My wife Shuyuan pulled the car up in front of her family’s big house in Yuanlin. It wasn’t just any family visit. She was coming home for the Dragon Boat holiday. On the road in front of the gate, billowing smoke, sat one of those red canisters that all the homes and places of business up and down the streets here use to burn spirit money. She had shown me stores that specialized in different kinds of this religious currency; and explained that Taiwanese burned quantities of it in the belief that those exact amounts of money would go into the pockets of the ancestors or spirits in the other world. I couldn’t figure what such a rite would have to do with the Dragon Boat holiday, and shot Shuyuan a questioning glance. I’d tied up my affairs in New York City the previous November and moved to Taiwan to follow her. She’d gotten a teaching position at the university here and come several months earlier. How blatantly even religion here revolved around money still astonished me now, seven months later.
“My mother’s careful to observe each holiday in the traditional way.”
I knew that was as much of an explanation as I would get, so turned to follow her to the front gate. A bundle of a kind of herb I’d never seen before, tied carefully together with a red ribbon, hung from it. “What’s this for?” I asked. Until a few days back I’d never even heard of the Dragon Boat holiday and was still struggling to understand why a whole nation would celebrate the day some poet in ancient times committed suicide by jumping into a river.
“I don’t know.” She eyed the herbs as if she’d never seen such a thing in her life. The youngest of five children, she was the bookish one who, against her mother’s wishes, had gone to America for graduate school and earned a doctorate in developmental psychology at New York University. In a sense she was as much an outsider to her family and its ways as was I. I know this about her because she is one of those people who wakes up in the morning with vivid dreams, then tells them to me. When we lived back in New York City, her dreams had been my introduction, not just to her family and its story, but to Taiwan and its landscape. I’d arrived here with pictures already in my mind of how everything would look. But what I’d found had been utterly different.
Shuyuan’s New York dreams had mostly been set in the countryside around her grandmother’s village, where she was born and lived until the age of eight. Before she started school, she’d spent her mornings by her mother’s side at the well, the center of social life for the village women, who washed clothes there by hand on scrub boards. Countless afternoons she’d walked with her mother to her mother’s distant rice paddy, passing through a landscape of lush, green rice fields that stretched as far as the eye could see, interrupted here and there by gushes of giant bamboo or rows of the spindly betel nut palm. Her mother’s rice paddy reappeared in dream after dream. Shuyuan described it lovingly to me over and over again until it came to feel like the heart of her life and her family’s life in Taiwan. Her mother’s people were rice farmers and their life revolved around rice.
When her mother was 20, a matchmaker came through trying to find a bride for a handsome young factory worker. Shuyuan’s grandmother took to the young man right off and sized him up as a smart guy who would someday make something of himself. She chose him as her daughter’s husband.
“Why that guy?” Shuyuan’s mother objected. “He has no land.” The young man was an orphan who’d been raised by his grandmother and didn’t even have a family village he could take her away to. He’d have to move in there with them. She suspected her mother chose someone like that to keep her there at home where she would have to continue doing all her daily chores and caring for her two younger brothers. What really made her bitter was that those boys would inherit every bit of the family land. Because she was a woman, not even a single rice paddy would go to her.
After the wedding, her new husband could only stay there with her in the village on weekends. His factory job was in a town too far away in those days of bad roads for a daily commute. He proved a good wage earner, though, and handed over every paycheck to her. Babies came, one after another, and grew into little children. When they clamored for some candy or treat that all the other village kids got coins from their mothers to buy, she snapped, “No. It’s a waste of money.” She hoarded every penny, determined to save enough to buy her own rice paddy.
Years later a rice paddy on the outskirts of a nearby village went up for sale and she had enough to buy it. She paid a local farmer to tend it. After each harvest he dumped the big pile of rice outside her front door. Every day the kids had to spread it out on the courtyard to dry in the sun. Come nightfall, they gathered it up into a pile again and covered it with canvas to protect it from rain. That single paddy produced all the rice the family needed and more. She sold the excess.
To explain what her grandmother’s village looked like, one day when she was telling me one of her dreams back in New York City, Shuyuan grabbed up a piece of paper and sketched a long, narrow building that folded around three sides of a rectangular central courtyard. The ridged roof was tile. The walls were made of evenly spaced vertical bamboo poles packed in between with a mix of mud and broken straw. The family had two rooms along one side of the building. One served as the kitchen. Shuyuan’s oldest sister slept there. The other was furnished with a big old-fashioned bed where Shuyuan slept with her mother, father, second sister, and second brother. Ming-Song, her eldest brother, had to sleep over at his uncle’s. Next to the bed stood the table. Against the opposite wall sat the TV.
