I hadn't intended to play chicken with the train. Like most things in my life up to that point, it just sort of happened.
The worst part was that I wasn't even supposed to be there, tête-à-tête with a train in the cypress forests of Taiwan. I hadn't even wanted to be there. Not in Taiwan, anyway. Until just a few weeks earlier, I'd been expecting to pass that summer--the summer of 1989--in Beijing. Through the month of May, I fully expected to be a part of a group of 25 university students who would cap a year of stateside Chinese language study with a summer spent in China's capital.
I had spent the whole spring term of my freshman year at Dartmouth College reading newspapers and intently watching TV news for the first time in my life. Physically, I was in New England with the rest of my college class, but in spirit, I was with the student protesters 10,000 miles away in Tiananmen Square.
In spite of the obviously mounting tension, I wasn't any more worried about political volatility in China than I was about speeding or attending keg parties at home. There might theoretically be some real danger, but not to me. Anything bad that happened would happen to other people, grown-ups, probably, people who weren't young and nimble enough to get out of harm's way. (And if this sounds callous, let me stress that by "bad," I was thinking along the lines of, at worst, police detention. Genocide never entered into my naïve thinking.) I planned to spend my summer scampering among the bands of students camped out in Tiananmen Square, giving impromptu talks on the nature of liberty and serving as an eyewitness to history. My 600-word vocabulary and facility with Chinese culture (I knew to take my shoes off in a Chinese home, and was pretty handy with chopsticks) would afford me access to student leaders that TV news talking heads could only dream about. I'd probably come home from the revolution with a flak vest and my own regular spot on CNN.
I continued to believe that my very eighteen-ness would protect and maybe even reward me right up until the tanks rolled through the square on June 4th. In fact, in a testament to denial that shocks me now, I continued to believe it for some time afterward. Informed that my professor had cashed in her guan xi to get all 25 of us into a Mandarin program at Taiwan's Tunghai University (and arranged us all new plane tickets and visas), I realize now that I didn't react with much gratitude as I should have.
Actually, I was less than grateful. I was personally wounded. It seemed like the cruelest bait-and-switch imaginable. Instead of China, a destination I'd been fascinated by as long as I could remember, I was being sent to a place even the U.N. didn't recognize as a real country.
It was hard for me to imagine it as one either. Because I knew Taiwan to be the source of the cheap plastic toys of my childhood, I pictured it as a sort of giant factory floating in the ocean, trailing Cracker Jack prizes and noisemakers in its wake. I didn't even know exactly where Taiwan was. I owned an old globe-it had been my father's when he was a boy--and Taiwan wasn't anywhere to be found on it. There was a largish island off the coast of China in what seemed like just about the right place, but it was labeled "Formosa," so that couldn't be right. Maybe Taiwan was too small and insignificant to show up on the 12-inch globe. "Great," I thought to myself, feeling simultaneously the disappointment of a woman who's had a career setback, and the secret terror of a girl who was going to take her teddy bear with her to Asia. "I'm going nowhere. Fast."
Less than three weeks later, I was waving down a Toyota Cedric cab at Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport with three of my classmates. The humidity was so enveloping it felt more like a garment than a whether phenomenon. The heavy air draped itself over my chest and shoulders like a sodden stole. A smoky, pungent aroma like smoldering leaves and soy sauce made the atmosphere seem even weightier. I wondered how I could survive this for nine weeks.
The cab launched itself toward the downtown Taipei hostel where we would spend the night en route to the university. The driver just laughed when we asked where the seatbelts were. As the car screeched around corners, we rattled, wild-eyed, around the back seat like pinballs in a machine with too many orbs in play. The windows were open and waves of warm, moist air slapped at us like tendrils of seaweed. Outside, moped headlights and restaurant signs flashed past us, blurred by speed and jetlag. The sensory overload was alarming, but one thing was clear: Taiwan was not going to be boring.
The Tunghai campus, a few hours southwest of Taipei, was its own kind of exotic. It had wide swathes of weedy concrete where the colleges I was used to had lawns, and scrubby, feral bushes where I expected groomed privet. The frying-pan flat enclave was barely recognizable to me as a college campus, and after a few weeks I began craving a change in elevation. My classmate Sarah had the same idea, and despite having only a passing acquaintance, we made a decision to travel to the Alishan National Scenic Area together the following weekend. (It seems odd to me now that I have no clear recollection of the conversation that set into motion what is now one of my older friendships, but like I said, things just happened then.)
