Loss of the Wondrous Rug
Once Upon A Time in Taibei
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.