What a difference between those cramped beginnings and this four-story mansion at the edge of town where the family now lived. Shuyuan unlocked the iron gate hung with the fascicle of herbs. We stepped into a landscaped passageway that led back past Ming-Song’s Mercedes, parked in the two-car garage there. Up a flight of stairs was the big front entrance facing a pretty garden.
“Probably those herbs are for good luck,” Shuyuan said. That was about all she could come up with. I could tell it was a guess. About such things, she knew little more than I did.
A burst of greetings in the Taiwanese dialect met us as we entered. We took off our shoes, and put on house slippers. Shuyuan was the only child who hadn’t stayed in town close to the nest and accepted a management position in one of her father’s factories. Even though she came home almost every week now, her arrival still produced the commotion of a reunion. The one who’d gone far away outside their world was back.
“Ni hou,” I smiled to Shuyuan’s father, always the first to greet me. It was about the extent of my Chinese. He sat with the others on the posh leather couches folding around a low table in front of the TV. He waved me forward to join in, as he had the very first day Shuyuan brought me home. He was a small, thin man with dyed black hair and impeccably dressed in a suit and tie. His quick eyes betrayed a sharp mind that took everything in at a glance. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t give his sons or daughters. The car Shuyuan drove was his present to her when she came back from America with a Ph.D. He’d wanted to buy her a Mercedes but she’d opted for a more modest Nissan.
Shuyuan set down on the low table in front of the couch the large bag she’d bought for them that morning of the season’s very first lychees. We’d caught the initial shipment just as it was delivered to our corner fruit market a few hours before. Her father took one look at the prize fruits and gave Shuyuan a big smile. He always brought home the best, no matter the cost. Shuyuan had warned me, though, her mother would object to buying lychees this early in the season. These lychees were grown by farmers down in Taiwan’s extreme southern tip. Their crop ripens several weeks earlier, so they get away with charging a higher price.
As everyone was grabbing into the bag, Shuyuan’s mother shuffled in from the kitchen. “Why did you buy lychees this early?” she reprimanded. When she first learned her youngest daughter planned to marry an American, she snapped over the phone, “If you do that, don’t bother to come back home.” After the stories about Shuyuan’s mother that emerged from the dreams, I was taken by surprise when I first met her to find a small, stout, down-to-earth and unassuming woman who moved slowly and returned my smile with real sweetness. Once, when Shuyuan and I were alone in the house with her, I asked Shuyuan to translate between the two of us. Her mother talked about how much harder it was to make money in Taiwan as a result of the rising competition from mainland China where labor was so much cheaper—not something I knew or cared too much about. Next she asked about the money situation in America. I tried to change the topic to something interesting but with her everything always came down to money. It didn’t make much sense to me to sit there talking about money. It didn’t make any sense to her that I wrote if nobody was giving me money to do it; or that I intended to continue writing instead of getting a paying job in Taiwan, like teaching English, which is what she told me other foreigners did when they came here. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat,” she snapped.
At this I bristled. “I pay my own way here with the rent from my Manhattan apartment. This is my one chance in life to do what I’ve always wanted. If I don’t do it now, I’ll never again have the chance.” It ended at that. There was less understanding between us when we knew each other’s thoughts than when we didn’t.
I never tried to communicate like that with any of them again, but just did my best to make it through the family visits as gracefully as possible. They smiled at me. I smiled back. They offered me food. I ate it. They sat in front of the TV talking. I sat with them, not understanding a word, as long as I could stand it, and then excused myself politely and went upstairs to Shuyuan’s old room on the top floor to read the book I always brought along when I came. By mid-afternoon Shuyuan usually called me down for tea with her mother—and then we left. That was the pattern and essentially the same thing happened this time, except that when I came down for tea I was surprised to see Ming-Song sitting there with them. As oldest son and future head of the family, he conducted himself in a gracious and socially accommodating way, responsive to the needs of everyone. He was always polite with me and was the only one of them who spoke to me in English. The first time we met, he invited me to play golf. I thanked him but joked I wouldn’t know what to do out on a golf course. He didn’t know what to say. And I didn’t know what to say that he didn’t know what to say. Our conversations were always like that. They never got beyond the first sentence or two. Language wasn’t what separated us.
