On Location with Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender, whose story “Candidate” originally appeared in Volume 2, Issue 2 of Ecotone and is now featured in Astoria to Zion, sent us this fantastic photograph and accompanying description of the “ecotone” she and her family learned to navigate in the Tong Bie neighborhood of Taichung City.


At first, we didn’t know where to walk. We stepped into the neighborhood of Tong Bie, just north of Tunghai University in Taichung City, Taiwan, and saw this: the scooters, their guttural growl vibrating in my throat, the scooter drivers moving, carving their paths down the road, wherever they wanted, really, a huge public bus occasionally swerving through the crowds. Where were we supposed to walk? We watched the pedestrians, calmly carrying a plastic cup of tea or sweet potato fries or an egg pancake, walking.

There was something missing for us, the Americans: sidewalks. That border between the walkers and the movement in the road. The border that might help us from losing a foot, or whatever. How did anyone walk through this rush? How did anyone cross the street in this? The first time, I was afraid. “Careful! Careful! Watch your feet!” I crowed to our kids, who stared at the scooter drivers doing various hair-raising moves. “Now that was legal,” they murmured, as we felt the warm wind as one zipped beside us, or when a driver did a U-turn motivated by nothing but the desire to go the other way. It occurred to us—yes, it was legal. Maybe. Or sort of legal. Actually, it didn’t matter. The point was to just move. It took us twenty minutes to cross the street, taking a deep breath and waiting for a lull in the traffic. Then we ran for our lives.

But then we went up to Tong Bie again. And again. And we started to learn how to walk. We bought our containers of tea, our egg pancakes, and watched the way the students moved through the streets here. They moved with a sort of graceful patience, weaving around whatever scooters or buses rumbled down the street. They ate their snacks. They didn’t run across the street maniacally, like we did; they walked around the scooters, they stopped in the middle and waited for another pause. They understood that they could walk anywhere. And then we did, too.

Karen E. Bender is the author of two novels, Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms. Her story collection, Refund, is forthcoming in 2015. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Ploughshares, Zoetrope, Story, Narrative, Harvard Review, and the Iowa Review. She is the recipient of two Pushcart prizes, an NEA grant, and a Rona Jaffe Foundation grant. She’s lived in Los Angeles, New York, and Iowa City, but currently resides in Wilmington, NC, with her husband, Robert Anthony Siegel, and their two children.