Two Home Towns

I have two home towns. The first of which I was born in, and the second of which I became an adult in. There is also drastic cultural differences between the two.

During my recent work on the novel, I had to do some research of the town I was born. Taipei, Taiwan. It’s a city that most have not heard of until the completed construction of Taipei 101 in 2004. Before that, Taipei was a city that only the Taiwanese immigrants around the world cared about.

Because we moved across the ocean when I was only 12, I never had any real, substantial knowledge of Taipei; knowledge that only an adult would have. I knew where my elementary school was. I knew its name. I remember the colours of our uniforms. I remember that on Mondays and Thursdays, we had to wear a white blouse with a mint-green and white plaid skirt: our “business” wear. On Tuesdays and Fridays, we wore the athletic uniform: t-shirt with coloured sleeves and either shorts or sweat pants. Girls’ athletic uniform was red and white; and blue and white for boys.  On Wednesdays and Saturdays, we had half-days (went home at lunch) and we got to wear casual wear.

That’s right, we had school on Saturdays.

I could tell you where the closest 7/11 to our apartment was. I can describe the cool cement stairwells of our apartment building. I can tell you about how we played with fireworks every holiday at my grandpa’s place while the older kids picked up last-minute cooking ingredients from the convenience store downstairs.

There was the time my older brother and I got too thirsty on our way home from school that I led us up to a second floor buffet to get some free soda pop. We snuck in, got some pop, and snuck out. We thought we were so sneaky, but I’m sure the staff there noticed us. How our family laughed. Oh, that crazy Jane, always leading her brother into trouble. Ha-ha. Stealing pop. Ha-ha.

I can describe the night markets. The sheer amount of the people there every single night. Vendors calling out to my mother. Middle aged Chinese men chewing betel nut, the Taiwanese equivalent of chewing tobacco, with their lips and teeth stained bloody red from the unhealthy nut.

But I can’t remember the names of anything other than my school, my street, my city. Hell, I don’t even remember our home phone number there.

There were the mountain hikes our grandpa took us on every weekend. I remember the trails and I remember pretending we were military scouts, marching in a straight line. But I don’t remember the name of the mountain, nor the name of the temple up top.

At the temple, Grandpa would give the three of us, my cousin, my brother and I, a 5 dollar coin to go buy whatever lunch we wanted. We usually got instant noodles, knowing Grandpa would not chide us for it like our mother did. Sometimes we bought chicken feet, and Grandpa would chide us for that because he would have made chicken feet for us back at home.

While the hikes were fun, I liked it most whenever the rest of the family came with us. Our aunts and uncles drove up with our older cousins, all of them being “too modern” for the climb. Then we’d order a large round table at the restaurant up top and we’d have a family lunch.

But I don’t know the names of these places. I was told the names as a child, but my childish mind didn’t care enough about labels to remember them.

The decision to move to Canada was so instant. I didn’t realise what was happening until it happened. I don’t remember the packing process, I don’t remember saying goodbye to my friends, or if I had any friends. One minute I was in school, and the next I was on a plane. The excitement of travel must have been so great that it overshadowed the fear of displacement.

The first night in Canada we ate instant noodles. Our family stayed at my Big Aunt’s house because her and her family had already been in Canada for two years. That entire week went by and I still never thought about the implications of what had just happened. It wasn’t until the first snow that I it fully hit me: we’re not in Kansas anymore.

The first time I saw snow was a Tuesday afternoon. Sometime in February, 1996. We’d been forced to nap in the living room by our Grandpa. He sat there holding a fly swatter, swatting our legs if he caught us with our eyes open. Eventually we fell asleep.

When I woke up, the first thing I saw was the odd white clump covering the skylight. I lay there wondering for a couple of moments what it could be before I remembered Die Hard 2: Die Harder and Bruce Willis screaming “HOLLY!!” while he collapsed in the snow. I’d jumped up so suddenly that I startled my cousin and my brother awake. It wasn’t long until the three of us ran outside, throwing ourselves into the white clumps as if they were clouds.

That was how Coquitlam, BC, Canada became my second home town. I made friends, I learned how to bike here by pushing my bike down our steep alleyway. My brother and I picked raspberries on our walks home from summer school. I attended ESL. We did our homework at the kitchen counter until our desks arrived from Taipei. We laughed at our cousin’s jokes. Our Grandpa farted every time he stood up from the dinner table. He walked us to school in the morning after packing our lunches.

Amy was the name of the only Chinese girl in my class. She spoke to me in Chinese and translated things for me. She was my security blanket, so much so that I think after a while she got sick of being followed around by me. It was just as well, since I thought she was a snob.

And then there was Sonya, Klarissa, and Rachel. These were my friends. The losers. Yes. From grade five until high school graduation, I established myself in the Loser group. And it was fine, because it taught me humility, modesty, and acceptance.

I have two home towns. They are in distinctively two different worlds and I feel like a culture mutt. Uprooted too early from one place and planted too late in another to have any solid set of values.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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