No sooner had I settled in on the couch in front of the tiny bowl of hot tea they had waiting for me than Shuyuan dug amongst a stack of Chinese papers she’d been reading for a page she’d set aside. Often when she sat alone talking with her mother she read the paper while her mother watched TV.
“Look at those two places,” she said, handing me the page with two color photographs. One was of a hot spring retreat in the mountains. A naked nymph soaked in a hot tub in a spacious private room in front of a picture window looking out on a forest. The other photo showed an ocean-side resort in the south of Taiwan. A long line of wooden chairs stretched down the clean white sand under coconut palms. A few paces away, waves lapped up on the beach.
“Where do you want to go?” she asked. It was early June. Her first grueling year of college teaching was almost at an end. She was antsy to get away—anywhere. I’d followed her from New York City to a remote Taiwanese town all the way on the other side of the world. I didn’t feel the need to go one step further. The resorts pictured in the paper were of scant interest to me compared to the happy daily rhythm I managed to maintain here of morning writing, mid-day swimming, and afternoon reading. After decades of slaving away at day jobs in New York City, I could finally devote myself full-time to what I loved. I handed the paper back without enthusiasm. “Where I’d like to go,” I said, “is to your mother’s rice paddy and to your grandmother’s village. And maybe also to see your father’s factory.” I didn’t want to be a tourist. I wanted to see the real Taiwan.
I’d asked over and over to see those places. There was something about Taiwan that still didn’t seem quite right to me. I needed to fit this place I’d come to somehow with the one I thought I was coming to. I had this notion that I could understand Shuyuan’s family and her people if I could just spend some time at her mother’s rice paddy. When I was a kid in Cuba I often went out exploring the countryside with my dog. I always felt I could glean from a piece of land a feel for the people attached to it, even if they were long gone.
Shuyuan turned to Ming-Song and fired off something in Taiwanese. There was a buzz of talk I didn’t understand. Then Shuyuan faced me with a big smile and announced, “We’re going!”
“To the rice paddy?”
“And to my grandmother’s village, and to the factory,” she said. “Ming-Song is taking us. The factory is closed today for the Dragon Boat festival, so we can look around without getting in the way.”
“Why would Bill want to see the village?” Shuyuan later told me her mother objected suspiciously as we all piled into the Mercedes.
“I think he just wants to see where we come from,” Shuyuan answered.
“Maybe Bill will look down on us when he sees we come from a broken-straw hut,” her mother said. In the old days broken pieces of straw were mixed with mud and daubed between bamboo poles to make the walls of a traditional Taiwanese farmhouse.
Ming-Song drove us out of town on a narrow winding street. From the deep concrete irrigation gully that ran alongside it, I could tell this had once been a country road. I only saw a single remaining rice paddy, though. The whole landscape was a crazy quilt sprawl of factories and houses. At length we arrived in front of a closed gate. Before us stood a large clean factory building. Ming-Song pushed a remote dangling from the keychain in the ignition. The gate slid open. Some months back Shuyuan and I had come upon a small, dumpy metalworking factory on the outskirts of the little town where we lived. I always assumed Shuyuan’s family’s business was of that sort and that nobody wanted to show it to me because they were embarrassed by it. I never imagined anything big and showy like this.
“Your father built this whole factory up from nothing, step by little step,” Shuyuan’s mother said to Shuyuan with pride when we got out of the car. “It took forty years.”
In the factory where Shuyuan’s father was originally employed, he’d operated a metalworking machine. When he found out how much more the factory charged for each piece of his work than he himself got paid for doing it, he had the brains to realize how much money he’d make if he bought himself one of those machines and contracted out directly to the customer. Even though she had her rice paddy, Shuyuan’s mother was still pinching every penny. In time there was enough to buy him that machine.
He installed it in a rented space in the nearby town of Yuanlin. Finally after all those years, he could quit the factory job in the distant city and come live at home full time. Shuyuan, the surprise fifth child, had been born by then. In those years Taiwan’s economy was in a period of explosive growth. Customers came knocking at his door. On many an evening he sat laboring away at his machine way past midnight. How different it was, though, working for himself and building up his own business than slaving away at the factory for a wage. Dealing directly with customers brought out the knack he had for making deals. In time, there was money enough saved up to buy a second machine. He hired a laborer to operate it. The profits came tumbling in. He purchased a third, and then a fourth. He had the beginnings of his own factory—the one we were now about to enter.
Shuyuan’s mother’s instinct had been to squirrel away the money the factory generated. But her father had insisted again and again on re-investing in the business—buying the most modern equipment, diversifying, upgrading the plant, and entertaining customers. Every single investment he made paid off handsomely. The factory grew by leaps and bounds.
