Honestly

One recent Sunday night when I wasn’t paying close attention, I found myself in Taipei.  Taipei is in “Taiwan,” just a little to the right of China.  I wasn’t in possession of my passport and felt a little sheepish when briefly interviewed by Israel’s border-control staff at Ben Gurion Airport.  When asked the question, “Where are you going?” I laughed inappropriately and replied, “I don’t know.”  (Tip for future travelers: Israeli Border Control officers are not lighthearted.  Mirth is discouraged. . . .)
My husband and I were required to attend the finale of Israel’s version of “The Amazing Race.”  Although we were the second couple eliminated, everyone is expected to stand at the finish line and cheer the winners, pretending that we’re thrilled that they won the million-shekel purse and that there are no hard feelings.  This actually worked out for us, because we understood from the get-go that with arthritic knees and almost 120 years between us, it would have taken a miracle akin to the splitting of the Red Sea if we came anywhere close to winning.  In hindsight, I consider it a miracle that neither one of us came home in a body cast or less-impressive method of traction.  We lived.  For us, that was the most “amazing” part of the race.
The producers of the show traveled with us and were in charge of our documentation.  The only clue we were given was to bring clothing suitable for “The Tropics.”  Thus, new rumors emerged every day about a possible destination for the finale.  One fellow actually made a graph listing all of the previous cities that the show traveled to and then searched the internet for any hot/tropical destinations that were compatible with the inoculations we’d received before the race.  Hawaii seemed like the most logical site until someone pointed out that Hawaii is actually in America and Israelis need visas to go to America.  Singapore?  The Philippines?  I thought that the Fiji Islands might be somewhere in the general neighborhood but felt too ashamed to mention it.
Most of the four days we spent in Taipei were relatively free to spend as we wished.  One of the best parts about keeping strictly kosher is that we couldn’t use our allotted food allowance on anything except fruit and Starbucks and, instead, used the money to take cabs, rent bicycles, go to museums and talk with Taipei-people.  We even managed to arrange a meeting with the oldest Jew in Taipei.  I had hoped that he was Asian and felt a little disappointed that he was actually British and only living there for a few years.
One late afternoon we met Amar, who happens to be a dead-ringer for John Turturro (The Big Lebowski).  He spent an impressively long time with us at the automatic Rent-A-Cycle kiosk.  Our card didn’t work, but the time we spent chatting with Toronto-born, British-educated Amar made the disappointment palpable.  When I asked him where the children in the city were, he laughed and told me that Taipei has the lowest birthrate of any place in Asia.  He found it amusing that I had six children and in Israel, this is not considered unusual for either Jews or Arabs!  When we remarked that almost everyone we met spoke passable-if-not-excellent English, he explained that Taipei is not like the rest of Asia.
Amar’s wife is Chinese, and after a few minutes he asked us if we’d like to meet in a restaurant for dinner.  “There are some of the greatest Michelin-rated eateries in the world in Taipei!”  Alas, once we explained that we couldn’t eat in anywhere other than the kitchen of the local Chabad rabbi, he promised to seriously consider visiting us in Israel.  Two points for Middle-Eastern diplomacy.  The city was sleek and immaculate; a lot of men smoke in the Far East, but there were few cigarette butts in the street.  Recycling bins are everywhere, and outside many buildings, garbage bags are distributed.  The women and men dressed beautifully and modestly; no bare-chested guys hanging out on street corners or women with their underwear exposed as part of a fashion statement.  I was traveling with Israelis and felt sad and uncomfortable by our different (non) standards and, childishly, tried to behave as though I were a benevolent “godmother” to my teammates, lest someone in the Far East think I was not raised by educated parents.
We felt a little/lot nervous because of the face-masks that so many wore to protect themselves from a laundry list of flu and viruses.  That was the creepy part of the Far East.  There were, however, some stellar discoveries that I still cannot get over.  As we drank our kosher-enough coffee in local cafes, several times I noticed patrons leaving their tables to place additional food orders or use the restrooms while leaving their personal belongings behind in full view of the rest of the world!  Laptops, cameras, wallets, cell phones and pocketbooks were left unattended for significant periods of time; when the owners returned, there were no audible sighs of relief.  That their possessions would be where they left them was to be expected!  Ronney pointed out that not one Taipei person “warned” us about unscrupulous cab drivers, because there weren’t any!  Each metered ride we took was close to or less than the predicted fare.  And one of the biggest “yuks” of the trip came when I asked our Amar how I was supposed to lock up the leased bike: “What?  Who’s going to steal a rental-bike?  This isn’t New York.”
Well, it apparently wasn’t Israel either, and I felt more than a few pangs of shame while thinking about the Israeli cab drivers who give a terrible name to others, the petty larceny, the litter and grime of our city, the lack of modesty and elegance in the way we sometimes treat visitors.  The Israeli reputation for “arrogance.”
I may not have mastered a lot of Chinese during my four-day visit to Taipei, but I did learn that Rabbi Hillel’s adage of giving to others the same respect, honor and consideration that one wants for himself is a superior way to share the things that make us truly special and worthy of sharing.

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