but had a general idea. Then they came back over to me.
"So," the older one asked, in a friendly, conversational tone, "what are you doing here in Taiwan?"
"I'm an English teacher," I replied.
"Oh, really," he said, glancing at his partner. They both grinned at each other, as if they couldn't believe their good fortune. "You know, my partner here, he is studying to pass the English examination to be a senior officer for the foreign language police. Do you think you could help him?"
Anyway, I gave them my card and they left after informing me that I still had to wait for the "regular" police. They finally arrived about an hour later. It was getting close to 3:30 by now. The "regular" police were decidedly less friendly. They appeared totally sympathetic to the driver and while he regaled them in Taiwanese with tales of my stupidity and ardent disregard for my own life and limb as well as the safety of innocent sidewalk motorcyclists, they would steal suspicious side-ways glances in my direction. They attempted once to question me, but soon gave up when realizing my language limitations.
So, I finally made it to bed around 4 am. During the whole process, many times I thought to just pay the guy. It was that much of an ordeal. But, I had such an overwhelming since of indignation and self-righteousness that a motorcycle should not pass a stopped taxi on the curb side. However, I learned my lesson. And I tell all my friends. Take nothing for granted.


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