3. Being a mouthy, Western woman in Asia.
Every time I return to Asia – and I have been going periodically for the past seven years – I realize how entirely out of place I am there.
To begin with, I hate the climate and the air pollution over there. As soon as I step out of the airport in Taiwan or in Bangkok, I am reminded of Tom Hanks emerging from the airplane that has taken him to Thailand in Volunteers (HBO Pictures, 1985). “Oooh. Jeezuz H. Christ,” he moans, shielding his eyes from the glare above him. “We must be a mile from the sun.”
The air is hot and steamy, and the smog drifting in from China sits squarely overhead.Pollution index hovers characteristically in winter between red (horrible) and purple (get out).
Pedestrian travel is high risk. In the first place, sidewalks are rare. In Taoyuan, Taiwan, where my family lives, a beautiful, broad sidewalk will disappear at the end of a block, dumping the walker, trike rider, stroller pusher, or other intrepid walker into the narrow street. The oncoming drivers, especially those on motor bikes, hardly see anything that might impede them. They rarely notice anyone, least of all women on foot. They bear no obligation to observe caution and avoid colliding with the living beings clogging up their streets.
Those that do exist are too crowded for easy navigation. Street food vendors, priests and their sacred altars, resting Maylaysian workers, and full-sized trees in gigantic planters in the center of the walkway impede foot traffic.
In both countries, the law has little or no bearing on drivers’ behaviors. In Taiwan, motorbikes swarm through red lights without so much as slowing down. In Bangkok, drivers customarily bend or break all traffic laws. Crossing a street there is no less dangerous than crossing the Grand Canyon on a tight rope.
In Asia, my northern European structure makes me feel like an abominable snowman publically, embarrassingly melting. I’m too big, too loud, too profane, too averse to obsequies. My feet are gigantic, and I galumpf into rooms where my dainty, demurely quiet Asian counterparts stare at the anomaly that is me. I. Me.
I try to hide my frustrations when I am unable to make myself understood, but my resting face insists on looking angry, and my voice insists on blaring above a whisper. I am incapable of delicacy.
Worst of all, I am a quintessential New Yorker. I voice my pleasure as well as my displeasure in every situation. I yell at drivers who try to kill me. That is not the custom in Asia. There, it is considered impolitic, uncouth to complain even in situations where there are legitimate reasons for complaint. I read recently that in the Buddhist community, complaining or scolding disrupts the karma of the person being addressed. I don’t want to hurt anyone, so I try to remember to bury my discomfort.
Which often whips up a perfect storm. If I hold back, I am frustrated. If I let go, I am embarrassed. Either way, I’m guilt-ridden.
I’ll never be compatible with that world.