So at relatively short notice, I made a decision to just cancel December and disappear. My original plan was to go somewhere like the desert (I have a number nearby to choose from), or maybe to one of those islands off the coast of Scotland that I like so much. Spend a month thinking, calculating, sketching, playing the trumpet, etc. But then the travelling academic in me kicked in, and then I got to thinking how I might combine the idea of disappearing with the idea of fulfilling one of many promises (made to colleagues and institutions around the planet) to accept an open invitation to make a research visit. So I checked some flight prices on the web, cancelled all other things (Christmas and New Year’s included), booked a ticket, and sent my potential hosts an email saying I was going to visit, if that was ok.
For my walkabout, I went Back To The Future.
You remember that situation when you met someone briefly some years before and from that short time together you had a sense that you really really liked them? But then you never saw them since, but you always kept in mind that happy brief time you spent together. In your mind, this happy time took root, and took on real significance, and you built onto it, and fed it a little, perhaps expanding its magnitude well beyond what it really was. Many years later, circumstances conspire to allow you to meet this person again, and this time you’ll spend a long time with them. You worry that your memory is now completely disconnected from the reality, that you’ll actually not find this person interesting at all. You might not even like them, but you’ll be stuck with them for all this time. You’ll spoil that happy memory/fantasy that kept a part of your mind warm and pleasant all these years. Yes, I’m sure you’ve had that situation in your own life. For this situation, you’re probably thinking of some pretty girl or boy from your past. Good. However, imagine that the “someone” in the above is in fact a whole country. This is how it was with me.
I visited Taiwan for a couple of weeks in August of 1997 and fell in love with the place. For so many reasons that it will take me several blog posts to explain why. And yes, I will try. By “the place” I mean not just the tremendously exciting and (at the time) slightly scarily-devoid-of-signage-with-western-lettering vibrant city of Taipei, but also the people. I never left Taipei during that visit, but I loved it. Upon reflection, I wondered whether the reason I loved it was because I was a pampered foreigner who saw only a few nice touristy places, managed to get around either with the direct help of local people taking me to places, or writing me helpful notes to show to the taxi drivers, and who stayed for some of the trip in the fabulous -and I mean truly fabulous- Grand Hotel. I spent much of the time sleeping during the unbearably hot and humid daytime, and then waking up, jumping into a taxi, handing the note that said something like “please take me to Longshan Temple Night Market” and then I would wander around the night markets for a long time. I love street markets in general. I’m a big fan of the night, I think it’s a splendid idea. So Taiwan’s night markets were made for me. I would have been in love right there, just because of the night markets.
But I was already in love from the first morning though. I got up at some insanely early hour (jet lag) and went wandering around the campus of National Taiwan University, where I was visiting for a conference and later to give a series of lectures. Rumour of the heat and humidity of the high day had not yet begun to rumble, and groups of elderly people were out in several green spots doing synchronised exercises based on martial arts, and -joy of joys!- there were these little carts on the side of the road making tasty fried eggy-things for breakfast. Served with a delicious sweet milky tea. No language needed. I just walked up, smiled, pointed, and they made me one. I opened my hand to reveal a pile of coins on my palm and they took the amount they wanted (since I couldn’t understand the numbers they spoke) and I ate this delicious nameless thing. (Upon reflection, it’s essentially just an egg and green onion pancake/omelette, in fact). Those initial early mornings were so pleasant, and the air so sweet (and possibly familiar, see later) at that time, and breakfast such a simple tasty success – I loved the place instantly. As I’ll exhibit several times later… a major reason I love being here is the amazing food. But I have not even begun to tell you about that yet.
I’d then wander some more, then back to my room to wait for the talks and lectures to start. I’d sleep through most of them. Then in the afternoon, give up and go back to the room to sleep. Then I’d wake up at about 9:00 or 10:00pm… and go to night markets. An excellent cycle. (Even without the effects of jet lag, during August it is too hot to do anything during the day anyway, so hence night markets, and a whole lot of nighttime activity in Taiwan’s cities.)
Anyway, that was in 1997. Fast forward to 2005. On my mind while heading there: What if I don’t really like it? Maybe my memory of everything is not really representative. Maybe it’s all changed and I won’t like it any more?
This time, I’d be visiting several more cities, and will be doing things and figuring things out on my own a lot more. In fact, I would be spending most of my time in Hsinchu, a guest of the National Center for Theoretical Sciences (NCTS) at National Tsing Hwa University, and staying in a less grand hotel than the Grand Hotel (but then, all hotels are so). And I won’t have a student assigned to help me negotiate my environment as I did during the conference in 1997. And (this is good – yeah!) I wouldn’t have any travelling colleagues, or other conference attendees to have to socialize with, or use as a comfort to talk to if if things go wrong, etc….. So this meant that I was going to have a real go at seeing if I really liked this place, or if it was all a fantasy.
