It was 1975, just after the fall of Saigon, and I was in Taipei, studying Chinese and waiting for the next war, which didn’t come. I abode downtown in the winding labyrinth of backstreets inhabited mostly by workers since I was pretty broke. My roommates were a Chinese teenager, Dingwo, who wanted to be a rock star, and Sakai, a diminutive Japanese mathematician with penis envy, and Ron, a Peace Corps guy back from India who astounded hotel guards by speaking to them in good Punjabi.
Chinese back alleys are wonderful places, or were anyway before Starbucks. They reek of spices and good cooking and kids sat outside to avoid the heat and studied at orange-crate desks. The Chinese study. We will one day think this important. We ate in tin-roofed restaurants with trays of little baby squid like grey vitamin pills and things less identifiable.
Near the apartment was a sort of concrete overpass with the space beneath it walled off to provide a low-rent place for food stalls. It was hot and steamy inside because of long rows of women frying this and steaming that. We ate sheets of fried squid, youyu, and then go to the fruit-juice stall.
I forget her name. We just called her Schwei-gwo Syau-jye, Fruit Girl. She was about twenty-five, roughly my age at the time and spent all day behind a white-tiled counter, selling fruit juice. Her mother was dead, her father eighty-something, and she had to take care of him. Schwei-gwo was slim and pretty, a common condition among Chinese, but tired.
I’d order a complicated juice concoction and sit there for an hour, practicing Chinese. Unless you want to read it, it is an easy language. She was usually in jeans and sweatshirt, and was trying to learn English. Have I said that the Chinese study? Somehow she remained cheerful despite brutal hours and not much of a life, which made me sad but that’s how Asia was. Between customers she would flip through her dictionary and a copy of Newsweek.
In the East you meet many people like Schwei-gwo Syau-jye, intelligent and and decent, who deserve better than they will ever have. It can get to you. She had a little white powder-puff dog that ate rice to keep her company. At night she walked home through the dark streets, a little nervous but feeling less alone with her dog. Crime was low because the government didn’t tolerate it, but still….
Nights were different for Ron and me. Sometimes we went to Wan Wha, where you found the snake-butchers, and rough-looking men came to the worker’s brothels. (Preposterously, Wan Wha means “Ten Thousand Glories.” It was pretty much a slum.) The butchers had cobras and the occasional y-bai shuh, which means one hundred paces because that’s how far they think you would get if bitten. They slit the beasts from head to tail, massaged the blood into a glass, and sold it to workers. “Dwei shen-ti, hen hau,” good for the body. I always figured watermelon juice was a better idea. But I ramble.
The next war didn’t come, and I left Taiwan. Marriage came, much water under various bridges, and my daughter Macon, Blonde Poof as we called her, made her appearance. I was working for a paper in Washington. The Taiwanese PR operation offered me and my wife a junket to Taipei, which we took, carting along Blonde Poof. I forget how old she was but she sat up successfully the first time in Taiwan.
We were staying in the Grand Hotel, Madame Chiang’s gorgeous pile on a hill overlooking the city. We went downtown to my old haunts, Poof included, and found Gwo-yu R-bau, my old school. Was my teacher, Jang Lau-Shr still about, and would they tell her I’d like to see her? They would.
She showed up and we were both astonished that I could still carry on a conversation. It was odd after so many years. The neighborhood wasn’t much, just low stores selling ordinary things, but there is a flavor to Asia that seeps into you and you never really leave. My wife, who had never been to that part of the world, said half-seriously, “Now, why are we going to go back?” Yes.
There, in the same stall, hardly looking older, was Schwei-gwo Syau-jye. Nothing had changed. She was delighted to see us and we ordered the old concoctions. Same steamy heat, same smells. I don’t know whether the dog-puff was the same or new. Her father was still alive and she was still working herself to death to care for him.
For a bit she played with Blonde Poof. The Chinese regarded a golden-haired child as almost a tourist attraction. They are a pretty people, the Chinese, but not a blond people.
No, she still wasn’t married. She didn’t have time to do much because she had to keep the stall open. We talked of fond memories of no importance and my wife and I left, vowing to write. I would have if I hadn’t managed to lose the address. We never saw Schwei-gwo Syau-jye again.
Maybe she is still under the bridge, squeezing melons. Possibly things somehow got better for her. Taiwan has prospered mightily since those days. Maybe she got a job in an office. But I doubt it.
Forgive the horrible Romanization. Too many systems scrambled in my head.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. Visit his blog.