I go swimming every weekday morning with what feels like a significant proportion of the elderly population of Wu-Jia-Wei and surrounding areas. I’m usually the youngest person by a couple of decades (except for that one girl my age that comes once a week and walks up and down the pool in the water, texting and checking Facebook with her phone in a waterproof bunny case… don’t get me wrong, she’s always got a massive grin on her face- more power to her!).
I got my dad into swimming last year when I came back for a few weeks, and he’s kept going ever since, making acquaintances with the regulars along the way. As the ‘only foreigner’ it’s kind of hard not to be noticed, so everyone usually waves or says hello. In one case, there’s a lady that always leaves the same time I head from the pool to the spa area, and she always gives me her biggest smile as she waves goodbye from the dressing room. I’m convinced that she’s convinced that I don’t speak Mandarin or Taiwanese.
The two of the nicest acquaintances are Soft-Soft and… I always forget his name so I call him the Tea Grandpa. Soft-Soft is a woman in her seventies, I would guess, and she’s one of those straight-talking farmer’s wives that has had her eyebrows tattooed but has enough common sense to wear a simple one-piece black bathing suit rather than the frilly stuff the other women tend to go for. She always says hello and tries to say something in English, and comments on how fast I swim. She’s currently on holiday for a week. Tea Grandpa, as you might have guessed, always insists on drinking tea- without fail, at 7:20 every morning, he will invite my father (and me) to tea. Tea Grandpa owns a tea plantation in the mountains and is also well into his 70’s. He can swim 25m underwater in just one breath. He keeps telling me that I will be able to do it, too, if I keep practicing. ‘In a week…’ he always says, ‘You’ll be able to do it.’
This morning, with my father in Europe for a holiday, I rocked up to the pool and saw Tea Grandpa slowly wading back and forth in the pool. He clocked me and waved at me from the other side of the pool. I got in to the lane next to his, and waited for him to get close enough to say a few words. After all, he’d missed Monday, I’d missed Tuesday, and it was already 7 o’clock on Wednesday. ‘Why did you come so late today? You couldn’t get up could you.’ He says gently. ‘De si ai kun’ I say meekly with a small laugh, I’m just sleepy. He nods and I tell him I’m going to do a few laps. I do about half a kilometre before he’s standing at the end of the lane, waiting for me, still in the water. ‘We can drink tea now, okay?’ I couldn’t refuse. I was getting into my rhythm, but I couldn’t deny him some polite conversation over, let’s face it, some pretty darn good tea.
We make some small talk with the lifeguard as I sip on some High Mountain tea. I am regaled with the same story- lifeguards need to be able to swim 25m under water, so I should too. I don’t totally get the logic, but I nod and say I’ll try better tomorrow. Inevitably, the talk turns to marriage, and I inevitably get the standard advice: marry a Taiwanese man, it’s home. Taiwan is better than Europe, it’s so expensive there– how much did you say rent was? You might as well stay here and help your parents with their business, and ask for a 2 month holiday a year to go back and see your friends in Europe… hahaha. I just laugh politely before I tell him, ‘I’d rather be independent and get to do what I want than marry and have to do what someone else wants… that’s no fun.’ You have to be gentle with Tea Grandpa. He once told my dad off for letting me to go a meeting in ‘the big city by myself’, telling him he should’ve driven me there and back. It’s just easier to laugh and smile than try and convince him otherwise. Me and my big mouth obviously can’t let those things go so I just make up excuses like, ‘I want to enjoy life, and with a husband you can’t enjoy life’, or ‘Taiwan is too hot to stay permanently’, and ‘living with your parents permanently is boring. I want a chance to miss them’.
Tomorrow, I’ll go to the pool at 6.30 because honestly, I don’t really want to get told off by Tea Grandpa again. I’ll have to come up with some more funny lines about not taking over the family business or looking for a boyfriend…