Loss of the Won­drous Rug

Once Upon A Time in Taibei

That's China - - Contents - Text by / David P. Pur­nell

台北往事

I pic­tured, months…years later, the taxi driver ly­ing on the rug while chang­ing the taxi’s oil, or per­haps just throw­ing it into his kitchen to catch scraps and soak up spills... Af­ter all, here I am re­count­ing the story of this tri­fling loss nearly half a cen­tury later. My lit­tle world shifted just a bit that day, and it’s never been quite the same.

Tai­wan was the only op­tion for Amer­i­cans hop­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence a Man­darin Chi­nese en­vi­ron­ment in the 60's and 70's. But many, like my­self, dis­en­chanted with their own cul­ture and pol­i­tics, and seek­ing to un­der­stand the Asian view, would iron­i­cally find them­selves on a wildly pro-Amer­i­can is­land full of Viet­nam War sup­port­ers, where they had to try hard to lose their U.S. iden­tity and dig deep to find any "real China." With Amer­i­can mil­i­tary bases ev­ery­where and the econ­omy pumped up with the war ef­fort, it was a bustling, get-rich-quick at­mos­phere where anti-war col­lege stu­dents would find them­selves hav­ing beers with U.S. sol­diers on "R&R" (rest and re­cu­per­a­tion), pre­par­ing to re­turn to com­bat, and rub­bing shoul­ders with busi­ness­men and work­ing girls, ea­ger to im­prove their al­ready im­pres­sive English. It was a zany world in which the iden­tity as­cribed to you was usu­ally the last one you wanted. "你是军人吗 ?" (Are you in the mil­i­tary?) I of­ten told peo­ple I was Cana­dian.

Long ago, as a stu­dent in an ob­scure Asian city, I had taken a room that at first seemed to be quite a find – nicely ap­pointed, rel­a­tively clean, cheap and with lots of sun­shine. The very first morn­ing of re­sid­ing therein I dis­cov­ered the rea­son for its avail­abil­ity and price: di­rectly be­low my win­dow and stretch­ing per­haps a hun­dred yards sat a brick­yard, with a fleet of three-wheeled, gas-mo­tored bug­gies fetch­ing and de­liv­er­ing the goods, scur­ry­ing about, rais­ing dust and mak­ing enough noise to raise the dead. I promptly restarted the apart­ment search and, hap­pily, lo­cated a suit­able place af­ter en­dur­ing only a few of the ter­ri­ble morn­ings.

Some months be­fore, while liv­ing and earn­ing enough money to scrape by in a larger city up north, I had pur­chased a very hand­some lit­tle rug. A new friend had a sim­i­lar one, the unique fea­ture be­ing that it was made to or­der, bear­ing a styl­ized Chi­nese char­ac­ter that could be cho­sen by the buyer. My friend had cho­sen the sin­gle char­ac­ter rep­re­sent­ing his fam­ily name or, rather, the new Chi­nese name that a West­erner must choose – one of the many plea­sures of study­ing Chi­nese. I too had mine em­bla­zoned in the mid­dle, on a bed of lux­u­ri­antly thick wool – a gold char­ac­ter set in the rich­est, deep­est ver­mil­lion, with a bold bor­der rem­i­nis­cent of an­cient en­grav­ings. Strange but, af­ter the ini­tial thrill of get­ting the rug, ea­gerly tear­ing the pa­per off, un­rolling and be­hold­ing it, I don’t re­ally re­mem­ber own­ing it…pos­sess­ing it… all that vividly - sit­ting on it in a sunny cor­ner, feel­ing it ca­ress my feet, or ad­mir­ing it from across the room, sa­vor­ing the per­fec­tion of its place­ment. What I do re­mem­ber most poignantly is los­ing it.

Look­ing back, it’s hard to say why I bought it in the first place. I was pretty broke most the time then and it wasn’t at all un­usual for me to eat very lit­tle for a few days, wait­ing for some source of money to come through. Per­haps, in all the may­hem of Taipei in the early 1970’s, it was ap­peal­ing to have a small piece of per­fect beauty I could carry with me, or maybe it was just the vain­glo­ri­ous plea­sure of pro­claim­ing the new me: Peng the Mag­nif­i­cent…in all my Ori­en­tal splen­dor?

Va­cant stares from every­one un­til a girl around my age seemed to want to prac­tice her English and said, “You lose it. I think you lose it.”

The day of the move, I had all my pos­ses­sions packed up neatly and ready to go, leav­ing them briefly to go out, hail a cab, and get it across to the driver that I would need to go in and out a cou­ple times. Af­ter mov­ing ev­ery­thing into the cab, mak­ing the very short trip a few blocks through town, and then re­assem­bling the pile in my new place, I looked around and thought, “Ah, the rug will look great right there.” But, scan­ning the col­lec­tion of suit­cases, bags and what­not, I didn’t see it. Calmly at first and then with steeply climb­ing anx­i­ety, I turned bags over, looked from all an­gles, wheeled around and darted about like an ir­ri­tated mon­key look­ing for a lost ba­nana. Re­al­iz­ing that it sim­ply wasn’t there, but still re­fus­ing to even con­sider the hor­ri­ble pos­si­bil­ity, I quickly checked right out­side the door. Surely I’d just left it nearby, where it would be lean­ing in­no­cently up against the wall or sit­ting at the bot­tom of the stairs, wait­ing for me to res­cue it. No… nowhere. Af­ter check­ing down­stairs and out­side, I stalked the whole way back to the orig­i­nal apart­ment build­ing, which was ar­ranged more like a board­ing house, with an area down­stairs for res­i­dents to con­gre­gate and the pro­pri­etors to dwell. I’m sure I pre­sented some shock, a red-faced, pissed off 20-year old ex-foot­ball player, brush­ing past the few peo­ple gath­ered in the an­te­room, bound­ing up stairs to my for­mer door… hop­ing for a mir­a­cle, but find­ing none. Slump­ing back to the lit­tle group, I asked (in my slowly de­vel­op­ing

A month-long voy­age from Philadel­phia to Ji­long; cheaper than fly­ing and much bet­ter food.

All the may­hem of Taipei in the early 1970's made it more like a vast camp than a city in those days.

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