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Back in December 1989, I was in our living room, watching president Ceausescu’s speech on TV. He was wearing a black karakul hat and standing on the balcony outside the Central Committee. Bucharest lay before him, its arteries pulsating with crowds. Overnight, snow had melted leaving behind bare, cracked asphalt. Our streets no longer looked innocent. Halfway through the speech, slogans lauding the Socialist Republic turned into: “We are the people, no more dictators.”. The president’s voice started trembling. Gunfire dispersed the audience gathered in the Palace Square. My mother couldn’t stop shaking her head, while my father seemed unable to move. We didn’t know at the time that some of these shots were simulated. But a revolution which started with stage effects turned into a reality and this balcony scene was the final act in Romania’s love affair with socialism. Our president would not live to see the New Year.
This marked the beginning of a new identity for us all and meant that my life would be drastically different from the lives of my parents. Our borders which had been closed for a few decades would open again. Traditions from other countries would infuse our culture like they had in previous centuries. Roman colonnades and triangular pediments, a Latin-based language peppered with Dacian and Slavic words, Persian rugs, velvety wall carpets depicting the abduction from the Seraglio, Turkish coffee Ibriks, Transylvanian Saxon churches, thick-walled forts, and concrete tower-blocks reminiscent of Soviet cityscapes all found themselves mingling within the confines of a country shaped like a fish. These were all gifts which may not have been recognised as such at the time. We were located in a liminal space where Eastern, Western and Southern European lands met. As the Romans said: “Veni, vidi, vici”. It was that easy to get to us.
Twenty-eight years later, I am in Taiwan for a holiday. Our first stop is Taipei, a city which breathes in a perpetual mist born out of the East China Sea, this being a suitable metaphor for the peculiar Taiwanese independence. In a similar way to Romania, Taiwan had also searched for a new identity after the end of the Second World War. Only, in their case, the nationalist party and the communists fought until the latter had to withdraw, after which democracy arrived like a Trojan horse via reforms and laws. Not renouncing The Republic of China, but silently adopting capitalism, it seems that this island oscillates between two political systems, just like me. By now, I have moved countries twice and settled in the UK, yet I am still an in-betweener who has parted ways with communism but also resents the inequality that can arise from capitalism.
If a mantra were to be associated with Taipei, it might be tempus fugit. It is a place where everybody has somewhere to be, a place where most people have degrees and aspirations stack up higher than skyscrapers. Their discipline is familiar to anyone who has lived through communism. But there is also a rhythm to this place. Scooters shooting past us sometimes form swarms when waiting for traffic lights. The air is dense with dust and our ears fill with the beat of whirring engines and the electric hum of Taipei’s giant mechanical heart which has more chambers than tower blocks. It is evening. The skyline separating concrete buildings from smoky clouds looks like the edge of burnt paper. Passers-by split into equal numbers of Cindy Lauper lookalikes, boy band members and office workers. We avoid bumping into them as we head to Gongguan night market, a chain of narrow streets padded with stalls which sell neon-coloured plastic gadgets and too many clothes.
A queue welcomes market visitors, as next to the entrance, a stall sells pork buns produced at speeds which rival the newest production-line machinery. This speaks of the ethos of the average Taiwanese business owner: precision and resilience, but it also gives a clue about their society. One of the locals’ preferred greetings means: “Have you eaten?” and it reflects the nervousness of a host who will make you feel cared for. Once the buns warm our hands, we can’t quite find European equivalents for them. Bread with the texture of clouds surrounds a mixture of herbs, chillies and steaming pork mince. Further down the street, a kiosk sells bubble tea, a milky, sweetened tea mixed with tapioca balls, like a lava lamp with black spheres gravitating near the bottom. With our new street food addiction in place, we breathe in the scent of fresh dough, ginger and fried meats as we attempt to read the signs above shops. But the writing is almost never translated, so we have to rely on cartoon signage which makes me view things like I did when I was a child. I remember a cartoon I used to watch, a Soviet production called Nu, Pogodi!, which is about a wolf trying to catch a hare. This was the only respite in a TV programme dominated by documentaries about agriculture and five-year plans. And all this propaganda had the side-effect of encasing my childhood in a political corset which I haven’t cast aside.
