BY WALTER GIERSBACH
Copyright is held by the author.
DURING THAT year I taught ESL in Taiwan, I’d walk over the concrete bridge crossing the Tamsui River to Taipei. Strolling on the pedestrian strip saved me a longer bus ride down the river and across the modern four-lane bridge. I enjoyed the light fog drifting over the water, birds shooting past on mysterious errands and small boats drifting under my feet. There was also the smell of natural things that delayed Taipei’s stink of charcoal cooking fires and car exhausts. And walking gave me time to picture Wendy’s heart-shaped face, think of her chirpy laugh, smile at the way she tortured the English language. Yesterday, she called a thermometer a fever meter and asked if all Americans carried guns.
Wendy was Liong-fong, a 22-year-old from Taichung who worked at her aunt’s teahouse. Most of the kids in the class had taken Western names. Me, David Wojciechowski, found it easier to be known as David Wu.
My new friend Charlie called me an ex-pat when we’d meet for drinks. Charlie was a sales rep for a medical supplies company in Cincinnati. “You can go home again, Davy boy. Don’t believe that Thomas Wolfe bullshit.”
I answered, “Don’t want to go back to Chicago. Taipei’s a perfect place to hang out. I’m getting paid to be an expatriate.” I had exiled myself from that other life. Plus, there was Wendy, who was reason enough to stay until she headed for an America grad school.
It was a Thursday — the weekend in sight — when halfway across the bridge, I passed a woman sitting head down against the guard rails. I was surprised because the Taiwanese always seemed to be bustling and plowing toward some capital project. What was it about these people who kept their stores open till ten at night? Didn’t let them chill and do nothing? Sure, there were old men with their hats out for a few NT dollars. I’d often drop a few coins as I passed, rarely looking at them. The equivalent of two bits in U.S. money was a nod to God that I wasn’t totally profane. Maybe I thought my mother, a Taiwanese-American, would approve.
Or I was compensating? I got angry at her during my first semester in college. “Why didn’t you ever teach me and my brother Chinese? Why’d I have to study what you could’ve taught us as kids?”
“I mostly speak Taiwanese,” she answered. “Anyway, I’m American now. Only speak Taiwanese when I talk to Taiwan friends.” Bullshit. I studied with a vengeance. Got As on my tests. Still she corrected me. “That not the way you speak Mandarin, Davy.”
I saw the bridge lady again returning after a day teaching English to students cramming for their visa tests. I was brain-tired and Wendy had challenged me obliquely: “True communication only happen among equals, David.”
“You better change your attitude, girl,” I snapped. “You’re going to find lots of people in grad school are not your equals. They’ll be your superiors, or less-informed inferiors, or people so different you’ll think they’re aliens.”
Well, maybe the woman on the bridge was tired too after a long day because she hadn’t changed her position. There was still no hand extended into which I could drop coins.
I paused, ignoring the sunlight fragmenting off the river. Was this woman ill, resting, a hiker taking in the scenery? Taiwanese adults often squatted or hunkered while waiting for a bus. They never sat on the pavement.
She had the bowl-shaped haircut of a student, but not the uniform. Instead, there was a brownish-colored skirt and a white blouse. The glint of a gold chain around her neck. These were discrepancies I couldn’t understand after three months of working in Taipei. She was out of character in a place where one doesn’t expect the unexpected.
I heard there could be problems from helping people. Didn’t the Chinese believe if you save a person’s life they become your burden forever? That would never happen in Chicago, where you’re on your own in the land of opportunity. She was in the middle of the bridge, so I didn’t know whether she had been coming or going. Was Taipei or San Chung her destination or point of origin?
The weather was sweet with cherry trees blossoming in Yangminshan Park. I paused longer, thought deeper and stared as if an answer to the woman might pop out.
I wondered if my mom ever walked over this bridge? She had grown up just south of Taipei where her family had a motorcycle repair shop. I was still waiting for Mom to give me their address or a phone number. She always said she’d have to go find it, and anyway they were very different from me.
Wendy was still on my mind. My grad-school hopeful and delightful girlfriend had politely indicated there should be less socializing between us. No lingering conversations over coffee, no wandering around the markets. I was a teacher, she a student. “We are too different, you and I,” she explained that afternoon. “Chung guo ren, mei guo ren,” she said. Her finger pointed to herself and then to me. “Chinese. American. I am going to America and you are trying to forget you’re American.”
I reminded her I was half Chinese. “Race doesn’t explain a damn thing between two people,” I burst out. “We can bridge the differences. My mother’s Chinese. She and my father have been married my entire life.” I didn’t tell her my parents were divorcing, that I’d run to Taiwan seeking sanctuary.
The divorce — okay, separation — came after my kid brother died. Chicago being what it is, he was hit by a stray bullet from a gangbanger shooting behind a parked car.
Ron’s death changed something between them as grief overwhelmed my dad and he stopped talking to me. Mom found an apartment down the street and simply moved out. Occasionally, they’d have a cup of coffee together to sort out some piece of business like a utility bill. I got lost to find myself.
As I passed by the woman sitting there, I told myself a bridge, by definition, joins two places. But there was no bridge between Wendy and me. I had tried to explain, “A bridge can also lead to greater understanding. We’re each different, and that’s a good thing.” A bridge could take us both to America and resolve my feelings about being of two worlds. I guessed there was no bridge to this woman sitting at my feet. And I continued walking west, home to my apartment in San Chung.
The next morning I reversed my trek to work and saw two cops standing over the woman. She was lying down now. Supine, her legs straight, one arm over her chest. Blood had turned her white blouse red. The cops stared at her, as if waiting for something to happen.
I wanted to shout, “Nothing’s going to happen! The woman’s dead!” A bird had even left a white stain on that brown skirt.
Her death weighed on me as I walked on. What didn’t I do that I should have done? And, if — when — I went back to Chicago, what would I say to my mother?
I stopped staring when my phone rang. “David, maybe we can have some coffee,” Wendy said. “I am sorry to act so uncaring. Like chopsticks, need to have two or they don’t work so good.”