I’m letting the memories return. The simple floral scent of this cup of jasmine tea conjures scenes of afternoons alone in my host family’s Taipei apartment. While I studied, by my side steeping, always steeping; a large glass with a plastic lid where the dry leaves and flowers unfurled and fell inside the boiled water. I see myself copying ideograms over and over, quizzing myself, reading over my Chinese lessons … flash cards strewn across my desk … dictionary, pencil, and a book that would have seemed easy to a five year-old Chinese child.
I kept a journal while I was there, my junior year in college. I turned nineteen years old that October and celebrated with a sponge cake that we ate with chopsticks. The journal was handwritten, both sides of every page covering nine months of adventure in a foreign country. So all I had to do was type it up, cut out the self pity and whining that everybody uses diaries for, and submit it for review to my Writer’s Group. To my surprise, once I began the transcription I saw that each succeeding month brought more words in Chinese – just the characters, no pronunciation guide, no translation. See, that young lady Catherine thought my grown woman Catherine self would still be able to read them. So for each ideogram that I did not remember (and there were plenty) I had to stop, open up the translator page on the internet and attempt to draw it with my mouse. NCIKU (the translator website) would propose several possible alternatives based on the wobbly drawing. Once the character was selected, I switched to the international keyboard in Word, typed the pronunciation, and selected that character again. Tough slogging, but I take a perverse pleasure in pursuing knowledge outside the usual circles, and that fringery was sort of what took me to that tropical island in the first place.
Taiwan was a tiny prosperous country governed by the remanants of Chiang Kai Shek’s Peking aristocracy. As a college student in 1978, I could not enter Communist China, so I took the next best thing. The government at the time was a nominal democracy headed up by Chiang Ching Guo, the warlord’s son. The former island country of Formosa, Taiwan claimed to be the Republic of China – ruling the vast mainland in spite of Mao Tse Tung, and the Communist Party takeover in the aftermath of World War II. This was a chance for all that scholarship money to send me to the other end of the world, to seek my own identity, to prove to my family that without me to help every day, they would still do fine. To prove to my boyfriend that I was not a subset of him. We could never afford the plane ticket, but I saved my summer earnings, some of the earnings from two part time jobs I worked during the academic year, and left the United States for the first time in my life.