I'm not writing this memory as a getting to know you, but as an insight into a unique political and cultural period that is now gone. I'm writing this so that people like myself will remember the days of pre-Lee Taiwan, and an era that was lost to Taiwanese independance and democracy. This Taiwan I knew, for better or for worse, is slowly slipping away as power is once again bestowed upon the people.

Most people have some sort of a symbol or idea remeniscent from their childhood-- for me, it was my Vespa. As a piece of machinery, it was beautiful. It had style, and its lines were aesthetically in motion. Earlier this year, I saw one on display at MoMA, and another in Vogue; maybe those New England bred Talbots-wearing curators saw in it the same sense of infinite promise that I saw, during the summer at the age of 15.

When I was younger I'd spend some of my summers in Taipei, where my parents were from before they got shipped off to school in the States, and where my grandparents still lived. I had a romanticized vision of Taiwan itself then; though I don't know if it is my perspective that has changed or Taiwan itself.

My family spent most of our time in parts of Taipei (most of Taipei, in fact) which were Mandarin-speaking enclaves-- inhabited by Chinese expatriates from The Revolution in 1949. The only contact I had with the native Taiwanese were the servants. It took me a few years to even realize that they had their own language and government before the Nationalists came in. We (the expats) were invaders, dictators and oppressors, but I was oblivious.

I had no idea of the political landscape of Taipei, and how I, personally was enmeshed in it. Perhaps if I had known I wouldn't have done what I did. I was 15, and we weren't told these things. My parents themselves had an ideal of Taiwan-- that we were not the oppressors but valiantly opposing bourgiose Chinese communism. And the natives were hicks.

Because my older cousin had been kidnapped when he was in Taipei, my grandparents and parents were always extremely protective of us. (A note about kidnapping in Taiwan-- It's a business-- mostly they never ask for too much that would make it worthwhile to call the police. And they almost never kill you.) We weren't allowed to go out unaccompanied by the chauffeur, an elderly, conservative man who had been working for my grandparents since before the widespread use of cars.

Not quite the ideal person to carouse around the city with. So sometimes during the early afternoon, when everybody was asleep to avoid the oppressive heat, or sometimes late at night, I'd take the Vespa.

If you're familiar with the Vespa Italjet Velocifero, you'd understand. I had a limited edition in silver with a matching helmet, my cousin had one in British racing green. We discovered everything about the city that we weren't supposed to know-- we went to the trendy bars, nightclubs, and discovered a Trader Vic's in the heart of downtown Taipei-- that restaurant that used to be across from the Plaza in New York. We found Americans and confused them.

We went to Snake Alley, the hidden ghetto of Taipei merely because it was a ghetto. The main influence is organized crime and snakes. The snakes are sold dead or alive, sometimes cooked. Sold as food, curiosities, pets, or potions to increase libido-- I saw a man kill a snake, drain the blood into a glass, and drink the blood.

The second attraction were the whorehouses, disguised as 'barbershops'. Taipei has a deserved reputation as being a very 'clean' city-- which is why the brothels are hidden away in Snake Alley-- an old and roundabout part of town. Some of the girls were younger than I was, (15 at the time) and were immigrants from the mainland, Thailand, or the Philippines. I found out later that most of them were kidnapped (for a different reason than my sort of kidnapping) or sold by their impoverished parents. I'd never seen a prostitute before-- It even took me a while to figure out that the 'barbershops' didn't have anything to do with haircuts. We tried to talk to them-- but most didn't speak Mandarin or English. I've heard that this section of the city is mostly 'cleaned up' now.

We once went up to the mountains, and on the way saw the poverty of the native Taiwanese that was not supposed to exist-- shacks in the country and on farms.

All the while, the threat of kidnapping was very real, as my family had been involved in the old KMT, as opposed to its current incarnation. Taiwan is a state that has always been under the looming shadow of war-- a tiny country suspended in a web of Machiavellian maneuvering that reaches across the Strait, across the Pacific, and around the world. We were caught in the middle of this web.

My cousin studies medicine in Boston, I'm in New York. He rowed for Harvard, I row for NYU. And we're all living this ridiculous safe prep-school life like our parents before us, because it's considered too dangerous to go back to Taipei. Politically, and physically. My grandparents now spend most of their time abroad.

My Vespa showed me the "real" Taipei, with intrigue and color. We would run away from the proper Taiwan and come out on the other side. It gave me a perspective on danger and truth that I otherwise would not have.

Every time I hear that high-pitched sound of that 49cc engine, I think back to a Taipei which I knew that no longer exists, merely because there is no place for me, no place for the exiles, the ones that ran away.

Don't judge me on how things were and how I was raised. I can't change that.

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