Friday, March 11, 2005


From time to time you see them selling packs of gum around Taipei, hooded to hide their disfigurement, with so much irrecoverable -- burn victims.

A day or two ago I saw a woman who had chosen not to hide beneath the hood. Her bravery was staggering, but her appearance made you understand why others make a different choice. The woman simply had no face left, nothing recognizable as a human feature, and if her head had not been attached to a body, I wouldn't have known what it was. She was flanked by men I took to be her brothers; thank heaven for mercies.

Some months ago I saw a man lying across a window-unit air conditioner that was protruding from an eighth-floor office. He was working steadily with his screwdriver and wrench, going about his business as if he were engaged in something normal.

Families on scooters -- small children standing on the floorboards, unharnessed and helmetless between a parent's feet. Busses to the left, delivery trucks to the right, the scooter itself zipping as scooters do through the mass hysteria of Taipei traffic.

And this relative pecadillo, that Taiwan taxis are equipped with seat belts but none of them actually work. This is less dangerous than it sounds, because some of the cabbies are sober.

Dare I ask what sorts of standards are prevalent in the control rooms of Taiwan's nuclear power plants?

I understand that modern concepts of safety are the luxury of fully-developed nations -- but Taiwan is wealthy enough for little bits of luxury.

I understand that modern concepts of safety can metastasize into something oppressive, as when parents refuse to let children skin their knees.

But nonetheless. Would a bit of sensible precaution-taking be a bad thing in Taiwan? Would safety squeeze the lifeblood out of a country whose whole charm is its zaniness?

I say no. So I encourage repairmen to dismount their air conditioners and come back inside, where the ground is nearer by. I call on scooter-families to ride the slow old bus instead. Most of all, I'd prefer to see more buildings equipped with fire escapes, so that we'd encounter fewer hooded unfortunates who sell chiclets for a living.

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