In the afternoon she opens shop, chopping mangos, papayas, cantaloupe, honeydew melons, strawberries, along with various other esoteric Taiwanese fruits, and laying the chunks out on blocks of ice. In the hours before sunset, her customer base is comprised mainly of students from the nearby university. When the sun goes down, the fruit lady sells plastic bags filled with chopped fruit to people from all walks of Taipei life, from taxi drivers to well dressed executives, mid-level salary men to inebriated foreign students out on the town. She’s perpetually merry and bright, offering free samples to all takers and never batting an eye.
For years, I knew her only as the fruit lady, having never learned her proper name despite the fact that she’s long been among my favorite people in Taipei. Face to face I address her as Jie-jie, or older sister, which infuriates her as she's only a year older than me. But I’m not comfortable calling her Mei-mei, or younger sister; it sounds flirtatious, and she’s a married woman. Her stand occupies a prime chunk of corner real estate in the outdoor food market on the south end of Shita University.
Strangely enough, our first conversation ended in an argument. I don’t remember the details exactly, a misunderstanding probably, mistaken communication between a native and newly-studied student of Mandarin both having bad days. But her fruit was some of the best to be found in Taipei, and though I initially returned for the fruit, as my Mandarin improved, I found myself increasingly drawn into lengthy conversations with my fruit lady. At first our conversations mostly consisted of her questions and my answers. Queries about salary, over chunks of honeydew. What about my girlfriend, and did her parents know their daughter had a Westerner, over strawberries.
Perhaps it was because my Mandarin improved, or maybe it was because the relationship had just progressed, but before long my fruit lady was telling me things about herself. She was from down south, but came to Taipei with her identical twin sister to open up shops. Her twin had also opened up a fruit stand, in a night market across town. She had two daughters, and was concerned because they didn’t seem to enjoy studying English. She wanted to travel, but was too busy making money to think about anything but business. When the children were a bit older, she thought she and her husband might do some traveling, but that was a long way off yet. Eventually, she stopped taking money from me altogether, and any time I came by, she would give me a clear plastic bag stuffed full of assorted fruit chunks for which a regular customer might have paid 200 NT. She refused to take my money no matter what I said, and still does to this day.
The one topic my fruit lady had always been reticent to discuss with me was politics, usually a hot button topic among Taiwanese. Recently, I found myself chatting with her in the early evening hours following a massive rally held in response to Beijing’s anti-secession law. It had been the largest political rally in years, and I thought that with emotions still running high and the market unusually crowded with marchers filtering from the rally, I might be able to draw her out.
“Surely, you must have some feelings about which party has Taiwan’s best interest in mind,” I ventured. She just laughed.
“Nationalist party…New Party…Democratic Progressive Party,” she laughed, going down the list of prominent Taiwanese political factions. “I belong to the ‘Me Party.’ I’m the only member, and my platform is get on with my business.”
A group of bedraggled looking marchers passed by, all wearing green caps bearing the DPP logo. “Taiwan Independence,” one of them yelled, and my friend smiled and handed him a toothpick with a chunk of melon on the end. Though it didn’t happen, I believe that had a second group wearing caps with Kuomintang logos passed ten minutes later, shouting, “Long live one China!” my friend the fruit lady would have done the same, never batting an eye.