I signed the document I could not read and handed my life savings to the stranger. He grunted and held out a silver case.
My cousin didn’t smile.
“Take one,” he said.
“I don’t smoke.”
“Doesn’t matter. You’ll insult him if you don’t. He’ll lose face.”
I took a cigarette from the case and stuck it behind my ear. The man’s mouth formed something between a sneer and smile, his teeth stained reddish-brown from betel nut. Outside the window, traffic poured by, noisy and chaotic.
I was now the proud owner of a motorcycle. There was only one problem.
I had no idea how to drive it.
We left the trailer and went into the parking lot. Up close the traffic was like a hurricane, with great gusts of plastic and rubber and chrome and steel roaring past. A man drove by, smoking a cigarette through a hole in his pollution mask. As he passed us a bus came from out of nowhere and knocked him into another motorcycle, knocking the two of them over. A helmet rolled toward us.
My cousin put on his mask and lowered his visor. “Ready?” I heard him say.
How could I have been ready? I had been in Taiwan for two hours and had been on a motorcycle exactly one time in my life, on the back of my cousin’s bike on the ride from the airport to here. I did not even think I’d be able to start the thing. What would the man in the trailer think if I pushed the motorcycle out of his lot? Would he call the police? Would they care?
My cousin started his up and pointed the front wheel toward the traffic.
“Wait!” I shouted. “Is there anything else I should know? Are there any rules?”
My cousin lifted his visor and looked at me in a way that made me feel like I did when I was ten and he was sixteen.
“None,” he said, his eyes gleaming. “You just go.”
For months I had nightmares about the traffic. Every day I woke up and lay in bed dreading the scariest parts of my route, wondering if that would be the day I would wind up in the hospital.
But although I was terrified, and minor accidents were frequent, it had to be done: my teaching load was full, and I couldn’t ride around on the back of my cousin’s bike forever.
While in Taiwan I had decided to travel around the world, which cost money. I had to live, my time was now, I had to earn fast and get out.
That was how I saw my year: buying freedom on the back of a Sanyang 125.
It didn’t get better until I finally realized that as the driver of a motorcycle in Taiwan, you were only responsible what was in front of you. Cutting someone off was not your problem; it was the other guy’s problem for not anticipating your action. So what if you swerved erratically without signaling? It was his problem for going too fast and not being able to brake in time or act quickly enough to miss you.
This changed everything: the chaos instantly became more comprehensible. Nothing behind you mattered; you didn’t even need to look in your mirror. And the people ahead of you weren’t paying attention to you either. Your only responsibility was the lane in front of you, the one you were choosing as your path. When a space in front of you opened up, it was yours to fill as fast as you wanted. It was like living inside a video game.
There was one exception to this rule. Buses didn’t stop for anything. When those came up behind you, you sensed it: all the motorcycles and scooters around you started darting off to the sides, like schools of fish in front of a predator.
If you stopped thinking, if you followed your instincts and kept looking forward, it all worked.
My cousin had been right. There were no rules. You just went.
In the summer of the following year I was back at the same lot, selling the bike back to the same guy. I added the cash to the money belt I was wearing and lifted my backpack onto the back of my cousin’s motorcycle.
As we rode to the airport I reflected on my year and the huge debt I owed to my cousin. It was going to be difficult to leave.
What could I say? How could I ever thank him? In my mind I developed a speech, all the things I wanted to say before I left.
You know, I would say, I learned a lot this year. It started with the motorcycle. “Just plunge in,” you said. I took that advice to heart. Not just with the motorcycle, but with everything. All year I thought one thing, over and over: If Eric can do it, I can too.
That was my mantra. If Eric can learn to read and write Chinese, then so can I. If Eric can stand in front of a classroom, the only adult in charge of fifty kindergarteners who don’t understand a word he says, I can too.