All this while the family still lived crammed into those same two rooms. Shuyuan’s father proposed they build themselves a big new house there in the grandmother’s village. To stay there in the village, though, was the last thing Shuyuan’s mother wanted. A wife was supposed to go live in the husband’s village, but she’d had to remain in her own. All the village’s other children had the name Liu. Only hers had her husband’s name, Wang. In this and many other little ways she’d come to feel herself an outsider in her own village. Over the years she’d felt it more and more. Her dream was to get away.
So they bought a narrow plot of land in nearby Yuanlin and contracted to have a three-story house built there, squeezed in between similar structures along that busy street. The family moved into town and settled into what, from Shuyuan’s dreams, I had come to know as “the house on the street.”
Shuyuan’s mother was forty at the time she finally got out of her ancestral village. That was the point for her when her real life began. Up until then she was a woman without social standing, someone who didn’t properly belong where she was. Everything changed the instant she moved into the house on the street. Stores and shops lined the way in each direction. People came and went at all hours. There was excitement, traffic, and best of all, just around the corner lay Yuanlin’s traditional market—an extended labyrinth of small stalls where she could buy anything imaginable. Every morning found her there, haggling mercilessly over prices, pinching and squeezing the merchants down to the lowest sum. She came away with the day’s best bargains. This was her passion. For this she had a devotion, even a love. Overnight, in the eyes of all the various women and men at the different stalls in the marketplace, in the eyes of her new neighbors up and down the street, and especially in the eyes of her country relatives stuck back in the remote village—she was seen finally, after all these years, to have really become somebody. She rented her rice paddy out to a farmer. The first of each month the check arrived in the mail.
“When my mother burns incense to honor the ancestors, it’s for those of my father’s family, the Wang, not her own, the Liu,” Shuyuan said as we mounted the steps of the factory. “She feels that neither she nor any of us children ever got anything from the Liu, its village or its land. Everything we have came from my father and this factory.”
Ming-Song unlocked the door and led us through the modern front office with flat-screen computers on each desk, past a spacious executive suite for his father, and then into the back—an airplane-hangar space filled with aisle after aisle of modern metalworking machines. I asked to see the kind of machine his father had operated back when he started the factory.
“Those old machines don’t exist anymore,” Ming-Song said. The machinery I saw all around was big and new. Some of it was huge and ultra-modern—computer driven. Some served to cut metal, some to shape it. Ming-Song showed us a pot he’d made the day before, toying around with a new machine. A finished batch of motorbike handlebars sat stacked in an aisle. In the next aisle we came upon a finished lot of bicycle frames.
As we were leaving, Ming-Song pulled out his digital camera and had us pose on the steps of the factory for pictures. Shuyuan’s mother stood straight and proud for her photo.
Then we all piled back in the car. I was excited. We were finally headed out to the rice paddy. Ming-Song continued along the same narrow road. I kept looking forward to getting out into open countryside. But we went deeper and deeper into the same unsightly sprawl. What fields there were lay scattered amidst a jumble of houses, factories and roadside places of business. We turned off onto an even narrower asphalt lane, hardly wide enough for the car, and proceeded down that until we came to a big unattractive factory, dirty and messy. We parked out front and continued on foot. “Last time I was here,” Shuyuan’s mother said, “This pavement was only this wide.” She held her hands shoulder length apart. It had been a motorbike path.
A concrete gully alongside the pavement ran with bluish, milky water. The bottom was strewn with old bottles and other junk that had all turned the same milky blue. “That’s the source that waters the rice paddy,” Shuyuan’s mother said.
We came upon a crazy quilt of agricultural plots. One had long green Chinese cooking melons hanging from vines on an overhead horizontal frame. They weren’t ripe yet, but each melon already had a protective Styrofoam net carefully stretched over it. The plot across the way was covered with rows of metal lean-to frames overgrown with dead cucumber vines, already harvested. The ground on the raised beds between the irrigation ditches was covered with a black plastic cloth. Rotting yellowed cucumbers lay strewn over the cloth and in the ditches.
Next to that field stood a row of greenhouses, covered with the same black cloth. Behind them, fields of rose bushes extended into the distance. “I don’t think you’ll even recognize your own paddy, it’s been so long since you’ve been here,” Ming-Song teased his mother.
“I’ll recognize it,” she countered.
