The Return

In two, no – three days, I will see this view again though less sunny and less filtered (I am challenging myself to both take more photos and to use less filters, except for on Instagram, in which case filters are the only way to go.)

My aunt sunning the blankets on the balcony, at the start of 2010. 

For now, my brain is mush. (Partly, this is a result of my last trip to Vegas. “Balls to the walls!” my cousin instructed, and I nodded in heady assent, thinking it necessary to buy my first – and likely last – set of shot glasses from the most opulent Walgreen’s I’d ever set foot in. It wasn’t until the next morning when I realized it was actually just the balls of my feet that went to the walls while the rest of me wanted nothing more than to slide to the floor. Hello, 2013, ye harbinger of my late twenties!)

My closet has been gutted so its innards now lay strewn about the bed and carpet. Collared shirts, wool sweaters, short and long skirts, pants that may or may not fit lay anxiously on my duvet, wondering if they’ll make the cut. I always overpack when I go to Taipei because I always think I’ll transform into the best version of myself – stylish and purposeful, places to go, people to see – but without fail I turn into a creature who spends entire days in pajamas lounging around her aunt’s sixth floor living room without purpose, without agenda. Before my cousin Karen was my partner in sloth, but now she works like any respectable, able brain and bodied, twenty-seven year old. So Mondays through Fridays I sloth alone.

On more ambitious days I stroll around the well-maintained track at the nearby middle school while uniformed students with sallow faces and greasy hair keep their heads bent low in fluorescent lighted classrooms. Sometimes I go to the department store and touch things, accept samples from pale, slender girls around my age who think I could probably benefit a whole lot by using the same beauty products they do. Why are all the American girls so big boned? I shrug; I wish I knew.

In the afternoons my aunt cooks dinner while I watch. She tells me stories; I put down my book and sit down on a small stool, staring at the ties of her gingham apron and listen. The afternoon sun shines softly down on my aunt’s short hair – only a few strands of which are grey – and there is something bucolic about the scene except we are on the sixth floor of a building in a bustling city. Outside, far below the balcony a car horn honks. A cellphone rings with a Taiwanese pop song.

My uncle comes home from the office, puts his frayed nylon laptop bag on the low mahogany cabinet behind the couch and goes to wash up. The slender cat jumps atop the bag. He will likely stay there until his dinner.

We humans take our seats around the rectangular dining table upon which my aunt has assembled the night’s simple dishes. Always white and brown rice with two or three vegetable stir fries. A pan-fried fish with scallions and soy sauce. The fat, older cat paws our knees and hoists himself up on the empty chair to get a taste. That is the fat cat at his most productive. If they make it home in time for dinner (which since 2010 has been rare), my cousins talk about their day. A pretty fresh faced female anchor reports the same news that was reported in the morning.

At night the city comes alive and I find a reason to change out of my pajamas just as my uncle changes into his.

“He will sleep at nine even if the Empress of China herself were to call at 9:15,” my aunt has said drily for her entire marriage.

Sometimes my cousin Karen and I revisit the same department stores, though now they are bursting at the seams. The young, sallow-faced high school and college students and office workers are now fresh-faced and energized. They milk the night, or the few precious hours left of it. I see the lights of a million billboards and shop windows, smell the exhaust of thousands of scooters, cabs and buses, hear the chattering of a million souls packed into two square kilometres, perhaps less. I see, smell and hear precisely what I miss most about Taipei when I am in Orange County.

Sometimes, I stay in my pajamas and we watch an American movie or TV show with Chinese subtitles. Or a Chinese show with Chinese subtitles. We discuss her coworkers and her friends. The night is long, but so is the next day, and at 12 or 1AM Karen is fast asleep. Taipei does not; this energy wakes us all the next morning, and the next and the next.

Sometimes, in between all of this, I write.

For now, two massive, aspirational suitcases wait to be filled, just as I do, though with different nourishment.

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