I’m sitting in Taipei’s wonderful Taoyuan International Airport, as I have been since early this afternoon, awaiting the nearly midnight departure of my flight back to Seattle and home. I’m here rather than doing the tourist thing because of the never-to-be-sufficently-damned bones and muscles surrounding my spinal cord. Apparently the damage I sustained trying to run and move 350 pounds of concrete in each wheelbarrow load as a 16-year-old didn’t really heal after all. My relationship with ibuprofen is love-hate at best because of a tragically sensistive stomach. What can I say? I’m a delicate flower rough, tough he-man.
The first destination in this trip was Shanghai to work with my team there for about a week. I then hopped a quick couple of hours south to Taipei for a few days of meetings with my other team. This city is completely different from Shanghai, but they each have their delightful charms. The Shanghainese are relentless and driven, all while managing to maintain a happy, jolly family feeling. That bustling city is going places – and has been for a thousand years.
Taipei, on the other hand, is easy going but busy in a way that you have to see to understand how different it can be from the Chinese way. It’s probably the most American friendly city in Asia in that its citizens seem to embrace their adapted version of American ways of life, they resist Chinese authority, and many of them have excellent English skills they will tell you have been enhanced by their consumption of American TV shows. But Taipei is also undeniably southeast Asian and tropical in its flavor. There seem to be some rural zones embedded in the urban – a bit like Hawaii.
Where Shanghai, with its population frozen at 25 million, has everyone riding in the excellent Metro and bus system or piloting government-encouraged electric bikes and cars for their daily transport, Taipei is dedicated to scooters powered by buzzing four cycle gasoline engines. At a guess, I’d say they outnumber cars at least three to one. They seem to abide by no perceptible traffic rules other than mandatory stop for red traffic lights. Each major intersection has a designated area for the scooters to settle into as they await the checkered flag – er, green light. The cars and trucks are right behind them, bearing down on them with visible zeal. The scooter driver who isn’t paying close attention or with a weak or cantankerous engine is probably not long for this world.
I love traveling. I do miss my wife, and I get lonely and start talking to myself (more than usual) after a long absence, but seeing new places or returning to old ones is something I have always loved. I normally embrace the strangeness (to me) of places and people who aren’t like the ‘Muricans I grew up with. It’s not that I don’t like Americans and America, but I also like seeing how everyone else solves the daily problems of life and raising their children and making and spending money. I suppose I’m a xeno-phile.
But not always. I remember arriving in Paris at Gare du Nord with my children on vacation a few years ago, feeling elation and a strange sense of xenophobia. I reacted to this unaccustomed fear by becoming cranky and conservative – something my mostly adult offspring didn’t appreciate one bit. Of course it may have been at least partially due to the walking pneumonia and double ear infections I later discovered I had been suffering from for the entire trip to that point. I eventually settled into my normal groove and we had a fabulous time, despite the energy limitations the illness saddled me with.
My secret shame is stealing glances at strangers and trying to guess the details their story – how they got to their current situation in life. Imagine the sights seen by that 80-something couple walking down the street helping each other and holding hands. Or the young chick in the tight leather pants who looks paranoid and seems like she hasn’t slept for a week. Or those four guys chattering about “BIOS” and “PCIe hot plug”, holding laptops precariously under their arms while they scarf burgers and rush back to their workplace.
I think I’ll just sit here in the airport, biding my time and watching the people. It’s only four more hours or so until I board my twelve hour long flight home.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s the real reason I didn’t go sightseeing today. The people watching is always best in airports, and you can do it without having to pretend you’re doing anything else. Everybody people watches in airports. It’s expected.