May 27, 2009
I’m in Wu-Fong, in a car, fearing for the lives of everyone around me (my life included). The rules that govern Taiwanese traffic are apparently more like guidelines, and this frightens me.
My girlfriend is driving. She swerves the car into the right lane. How did she know there weren’t any motorcycles approaching on the right? I have no idea. It’s too complicated for me to keep track of.
Pedestrians wander into the street like New Mexican stray cattle. How do drivers avoid hitting them? I have no idea. It’s total chaos.
Traffic here is an organism, a dynamically-changing biological entity. And organisms are messy.
“Messy” is a word that would definitely describe my first impression of Taiwan, although this kind of “messy” feels more like “authentic.”
For example, you don’t have to look in a store’s windows to find out what it sells. The products spill out of the doors onto the sidewalk. In fact, most stores don’t really seem to need windows. An open garage door seems just as effective and much more practical.
By contrast, the United States requires a fine, delineated sidewalk and shelves inside the store built just the right size for whatever product is being sold. Dirt must be completely eradicated from the premises.
That might be because in the U.S., a shop is selling more than just a product. It’s selling a smoothly-operating fictitious machine, as well. That’s especially weird considering no one really buys the machine—they just buy in to it.
Where I’m at in Wu-Fong, the illusion of the machine doesn’t exist. Buildings are not refuges from natural chaos—they’re just buildings. You can tell by the exposed concrete walls. There is no need for a glossy finish here. The building serves its purpose and everyone can see what the purpose is without denying the existence of dirt.
In the U.S., a sidewalk serves as a demonstration of viability—not just of the store, but of the viability of the machine that has conquered nature. In Wu-Fong, there doesn’t even need to be a sidewalk, or even a street.
I do appreciate aspects of the United States’ adherence to a well-enforced but cold and mechanical world. But maybe the more organic mess of Wu-Fong is partially the reason why my Taiwanese girlfriend feels perfectly comfortable asking strangers for directions, while the illusion of having defeated nature in the U.S. probably has something to do with the fact that when I ask people for directions, I feel like there’s a 20% chance I’ll be shot.
It’s nice when environments are clean, rules are explicit, and buildings are pretty, but it’s only nice. And it’s not real.
In Taiwan, my girlfriend can walk out the door without knowing how to get where she’s going, completely dependent on getting the right directions from the right strangers. I think this has to do with the fact that her childhood environment reinforced the idea that she was a part of nature, that all beings are.
If you think of yourself as a part of a nature, then it’s easier to participate in the many living, breathing systems around you. It’s easier to participate in the dynamically-changing organism of life, and this will definitely help you navigate the traffic in Taiwan.
Unfortunately for me, I can only admire the system from a distance, completely scared out of my wits.