A hard mattress is waiting back at the hotel. It is supposed to be good for one’s back, but in my case, it’s too late to reconsider the way I sleep, so I spend a large part of the night choosing which side wouldn’t give me a hernia. As I lie under the heavy duvet scented with generic detergent, I wait for the morning. This is the obvious point at which life’s biggest problem presents itself and I remember what I left in London. Incoming Brexit. This event had turned me into a conspicuous foreigner overnight. Newspapers highlighted attacks on Muslims, Polish people or passers-by speaking a foreign language in public. At around 4 a.m., the thought of going back to Romania comes back to me like it did immediately after the Brexit vote. But at this point, I realise that the concept of home is no longer the image of a room suspended in time, but an amalgamation of the countries I have lived in, like an avant-garde collage. Returning to something as ambiguously defined as that would make you lose pieces of yourself in the process. With each passing country, I have gained or lost wildness and restraint.
When the morning comes, Taiwan pulls me back into its atmosphere of polite urgency. As we walk along boulevards to the soundtrack of rustling leaves, I realise what is missing in London: trees juxtaposed with concrete buildings. Taipei’s pavements are sometimes flanked by banyan trees with aerial roots enveloping their trunks like old sailing ropes. Their pruned, gangrenous branches break up the sky into a puzzle and this image reminds me of towns in my native country, where linden trees shelter blocks of flats from traffic. I remember the times when I was little and the rain was pouring, making the pavements mirror the crowns above. I used to imagine I was walking above trees.
For breakfast, we head towards the Florida bakery and our walk along Zhongshan road takes me back to my undergraduate days in Bucharest. I try to think of a reason and all I can come up with is the energy of the passers-by, the geometric skyline and the soft, warm air enveloping my bare arms. But there has to be more to it than that and I wonder whether there is another undercurrent in this culture that I have only acknowledged intuitively. The inside of the bakery resembles an exhibition where pastries are presented in an array of colours: lime green, yolk-yellow, candy pink. Panda-shaped buns and elaborate braiding make us circle the counters a couple of times. We choose savoury scallion pastries and cocoa buns and head towards the bus station to get to Jiufen, a place outside Taipei which is said to have inspired the animated film Spirited Away, a surreal, allegorical melting of genres. Although this film was a Japanese production, its setting was based on this Taiwanese market town where streets are connected by stairs. Strings of red paper lanterns stretch like dragon spines above stalls selling century eggs, steaming dumplings and wooden handicrafts which range from apple-shaped incense containers to chilli-red ornamental cats. The scent of ground almonds oozes from a milk powder stall which also sells bite-sized chewy melon or mango squares encased in shortbread. Some of these dishes appear in the film, which is about a little girl who wants to get her parents back after they had indulged in the foods they found in an empty restaurant and had been transformed into pigs. Its connotations remind me of the frugality promoted by communism and I can’t help interpreting the film as a sideways critique on the hedonism that comes with capitalism. These thoughts pass through my head, as we walk into the heart of the fog to get to the viewing platforms.
Wrought iron panels are superimposed on every glass door. Houses are quiet. I imagine people inside, eating their food with chopsticks, in complete silence. The road up the mountain seems magical because even dilapidated buildings have an air of shabby optimism about them. Or perhaps the hopeful denouement of this film is working its way through me. A mongrel follows us. It is vaguely reminiscent of a character in Spirited Away but it also reminds me of my grandparents’ village, where farm dogs were allowed to wander. And so, I am in two places at the same time and feel that the view in front of me tries to tell me something about the past, but I don’t understand what it is. As I walk away, it seems that this moment already happened years ago, when I left Romania. I had arrived in a new country without fully leaving the old one.
