Wednesday May 24, 2023
I'm sorry, Tainan, I didn't do you right. When I lived in Taiwan, circa 1988-90, I never visited; and for this trip I showed up the morning after going to the Lukang ER with breathing problems, possibly bronchitis exacerbated by humidity and pollution, and as we walked around on the first afternoon, generally a fun, heady time in a new city, I could feel my chest constricting again. It was another hot, humid day, with low clouds and heavy pollution, and I was not good. When you concentrate on drawing a breath, it's hard to pay proper attention to what's going on around you.
And that was you, Tainan.
Our first stops included yet another temple (temples in Taiwan are like churches in Europe: amazing until the 15th one—unless, of course, you do a deep dive on the rituals and the deities, which I obviously have not); an arthouse theater famed for its posters, and being run, on this day, by an older woman who seemed very, very tired of foreigners, or maybe just customers, or maybe just me (she was not very helpful in telling us what movies were playing when, or even selling her wares, but we did buy a postcard depicting a 2006 film festival for Ang Lee); and Xinhua Old Street, which we never got to. Instead, on a narrow backstreet, we noticed a tiny restaurant selling rice waffles, realized we hadn't really eaten lunch, and went in for what we thought was a snack. It turned out to be dinner. The people inside were great, we talked movies, and I talked up Edward Yang. (He's less-known in Taiwan than he should be.) They were the ones who warned us away from Xinhua, saying it wasn't really happening on a late Monday afternoon. You needed the weekend for it, they said. So we opted for a postprandial visit to an old Japanese dept. store, had trouble finding it, couldn't find the “sweeping staircase” the guide book told us not to miss, but did find another temple in its backyard. Because temples are everywhere. All amid the heat and humidity and pollution.
In the middle of the night, things got worse for me. Despite the meds, my cough turned wet, and I thought, “OK, maybe the next day do nothing? Just rest? Let Patricia explore Tainan alone?” Which is what happened. I stayed inside. I figured just miss out on that 16th temple and see how my lungs took it. They took it so-so. At the end of the day I didn't feel any better, plus my self-imposed containment in the beautiful Grand Banyan Hotel made me feel a bit like the protagonist in Amor Towles' “A Gentleman in Moscow.” Sans the gentleman part.
Since that didn't work I decided fuck it, just dive in our third and final day. And you responded, Tainan! The sky was clear, the air clearer, and we took a cab to the Anping district to see three sites on Patricia's hit parade: the Kaitai Temple (my 16th, but really pretty great), the Anping old Dutch fort (rebuilt by the Japanese), and the Anping Old Street (which we had trouble finding and don't even know if we really found it). That said, I liked the ceramic lions with the knives in their mouths adorning doors to ward off evil spirits. (I could've used one.) But by late morning we felt wrung out. There's a yin-yang/answered prayers quality to Taiwan weather. When it's wet or cloudy, you're like “C'mon, how about some sun?” Then the sun appears like a hot flame and you're like “Good god, no.” So we decided to escape the heat with an early afternoon movie at a posh multiplex, “Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 3,” and ... I was reminded again of the idiocy, or maybe the grifterism, but at least the myopia, of those who say America isn't respected abroad. I'm not even talking about the fact that I could see a dozen Hollywood movies on the other side of the world. It's what was in the many-storied lobby. It was just littered with Americana. You know what you could buy there? A drawing of Christopher Reeve as Superman saying, in English, “I'm here to fight for truth, and justice, and the American way.” That was for sale. In Tainan. I mean, maybe “respected” is the wrong word, but it really is shocking how much of us is everywhere, and how much of America doesn't seem to realize this.
We didn't really do dinners right in Tainan. The first day was the rice-waffle thing, the second—during my self-containment day—was at a way too air-conditioned second-floor cafe at the Grand Banyan, but at least on that third day I sought out, with help from a concierge, an eat-street in Tainan, and we wound up sitting on little plastic stools on the sidewalk eating great food. It was a nothing place that was everything. That was nice, Tainan. Even if I didn't you right, at least we did that.