Creative non-fiction / December 2016 (Issue 34)


A Place Called Home

by Daniel Ho

I will never go back, for the simple reason that all the Russia I need, after all, is with me, always with me—literature, language, my own childhood. I will never return, I will never surrender.

-Vladimir Nabokov

 

1

Last year, I visited my grandparents on holiday. My grandparents live in Taipei on the sixth floor of their building, in an apartment filled with the smell of yellowing paper and old dust. It is a smell which has a habit of settling. Long after I return to Australia, I find it lingering in bags and boxes; I will open a lid to a familiar must, before it mingles and disappears.

Opposite the building stood another, identical in size, shape and age. Looking out the window, most of our view was obstructed by it. A mass of geometric shapes lined its facade. They were mostly rectangles, arranged in the long rows of their respective windows. From one window jutted the back end of an air conditioner, and from another, burst leafy foliage, framed in a Victorian arch. Damp clothes hung behind the next, sepia tinted behind a fraying flyscreen. I spent hours atop the indoor balcony—I imagine myself, now, suspended in midair—gazing across, but, save for the daily rotation of clothes, never catch any signs of life.

Yet the stories that must proliferate there were, and are, a source of endless interest for me. In Australia, faces and outfits settle into easy categories—businessman, tourist, student; smiling buskers and sad-faced beggars form a vast story from which my own role seems absolutely demarcated. Even outliers are ultimately part of the texture of the land. There, in Taiwan, meanings fell apart, categories simply could not hold. It is the texture of it all which escaped me.

There was scarcely ten metres of space between our building and the next, and my curiosity must have spanned every inch of it. Who inhabited that beige sweater in the window? What thoughts filled their idle hours? I wanted to know if they looked out and saw the rust on their window railings, and the peeling white paint, and thought, like me, that it looked very sad. On the other hand, I often saw our neighbours as I came up the elevator, and they did not spare me a second glance. I looked, after all, like them, or their children. We were kin.

So I was hidden behind a one-way mirror. Now observing, now observed. Across the boundary, I saw a world dimlit, where words could not reach me and eyes glanced off reflections of themselves. Or I found myself exposed—alone, and scrutinised by unseen gazes.

 

2

I was given, at some point, a day to myself. It was a welcome relief to find there was nothing to do, to see all my plans and appointments peel away, and find beneath an entire world unexplored. I woke early and drifted through the block looking for breakfast. It was a cold, cloudless day, and the concrete underfoot was glossed with last night's precipitation. A listless sky brightened overhead. My shoes squelched in the damp. I had wrapped myself in coat and scarf and beanie, and I crossed my arms tight across my body.

I decided on a small café with no signage. It could have doubled as a garage, and its paint was a fading emerald green. Their chairs and tables were fading, too. Wobbly legs and chipped wooden surfaces. It was homely, familiar even. Something like wearing old clothes and finding they still fit.

The owner was chatting with her friend and glanced briefly at me when I came in, but did not pause to address me. Their conversation slowed only after a long, concentrated silence on my part.

「你有客人。」                     "You have a customer."

「他還在看菜單。」            "He's still reading the menu."

 

They were talking about me. I looked at them. Then back at the menu on the wall above their heads. She was wrong, though—I was not still reading. I had never really been reading; the words before me were a mad disjunction of knowns and unknowns. The occasional, recognisable "meat," the ubiquitous "egg," a "cook" here and a "bread" there, all conspiring to create the most truly horrendous blackout poetry in the world. Did she realise my confusion, and was that disdain in her look? I had been staring for too long, probably. She asked for my order. I was silent.

In my mind, I turned and walked back into the cold and damp with my oversized scarf and my squeaky shoes.

squelch

squelch

 

3

My parents' childhood friends are a persistent mystery to me. I have always known my parents as immigrant Australians. But these people knew them before they were outsiders, when the language they spoke was native to the land they inhabited. The father I know is a facsimile of the man they knew. When my mother speaks, it is one woman who speaks to me, and another who answers them. So we are doubly disconnected.

One of their friends, a severe lady with angular features who seemed only to laugh when no one was watching, once asked me what my mother tongue was. I frowned.

Mother tongue? It is the language my mother speaks, of course. Chinese. I speak Chinese to my parents, and I spoke Chinese as a toddler, or whatever fragments a child that age may muster. When I first wrote English, I wrote as the traditional Chinese do, from right to left. Chinese circumscribes my dreams and shapes my speech. Chinese is imprinted in me, indelible as memory.