Ming-Song led us on around a bend. In that one spot where the road turned, sandwiched between all the rest, a narrow vista opened out before us of rice paddies bordered by spindly betel nut palms. Here and there, farther back, bursts of bamboo arched gracefully into the sky. It was the single sliver of this landscape that remained alive and still capable of communicating some of the timeless mystery and beauty I’d come to sense from Shuyuan’s dreams. It drew me in. In that direction surely lay the Taiwan I wanted to find. I stepped over the irrigation ditch and onto a narrow cement footpath that trailed off between the fields.
Shuyuan called me back. The others had all come to a stop at the bend and weren’t going any further.
“I didn’t think it was this far,” Shuyuan’s mother said, looking around.
Ming-Song chuckled. He’d let his mother walk right past her paddy, to prove his point. He turned and led us back.
He walked into the rose nursery and stopped right in the middle of nothing; then turned to me, as if to present the place.
“This is it?” I asked. It wasn’t a place.
“Right here,” Ming-Song affirmed. “You’re standing on it.”
It was no longer a rice paddy, but a smaller rose nursery next to the big one. The greenhouses we’d walked by earlier stretched along one side. On the other, under the open sun, lay beds of straggly young rose bushes. They weren’t pretty. There was one flower. It had no smell. The bushes were planted in individual plastic pots held upright by plastic grids set in long sunken beds lined with the same black plastic cloth that was everywhere. Irrigation water gushed into the beds from a thick metal pipe that stuck up out of the ground. What soil was exposed was a lifeless, oily glop.
“Where are the boundaries?” I asked. Nobody quite knew. The farmer who rented the land emerged from a greenhouse, a deeply-tanned man in a white t-shirt, wearing dress pants tucked into sturdy rubber boots. He pointed out the irrigation ditch that formed the boundary on one side and then the line of tall betel nut palms at a right angle that formed the second boundary. The third boundary was the paved lane that we’d walked down on the other side of the greenhouses, and the fourth was the fence separating the roses from the plot of dead cucumber vines.
I walked away from the others now so that I could pick up the feel of the land, like I’d so often done in Cuba. My technique was simple. I stood silently and looked around, then walked on a few paces and stood silently once more and looked around again. I did this from one end of the property to the other. I had no illusion that I possessed any mysterious or occult ability. I’d once discovered that the way people treat a piece of land leaves countless little clues about what they love and who they are. Anyone who cares for the outdoors has no trouble reading these.
From this property, though, I got no feeling at all. I drew a complete blank. It was not a place that had been touched by anybody’s spirit, but one that had merely been exploited for a profane, utilitarian purpose. I rejoined the others.
Ming-Song pulled out his camera and had us all pose for a picture.
“Why are you taking pictures?” Shuyuan’s mother objected. “There’s nothing pretty here.” I was surprised to hear her say that and looked closely at her face to see if it could be possible she saw what I did, that the place had been trashed, no love had ever been put into it. But from what I could tell she didn’t see this at all. In her eyes the place never had been beautiful to begin with. She couldn’t care less what happened to it. It was all about something else.
We headed back to the car. Ming-Song drove us out to the country road again and further on down it until we came to a larger road. Farther down this, on the left, crowded tight, one against the other, as if they were built in town, stretched a row of ugly nondescript buildings several stories high. Across the road from them ran a featureless concrete-lined waterway that had more the aspect of a large open sewer than a canal.
“I used to swim in this river when I was a boy,” Ming-Song reminisced.
“What river?” I looked around for one.
“This one.” He pointed to the wide, concrete-lined sewer alongside the road. Bubbles of swamp gas rose to the scummy surface from its putrid depths.
I’d thought this was some ugly place we were passing through to get to where we were going. But it wasn’t. This was where we were going. This was the place of Shuyuan’s dreams. I looked around. No matter in which direction I turned, the landscape was foul beyond description.
“It’s polluted now,” Ming-Song admitted. “But it used to be a clean river.”
“This was a river?” I couldn’t mask my incredulity.
“Yes,” he assured me. “I used to catch big fish in this river.”
“Wu-Kuo Yu?” The invasive Wu-Kuo Yu from Africa, I’d discovered, was the only fish to be found anymore in most of Taiwan’s rivers.
“Not Wu-Kuo Yu,” he assured me, “Real Taiwanese fish. Different kinds. They don’t exist anymore. There were lots of them.”
“This place was beautiful,” Shuyuan affirmed with real feeling, leaning forward from the back seat. She needed me to see that. But I couldn’t.