We reach the tunnel which, in Spirited Away, is a corridor between two realms. The entrance is shaded by claret bell-shaped flowers swimming in waves of foliage. A maroon building waits at the other end. We pass through and I cannot help thinking that the Taiwanese people are also trapped in a passage between their desire for their identity and their yearning for mother China beckoning from across the sea. On the other side of the tunnel, the air is warmer, the light is orange and I see Taipei unfolding in all its asymmetry down in the valley. Lamps turn on one by one beneath my feet, as the evening descends without warning. Or maybe my eyes are willing to see a slip in the running of the universe. I am reminded that as we age, the thread of time seems to coil around itself becoming impossibly short. But any unexplained moments can prove that our hearts are not encased in leather.
The next day, we follow a serpentine path up a mountain to reach a temple. We see its tangerine multi-levelled roof, which from afar looks like a ship with no sails. This first-impression seems befitting, since, when we pray, our spirits are trying to navigate to heaven without really knowing whether we can get there at all. When we get closer, we notice the roof is an ensemble of miniature sculptures and it would take time to observe their details. Just as life takes many hours of contemplation to understand a fraction of its meaning. An arched gate leads into a courtyard. We are not sure whether we should enter because our app for translating signs keeps saying something about dumplings. Garden wall windows have porcelain bars shaped like bamboo canes and look into a ravine like lidless eyes contemplating the distance to the lives unfolding in urban areas. It is quiet. You can start meditating without meaning to. On the right-hand side, a stack of white balconies reminds me of a cloister, so I think back to the time when I wanted to join a monastery. It was perhaps the silence I was attracted to, although I question how good it would have been for me.
We climb down a hill and reach a garden where steep stairs, one metre high, have been carved out of the slope and covered in dewy grass. We look small when standing next to them and that makes me smile. The silence trickles further into my brain, hushing the inner voices that remind me of work, of my distant family and ghostly life goals. It’s one of those moments when I feel no panic at the thought that none of my wishes may come true and I just see death as a change of state, from animated flesh to heat or kinetic energy. The best I can hope for is perhaps to help a tree grow. That would be something. I turn and look back at the cherry-red wood structure which supports the intricate roof, and it reminds me of the colours found on the communist flag. Back in Romania, communists had gradually removed churches from neighbourhoods. With God’s name going unspoken and his house demolished, communists could feel they had achieved true equality. The Taiwanese were spared the effects of secularisation because communism was short-lived. Religions such as Falun Gong, which is forbidden in China, are allowed in Taiwan. Falun Gong teaches morality and strives to achieve detachment from the material world, and thus the state, threatening the core of communist rule. By contrast, Taoism and Buddhism were considered secular folk religions, so they survived in China as well, because the communists couldn’t have separated the spine of its people from its flesh without self-destructing.
On the way back, we climb down an unforgiving number of steps. Our muscles contort and after a while, leg movements no longer feel automatic, but turn into a struggle to control their direction. And no amount of introspection helps with the exhaustion. Once we are back in our hotel room, a Korean drama is unfolding on the TV screen. I know this because I recognise some of the words and the clean-cut clothing style. In 1999, the new South Korean wave, termed Hallyu, swept across Taiwanese culture. It all began with a series titled What is Love All About? which was broadcast by the China Central Television Station. And who wouldn’t want to know that? Having seen Korean films myself, I knew that the types of stories they produced usually adopted dizzying plot twists. If we were to draw a graph of events, these plots would look like an alpinist’s electrocardiogram. Films such as Old Boy or The Classified File are not meant to be believable. Their violence will not be censored or rated. My explanation for this is that Koreans have seen enough in their lifetimes to know that reality can be extraordinary and as bleak as some of these works. But perhaps I am applying my convoluted reasoning to something that can be explained simply as a need for entertainment.