Saturday morning Sarah and I threw ourselves into the back seat of a long-distance bus. As we rumbled eastward, toward the mountainous center of the country, we also headed up, toward the nearly mile-high Zhongzheng Village in the heart of Alishan. As the bus climbed higher, cantilevering around switchbacks, the steamy humidity of sea level congealed into thick mist. It was like churning through a Chinese landscape painting in a cement truck. The shuddering, rattling old bus lumbered around turns in a road seemingly narrower than the vehicle itself. Sitting in the window seat, I was often able to look 1,000 feet straight down, and I tried not to think about how close the wheels must be to the void.
The haze soon became nearly whiteout thick, and I couldn't see the landscape around us, or guess how far the bus would plummet in a worst-case situation. But as we hair-pinned still higher, ears popping, the opaque cloud cover began to brighten, and I got the sensation of swimming up toward the surface of a lake after a deep dive. Strange darker patches stood out against the glare. At first I took them to be thicker pockets of mist, or optical illusions. Eventually, however, the truth dawned on me: The bus wasn't climbing an isolated peak; we were surrounded by impossibly tall mountains, and probably had been for some time.
How could I have not seen an entire mountain range? As the mist thinned, jagged peaks faded in and out of view. A sharp spire of rock would reveal itself in my peripheral vision, and almost before I'd turned to get a good look, it would disappear behind a silky veil of cloud. As the mist thinned further, the mountains lingered in view slightly longer, like stray cats getting used to the presence of people. Finally we burst through the last of the cloud layer and the peaks stayed put, revealing themselves in all their lithe, soaring glory. They weren't actually unusually tall by Asian mountain standards; only a few summits poked above 8,000 feet, and there was no trace of snow. The illusion of Himalayan height came from their slender, cathedral-like shapes, craggy but graceful, like aging dancers draped in green veils.
Soon after breaking through the clouds, we arrived at Zhongzheng Village. The air was cool and the sky was a brilliant blue. Energized, we bounded up the first path we came to, not even bothering to make arrangements for the night.
The path led directly to the first of Alishan's two tourist draws: the Guangwu Cypress, an enormous tree surrounded by hawkers selling cheap plastic trinkets. (At least something about Taiwan had turned out as I'd imagined). We paid a few cents to have our picture taken in front of the tree. The photo shows two ponytailed young women in t-shirts and shorts dwarfed by a tree the size of a respectable redwood.
Several hundred yards down the trail we found an even larger tree. We also found that the path crossed a set of railroad tracks, and hoping that fewer souvenir stands lay this way, we decided to follow the rails as soon as the train we could hear in the distance had passed. To amuse myself while we waited, I pulled my wallet and camera out of my knapsack, shook out a few one-kuai pieces, and placed the coins on the oddly narrow tracks. I held my camera up to my face, imagining how I would frame the shot when the train eventually came into view. To my horror, the actual train, moving far faster than I anticipated, suddenly filled the viewfinder.
Later I discovered that I had squeezed off a shot of the train before jumping out of the way. It shows an absurdly small locomotive, looking more like it should be chugging around a petting zoo than transporting fully-grown people. What Sarah and I had taken for a mighty freight train in the distance had actually been this Little Engine That Could, rapidly approaching. Its load of passengers was headed up to the park's other big tourist draw: the panoramic view at the 8,041-foot summit of Mount Zhu.
We collected the kuai, smeared thin in the middle and now showing General Chiang's head distended like a peanut. We shrugged off the surreal encounter with uneasy laughter, feeling like we'd just been attacked by a swarm of ladybugs: Real danger might have been involved, but who'd believe it?
There seemed to be nothing to do but set out along the tracks in the same direction as the train, listening carefully every time we came to a bridge. The tracks passed through a cool, shady cypress and rhododendron forest. Occasionally at a bend in the tracks a misty vista like the ones we'd been treated to that morning would open up, only to be swallowed by the forest a few steps later.
Fueled by the jolt of nervous energy, Sarah and I chattered brightly, as if we could make up for 18 years of not knowing each other in one afternoon. "So what brought you to Dartmouth?" Sarah asked. "The foreign language programs," I told her, though in my head I was answering a different question. "How did you get into college?" seemed to be the implicit question, and the answer was: I wasn't sure anymore. I knew I hadn't done much this summer to prove I belonged. I was struggling in Chinese class. Unlike a lot of my more directed peers, I had no idea what I was going to do after college. It was obvious from the way I was tottering and wheezing along the tracks that I had been no one's athletic recruit. And I knew for a fact it wasn't my skill at oral persuasion that had gotten me into school--due to an administrative glitch, I'd never formally interviewed. The one and only thing I could think of that I might have done right was my essay.
