Can the Chinese rock? I mean, can they get down in the gutter, flaying their arms, banging heads, clothes sticky with chemically-laced, alcohol-diluted perspiration, while their inner-ear is pummeled by the over-amplified rantings and guitar gratings of society's misfits? I mean, can they ROCK!?!
As I began the week, this was the question I was seeking the answer to - NOT! Fact of the matter, I'd been feeling out-of-sorts, on edge, an emptiness voiding some area of my soul that I had previously been unaware of being filled. A feeling, I suppose, shared by every American residing abroad.
Desiring escape, I began to concoct a fantasy of a world where people DIDN'T eat with sticks; where fish and rice and unidentifiable animal innards were cuisine to be sampled on the occasional night out and not as everyday fare; where music, devoid of chimes and/or whining instruments of all types had vocals sung in a language I could understand - these were the fragments of my illusion; my Shangri-La, if you will. But, first...
"Jeans," I thought. "I need jeans."
Fortunately, for me, a new LEVI'S store had just opened in Xin Men Ding, the historical and seedy shopping district of Taipei in Wan Hua. We're talking "American" jeans here. We're talking "the real thing." The "original." Riveted, copper threaded, rugged work pants that made the building of a nation of used car salesmen possible - without busting our britches in the process.
And so I went. Wall-to-wall denim, with occasional splashes of pastel in the shirts and accessories sections.
Even the salesgirls were decked totally out in blue - and not a lovely one who could speak a word of English. It seemed incongruous that jeans could be sold without the accompanying patter of the Mother Tongue of Dungaree.
Luckily, I had my translator with me.
After protracted philosophical discussions on the differences between 501, 503, 505, 514 and 524 jeans (the 600 line is for women), and why 501 jeans are roughly double the price of all the other styles ("Is it because of the button-fly?" I wondered. "Does the proper assemblage of a crotch door require a technological sophistication that warrants the higher cost?" No, it's because 501s are made in America by us pampered, over-paid American laborers whereas all others are put together by downtrodden, exploited Filipino workers), I made my selection and prepared to pay.
But wait! With only a few dollars extra investment, I could get FREE Levi's sunglasses!!! Regrettably, there was nothing in the store costing only a few dollars, but the temptation of a free gift could not be denied. So, I persuaded myself that I also, in fact, needed a shirt. I tried on two, liked both, preferred one, and then made the incredible mistake of asking my translator which one she thought was best. Major error.
"Zhe yi jian bi jiao how kan (This shirt is comparatively better looking)," she said, indicating the blue one in my hand. I liked the one I was presently trying on. It had stripes which make me look thinner. Also, I wish she hadn't spoken Chinese. Of course, from living here three years, I can understand a few things, even though I've avoided learning as much as possible. My translator is constantly looking for opportunities to speak Chinese to me in the hope of beefing up my vocabulary. I've told her it isn't necessary, that I rather enjoy being a monolinguistic ignoramus, forcing other people to struggle with MY language, but she persists.
However, now, since she had indicated her preference in Chinese, I was faced with a dilemma, since the salesgirls (there were more than one hanging around by this time. A common phenomenon here; foreigners seem to attract curious onlookers in much the same way as a fire or traffic accident in the States) had heard her choice. Choosing the striped shirt, besides stomping on my translator's sense of aesthetics, would also cause her to lose face in front of the salesgirls.
"You know," I ventured, " I look like a sailor with this blue shirt on." She just looked at me, obviously not understanding.
"A sailor. A navy man," I explained. "In America, they wear shirts like this in the navy."
"Oh, really!" she exclaimed, grinning broadly and clearly impressed. I could see this tact was not working.
"I don't know," I said, fishing for a topic change. "Can I look at the sunglasses?"
"Sunglasses?" my translator asked, raising her eyebrows.
"Sunglasses," I enunciated. "My free gift."
"Did I say sunglasses?" she giggled. "Not sunglasses! I meant to say towel! You get a free towel!"
"A towel? I don't want a towel!"
"Dui bu qi (I'm sorry)."
"I mean," I continued, beating a dead horse, "I NEED a pair of sunglasses, but what the hell am I going to do with a towel!?"
