I had one day off, it’s getting hotter and humid-er, and I couldn’t stand going another week with shaggy hair. It was getting like what my old roommate Greg Estrada used to call his “Mexi-fro.” But how do you find a place to cut your hair when you can’t read the signs, and the place one of the 8-year-olds in your English class showed you last week is closed?
There’s an old guy at the fish soup place on the corner named 老趙 (Lao3 Zhao4) – “Old Zhao” – who just hangs out all day in the family business reading. He has a little English and he’s really friendly, so I figured he wouldn’t mind giving directions. He decided to take me for a little walk instead. We had a great time.
Old Zhao has lived in this neighbourhood for 20 years. He likes to read Buddhist philosophy and English books. (His sister has lived in the States and written books on Chinese/Western cultural differences and has excellent English – more on her later.) It seemed like one out of every three scooters had one of his “old friends” on it who would yell and wave at him. We walked down some streets I’d never been – away from the park, school, and MRT station – and down into the Taiwan I’d expected to see from movies and pictures: narrow winding dirty alleys lined with low-roofed Taiwan working-class dwellings, little temples scattered everywhere, none of this fancy high class high profile urban stuff. In a way it was like going back a decade or more into Taipei’s history; the ‘economic miracle’ hadn’t completely rebuilt these places. It was a little strange to go so deep enough into a residential neighbourhood that it got quiet… the main streets were far enough away that the apartment towers blocked out most of the noise. I have no idea how big that maze of winding alleys between apartments was, but I sure felt like we were two lonely little ants. Usually experiencing the Taipei Main Station at rush hour is plenty adequate to induce feelings of living in an ant nest. That’s the best way I can describe it, especially on an upper level looking down: we all just run in cramped-yet-moving lines every which way through two or three levels of underground escalators and subway platforms. But being dwarfed on a quiet path by apartment buidings that went on for who knows how long reminded me of those traditional Chinese landscape watercolours, where the mountains are huge and there are tiny little inconsequential people lost somewhere in the foreground.
We ended up down this little back alley looking for some more of his friends who would know where to find someone who would (a) cut hair (b) of foreigners (the traditional hair places sometimes don’t like to do foreigners because our hair is different and they don’t know how to cut it, apparently). We passed several temples, and one was sort of ‘open’ at an intersection of alleys beside a main sidewalk; you just walk up to one of several very elaborate altars and leave your offerings, shake a few sticks of incense, and go on your way. We sat on a bench right there for a little while waiting for Lao Zhao’s friends, so I watched. Some people stayed praying for a while, some merely deviated slightly from their destination toward the nearest altar, shook their hands in prayer, and kept on going. It was all very elaborate.
We passed a lot of stuff I’d love to show everyone with pictures, and I’ll retrace those steps with a camera this weekend sometime. After all the walking we ended up in a corner of the wet market with Li2 Mama1, who’d been cutting hair for 30 years and had apparently handled a foreigner or two in her time. She didn’t seem too intimidated, so long as the cut was “same style and short.” I didn’t care. 200 NT dollars is the best price to be had ($6USD). Jessica says I look like one of our students, but it sure beats the shagginess in the heat.