Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Back in New York again
February 12, 2003

My second foray into New York since returning to North America in mid-January began with a Super long, Super packed Super Shuttle ride from Newark Airport to Brooklyn. I’ve become Super Shuttle frequenter during my travels into NY. It’s an affordable shared ride service, but best if you are not on a tight schedule to get somewhere immediately after arriving from your flight. The last point, I can most definitely attest to since I was the only one on the shuttle going to Brooklyn. As a result, I had to sit through a series of drop offs in almost every neighborhood of Manhattan before getting to Brooklyn. I think it took almost two hours for me to finally arrive in Brooklyn.

I was the first passenger picked up. I promptly seated myself in the first row directly behind the driver. Gradually the van had begun to fill up with 3 women in the back row, 2 women and a man in the middle row, a gentleman up front beside the driver, and as I sat alone behind the driver, awaiting my seating companions, an elderly man and woman entered in the midst of bickering. Their argument had the fervor and familiarity of an old jaded couple. As the elderly lady in the camel colored coat entered she proclaimed, “I’m taking the outside seat by the door.”

To which the gray bearded scruffy gentleman snidely replied, “I don’t see your name stamped on it.”

“Well that’s why I’m claiming it. I don’t want to be sandwiched in there.”

“Well maybe someone else would have wanted to sit there too.”

The woman stubbornly sat on the edge of the seat indicating that the man step over her to sit in the center position between me, seated by the window and herself, who was firmly planted by the door. The gray haired gentleman begrudgingly squeezed in.

The van was at full capacity with 10 passengers in all. We were off on a mini-adventure… a bunch of strangers with different destinations and at different points in their travel schedules. First stop, the Holland Tunnel toll both into New York, which was teeming with police. Each vehicle was stopped and the police officer asked our driver the following completely useless questions: “Where are you coming from? Where are you going today? Do you have any explosives on you?” “Newark airport. Manhattan. No,” the driver answered behind his mirrored sunglasses. New York city was on a heightened state of terrorist alert and had tightened security at all entrance points into the city. I’m not sure how those questions were supposed to avert any terrorists or the transport of hazardous materials into the city. I hope that the police used astute observation, probing questions and inspections if suspicions were raised or on a random check basis.

Being a vehicle of 10 passengers for close to 2 hours, I couldn’t help but wonder about the other people in the van and about their personal stories and internal dramas. I think most people are usually curious about the people around them, be it on an airplane in some public place or just standing in line at the post office. But at the end of a long plane ride they are not necessarily in the most chatty of moods. One woman, seated in the center row chatted on her cell phone while the three woman seated in the back chatted happily together, apparently traveling together, which was confirmed when the four of them piled out at the first stop, a hotel in Battery Park City. A middle aged man and dark haired woman seated in the center row chatted politely. The man, apparently never having visited New York before, pointed to a laminated map of Manhattan and inquired whether we were in Manhattan yet and where Greenwich Village was. Meanwhile the gentleman seated up front beside the driver spoke in an English accent and called his friend’s roommate every 20 minutes on his cell phone in anticipation of his impending arrival at his friend’s apartment. In my experience people, on the Super Shuttle don’t really engage each other in conversation, perhaps because the ride is usually less than 1 hour or maybe that’s just the aloofness that people project in New York.

Half of the passengers had been dropped off. The cantankerous couple had been sitting beside me in complete silence and my assumptions proved incorrect when the thin gray haired gentleman became the sixth passenger to be dropped off. Leaving me sitting with the woman in the camel coat. As she moved in away from the door she looked around fretfully, as if looking for a lost object. I could have long dismissed her as a bitter, prickly nuisance of an old lady. Never one to rely on first impressions, I asked, “Are you looking for something? Did you drop something?”

“Oh, no. I just can’t seem to find the seat belt.”

“The strap is over there on your right side, the buckle is over here on the left,” as I indicated this, the woman seated directly behind us assisted by pulling the shoulder strap ahead for the elderly woman.

Now that an olive branch had been extended, my seating companion became warm and animated as she asked me where I had flown in from, where I was going and we engaged in friendly banter. I responded to her kind inquiries:

“I’m flying in from Canada, where it’s much colder and there’s much more snow. I’m on my way to Brooklyn to stay with a friend. What about you? I hope you’re coming from a much warmer place.”

