Sometimes when I reflect on places I’ve been, it is the strangers who I remember most, despite meeting them for a brief few hours, few minutes, or even few seconds. All of them have one thing in common: I only met them once.
I met Ms. Lai at the base of a hiking trail in Dahu Park a couple of days ago in Taipei. The park was sprawling and surrounded an idyllic lake, with some obligatory pagodas on the side. What I liked most was the unique bridge that spanned the short distance across a narrow part of the lake, with its red brick and white chinese railing, looking like a perfect mesh of Harvard and China. When I asked someone to take a picture of me on the bridge, she took three consecutive shots that cut off my forehead, one even cutting off my entire head. I wondered what version of the picture she was seeing as she looked at the digital screen at arms’ length, but I didn’t have the heart (or Chinese skills) to correct her. It was dusk, but I had come here with the intention of going hiking up the mountain. I could see the mountain, but I couldn’t find the trail’s beginning. Finally, after toeing my way around a random construction site, I found a stone bench next to a buddhist temple. On the bench was an elderly woman wearing a black polo and high-waisted belted slacks, fanning herself and peering inquisitively at me from beneath a black-and-pink Louis Vutton VISOR. I noticed that the trail started right behind where she was sitting. I smiled politely and started to walk up.”Where are you going?” she called after me in Chinese. I replied that I was going to go hiking. “You can’t go. It’s dangerous to go up alone at night. Even if you were a boy,” she said. I replied that I wanted to see the sunset from the top, but there was a note of fear in my voice as I peered upwards into the trail, wondering if I really wanted to enter the jungle of chirping crickets without even a flashlight. “Sunrise is prettier,” she replied. “My name is Ms. Lai. I live around the hill. Next time you come here you can call me and we can go hiking in the early morning. I climb the mountain every day alone, it would be nice to have a companion.” I was pleasantly surprised by the offer of friendship. We walked back to the subway station. On the way, we passed the bridge again, and she offered to take a picture of me. Except each time, she assumed she had taken the picture but hadn’t actually pressed the button! I don’t know what it is with old Taiwanese women in parks and photography. We chatted as we walked and she told me she has two daughters–who don’t like hiking–and a husband (who she doesn’t like hiking with…haha). The sky quickly turned purple and then pitch black by the time we were at the subway stop, and I thanked her profusely for discouraging me from what would have probably been an eery hike (I’m sure my parents are currently mentally thanking her as well).
Larry I met on the subway on the same day, coming back from Dahu park. He sat next to me, a middle-aged man wearing a Hawaiian print shirt and with a very round face. He immediately began speaking to me in English, asking me loudly where I was from and why I was here. Normally I would feel self-conscious and answer haltingly, but my experience with Taiwanese friendliness made me look less askance at talkative strangers. Suddenly Larry fished in his shirt pocket and brought out a beaded red and green bracelet, which he presented me with great flourish. “I work in nanohealing,” he said. “This bracelet is an example.” I thanked him for the present but was sort of confused, and my face must have shown it. “See,” he said, taking the bracelet back and rubbing it on his nose. “If you rub it like this, it heals the breathing. Then you rub it on your arms”–he proceeded to do so–”and it heals the aching. Then rub on breasts”–he rubbed it on his chest and I looked furtively around to see whether people in the subway car were staring (they weren’t maybe this is normal?)–”and it removes the bad parts and gets rid of the cancer.” He handed it back and I couldn’t help but take it gingerly (it having been rubbed on his nose), but I didn’t want to offend him even though I was a bit creeped out. My station was next, so I threw the “nanohealing bracelet” in my bag and waved a quick goodbye before disappearing into the crowded platform. My friend Kevin Chow, who I told the story to later, told me to watch out–”the bracelet might be a GPS.”
Then in Beitou, where I went a few days ago to see the geothermal sulfur valley and hot springs, there were the masses of elementary school children who surrounded me in the water of the public hot springs. It was like an outdoor swimming pool in a rock formation, except with really, really, hot water. It was all old people and young children. They looked at me shyly as I sat on one edge of the hot springs, and then when I smiled they became bold and came over and asked me all sorts of questions. They asked me if people in America were white or black, and when I answered that “there are all colors,” they looked skeptical. “Even my color?” one child asked in disbelief, pointing at her skin. Here I also met the one other foreigner there, a girl from Wisconsin who had been teaching in Korea for five years. She didn’t speak a word of Chinese, but was getting around fine in Taiwan. I was impressed.
There are other strangers. The Indian family who pointed me to the metro in Greece so I could get to the airport late at night–I mentally thank them often. The girl I met watching the solar eclipse in Hong Kong, whose hobby was flying parachutes. Too many to count.
It’s sad that you only see some people once, but it’s exciting in a way, because you can construct stories in your mind about them, and they exist unchanging in a life where everything else that you come in contact with is constantly changing.