The International Writers Magazine: Living in Taiwan: Memoir
War and Peace in Taiwan
My circle of friends widened at Taipei American School with the giving and receiving of little notes.
Meeting my first boyfriend consisted of him folding a note into a thick triangle while sitting at his desk in the back of the classroom and flicking it to the front row where I sat listening to the teacher. Embarrassed by the way the thick paper wad landed onto my lap, I pretended nothing happened and then when the teacher was not looking at me, I turned around and saw Derek Brown beaming. I was amused when I read: “To 007” on the outer layer because his code name for me was based on the James Bond spy films. Unwrapping the paper as I walked toward the playground during recess, I discovered that he had just invited me to our first date.
I had no clue why he wanted me to “go with him,” but I always liked his way of saying clever things in a funny way and how he took pleasure in making people laugh. I answered affirmatively, refolded the paper, crossed out his code name for me, and above that, wrote: “To 008.” During recess, I furtively returned the note to Derek, and walked away so I could play with my girlfriends. At least they would make me feel more comfortable, even if they were a little boring.
Derek and I agreed to meet outside the PX compound that Saturday, where we walked to the nearby movie theatre. We ended up watching the matinee performance of “The Sound of Music” five Saturday afternoons in a row. It seemed like both Derek and I could relate to a family fleeing Nazi persecution. Like them we were trying to protect our music while an enormous war we could not see but constantly heard about was being waged in another country nine hundred miles away, which was not that far away, Derek reasoned, since the same distance from Hawaii toward the mainland is to drop into the Pacific Ocean.
During these five consecutive Saturday afternoons, Derek and I did not talk very much. Nor did we speak to each other in school. In fact, he stayed with his friends and I stayed with mine when we weren’t sitting next to each other, silently holding hands and watching Julie Andrews sing loudly on top of a mountain. But we watched and listened carefully to each other’s performance in class, and his secret spy notes inspired me to start a small poetry club during recess. My two girlfriends, Sally, short with long blond hair that always blew in her face, and Martha, tall with short brown hair held back with a bobby pin, agreed it would be fun to make up our own poems. At home, I would listen to my father’s see-through orange Joan Baez records on our family’s record player, and change the words of the folk tunes into rhymes that were all about me. Another time I used the structure of an e. e. cummings poem to create my own notions about spring. All three of us would take turns scribbling a poem on a piece of paper, then fold and exchange it, just like Derek first had done, so we could each read it later, and add another one of our own.
I saved Sally’s and Martha’s poems along with Derek’s spy notes in a metal box, along with a picture Derek gave me on my last day of school, a close-up of his sad, tear-stained face. Derek said that his older brother took the picture while he cried at the thought I was going to leave Taiwan soon. In his note he explained that he loved me and would miss me, and he even included a long dialogue he had with his father about me.
What amazed me then and even now was how meticulously his father had searched Derek’s feelings for me. After much questioning, he understood Derek was serious and then gave him some wonderful suggestions about how to conduct himself as a gentleman. Unfortunately for me, I did not stay long enough for Derek to take his father’s advice. But unlike the large driftwood my parents reluctantly left behind to the swiftly rising tide that swallowed it at Olumbi, the southern tip of Taiwan, I carried back Derek’s notes and his picture, as well as my girlfriends’ poems to northern New Jersey where our family returned after living in Taiwan.
I probably will never see Derek, Diane or Martha again, but I will always treasure their friendships. They gave me an understanding about who I am, about the kind of people I like best, and what it is like to be young. Every now and then, as a teacher in the South Bronx, I recognize certain gestures and ideas when I am spending time with my own students, and wonder what they will write to each other, and where they will end up.
© M Ausherman Feb 2010
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