The next day, the sea has decided to pull back its mist. Light embraces Taipei and the air trembles with heat. We follow the Jiantanshan Trail and head to the National Revolutionary Martyrs’ Shrine. Passers-by exude good manners like in a film from the sixties, so I wonder if after enough time, everything reminds us of something else and we become trapped in temporal loops, unable to see the present anew. We reach a sight which seems rendered in technicolour. A warm blue sky with streaks of foam in the distance contrasts with a red ten-floor hotel trimmed with columns all the way up. The sun gives me a prompt headache, reminding me of my student days when my walks in thirty-degree heat used to make me dozy. Back then, the life ahead was long and its goals far enough off to seem achievable, while nowadays, my vision of the years ahead has gained precision but lost possibilities.
After going through a Paifang gateway with three arches, the heat intensifies, as if it is trapped in that courtyard. A gazebo by the entrance has a spiral staircase and a ceiling like a golden tortoise’s shell. This is a miniature version of a caisson pattern, which in Chinese means an “algae well” and resembles a spider’s web. Colours ranging from eggshell cream to circuit-board green are found in geometric stencils painted along the edges of the ceiling. The shrine houses about 390 000 spirit wood tablets in memory of the soldiers who died during the Xinhai Revolution which instated the Republic of China and the two Taiwan Strait Crises which sought to remove the Nationalist Party from some of Taiwan’s satellite islands. But this is also the place where Chiang Ching-kuo’s funeral took place. It is an unlikely burial place for the former president of the Republic of China, but he was laid to rest before Taiwan’s surge for independence.
I imagine the souls of these soldiers stepping through one another as they wander the tranquil courtyard but can’t picture all of them in this space. All their unfulfilled desires would make for a dense spiritual realm, although it is odd to think of efficient storage in a place which is dedicated to the spirit. The silence in the hall is punctuated by the visitors’ whispers while their steps echo. We turn back to find five guards dressed in white advancing slowly and pausing with their right legs suspended mid-air. They are followed by a couple of young imitators wearing light-hearted smiles. The Chinese soldiers’ faces are free from expression. We see their skins glistening as the sun probes beneath their plastic helmets and tempts their willpower. The intention of this place becomes evident inside the hall. Once I have read the labels for each watercolour displayed on its walls, a narrative emerges: that of the Chinese defending the island against the Japanese and their desire to take back the land one day. I stop in front of a painting of a general on horseback looking wistful but stern, while soldiers form a line behind him. The only shape ruining the symmetry is my own shadow reflected in the glass covering the work. The watercolour is titled One Hundred Thousand Youths and it is a depiction of commandant Chiang Kai-Shek, a leader who summoned intellectuals to war back in 1944. This shrine is either a limb of mother China planted inside Taiwan, signalling that the heart of this land is Chinese or perhaps it is Taiwan’s way of saying that its people are the true Chinese.
It is late afternoon by the time we return to the urban part of Taipei. Narrow back streets reveal the residents’ need for privacy as numerous tall potted plants have been placed in front of already dark windows. Peering inside is impossible. I think back to Amsterdam, where one could witness how the same evening unfolded differently for dozens of families, just by glancing at an apartment building. In contrast, Taipei hides its innards behind potted ficuses and grey glass. I remind myself that it takes years to get to know somebody so why would it be any different for an entire country?
In the morning, as Taipei shrinks behind our car, a forest of palm trees materialises together with the realisation that I am the furthest I’ve ever been from Romania, at least geographically. Before the revolution, it was unlikely that many Romanians would have been abroad, with the exception of engineers on exchange programs who were sent to places such as Libya, Syria or China. Countries with similar leadership styles would often participate in such swaps though, in reality, the exchange was more political than related to engineering. Megalomania spread from Gaddafi and Kim Il-sung to president Ceausescu after his visits to Libya and North Korea and this turned out to be his downfall in 1989. As our car follows a road guarded by apathetic macaques, I remember our former president’s speech and wonder if going back to Romania after years of internal changes would be a similar act of self-destruction.