Yet all this seems so inadequate. A mother tongue is not the tongue of my mother, but the tongue which raised me. I do not mean the language used in coaxing and remonstrance. But I do mean it quite literally. Whilst my parents taught and nurtured me in Chinese, I lived a double life. I learnt speech from my parents, then again from Odo Hirsch, hushed within a mouse-hole. I learnt kindness from my mother, then again from Enid Blyton, atop a magic tree. I learnt bravery from my father, then again from Jack London, in the wild reaches of the North. English created me again, ink and paper gave shape to my thoughts.

So I am wary of assigning either language primacy in my upbringing. Each has shaped me in unknowable ways. I am proud of English, in all its inconsistencies, its history, its Shakespeares and Joyces. But when I walk the streets of Taiwan and hear a language that once was mine, I feel a pang of regret. I find myself rootless, as if I were abandoning my true origins. A traitor to my past.

Benjamin Lee Whorf theorised that language, far more than a means of communication, shapes our very thoughts. By the nature of language, by the structures of grammar and vocabulary built into our expressions, he hypothesised, the passage of our thought is determined—or, at the very least, directed—towards specific paths. For example, English forces the speaker to consider the grammatical tense of a statement—I walked, I walk, I will walk—while Chinese does not. European languages mostly have grammatical genders, and one Stanford publication argued that speakers of these languages perceive objects accordingly. A bridge appears more feminine to a German speaker, but more masculine to a Spanish speaker.

The key is perception—it is strange and wondrous to think that language may shape the way we see the world, that we each see a world determined by our own language, that we walk among myriad unseen worlds. As for me, I am caught at the parting of two worlds. I see both at once, or something altogether different. One of them eludes my grasp, melts into the other. Can it be the Taiwan I see is one I see alone?

And what of the mother tongue? My parents' friend, who must have known my parents for more than thirty years, helpfully elaborated, "Your mother tongue is the language your mother speaks, of course."

"Oh, Chinese." Of course.

4

I did eventually buy breakfast. More gratifyingly, though, I also settled on a destination for the day. My parents had heard about it from an old acquaintance: "If your son is interested in art, he should see Huashan Creative Park. It's very popular with the youths."

Still in the spirit of exploration, I resolved to walk the distance, most of the way across Taipei. Of course, Taipei, being around thirty-seven times smaller than Melbourne, hardly makes this very difficult. It makes up for its size, though, with a population more than half of Melbourne's.

As a result, Taipei must be fiercely unforgiving in its use of space. From the midst of a residential area, at any time of day or night, the impression is one of an unruly intimacy. There are few buildings less than three storys high. Some are thin and tall, reaching up twelve or thirteen levels; others are squat and span the length of a street, their first storeys splaying out into the awnings of cafés. Narrow, nameless streets weave in and about, filled to the brim with grocers and laundromats. On our block, vegetation grows in unexpected places. Flowers adorn the cracks in the concrete, and ivy reclines from the walls of the neighbouring community centre. It seems to have completed its climb long ago, and now lazily laces the facade of its building, neither growing nor dying. There is the sense that the world has moved on without us, and left the buildings behind as living relics. At the peripheries of windows and balconies are marked signs of repaints, grey, white and yellow, layered one on another. If you scraped all its colours into an artist's palette, concrete, plants and sundry, you would find all the polaroid hues of an ancient desert, shifting quietly with life.

In fact, our apartment block has only been around for sixty years, but it looks far older. It was built with efficiency, rather than longevity, in mind. After World War II, during the Communist Revolution in China, the Chinese Nationalist Party, the previous ruling party, escaped to Taiwan. For a long time, they harboured hopes of reclamation, a return to their homeland of Mainland China. Even now, their official party line absurdly claims the entirety of Mainland China as their territory. Naturally, the People's Republic of China still defines Taiwan as a rogue territory, but under their rule anyway, to far greater political effect. With the refugee government came their supporters—so, with a suddenly burgeoning population, urban Taiwan had to be built in a hurry. Apartments like ours sprang into being, along with a total lack of urban planning. Buildings huddle close, and, in the name of efficiency, their foyers often conjoin. That morning as always, I wandered a labyrinthine passage through a mass of buildings to arrive at the nearest main road.