"Dui bu qi," she said, giggling again. The Chinese have this annoying habit of always smiling or laughing whenever they get caught doing something wrong, or after making a mistake. I guess I've gotten used to it, but it's still irritating.
And by now I had noticed the salesgirls listening intently, grinning, curiously expectant, perhaps with the faulty interpretation that my rantings indicated a possibly greater purchase than previously anticipated. And due to their attention, I was also beginning to realize that if I opted to decline my free TOWEL at this point, and didn't buy the shirt that I DIDN'T like (and was liking less and less) my translator was going to lose major face. So go the vulgarities of inter-cultural exchange.
Naturally, I bought both shirts. And the pants. It
wasn't too bad; they ended up giving me TWO towels and
a set of Coca-Cola coasters. And when I found out they'd accept
my credit card, I was even somewhat inclined to spending more.
Shopping's like that. You get going and it's hard to stop - sorta
like rolling down the incline of a levy bank. I was looking at
belts, bandannas; even considered purchasing some suspenders.
But, I managed to stop. The trip down is fun, but they say it's
muddy at the bottom.
I walked out of the Levi's store looking like it was the end of my shift. My translator "persuaded" me to wear the shirt she picked out and so I was now a white male facsimile of the salesgirls inside. All dressed up and no place to go.
After parting with as bulky a wad as I just had (a hypothetical wad, due to the plastic) on clothes, you feel like you need to go SHOW your butt somewhere. Someplace worthy of my now exquisitely bedecked high arse. For me, the possible attractive options were few. One, I don't drink. Two, I don't go out much, so I'm relatively unaware of the Taipei nightlife scene. I needed someplace that had other diversions beside alcohol and was open at this hour (about 11 p.m. on a Monday night). Finally, I desired someplace that would conform to my somewhat damaged fantasy of living in an English-speaking world.
The HARD ROCK CAFE seemed to fit the bill. My translator was underwhelmed. Her interest is in the English language rather than English culture. She is a strict Buddhist and vegetarian, with no taste for hamburgers, french fries or milkshakes. As for music, she thinks a rock and roll band is something like "Air Supply."
"Why is the Hard Rock Coffee so popular?" she asked me.
"CAFE! Hard Rock CAFE!" I stressed. "It's the shirts. They're an essential fashion accessory for upwardly mobile urban conformists who want to retain their herd identity when feigning independence in casual wear."
My translator folded her lips and nodded knowingly.
We hopped a cab to head east toward the fashionable section of Taipei. Because my translator had no idea how to get there (indeed, she even has trouble getting to places she knows, though she has lived here most of her life. She often enthralls me with tales of how she took the wrong bus or got off at the wrong stop and became hopelessly lost), it was up to me to tell the driver where we wanted to go.
"Men Shung Dong Lu, Tun Hwa Lu, Ko (the corner of Men Shung East Road and Tun Hwa Road)," I said confidently, settling into the back seat.
"Shen mo (What?)," he asked.
I began to get that "here we go again" feeling. I leaned forward and repeated my destination in calm, measured tones.
With an exasperated expression and gesturing, he babbled about something which I reasoned was a question by the "mo" at the end. But it was all I could get. That's the problem with using Chinese when you want to do something, because the buggers start to think you really can UNDERSTAND the language. I turned helplessly to my translator.
"Where do you want to go?" she asked.
"Men Shung East Road. There's two roads over there that sound alike, but I can never get the tones right."
That's the problem with Chinese. Don't get me wrong. It's a wonderful, beautiful, poetic language. I can say that, not having spent the last three years torturing myself studying it. See, there's four basic tones, and depending on the tones, an innocuous phrase like, "Qing wen," can mean "I have a question" or "Please, kiss me." Hence, the possibilities for misunderstanding multiply.
"I don't know Men Shung," my translator said.
"Well, it SOUNDS like Men Shung. Do you know that road over by the airport?"
"I don't know." Obviously, I was asking the wrong person for directions.
"Ask him," I said, indicating the taxi driver.
"Ask him what?"
"WHAT the road going by the airport is!" I seethed through clenched teeth, trying to control a mounting feeling of hysteria. Conversations here are like this sometimes; the natural flow of discourse can be described as bumpy at best.
