A New Home in New Tokyo

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Page 17 March 1, 2007 CHARLESTON MERCURY
Special Overseas
ive months ago, when I
first dragged myself from
the sweaty mouth of the
rickety China Air dirigible that
had catapulted me from Tokyo
to Taipei, I had been traveling
for 27 hours — and had slept
for half of one of them — start-
ing at five o’clock in the morn-
ing at the Charleston
International Airport on
September 11 and finishing
right there in the shiny new ter-
minal of the Taiwan Taoyuen
Airport at eight the following
The fact that I hadn’t had
any prolonged sleep in days,
much less that I didn’t really
know what day it was or what
time it was, was of little con-
cern for me.
I’m in Taiwan, I repeated in
my head.
For many people, the name
itself conjures duplicitous
visions of a worldly paradise
and of the wrath of God
Himself. From the pristine
mountain monasteries in
Chiang Mai down to the
coastal backpacker meccas of
Ko Samui and Phuket, there are
few places that rival beauty like
At the same time, this travel-
er’s playground is no stranger to
disaster. No one will forget the
carnage caused by the tsunami,
which laid waste to many
coastal areas, killing thousands,
in late 2006.
To many, this is Taiwan —
land of contrasts, a beautiful
disaster — and that’s because
they’re thinking of Thailand.
So, let me get this straight
from the get-go: I’m in
Taiwan. It’s the island the
Portuguese called Ilha Formosa,
or “beautiful island.” Roughly
half the size of South Carolina,
it rests nestled up against the
rump of China at about the
same distance Cuba is from the
beaches of southern Florida.
As I walked down the spot-
less, florescent tunnels that
promised me a baggage claim
and, hopefully, my girlfriend, I
had dreams of my new life in
Asia. This is where it’s all hap-
pening, I told myself. This is
where imagination is realized,
where people walk robot dogs
and robots walk real dogs,
where cell phones can make
hotel reservations and tell you
the future, and where your taxes
are done while your accountant
sleeps back in the U.S.
Taiwan is no exception. It’s
an Asian tiger. This is the home
of Taipei 101, the world’s tallest
skyscraper, for God’s sake! As
Thomas Friedman put it in The
World Is Flat:
Taiwan is barren rock in a
typhoon-laden sea, with
virtually no natural
resources — nothing but
the energy, ambition and
talent of its own people —
and today it has the third-
largest financial reserves in
the world.
Hot dog! That’s what I’m talk-
ing about, I thought as I
dreamed of Taipei — the city of
the future. As I waited for my
bags, I had visions of the
smooth glass façades and
impeccable architecture of the
cityscape at night reflecting
thousands of colors from the
lights in the streets. Before my
mind’s eye, I saw New Tokyo
— its modernity, its innovation
and its energy, just like Thomas
Friedman told me.
At least, that’s what I
thought he was telling me.
Of course, I thought about
her, too. Fanfan, the beautiful
Taiwanese girl waiting for me at
the gate, was the reason I was
here. (If you pronounced that
like “fan” — as in “You need to
fix the ceiling fan in my room”
— then you’ve got it all wrong.
Her name is French, so it’s bet-
ter pronounced “FonFon.”)
We met three years ago in
the small town of Angers, about
an hour and a half west of Paris
in the Loire Valley. We were in
the same class studying French
together. That June I went back
to Clemson to finish my senior
year, and she moved to Paris for
cultural exchange and to get a
master of art history degree.
One thing led to another, and
the following July I was in
We were two poor students
in one of the most expensive
cities in the world. I spent the
year studying la philosophie —
sure, I’ll wait for you to stop
laughing — during the course
of which I learned mostly about
the decrepit state of the French
education system. We both left
Paris with the sad realization
that beautiful places are nice to
visit for a week or a month, but
after a while it gets hard to
ignore the dirt you see in the
dark corners that tourists might
not see — even in Paris.
We left for a better place. A
place we would both have jobs
and, thusly, money. What a
beautiful dream that was.
When I saw her at the gate
at the Taipei airport, it had
been two months since we had
seen each other last, since I had
stopped over for an extended
visit in Charleston to work a bit
and recoup some of the money
I lost in gay Pah-ree.
For the first time in our rela-
tionship, only one of us was a
foreigner. Also, for the first time
in the two years we had been
together, I was going to meet
her family. She had met my
parents during a visit they made
to Paris about a week before we
left, but I had never so much as
spoken to her family on the
To add to the normal jitters
that accompany first time ren-
contres with “the fam,” her par-
ents and her little sister don’t
speak English or French. To be
clear, they only speak Chinese
— Mandarin and Taiwanese, a
dialect of Chinese. Luckily, her
brother speaks English, too.
I wasn’t concerned, after all.
I had already had pretty good
luck with parents, and in any
case it would be a couple of
weeks before I would head out
to see them. It would take a
while to get settled in, get over
a serious case of other-side-of-
the-planet jet lag, and start
working. For the time being, I
could just enjoy being with
Fanfan, soaking in my new
home in New Tokyo.
As I watched the city lights
grow brighter through the rain
soaked windows of the bus that
took us back into Taipei, I start-
ed to ask myself where all of the
skyscrapers were. Pulling into
the Taipei Main Station in the
middle of the city, I stepped off
the bus, and looked around at
what seemed to be more like a
giant, dilapidated train station
surrounded by morose colored
This certainly doesn’t look
like New Tokyo, I thought, and
I don’t see one robot.
We hailed a taxi, and I
watched in disbelief as the city
unfolded around me. It was
surreal to see a world that was
so incredibly foreign to me. I
couldn’t read any of the neon-lit
panels, the banter on the car
stereo was incomprehensible,
and every street made the city
seem larger and more unfamil-
And I loved it.
“Ils font quoi là?” I asked
Fanfan as we waited at a red
light. There were hordes of peo-
ple everywhere, dressed in red,
chanting. She explained that
they were protesters who were
camped in front of the presi-
dent’s office, demanding he step
down. As the car jolted for-
ward, I saw a musician playing
on a stage, an impromptu mar-
ketplace of red tents and an
angry mob.
As the taxi pulled up to my
new apartment building, I felt
like I had stepped straight into
a picture I had seen in National
Geographic as a child. The
building looked like it was
made in stages, modified by its
tenants with corrugated steel or
plastic here and there, with
caged windows and a collapsing
Inside, my apartment was
paradise. It was about three
times the size of my apartment
in Paris, for about half the cost.
I had air-conditioning, Internet
and cable. For now, I thought,
this will have to do. I’ll test my
dreams of New Tokyo once I’ve
slept off the trip here.
To be continued …
Robert Maguire, Jr. is studying
Chinese at the National Taiwan
University in Taipei. He runs the
site The Only Redhead in
Taiwan, where you can see pic-
tures and videos from his time
there. Robert may be reached at
[email protected].
A New Home in New Tokyo
Robert Maguire, the only redhead in Taiwan, at least one of the very few in
Dearest Readers:
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