My friends Aussie L and Aussie B just went back to Brisbane after five months in Taipei. When they left they joked that they hadn’t left a six-block area around Roosevelt Road that included their schools, their apartments, and the coffee shop. That is, Aussie B made the joke, and then there was a moment where his eyes filled with regret, and the chuckle that accompanied the joke became a deep sigh.
Aussie L, on the other hand, remained unfazed by the admission. “Don’t gao ovah theh, mate;” he had said, “Eef ya gao dah’in theh, yaffakked… lost forevah!”
Take a picture, take a picture, take a picture
I got off the bus at 師大路, crossed the street and turned left after the basketball courts into the alley. It’s a gray, overcast day; 31°C | 88 °F. It’s not rainy or sunny, but women walk with umbrellas, as the UV index is high.
A few steps into the alley, I see that Hun Café is still closed; they don’t open until one … so I keep walking. I come out onto Roosevelt Road and turn right, and I see across the street that Mix Coffee & Tea is filled with people eating their huge lunches… so I keep walking on, to Benny’s.
Across the street from Benny’s is a construction wall, which the construction company has decorated with hundreds of those broadly conical rice-patty hats, all spray-painted blue and pegged to the wall. Up close you can see they are hats, but stand back a few steps and the big picture just looks like some geometric blue texture. The picture is of a corporate art installation on a busy street, people walking by.
A happy, boisterous little boy is walking hand-in-hand with his mama; he must be three or four years old. He seems joyful as he kicks one of the blue rice-patty hats. The picture is of a happy kid against a backdrop of hundreds of shallow blue cones.
I’m just walking by them as I see the mom pull the kid to a stop, right there in front of all those blue hats. She’s not really yelling at him, but she’s dead serious about him keeping his hands and feet to himself, and not destroying or touching other people’s things for fun, and it doesn’t matter if it’s not a rule or if nobody’s watching, that you still have to be considerate at all times. You can have fun without being inconsiderate. The picture is of a tall, thin mom, stopped in front of a gigantic blue egg carton, lecturing a now perfectly still and remorseful little boy.
I continue walking on past, and then I stop and think, “I should take an actual picture.” I turn to look back and they’re still there, the lecture hasn’t finished. Now, the picture is of a mom lecturing a little boy, but the angle is wider; the blue hats stretch for several meters, lit with the gloomy gray of an overcast day.
I reach for my camera and look up, and the lecture has ended. Mom and little boy continue their way up Roosevelt Road, hand in hand. The photo opportunity has been lost.
Tricked into learning
There’s a point where Nanchang Road and Roosevelt Road meet at a triangle, and right at that triangle the crosswalk, and at one end of the crosswalk is a dance studio. The dance studio has an electronic sign board, the kind where a single line of text crawls from right to left over red pixels.
So I’m waiting at the crosswalk for the light to change, and my eye catches the dance studio’s crawling sign. It flashes the name of the studio, their phone number, and other useful information, but then it starts scrolling all of the dances they offer… and the dances are listed in Chinese and in English. Samba! Rumba! Fox trot! Paso doble!
At first, I think, “ooh, free vocabulary!” I’ll take a picture! But then I remember, those crawls don’t turn out in photographs; shutter speed is too fast. I think for a moment about standing there and taking a video, but I quickly bore of that notion… And then I remember the most important thing… I don’t care to learn the names of ballroom dances. I don’t want to be part of any conversation where ballroom dances vocabulary is needed. Yes I want to learn Chinese, but this vocabulary is safely outside my scope.
What a relief! I give myself permission not to learn those words.
Of course the light hasn’t changed yet, so I’m still watching the crawl. “Samba” comes on, and I think about all my friends back in New York City. The characters for samba in Chinese are 森巴, and I think 森 is a forest character; if you look closely you can see three trees; one on top, two on the bottom. I wonder what my New York friends would think of the translation “Forest bar dance.” You can’t really translate 巴 as “bar” can you? It could just as easily be “Paris.”
森巴 Samba crawls away, and 倫巴 Rumba crawls on. 倫 is the first character in 倫敦 London, the capital of the United Kingdom. That’s funny, I think, to try to associate the laid-back Cuban rumba with the stiff upper lip of London.
倫巴 Rumba crawls off, and 快四步 Quick Step crawls on… that makes sense to me, the characters say “fast four steps.” That crawls off and then 西班牙兩步 Paso Doble, which makes perfect sense, that says “Spain Two Steps” but HEY WAIT A SECOND!
I’VE LEARNED THE NAMES OF THE BALLROOM DANCES IN CHINESE!
Dammit! It was the crawling action of the electronic signboard that sucked me in, and forced me to learn something I don’t want to learn!
Shake my head. Perhaps over time I shall unlearn it all.
Later, I was sitting on the second floor of Mix Coffee & Tea with the adventure club, and I pointed out to them that damn electronic signboard. They all had a good laugh at my involuntary learning moment, and then there was a lull in the conversation… and I realized WE’RE ALL STARING AT THAT SIGN!
Can this sign be any more diabolical? Then I thought about what had just happened… not only did that sign trick me into learning those words, by telling the story of the sign, I had TAUGHT my friends those words.
Now that I’ve taught my friends those words, I realize I have no chance of forgetting them. You win this round, sign! (shaking fist)
But you haven’t won the war… I still don’t know how to say “tango” or “foxtrot.”