My translator conferred with our driver. "Do you mean Min Quan?" she asked, wrinkling her brow as if Min Quan COULDN'T be the road I was referring to. It's a puzzle to Chinese when
syllables in which they see no similarity cannot be differentiated by us foreigners.
"That's it!" I exclaimed.
"You want to go to Min Quan?"
"No. I want to go to the road that SOUNDS like Min Quan."
My translator considered this.
"Is Hard Rock on the corner of Tun Hua North Road or Tun Hua South Road?" she asked, attempting, I guess, to narrow the range of roads that SOUND like Min Quan.
Suddenly, the driver, who had been listening to all this, piped in.
"Ni yao qu Hard Rock mo (Do you want to go to Hard Rock)?"
"Dui ya (yes)!" my translator shouted.
The driver sighed heavily, cocked the wheel forty-five degrees, gunned it and lurched into the never-ending traffic.
So, we were off. After all that, English proved the key.
Taipei has no zoning laws to speak of, however, property values do, of course, create areas of influence. Wan Hua, where I live, is Old Taipei, where structures mostly hug the ground. Bordered on the west by the Tan Hsui River, the city has expanded first north toward the mountains and most recently, east. It is there you'll find the lofty spires and towering erections typical of urban opolisism. Nevertheless, it's not at all uncommon to find a shack nestled between high-rises. Go down the street behind that glistening new, marble-sheathed office edifice and you're liable to find yourself transported back in time to an early Taipei village.
But these comparatively tiny structures are evanescent. Progress calling.
The HARD ROCK CAFE in Taipei occupies a small section of the first floor and most (if not all) of the basement of one of those high-rises. Being a Monday night, there was no line outside and we got right in. Boy George's jumpsuit from one of his early videos (did he have later videos?) hung in a glass case just inside the entrance. Ahead crouched a Harley, looking polished and sterile - a pale representation of the
raucousness expected of the form. Commercialism, bear right - the Hardrock souvenir shop awaits with its t-shirts and $710 (about $US30) significantly emblazoned polo shirts.
The receptionist, walkie-talkie in hand and all business, did not flinch when she spotted the foreigner heading her way. She'd been trained for alien encounters. Wai guo ren (foreigners) were to be expected in a place such as this, reeking with western kitsch. With computer-like intonation and staccato inflection, she requested, "How many, sir?" Her eyes were wide open, pupils dilated; her finger twitched involuntarily near the call button of her communicator, every particle of her being was flashing the unspoken message-
"..await input.. .. need input..."
I hesitated, momentarily stunned by the inanity of the question. Could there be some hidden meaning, some subtle innuendo in this innocent inquiry? No one behind us, to the sides, or ahead; only this automated functionary and us, the subjects of her interrogation. She had been programmed to ask this question of all incoming, no matter how obvious the answer. It was her primary function and no one would deny her the execution of this ritual.
"How many?" she repeated a split second later. I looked at my translator. My translator looked at me.
"Two," I mumbled, holding up the appropriate number of fingers. But it was too late. She had spied the like-model affiliation of my translator's ethnic configuration. Automatically switching modes, she queried my companion.
"She wants to know how many," my translator informed me.
"Two," I sighed.
More negotiations; then - "She wants to know if we want to eat or drink?"
"Both!" I said, "I want to do both. I'll choke otherwise!"
"No, she means do we want to sit at the bar or do we want to just eat something."
"I don't drink."
"So?" Sometimes my translator can be very passive in her conveyance of communication.
"I want to eat."
"...because if you just want to eat you have to spend at least $NT250."
"I want to eat."
"Do you want smoking or non-smoking?" Now, I was beginning
to get the feeling of a true western establishment. Choices, wonderful choices. A situation tailor-made for me; concern for my comfort; emphasis on my uniqueness.
"Smoking." The receptacyb began to download into her handheld transmitter.
"Deng yi sha (wait a moment), the recepto-tron requested, turning to encounter a colleague running up behind her. In action mode, they conferred excitedly for a few seconds. The colleague hurried away, the cyborgess turned and then -
"Deng yi sha."
More walkie-talkie babble, all the while me thinking the place must be PACKED! Finally she gestured and the colleague, taking control, led us into the cafe proper.