“Oh yes, I was just in Florida, where the weather was just beautiful. I try to go there every year. So are you just visiting?”

“Well I was in Canada visiting relatives. I grew up there and I used to live in New York for over seven years. I recently moved to Taiwan- where I now live and teach English. Whenever I come back to North America for a visit I always stop in New York on my way back and forth from Taiwan.”

She was a retired high school teacher in Brooklyn, where she was also born and raised. Now she lived in the east 20’s and wouldn’t trade the convenience of living in Manhattan for anything. As I dug a little deeper by asking if she’d been to Asia, she revealed that she had in fact been to China in the 1980’s, which seemed very adventurous to me. And I clarified that I was in Taiwan, not Thailand… not bothering with details because I felt it was enough to clarify the point that I was in Taiwan, which is often misheard as Thailand and that Taiwan is not a part of China.

The helpful, dark haired, plump woman sitting behind us joined in by pointedly asking, “What part of Taiwan are living in?”

“A city in southern Taiwan,” I stated simply, not realizing the purpose behind her question. Even people who know where Taiwan is have never heard of--

“Kaohsiung?” the dark haired woman asked completing my sentence.

I turned around to face the woman in dark framed glasses which matched her short dark hair, “Have you been there before or lived there?”

It turns out that the 30-ish woman, who was not of Asian origin, had grown up there because her parents were missionaries stationed in Kaohsiung. She had been able to speak fluent Mandarin, since she had been schooled there but since leaving there over 15 years ago, she was uncertain about her language skills. I told her that one of the many reasons that I chose to move to Taiwan was to learn the language which I hadn’t been able to develop or had lost over the years since I never had formal language training in Taiwanese or Mandarin Chinese.

As we neared a midtown hotel the dark haired woman prepared to exit.

“I hope you have a chance to revisit Taiwan in the future, so that you can see how much it’s changed since you left,” I offered as a wish for the woman had reminisced briefly of her childhood.

After the retired schoolteacher was dropped off, the gentleman with an English accent seated beside the driver opened a conversation with me saying how he’d been traveling for almost 10 hours since 8am that morning. It was now close to 7:00pm. I concurred and we compared stories about how our respective planes circled the airspace above Newark airport for over 40 minutes before landing. He mentioned, having overheard that I was from Canada- that he was off to do a story about polar bears somewhere near the Hudson Bay in Northern Canada. I don’t even remember where he was off to- some place I’ve never heard of. The last piece of information that I was able to extract from him before our conversation timed out, as the others earlier had, was that he was a free lance travel writer in from London a visit, staying with a friend in the East Village.

I’ve never really considered myself to be much of a world traveler or very international, but there were certainly some interesting and unexpected common threads between myself and almost half of the passengers on this particular Super Shuttle ride. It just goes to show you never know what someone’s personal story is nor should you make assumptions or judgments based on first impressions alone.

A Canadian Winter
(January 20-February 12, 2003)

Now that I’ve lived in Taiwan for over a year and my body has acclimatized to the humid tropical weather, I am much more intolerant of the cold. But one thing that I have and always will love about the winter is when it snows.

There is truly something magical and wonderful about fresh snowfall, there’s the light happy feeling that I get when I see it snowing outside. I even love walking outside while it’s snowing. Rain, on the contrary makes me feel gloomy because rain is usually accompanied by dark overcast skies. It rarely rains when there are sunny skies. When it snows the skies are not necessarily overcast, and it might even snow when it’s sunny out. If it does snow at night or when skies are overcast, the white luminescent quality of fresh snow changes and brightens the landscape, reflecting light. Rain brings a soaking wet lingering wetness, dampness, and sogginess. Snow never soaks you to the bone. Snowflakes fall gently, look closely for a moment, each one is unique until it dissolves onto the ground or melts away. Silently, snow transforms the landscape like a white fluffy blanket enveloping cozy little communities.

The snow had been falling for over 4 hours when I ventured out begrudgingly to ceremoniously brush off the inches of white fluff that had piled up on the car. As I began uncovering the car my thoughts turned to joy while sweeping off the soft, light snow with an ease that turned into a playfulness. I felt like I was in a snow globe as the snow flew up into the air sparkling like crystal dust under the streetlights.

Perhaps I will always have a special affinity for snow… I was born in Alaska and raised in Ottawa after all.


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