And if Eric can teach himself how to ride a motorcycle by plunging into traffic, stopping and starting as bikes and cars and buses go roaring past, blaring their horns, missing by inches, the gusts of wind from the trucks and the screaming horns jump-starting his heart—yes, yes, yes: if Eric can do this, then so can I…
I wanted my cousin to understand that I had developed a philosophy of life around his advice. That these were principles I intended to use to guide me, not just now but for as long as I was alive.
I was setting out for Hong Kong and China and Tibet, his favorite place, and I would be living according to his rules. Travel by land whenever you can. Always stay at the cheapest place possible. Experience things not as a tourist, not as a mere observer, but as they really are. Immerse yourself. Plunge in.
How easy it sounds and how hard to do! But that was my example, the one he had set. Don’t be timid. Don’t be afraid. Find the lane in front of you and fill it as fast as you can. Just go.
By the time we arrived at the airport, my heart was racing. My cousin took off his helmet. I hopped off the back, dropped my backpack at my feet and faced him, ready to deliver my speech.
“You know,” I began. “It’s been a great year. And it all started with that motorcycle. For months, I couldn’t sleep at night, dreaming of traffic, imagining my own death. And then I remembered what you said: just plunge in, it’s the only way to learn. And—”
“Yeah, I wish I’d done that,” my cousin said.
“I can’t believe you actually did that.” He shook his head, marveling. “I thought you had a death wish.”
“You… you didn’t plunge in?”
“Are you kidding? When I got my motorcycle, I took it up to the mountains. I practiced for months.”
I didn’t know what to say. My speech had vanished.
He smiled his lopsided smile. “Goodbye, Jacke.”
“Goodbye,” I managed.
I looked down at my backpack, which held everything I owned in the world. I felt the old familiar panic start up. How could I know that this was the right thing to do? What would happen? How would I manage? How would I survive?
On the other hand, what were my other choices? Go home? Give up the chance to go to Tibet? Throw away twelve months of momentum?
Expect a little less from life?
I took a deep breath. Then I shook my cousin’s hand, hiked my pack over my shoulder, and walked through the crowded airport as fast as I could. Moving forward. Not looking back.
Finally, a story that’s almost uplifting…certainly better than the coach in the death struggle with the equipment shed, or the therapy session that blew up in my face, or the cannibalistic cake eater Jerry Seinfeld, or the time a five-year-old almost persuaded me to strangle a neighbor… This one’s much better! A happy ending, even! And I owe it all to that iron horse beauty, my pride and joy even when it was skidding out from under me on the wet pavement (ouch!) or when a store owner was slashing the seat because I (and a million other people) parked in front of his door. Ah, those were good days. Made in Taiwan? You bet I was…
A History of Jacke in 100 Objects has proved to be one of the most popular features on the website. Enjoy!
- #14 – The Bass Guitar – a Suzuki dad goes electric
- #13 – The Monster – a big surprise on a tour of Loch Ness
- Special Interlude – The Artist and the Music Teacher – old friend provides a coda to Object #7
- #12 – The Tickets to the Premiere – taking my talents from Bologna to Broadway
- #11 – The Bench – a day in the furnace provides an object lesson
- #10 – The Spitwad – a science teacher with zero personality confronts a bully, with a little help from the heavens
- #9 – The Intersection – Hamlet Dad goes to the movies
- #8 – The Burger Car – a father orders burgers with a slice of Proust
- #7 – The Keyboard – a music teacher pushed beyond her limits meets a child with dreams
- #6 – The Mugs – while slicing up life into tenths of an hour, I get a sudden ray of hope
- #5 – The Motorcycle – learning a life lesson from buying a motorcycle in Taiwan and learning to drive one (in that order)
- #4 – The Sweater – a Wisconsin boy moves to the big city and pays a visit to a therapist
- #3 – The Blood Cake – in which I recount my experience sharing an office with Jerry Seinfeld
- #2 – The Spy Drop – a neighborhood war waged by five-year-olds takes a dramatic turn
- #1 – The Padlock – a doomed football coach struggles to survive a winless season