I had a distinct sensation of descending into Dante's Inferno as we passed the mezzanine overlooking the dining area below. Strands of smoke wafted upward along with strains of discordantia from the band; all implying a chaotic atmosphere in progress below. Via a wide and brightly lit staircase straight out of some ante-bellum mansion back home, we went down. Elvis' guitar (an acoustic) hung threateningly over the second and final slopping right curve before entering the sprawling, darkened ballroom below. I made sure to point it out to my translator.
"Who?" she asked. I'd had this experience before. Few people here recognize the name of the progenitor and propagator of the musical style without which there would be no cafe. If you're looking for an otherworldly sensation, go to a place where they don't know Elvis. I fished my memory for the Chinese translation.
"You know!" I said, remembering. "Mao Wang - the king of cats." I reminded myself for the umpteenth time to check the etymology of how Mr. Presley came to be recognized by Chinese
as the ruler of felines.
"Is that really his guitar?" she asked, doubtfully. She had a point. It would seem to be an invaluable artifact, best kept at the mansion in Memphis and not halfway around the world in the basement of some high-rise in Taipei, where it is without question comparatively less appreciated.
Then again, Col. Parker, Elvis' manager, probably recognized early on the lucrative market in memorabilia, and quite possibly owns a warehouse FULL of what were legally Elvis' guitars.
We reached the bottom of the stairs and were shown to our table. My translator excused herself to go to the ladies room and I took a look around. There appeared to be no semblance of geometric form. A long snaking bar (for the drinkers) bisected the room. A tiny dance floor in front of the band, but no dancers yet; everyone was listening to the band as it played a confusing amalgamation of pop and rock spanning the
entire era of the form from the late '50s (although they played no Elvis) to the present. Maybe a thrill for the twentysomethings, but it just made me feel as if they were performing etude. They had one of those radio stations in Memphis (THE radio station). They called it "classic rock" radio. Very popular because it gave people the illusion that the music they grew up with was still current, hence, a never-ending adolescence.
They'd play a song and I'd think, "Jeez, I remember when that came out. I sure didn't have to come half-way 'round the world to hear it again." Besides, it isn't "classic rock," it's OLD rock, right?
Unfortunately, it's also become INTERNATIONAL rock. The music of rebellion has turned mainstream in a big way.
A waitress with a serious skin problem showed up with the menus and asked, smiling, "Are you American?" Must be new on the job, I thought, glancing around. The place was packed
with foreigners; at least 30%, which is a lot in Taipei. She seemed genuinely interested, though: friendly waitresses here are that way because they're friendly. They don't get tips, and if they did, they'd give them to their boss to be divided up among all the girls at the end of the evening.
Also, the appreciation factor for gratuities is low. I once overheard two waitresses discussing a tip left by a culturally ignorant foreigner, and apparently they regarded it as some sort of "come on." They finally concluded that the man was obviously a lech and the tip was nothing more than a thinly veiled form of sexual harrasement.
I told the waitress to come back after I'd had time to peruse the menu. My translator returned from the bathroom and sat down across from me.
"I saw Air Supply's record," she informed me.
"Where?" I asked. Maybe I was the one out of time. Maybe Air Supply WAS a rock band.
"Also, the bathrooms are interesting. You should go see."
"I think I will," I said, sliding my chair back.
After getting directions, I strolled across the room taking in the cornucopia of R&R appurtenances decorating the walls as I went. A lot of gold records, mostly: a guitar here, somebody's leather jacket there. Considering how many Hard Rock Cafes there are in the world, it's a wonder to me that they have enough paraphernalia to fill them all.
I got to the bathroom and my translator had been right. Interesting. Futuristic. Shiny metallic sheen, like how I imagine being inside a well-lit can would be. One wall ("Where are the urinals?") curving slightly with a continuous glide of water emptying into a recessed drain in the floor. Patrons were meant to piss against this wall, however, there was an eerie feeling in doing so, because there was no fixed demarcation to indicate your area of urination. Call me hopelessly conventional, but when it comes to waste elimination, I NEED my space.
"Wonder what it's like in the crapper?" I thought. Opening the door and peering in, I discovered nothing special: ordinary john.
"Well, as long as I'm here..." I closed the door, dropped my drawers and assumed the classic pose of Rodin's Thinker.
