In my last post, I left off my tale when we were awakened before six in the morning by music that sounded very much like an ice cream truck. We did not go chasing it that day, although the weather was hot enough to make us want something cold and frosty. We had been warned not to drink unboiled water, and we discovered that most Chinese people drank warm water even in the heat. There was a thermos bottle of hot water in our room, but we turned up our noses at it. In those days, most apartments were not air conditioned, so we had sweated a lot during that hot, muggy night. We showered again, and our roommates took us to the student center for breakfast.
As we walked out into the streets by the light of day, it really sank in that we were in a totally different world. Taipei is divided into grids by large thoroughfares, and in 1982 the superblocks formed by those thoroughfares were a rabbit warren of cement and brick apartment buildings set on narrow alleys. (Even today the alleys do not always run in straight lines.) Most of the buildings were surrounded by high cement walls topped with broken glass or barbed wire. Every building had a steel entry door, usually painted red, with an intercom and rack of mail slots beside it. Interspersed among the buildings were patches of what the Chinese call “short houses”, one-story shanties of brick or wood, usually roofed with corrugated plastic or steel. These “short houses” were often linked together, and foot paths off the alleys ran among them to houses that were otherwise inaccessible from the larger streets. Many of the “short houses” that directly abutted a larger alley had a store in the front and living quarters in the back.
Every morning the alleys were alive with people. Some families who lived in the “short houses” did their laundry in tubs with washboards right there in the gutter beside their front doors. In other families, the kids got ready for school by brushing their teeth outside and spitting into the gutter. A husband and wife in one of the “short houses” across the alley from our apartment were always yelling at each other at the top of their lungs right there in the middle of the street. There was a corner where a retaining wall intersected a “short house” across the alley from us, and old men would always stop there to urinate. And through it all, there were street vendors on bicycles or motorized tricycle carts wending their way through the teeming humanity screaming or playing scratchy recordings to announce their wares.
Our roommates grabbed us by the arms and pulled us along like children. We had to thread our way through the people in the alley to get to the student center for breakfast. On the first floor of the student center there was a large kitchen and dining area. Breakfast and dinner were included in our rent. Our Malaysian friend quickly ran over to help us, and she explained that everyone living in the student center was expected to help cook breakfast at least once a week. My name was on the schedule for the following day. She led us to a table where we filled three of the eight chairs. Our roommates brought us steaming bowls of plain congee (a fancy word for rice gruel or rice soup). The student center had no forks and knives. We had to learn how to use chopsticks and to grab our food from the plates in the center of the table. Each table had four plates of food. One plate had tofu and soy sauce, one plate had scrambled eggs, a third plate had peanuts, and the fourth plate had some kind of pickled cabbage. By the time we had managed to pick up one peanut and one bite of tofu with our chopsticks, the rest of the food had been scarfed down by the hungry male students at our table. Student center rules said that each table should seat 4 men and 4 women. Now we knew why; there wasn’t enough food to feed a table of 8 men. After washing our own bowls and chopsticks in cold water only, we went with our roommates back to our apartment to take another shower before unpacking and settling in.