It was at the moment that the topic of writing popped into my mind that a realization struck me. It wasn't one of those thunderous, scales falling from the eyes epiphanies. It was more an acknowledgement of something I had always sort of known, or at least should have noticed: I was a writer. This was what I would grow up to do. It might just be all I could do.
A moment ago, I hadn't known this about myself. Now the thought of my future career as a writer was looming before me like the proverbial tree blocking my view of the whole forest. Far from depressing me, though, the thought of having a single job option was actually energizing, considering it was one more possibility than I'd had a moment before. For the second time that day, I savored the startling sensation of the mist parting and offering a sharp, clear view of what lay ahead.
Sarah and I hiked along the tracks for several hours that afternoon. I didn't mention my little vision directly, since I hadn't properly digested it myself, but I did try on my new identity by working into the conversation the comment that I might like to be a writer when I grew up.
"Yeah? What do your parents do?" Sarah asked. I said my father was a pilot who had also done a lot of writing about aviation. "Oh, so that makes sense that you'd want to be a writer, too" she said. And it did. I made a mental note to be sure to record this in my journal.
We finally decided to turn around when we got to a dark and forbidding tunnel full of imaginary snakes and spiders. The hike back to town was uneventful, with no train wrecks and no further epiphanies.
We'd heard through the backpacking grapevine that the town's railway workers were eager to supplement their income by renting out rooms to tourists, and this turned out to be true. For the equivalent of $12, we were invited to have dinner and spend the night at the home of a boyishly jovial conductor named Mr. Gao. He was no taller than either of us, and was still wearing his uniform, with a hat that fell over his eyes and sleeves that hung down to his knuckles. If he had been on the train that had almost run down (or at least bumped) a couple of Americans earlier that afternoon, he kept it to himself.
We just had time to wash up before dinner. As I was taking off my muddy shoes, I overheard Mr. Gao in the bathroom explaining a quirk of the plumbing to Sarah. "Thanks," I heard her say in Chinese, "I'll tell my peng you." Peng you. Friend. She'd called me her friend. A jolt of happiness made me smile, and for the second time that day, I had the feeling something important had changed in my life.
There were about 10 people at the dinner table. We spoke a pidgin of Mandarin sprinkled liberally with English. I picked up that the others were railway employees who came and went with the waxing and waning of tourist crowds. I wasn't sure I understood who lived in the house and who didn't, but it didn't matter. The sunny Mr. Gao made us all feel like we belonged, heaping our rice bowls with more and more food. He brought dish after dish out of the kitchen, bok choi with garlic following shrimp and mayonnaise chased by chicken, stir-fried squash, and bamboo made with local shoots so stupefyingly tender and nutty that Mr. Gao said that he forgot his name whenever he ate them. A few of the offerings challenged my teenaged palate, like the brown jelly that looked like consommé but tasted like Aunt Jemima pancake syrup. (I slid my portion into Sarah's bowl when Mr. Gao made one of his many trips into the kitchen.)
I wondered aloud what some of the more exotic items were, and each time I asked, Mr. Gao jumped up from the table, bounded downstairs, and returned a few minutes later with a dot-matrix printout describing the dish in English. When one slip came back with the single word "tripe," I decided to stop asking. I never found out what the next item was, a fibrous, tasteless, branched thing that looked like a diagram of human bronchial tubes. (Years later, when someone happened to ask me what the weirdest food was I'd ever eaten, this was the first thing that popped into my head.)
I can't say that everything in my life became clear that day. I couldn't identify half the things in my stuffed belly, for one thing. I never learned the names of all my dining companions. I hardly understood the obsession with China that had made me want to study in Beijing, and nobody really had a clear picture of the massacre in Tiananmen Square that had re-routed me to the island formerly known as Formosa.
So it's true that I was still, in many ways, the same baffled teenager who had gotten on a bus with a near stranger that morning. I still barely knew where I was or how I got there. But for the first time in my life, I had some idea of where I was going.
Causes Nicole Clausing Supports
Trevor Project, SFSPCA