Well, everything I remembered was true, and all the embellishments I’d probably made of the memory turned out to be just fine. And sure it changed, but the changes worked in my favour, overall…. I love Taiwan! In short, it’s just fantastic. I did not do anything dramatic, earth-shattering, or spectacular. I just did a lot of thinking, working, writing, and outside work time did a lot of simple, small things, talked to several people of all kinds -either verbally or through the international sign language and the dumb foreigner who can’t even read the signs- and spent a huge amount of quality time on my own (oh joy!).
I used the term “off-planet” in an earlier post to refer to being here. I mean no disrespect. It is like being on a different planet when you’re in a timezone 16 hours away, and when you can lose yourself in your thoughts in a crowd, unencumbered by being able to understand when everyone is saying, or what 99% of the signs say. So you get the warmth of being near fellow human beings without the annoyance of having to listen to everybody’s mostly vacuous chatter on mobile phones, etc. You get to see the things that are so different from your own culture, and you get to savour the numerous -often surprising- points of commonality.
Why do I say “Back to the Future”? Well, I was returning to where I’d been in 1997, so that explains the “Back” part. The “Future” part is explained in two parts:
(1) There, I’m sixteen hours ahead of Los Angeles. Eight hours ahead of London. This gives one a sense of being in the future (in a sort of silly but significant way). I did have some communications with people in both of those time zones – it is impossible to cut off communication completely if I am to do my job properly, and keep various projects alive……disasters will happen, and urgent things will come up…also, I can’t abandon all my research students for a month. It is just not right, especially at this stage in their work. There’s something nice about sending a time-sensitive email on a Tuesday morning, say, knowing that it gets received just after lunch on the Monday afternoon. Make you feel that you’re ahead of the game, cheating time somehow. I like that.
(2) Coming to this region is rather like coming to see the future (or a possible future) of several of our Western cities. I don’t mean this all positively, by the way. Some examples: I remember being in Seoul several years ago, when the USA was still figuring out that clunky Nokia and Motorola mobile phones might be a good idea for people other than those in business to use, and Western Europe was feeling smug that they could do annoying beepy lo-fi ringtones. In Seoul (and several other cities in the region), it was already the case then that everybody (and their cute bug-eyed little fashion accessory dog) had already made the transition to mobile phones being essentially functional pieces of clever modular customisable multi-coloured jewelry. This is only just on the edge of happening in the USA, and you still can’t get a reliable signal in several places! That’s one aspect of the sort of thing I mean.
But there are others. Two of the reasons I relied on advice, scribbled instructions in the local language, and taxis to get me around Taipei in 1997 was that there was no subway system, and no signs in English, and so the bus system was almost unusable by a foreigner on a short visit. Getting around such a large city, even as a local, was less than ideal, and the traffic was getting worse and worse. Remind you of anywhere?
The city has been transformed since then. Really transformed. (The tallest building in the world is there now: Taipei 101…see picture above.) They’ve planned and built a fantastic -really fantastic!- subway system since then. My goodness, it has opened everything up so much, and people have the sense to use it. They’ve connected up the buses and subways with a clever and efficient transfer system, like New York city figured out a while ago, and it is very reasonably priced (hear that, London?). It brought tears to my eyes to see how wonderful it is, and how easily you can turn a city around like that. There are signs and announcements in several languages (including English) which is just a great way of encouraging people to come and spend money in your city. Many people who live there now who I talk to never knew the pre-subway city (as wonderful as it was then) and find it hard to imagine living there without it.
So this I see as another possible future for cities such as Los Angeles. Imagine how transformed it will be when the various long-awaited subway and light rail projects are completed. I’ve spoken about this before….I can’t wait. I just hope someone in charge of making this sort of thing happen fast and happen right in Los Angeles gets to talk to someone who can contrast the old Taipei with the new Taipei. Eight short years was all it took.
Now you’d think that with as wonderful a subway and bus system as I just described, the streets above would be filled with people walking and especially cycling (this is China – one of them – after all) in a carefree way, with clean air and quiet streets. Right? Wrong. Wrong-ity wrong-ity wrong, I am very sad to report. Wrong on many fronts. What’s the big problem? Well, they’re interconnected, and so there’s no single source….. but the most huge component (imho) is the Curse Of The Scooter. (Dramatic chords from the brass-section at this point).
This has become less of a blog post than a chapter of a book, so I’d better stop here. I’ll tell you about this negative aspect of the “Future” later.