Taipei Jeans: A Flashback

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“You have it too easy,” my aunt said, said stroking my hair, “You’re not depressed. You just have difficulty.”

“When I was your age, I didn’t have the choice to either go to college or do what I liked. It wasn’t even that my parents made me. We had one road, and that was education. We had no other thought but to get out of Tainan. We needed the freedom that came with a good education.

“I remember moving into the dorms and thinking, “Wow, this is great. I’m finally on my own…” but really, it was the most crowded living situation I would ever experience.

“Nine girls in one room with three-level bunk beds. The rooms were so small we had to take turns studying at the desks. Everything was shared. The first day I arrived I was so embarrased. I unpacked all my things and the oldest girl in the room came and patted me on the back.

“It’s okay,” she said, “We share all our  clothes anyway.” I stared at my belongings: two white shirts, two pairs of socks, two pairs of threadbare underwear and a skirt that had been let out at the hem so many times there were lines at the bottom where the wash had faded the cloth. The older girl waved at her closet- it wasn’t much more, but at least she had two pairs of shoes. “Feel free to borrow what you need. But we all try to keep everything in the best condition.

“Back in high school, my friends and I dreamed of moving to the big city. You see, we grew up in Tainan, the southern part of Taiwan where people are considered…country bumpkins. We studied hard and knew that no matter what, we were going to Taiwan National University in Taipei. My mother didn’t think I could make it. She told me not to aim too high. ‘Set yourself up for disappointment,’ she would tell me whenever I brought it up, ‘Why not just be a teacher and stay at home? Save money.’

“You’re probably thinking, teacher? Is that freedom? Well… back then, being a teacher was a respectable job to have. And if you studied to be a teacher in college, you were guaranteed a job after you graduated. But I knew in my heart I wanted to go to Taipei- I did not want to stay in Tainan and become a teacher, even if it meant my education would be paid for by the government.”

“I didn’t tell my mother when I was accepted into Taiwan National University. She kept on asking me when I was going to move into the teacher’s school, but I just talked about something else. Finally, when she found out, it was too late to get angry. I was already packed (even though there wasn’t much) and ready to leave. We said our goodbyes and I left for Taipei.

She stops here, looking me in the eye. Wondering what I’m thinking. I am intrigued, but I am tired.

“Betty, I know New York is different and you regret going there, but you must think of it this way: at least you know. I think you’d be far unhappier if you’d never left your hometown.

“Taipei was a whole other world. The college girls there, the older ones anyway, looked down at first on us girls from the south. They thought we had no style, no class. Which was true, but we were fast learners. My roommates and I saved up all our money for six months just so we could each buy a pair
of jeans. I could not believe how expensive the western styles were, but I wanted to fit in so badly. We were growing up, you know? We wanted to do it right.

“The jeans…they didn’t fit. Well they did, but it was like walking around in a cast the doctor had wrapped too tightly. I remember asking for my size and then trying them on in the store. When the button couldn’t meet the hole, I asked the saleslady if she could get me a larger size. She snapped at me and said, “That’s how they’re supposed to look. They make your legs look thin and sexy.”

My aunt gets a dreamy look then shakes her head, smoothing down my hair once more.

“Those jeans,” she said, “I had a love-hate relationship with those jeans.'”

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