As our car drives over speed bumps, my mind returns to the present. We are heading into the tea-lands. Rows of tea shrubs close together make the hills look like they’ve been shaped by a celestial plough. Small, oval tea leaves look as if they are coated in wax but are actually soft and break easily between our fingers. The mist is whiter and comes down like a mystical stage curtain. When we get to the top of the mountain, we find a tea plantation with a shop and a verandah, which sells green tea and dry medicinal herbal mixtures in golden vacuum packs. The proprietor speaks to us in Chinese. We smile, nod and wonder what she is saying. In spite of our language gap, I can tell there is loneliness in her. She looks nostalgic as she gazes past the workers trying to build an extension on the plateau below, down into the valley, which from where we stand looks like a gigantic cup topped with froth. In the distance, a cluster of bethel nut palm trees form an island floating in the fog. This makes me think of the extension we are planning to build in England and my possible return to Romania. The one thing I am certain about is that in order to build anything at all I need to know where the construction will take place. To push these thoughts out, I attempt to translate the type of tea we are looking at. I fail, but we still purchase one pack, then say goodbye hesitantly and drive away. A verdant velvety skin covers valleys and peaks alike and turns them into a living organism of indefinite shape. Then the road and the view disappear into the fog periodically. Visibility is non-existent and our windscreen turns into frosted glass. The little we can see through the side windows suggests that we are on the edge of the mountain.
After hours of trepidation, we reach Ruili, a tea plantation which operates a hotel and is owned by the Zhan family. Their daughter welcomes us in English. She tells us that villagers had used the trails we are planning to follow for hundreds of years. Of course, we don’t understand why this is significant until the next day when we have to climb hundreds of steps to get to the end of the trail. She asks if we would like Western or traditional food. We pick the latter and when we come down for dinner, we are welcomed with seven dishes made with beef, pork and local vegetables. We are impressed with the speed of Mrs Zhan’s cooking. Her shyness contrasts with her husband’s joviality. Mr Zhan smiles and serves us a bottle of homemade rice whisky, strong enough to make one’s blood glow with heat. We do not want to offend our hosts, so we try everything brought to our table: fluffy rice, steaming dumplings, pork floss, cured meats, pickles and eggs. Their food reflects an attention to detail and a complexity of flavours unmatched by European cuisine with its huge portions of meat.
Afterwards, they invite us to their tea ceremony. Friends of Mr Zhan arrive. He seems to be the leader of his group, and we find out later that most of these men spend their time with him, wearing permanent smiles. They usually sit around a lacquered tea table which is carved out of an immense root, has an irregular shape and hosts tea paraphernalia: sieves, porcelain containers for testing fragrance, tree trunk ornaments. The daughter pours hot water over tea leaves, then filters it. Steam rises from cups made of filigree bone china and glass. The amber-coloured liquid smells like almond and dried jasmine, and its hint of bitterness and wild honey is refreshing. Guests laugh while their chat brings me into a state of calm. I forget about moving countries and the image of our former president finally disappears from my head.
The next few days, we trek along dirt paths for hours, along mountainsides carved by water into a gigantic conglomerate of stone honeycombs, into the soul of a forest full of shivering bamboo leaves, along a rope bridge which sways with each step, into the belly of a graphite gorge. We sense the presence of monkeys, we feel the force of the nuts they throw from the canopy, we see a Swinhoe’s tree lizard arching its yellow, stripy back and grabbing a stalk with its tiny, scaly claws. Forest wagtail songs hypnotise me. My breathing is slowed down by humidity. Time finally staggers. Perhaps I reconnected with who I used to be many years ago and caught up with my past. Everything becomes clear. I am not meant to know what I should do next and when we finally leave Taiwan, my mind is no longer on moving countries. My goals have melted like the mist and I am once again merely curious about the world. I wonder if I will ever belong to just one place.
Elena Croitoru is based in Kent and is studying for an MSt in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge. Her work has appeared in Southword, Ekphrasis - A Poetry Journal and other magazines. She has been shortlisted for the Gregory O'Donoghue Poetry Competition, Wasafiri New Writing Prize, Bath Flash Fiction Award, Moniack Mhor's Emerging Writer Award and other prizes. She won second place in the Bart Wolffe poetry competition and is a Pushcart Prize nominee.