After pondering life's mysteries for a few minutes, my musings were interrupted by someone rattling the door to the stall I was in. Then, whoever it was, knocked on the door.
"Damn," I thought, "this must be a meeting place for homos!" I remained silent.
He rattled the door and once again, knocked.
"This guy's not going to give up," I said to myself. How do you refuse a proposition when you don't speak the language? This could get nasty.
He knocked for the third time and I realized I was going to have to say SOMETHING.
"Ni yao sha ma (What do you want?)" I ventured. My voice caught at the last second, so it came out something like a bird squawk, not bassey and resonant as I'd intended (pronunciation is secondary to sounding manly when trying to speak a foreign language). Usually, the smallest amount of
Chinese spoken by a foreigner, understood or not, will provoke a plethora of gibberish in response, but he must have heard something in my tone that he didn't like because I heard his heels clicking on the linoleum as he walked away.
"Must not've wanted to blow a wai go ren," I reasoned, waiting a few minutes before hitching up my new jeans and exiting the cubicle.
When I got back, my translator was querying the waitress as to whether the vegetarian burritos on the menu were 100% PURE vegetable ("You know, sometimes they use animal fat to
fry in"). I ordered some kind of sandwich plate with a cute, thematically appropriate name and lit up a cigarette.
"What did you think?" my translator asked, grinning.
"The bathrooms! What did you think?"
I leaned across the table and told her, "Some homo guy tried to get me in there."
"Yeah," I continued, "tried to get in the toilet with me."
"What happened then?" she was obviously completely enthralled. Chinese love tales of gay behavior.
"NOTHING happened! I didn't let him in."
"Well, then," she asked, "how do you know he was a ho-mo-sex-u-al?" Her lips worked around each syllable of the noun, striving to pronounce every nuance correctly and ultimately producing a new, auditorially strange hybrid of the word.
"BECAUSE," I insisted, "why else would he be knocking on the door!?!"
"Maybe he wanted to shit."
"Don't,.." I cringed, "...don't say shit. I've told you. Say defecate."
"Defu-..defu..," she tried, struggling.
"Okay," I said, giving up, "say shit. Anyway, you don't knock on the door. You just try the door and if its occupied you go to another stall. You don't knock!"
"You have to make sure no one's in there. So we knock."
"Well, what am I supposed to say? 'Come in'?"
"No. Just knock back."
The waitress brought the food and I began eating my sandwich while my translator tried to figure out how to make a functional burrito out of the assembled ingredients. In the end, she just ate each separate filling with a fork.
I watched her as she examined each morsel before putting it in her mouth.
"Don't get me wrong," I said, between bites, "I respect your vegetarianism; you know that. But, there's some things I don't understand."
"Well, for example, I know you're only supposed to eat vegetables, but you eat eggs. And that's kind of like meat, isn't it? I mean, there's pro-lifers in the states that would say it's meat. It's chicken fetuses, right? You can't eat chicken, but you eat the fetuses."
"F-feets...sha ma?" she asked, crinkling her nose and ahhhlmost crossing her eyes as essential synapses began misfiring in a failed attempt to understand. "I don't eat chicken feet."
"No, fetuses. Unborn chicken babies. That's what eggs are. You eat them, don't you?"
"Yes, but no chickens had to die to make them."
"Well, then what about this thing you've got with animal fat. You're always asking 'em if they use vegetable oil to fry the vegetables in. What's wrong with animal fat?"
"Because it comes from DEAD animals. I can't eat anything that comes from dead animals."
I considered this. "What if the fat was liposuctioned of the animals?"
"Lip-suck? What's that?"
"...'cause the animals wouldn't be dead, see? Just a little thinner. It's like a vacuum cleaner that draws the fat out of your body. What if your vegetables were fried in that kind of fat? Could you eat them then?"
As my translator was thinking about this, smoke began to billow out from the bandstand - not a good sign, considering the fire prone nature of Taipei nightlife establishments. My eyes instinctively scanned the room for a conveniently located exit (just in case), but found none. It crossed my mind to have a little fun by yelling "Fire! Fire!" but the majority wouldn't've understood anyway: just panic the foreigners.
Apparently, the smoke was a signal for the dancing to begin. I spotted the band members leaving the far end of the stage as the revolving, multi-colored "disco" lights came on over the dance floor.