“The cement walls weren’t here then,” Ming-Song said. “It was a real river with real banks and lots of trees. It was very beautiful.”
“There were big willows all along the shore,” Shuyuan said. “There used to be a swimming hole up ahead where we swam when we were children.”
“There were no buildings anywhere around,” Ming-Song added. He turned left onto a narrow alley that squeezed through a break in the row of buildings. A ways behind them, he made another left turn onto an even narrower alley. A cluster of junk sat in the middle of the pavement, blocking our way. Amongst the bags of garbage, sat the top of a gas stove, with burners. I wondered how we were going to get by. Unfazed, Ming-Song brought the car to a stop and waited. I was wondering how he could back up on such a narrow alley, when some youngsters appeared and resentfully began moving the garbage aside to make room for us to pass. They cast hostile glances at us as Ming-Song squeezed the Mercedes past them.
“They’re our relatives,” Shuyuan said.
“Those kids?” I said. “They didn’t look at us in a very friendly way.”
“They don’t recognize us or even our car, because we seldom come here,” she said as we drove on a little further. “They’re the grandchildren of my second uncle.”
Ming-Song brought the car to a stop before a gate in a cement wall. Inside, back a ways from the road, stood a structure I recognized immediately from Shuyuan’s New York dreams. So accurately had she sketched her grandmother’s village on that piece of paper that when I got out of the car and walked through the gate, it felt I was stepping into her dream. That feeling quickly faded. “The walls weren’t brick when I was a child,” Shuyuan said. “They’ve reconstructed the whole thing.”
On the right were the five doors to the five rooms, just like in the dreams. The two rooms closest to the far end would be where her family lived until she was eight. “Strangers live there now,” Shuyuan said, as someone appeared in one of the doorways and stared curiously at us. “My uncle rented those rooms to people outside the family. For them it’s just a cheap place to live.”
“The center building houses the altar to our ancestors,” she said. She led me inside. The room looked ancient. Along the far wall stood a high elaborate wooden altar with Chinese calligraphy. We folded our hands in homage to the ancestors of the Liu family, Shuyuan’s mother’s people. For generations this had been their family village. This room had been the sacred place at its center. Now it was dusty and unused.
Shuyuan pulled me out through a low sliver of a back door to the right of the altar. We stood in a passageway behind the main house. An identical-looking building wrapped around the rear of the main one. “This was a great place to play hide-and-seek when we were children,” she reminisced, “Because there were so many places to hide.”
We circled around and ended up out front again. Shuyuan’s mother stood near the gate chatting with a woman wearing a coolie hat—a relative. They talked like they’d last seen each other only yesterday.
“I can’t find the well,” Shuyuan said, looking around.
“The well is here,” Ming-Song said, pointing to an unsightly overgrown area cluttered with junk and old rotten boards.
“This was the source of water for the whole village,” Shuyuan told me, with great significance. “My brothers had to carry buckets every day from the well to fill up the big earthen pot in our house.”
“This was a center of life for us as children,” Shuyuan said. “We used to play here as our mothers washed the clothes. In the evening, the men bathed here.” She wanted me to see it once was a place teeming with aliveness.
The whole area all around was now dead and abandoned. I stepped warily into the heap of junk and weeds, to peer down into the well itself. It was partly covered with rotted boards. Down inside, all I saw was cobwebs and dust. It had dried up.
“There are probably dangerous snakes here,” I muttered.
“You don’t have to worry about poisonous snakes,” Shuyuan assured me. “They are not common in Taiwan. People here eat them.”
“There used to be tall bamboo all around,” Ming-Song said, extending his arm to indicate the periphery. “It was beautiful.” Now ugly buildings crowding in close. One of Shuyuan’s uncles sold the adjoining rice paddy. A big factory stood on that site. With the money he’d gotten, he’d built his family a mansion on a remaining rice paddy and moved into that. The whole village had a derelict feel to it. It was now a place where the less fortunate hung on.
Before we left, I asked Ming-Song to take a picture of us all standing on the pavement out front of the village. “Why are you taking pictures?” Shuyuan’s mother objected. “There’s nothing pretty here.” It was the second time she’d said those same words and this time I grasped their meaning.
During Shuyuan’s difficult years in New York City, it was the pristine country landscapes she’d known here in her childhood that returned so faithfully again and again in her dreams to remind her who she was and where she belonged. Her mother, though, was from an earlier generation, and had a different dream—to rise up and get free of such places, so that she would no longer be seen by others as small and insignificant. It didn’t matter how badly the place was trashed. What mattered was to make money.