Outside the apartment block, the city takes on an entirely different character. There is a sense of freneticism; it is a world characterised by movement. It is a city unable, or unwilling, to be at rest. Cars and bikes mingle on the roads and rush headlong between the dizzying facades of skyscrapers. On the streets, there is the endless patter of feet, day markets turning into night markets, bustling crowds and thousands of voices in ceaseless chorus. I remember seeing a car accident in my very first week there, a motorbike slamming into the side of a car. It all happened with a furious speed. But now, in all that clutter, the event has distilled in my mind into two distinct moments. First, a solid, visceral thud and whirling heads, hands raised to mouths. Second, the motorcyclist sprawled backwards on the concrete, and a clear silence like the holding of a breath. It seemed like the first breath that the city had taken in a very long time.

So I walked those restless streets for around two hours, getting lost numerous times on side streets and shortcuts, before arriving at Huashan Creative Park.

 

5

When my grandparents were children, Taiwan was under Japanese occupation. My grandfather learnt Japanese in school and now translates books between Japanese and Chinese as a hobby. There is an entire generation of elderly men and women who speak Japanese to each other. Theirs was a Taiwan which hearkened after Japan, and its influences are still clear now, in television and culture.

Then came the Communist Revolution and the chaos of political upheaval. A generation grew up who remembered a childhood in a single, undivided China, and still believe in the illusion of a unified Taiwan and Mainland China. My mother tells me, "I'm not Taiwanese, I'm Chinese. I just grew up in Taiwan." For that generation, Taiwan is little more than a geographical dwelling place. In their hearts linger the vestiges of Chinese nationalism.

But things have begun to change. In the general election of 2016, the Democratic Progressive Party was elected. The DPP believe in an autonomous Taiwan, independent of the rule of the People's Republic of China. A generation is coming into their own who have never known or cared for Mainland China, who identify simply as "Taiwanese." For example, in the spring of 2014, hundreds of university students stormed the Taiwanese Parliament in protest of a bill ensuring closer trader relations with China. Any action which brings them closer to China seems to these students to be an erosion of their newfound "Taiwanness." My father tells me they are naive and idealistic to ever imagine they could be free of China's rule, but a fight for identity is not one easily foregone.

It is no surprise, then, that the Taiwanese seem so restless. There is the constant need for change and creation; they are afraid that if they stop moving, they will sink into the murky depths. After all, Taiwan as a separate identity has existed for a scant few decades. Their past is still diluted in colonial imposition and a once unproblematic Chinese identity. The streets of Taiwan are replete with the signs of physical reclamation. Taiwan, as a geographical location, is now more than a dwelling place. It has become a locus of their identity—for outsiders, it may be the only thing which differentiates them from Mainland China. Older buildings are being torn down, and rebuilt, and roads are being remade. New railway lines are being dug, old residential areas are being renewed. The world of my grandparents, the colours of the desert, no longer suffice.

It seems to me that the youth, whether naive or proud, or both, are on the cusp of something new. They are at a turning point, the past and the possible spread out before them.

 

6

Huashan Creative Park, built almost 100 years ago, was once an abandoned winery. Then in 1997, a theatre group trespassed into one of its warehouses to stage a production. Despite government sanctions, when the word spread, artists began to see the artistic potential of the area. The land soon began fostering various artists and art groups. It is now a sprawling network of warehouses, restaurants and parks, managed, somewhat perversely, by the government. The space is given to artists and organisations to display their work or collections, and at any given time, the exhibits may range from ancient Chinese ink and wash landscapes, to Beatles tributes, to modern installation art.

I wandered the area—it is all I know to do—and I thought that it was the most beautiful place in the world.

I realised that the sheer prevalence and diversity of the art was a reflection of Taiwan. It was, and is, a way forward. It incorporates what sometimes seems lost—a Chinese cultural identity—and recreates it into a uniquely Taiwanese space. It carves a way forward, from where it is. I began to see that the missing texture of Taiwan, that essence which I could not grasp, did not elude me merely because of my estrangement. It has always been something nascent, a formless mass barely glimpsed in the mists of tomorrow. Taiwan is in the process of creating itself, performing a sly magic trick, a rabbit pulling itself out of a hat.

And I realise now that I, too, am in the process of becoming. It is not a betrayal of my past to take on a new language, or a new culture. It all comes together within me; I need not find myself alienated in either of my homelands. I need not choose between mother tongues. It is a function of the human capacity to allow my identity to adapt and evolve. Wherever I go, whatever I say, I know that I am home.

 Daniel Ho was born and raised in Australia. He has spent most of his life in Melbourne, and is in the middle of an Arts degree at the University of Melbourne. He is, however, currently completing a semester abroad in Germany, studying Comparative Literature at the Free University of Berlin. In future, he plans on either studying law, or recklessly indulging his linguistic interests abroad.

 
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