Sunday, November 19, 2023

Taipei - 13 years later

The HSR train is cruising through the south of Taiwan at 200km an hour. I have been on the island this last week and now heading to Kaohsiung for the way back. Inside the car, the stability is excellent, there is nothing but an eerie sound reminding me of the neck-breaking speed a few cm outside. Through the window, a constant flow of paddy fields scrolls by. Unlike in the US where machine power beats nature into submission, the horizon is perfectly flat, and all the fields are endless rectangular shapes. In this part of the world, agriculture forms around the ancient landscape. The rice fields are small and entangled in a net of canals even smaller. Embracing the late summer sun, the fields are green and the stems are round, juicy, and straight as there are no grains to bear yet. It is like looking at the skin of a cantaloupe. My mind though has stayed in Taipei for the last few days, where autumn was hard at work, putting her gentle touch on everything. The sun painted everything with the color of honey, the air was clear, and the breeze was crispy. In that crystal clarity, my younger years came back to life.

The metropolis of Taipei is a conglomerate combination of three cities - it is usual for an Asia country to have one big city overshadowing everything else in the land. In that concrete jungle, I lived abroad for the first time, got my first full-time job - an internship, and learned to juggle between that and a Chinese language degree. Because of course, Taiwan was strict on immigrant workers and they had better things to do than issuing visas for low-level interns. The only way I could stay on the island for more than a month in that situation was to become a uni student. Or married to a Taiwanese sugar mommy. It was tough, exciting, and mesmerizing in the following years, the internship, not the marriage.

Taipei is 2229km away from Saigon. It is not far from the length of Vietnam, 1650km from the tip of the north to the southernmost peninsula. The distance seems much further than that though. There have always been other places to be, work to do, and COVID put everything on ice for a while. This is my first time coming back to Taiwan after 13 years.

I made exactly 15000NT a month back then. I never for once asked if it was a fair income. For what it's worth, I also didn't stop to think if I had the right clothes for Taipei weather or if people there spoke English till I was on the airplane. The 20-year-old me ran on adrenaline rush much more than rationality if it hasn't been clear to you yet. By the way, no, I didn't have the right clothes, it got to -2 Celsius during Winter, and yes you could survive with only English if you only stayed near the city center. I made my financial plan (or rather the lack of it) around this precious number. The office was a converted studio and after dark it actually became my studio. I had a pull-out mattress. There was a cracked XBox in the office and a 7-11 on the ground floor. The boss, Jake, lent me his daughter's old bicycle. I never owned a game console and 7-11 didn't come to Vietnam some 6-7 years later. For what I cared, I was the richest kid in the world. Life was bliss.

A few days ago, I had a reality check. A Uniqlo storefront entry-level staff makes around 36000-42000NT. I was not rich. Actually, if poverty was a horizontal bar, I was killing it in a limbo dance. That explains why I had a vague memory of the MRT system, I was on the bicycle most of the time. I went to many museums and historical sites because the student discount was high. I rarely made it out of the city and the fine dining scene of Taipei was as foreign to me as I was to this country. Yeah I was pretty broke, wasn't I?

I didn't mind it then, and I still don't mind it now, post-reality check. When I think about the whole deal now, I don't feel like I was given the short end of the stick. I had a reasonably comfortable place to sleep whose rent I didn't have to pay. Besides my compensation and the old bicycle, Jake also paid for my tuition fee and often took me out for lunch. I was just low on disposable income. But to be frank, that was an afterthought. The 20-year-old me was blessed with the exposure I never experienced. Every day was a new situation I hadn't faced before. Every weekend was an adventure away. Every project was a stark contrast to the unrealistic school assignments that by then were all that I knew. Luxury and consumerism were not only out of my reach, they were also out of my mind. Without even being conscious about it, I was able to experience a learner mindset in its purest form. I managed to carry these starry eyes, and a dash of stupidity if I must admit, throughout my 20s. I am glad I got my first step right.

On another note, if Taipei had a face, it would be probably the face of a man in his 50s. A man who still maintains all the best qualities from his younger years, but subtly through the cracked skin around the eyes or the way he stands up, it feels like his best years were slipping away. Singapore would be in his late 30s, a force of nature with so many ideas and the energy to see it through. Saigon a kid in his early 20s, all talks, so few deeds.

The pace in Taipei is slower, and people know how to enjoy themselves. It is quite easy to find a park in a random neighborhood and both banks of the Keelung are reserved for outdoor activities. You don't see the elderly working, you are more likely to find them doing taichi in parks. The nightlife is vibrant with night markets. Alcohol and recreational drugs, for better or worse, are more accessible. And the entertainment industry punches above its weight. But I can't help to think of Taiwan as a country trapped in the past. The country was founded on a false hope that one day the Republic of China would be whole again. And today people long for the Taiwan Miracle that probably wouldn't happen for the second time. East meets West, future hope fuses with nostalgia, the more I learn about Taipei, the more elusive the words I want to find to describe my fondness.

During this trip, the one thing I thought a lot about yet still failed to fulfill was to see Jake for what could have been the last time. Jake was my boss at Cogini. He gave me first an internship and second a chance to run Cogini's office in Saigon. I wouldn't be who I am to be without the opportunities Jake presented and I eagerly grasped. Jake however was also an embodiment of the story a great engineer and a greater friend doesn't always make a great manager. That's the story for another time. I wanted to meet Jake because really how many friends of 13 years one can have. My excitement was met with an unfortunate event, Jake went back to the US last year to look after his mom. It makes sense though, his daughters went there for universities a few years ago and now he can be closer to his family. I would miss him though, now that the harsh reality has set in, I probably wouldn't be able to see him again.

I don't know when would be the next time I will be in Taipei, the world is so big and there are so many things to see. I sure hope it won't take another 13 years in the making. And that next time, I will just stay in Taipei for weeks. To find my younger self. To soak in all that nostalgia that by now has become the city's identity in me. To see that I am one more time its citizen.

The flight back to Vietnam is in a few hours.