"Do you want to dance?" my translator asked.
I gave her a baleful glare meant to communicate more than words my complete and utter distaste for the art. Don't get me wrong; I appreciate a quivering derriere as much as the next guy. However, my butt is staid. I've always felt somewhat uncomfortable with the flagrant obtrusiveness and outright sexuality of oscillating, rhythmically thrusting hips. Especially my own. It seems incongruent as a recreational activity in and of itself; as both the means and the end. But as a voyeuristic pursuit it does have its merits.
Turning my chair, I watched as mostly Chinese, and some foreigners, began to leave their tables and make their way to the dancing area. With expectant libido, I noticed that there
were a considerable number of raven haired, slinkily dressed babes, rouged lips pouting, the shade more garish against olive complexions - excitingly cheap. I was definitely looking forward to their gyrations, however...
With smoke wafting around the group in a disco-light haze, the couples
reaching the dance floor began to ...bounce.
That's right. They bounced. First on one foot and then the other. I was struck with a surrealistic hallucination of a TV where the vertical hold is out-of-kilter. There were bouncers of every description; some couples, solo bouncers, girls with girls, men with men,and near the edge of the dance floor was a group of suits, apparently having a meeting as they bounced. About three or four men and one girl (their secretary?) in a huddle, cellular phones in hand, bouncing as they seriously discussed some pressing concern.
Off the dance floor, near our table, was a group of Asians, from the Philippines or Malaysia, I guess. Easily noticeable as tourists from the HARD ROCK Souvenir Shop bags on their table. One of them, pointing at the crowd of bobbing figures, made some comment to his friends in a mocking tone and they all began to laugh. Apparently, he also had noticed the lack of energy and sheepish conformity of motion exhibited by the group of dancers. Then, as if to demonstrate the PROPER method, he began breakdancing in the middle of the restaurant area.
He was good, too. The rhythm, the motion, that sense of wild abandon; all the elements of classic breakdancing , but something was wrong. He wasn't the right color. I know it's a stereotype, but you don't expect white people to dance THAT good, and especially not Chinese. It was just one more reminder of where I was AND where I wasn't.
"Is constipation countable or uncountable?"
It was my garrulous translator.
"Wha..!?!" I had to raise my voice to be heard above the din. I couldn't be sure of what I was hearing in this conurbation of noise.
"I said," she shouted, even louder this time, "is constipation a count noun or a noncount noun!"
Near our table was a western looking guy sitting with a Chinese girl
glancing curiously in our direction. I could only hope he was some kind of European, but I leaned in towards my translator so she wouldn't need to speak QUITE so loud.
"It's ... uh," I stammered, trying to switch modes from Astute Cultural Observer to Grammar Instructor in mid-stride, so to speak, "..it's countable, ...um.. sorry.. uncountable."
"Well," she went on, "if you have a lot of constipations, can you say, 'I have much constipation,' to show that the constipation has continued for two or three days?"
Being somewhat unnerved by her frank discussion of the infrequent movement of bowels, I hesitated, giving my mind time to dredge up pertinent grammatical rules. The Chinese are much more willing to discuss bodily functions than we are. Even those things which ARE offensive, I guess, seem less so when expressed in a foreign language. I knew from experience that telling her I was trying to eat would be perceived as a bland, redundant and totally unrelated statement of fact.
"Also, I was wondering. Can constipation be used as a verb? Can I tell somebody, "I am constipating today?'"
"Usually," I sighed, feeling tired, "we use it as an adjective. As in, 'I am constipated.' If I wanted to express
extreme constipation (which is the noun form), I would say, 'I'm REALLY constipated,' and constipation of a long duration would be, 'I have been constipated for...,' however long the period you've been suffering."
My translator had taken out her notebook and was scribbling furiously as I related the proper forms. A slow
depression began to creep up on me as I watched her write. My fantasy had been shattered. I'd been body-slammed back to the reality of being an English teacher in an alien environment. My wardrobe, habitation, coterie; all were completely insignificant and secondary to the fact that I was a stranger in a strange land, three thousand, one hundred and thirty five miles from home and familiarity and surrounded by an Asiatic horde. And I had class tomorrow morning.