Last week I pulled over the scooter I was riding to check out a second hand electronics store. I had just come from trying to teach fifty high school kids how to talk to a convenience store clerks, without much success. The shop was piled high with dusty old TVs and tape decks. A woman came down tiny stairs at my calling. “No, this is all other people’s stuff, being fixed,” she said, “But my husband might be able to being in something pawned if you want. You want a small one? No CD? 800 yuan.” She called him but could not seem to get the gist of what I wanted, so she said I ought to come back next week. “If you are sure you want something, we can get it for you, a thousand and up,” she said, giving me a name card.
My rented room in the big empty house is pretty quiet at night, and I have not “made the move” to CDs. Funny how only a decade passes and CDs are already threatened with obsolescence!
Next door to the electronics graveyard was a little shop advertising Indonesian eats, in both Indonesian and Chinese, which intrigued me. I spent two years in Indonesia right out of college, so I am always curious about how Indonesian contract workers fare here in Taiwan. I walked in and felt flutterings of attention from the few people sitting there as I looked at the Indonesian menu. “What is ‘pangsit mie?” I asked and the woman in charge said it was Indonesian soup noodles. I sat down and looked at the posters of Indonesian singers and karaoke CD collections taped to the wall. When I asked if she had any Indonesian CDs here, the woman making my noodles said, No, and asked, “Can you speak Indonesian?”
“Bisa,” I said, I can.
The woman at the table smiled when I asked if they could speak it. “We all can,” she said, “We are from there. Well, actually, we are from the mainland originally, then we lived in Indonesia, and now we are here.”
“Wow, that’s complicated,” I said, and she laughed. She looked more Indonesian than Chinese to me, and her statement that she had come from the mainland turned out later to mean that her ancestral land was there. She had been born in “Mandian,” in Indonesia, though I could not make out its original Indonesian name until she came up with it: “Banjarmasin,” in West Kalimantan province, part of what was called Borneo.
“Which do you like better?” I asked, and she smiled.
“That’s hard to say,” she said, “Maybe here, since there is less developed, more backward.”
“And the politics there ---“ I said, fishing for comment on the anti-Chinese element in Indonesian nationalism.
“No, that’s really the same everywhere,” she said. “I haven’t been back there in years,” she said as she gave me a steaming bowl of noodles. “But I remember the river, its water was this green color. We would cross it every morning. I have never seen anything like it.”
The cook said, “I like Jakarta better. It is the center, everyone goes there. it is more modern, more convenient than here.”
“Do you know Tebet?” I asked, naming the neighborhood where the Volunteers in Asia house is located, where I had passed days and nights on my way from one adventure to another. They looked at one another puzzled but did not recall the name. I myself had forgotten the name of the larger urban district.
“Oh, I remember,” I said, “It is next to a river, the Ciliwoong! Or is it Ciliwang?. . “
“You’re talking about Cirebon,” said the cook.
“No, no,” I said, “that’s a city on the south coast.”
“Hm,” said the first woman, “It must be on the outskirts, I have never heard of it.” I pictured Tebet’s place on the map that used to hang in the house on Jalan M, a name or two that might be the name of the freeway that ran near it: Subroto? Sudirman? General’s names. I pictured the muddy narrow Ciliwoong and the tiny houses that clung to the top of its steep bank; the sense of wetness, the closeness of rain; the metallic tapping or rhythmic calls of the food vendors with their carts in evening.
“There are lots of neighborhoods in Jakarta,” said the assertive noodle maker. “There’s Gambir, there’s Pondok Baru, there’s Blok M. . .”
“And Kebon Manggis,” I said, “and Pondok Gede.”
“Yes, Pondok Gede too,” she said, oh, the wonderful oddity of Indonesian and Chinese mixing!
“Oh, its been so long,” said the one from Pontianak, and the breaking out of all these names was the cracking of a long encrusted skin that none of them – none of us – had worn in a long time. The power of names is elementary, untranslatable, pulling us back to our own experiences and out to a flurry of images in the collective mind. The three women there in that noodle shop shared this in their past: these names that had not been left behind, and that had not melted into the fabric of their Taiwanese lives. A leftover, unabsorbed.
The noodle maker spoke to me in Indonesian, eager somehow to feel that cadence in her mouth, and I tried to respond, simple phrases falling out stiffly. It was if she were posturing herself for a dance I had long not done. “Leave safely,” she said smiling.
“Stay safely,” I replied, and went out. In small town Zhudong (East Bamboo) I had found a tiny colony of people belonging in different ways to another place – a place to which, I in my own way had also belonged.
Far flows the Ciliwoong.