Two weeks ago I arrived in Asia for the first time. The plane followed the sunlight across the Pacific Ocean, but all the passengers kept their windows shut to maintain the illusion of nighttime. I sat between an Asian girl to my left (probably Taiwanese, but I think there were a mix of nationalities and I couldn’t distinguish them) and an American guy to my right. I talked to this guy for a while and he was very helpful. He’s an art teacher, about to start working in a city just North of Hong Kong. The flight was more than twelve hours long, so I managed to watch Goodfellas (I liked it), the new documentary Korangal (about an American platoon in Afghanistan fighting in the deadly Korangal Valley), 300: Rise of an Empire (far inferior to the original, but I will always hold a special place in my heart for gratuitous ancient Greek battle sequences), an episode of House (meh), most of an episode of Vikings (I liked the aesthetics, and of course the fight scenes, but the story wasn’t compelling enough to watch all the way through), and finished things off with the classic 10 Things I Hate About You.
We landed, and after making it successfully through customs, I found a sign with my name, held by a man named Jian, whose English was limited to “yes” and “no.” He drove me to the high speed railway, where I was to ride from Taipei to Taichung. I followed the instructions on my ticket (which, though in Chinese, had the familiar internationally-recognized Arabic numerals) and waited for the train. Dragging my big heavy suitcases with me, I got on the train and managed to keep my luggage out of peoples’ way. One of my suitcases was in the back of the car, and I couldn’t see it unless I turned around and tilted my head so I could see its shadow under the farthest seat. Two feelings were with me on that train as I made the hour-long trip halfway down the island: A) I’m the one foreigner on this train, and I don’t know how this works, how to dress, how to speak the language, etc. etc. and B) What if someone takes my suitcase?
It hadn’t hit me then how little it matters that I stand out as a foreigner. People here like Americans, and the fact that I might not understand something usually means only that someone might offer to help me (remember, I did say usually!) and try to mime their way through the mutual lack of linguistic capability. As for having something stolen, certainly it’s always wise to be cautious, but the danger of theft is lower (I said lower, not non-existent!).
At Taichung I was picked up by soon-to-be boss, who brought me to my hotel. The next morning was largely spent on apartment hunting. Already I had been transported from the airport to the hotel, had the hotel half paid-for, had apartment-seeking appointments made for me, and I even had a translator. Having someone to translate for me was vital, since in Taiwan, where schoolchildren are required to spend years learning English, almost no one speaks English. Technically I’d never sought an apartment before, so after each visit I tried to keep track of the important questions; rent, water, electricity, internet, waste disposal, management fees, distance from the school, windows, and so on. I also had to keep doing the math to convert the costs to US dollars, which is pretty simple; thirty nt$ (New Taiwanese Dollars) is equal to one USD.
Midway through the apartment search I was given my introduction to 7Eleven. In Taiwan there are more 7Elevens than there are streets. Other nearly-identical convenience stores include FamilyMart and Hi-Life. People buy all sorts of things there, from shampoo to boiled eggs to video games to whisk(e)y to sushi. I bought some cheap bread and as I ate it in the car, I realized it was the first thing I’d eaten since the chicken I had eaten on the airplane the day before. It was tasty. I ought to mention that these convenience stores all play a short jingle whenever the doors open, and as you might guess; the doors are always opening, which means that this same song is playing in all the convenience stores almost the entire time. In the Modernized World we have quick and memorable sounds that tell us where we are. In Paris it’s the metro signal. In Taiwan, it’s the 7Eleven door-opening jingle.
Later in the day I observed a kindergarten class at the school. After that, armed with a map that was in a Compass magazine, I walked around in post-sunset (the sun sets here pretty regularly at 6:30, and I’ve been told this doesn’t really change throughout the year) Taichung. According to my map, I was in “Little Europe,” but that didn’t really seem right. It was here however that I saw the first white person that I’d seen since getting on the train from Taipei. We both just kind of locked eyes as we walked past one another, silently and briefly acknowledging how out-of-place we both look, and how far from our native lands we both are. I kept walking while studying the map, and as I walked by, a girl handing out fliers for a tea shop told me (in decent English) that I should come back and try their drinks. I smiled and said I would, though now I couldn’t tell you where this place is, though maybe someday I’ll pass by there again. I ended up standing on a corner still looking at my magazine/map, when an American guy stopped and asked me if I needed help. Naturally I told him no, I’m just exploring. But when he said he was going to one of his favorite bars, I asked if he minded me following him. He said he didn’t mind, so I followed him into a kind of big alleyway, where he pointed at a place that apparently sells the best pizza in the city (pizza is rare here apparently) and soon thereafter we shook hands and parted ways. Walking back, another American who was sitting with about five other guys stopped me and asked me if I was a Mormon, because I was still wearing my dress clothes and tie. Before I could answer he said “Please tell me you’re not a Mormon.” Answering in the negative, I was invited to sit down and have a beer (Taiwan Beer is alright, though possibly the only thing in Taiwan which costs the same as (if not more than) it would in the US). This is how I met the (coolest members of the) Taichung expat crowd, and they’re interesting people to say the least. They each have their own story as to why they’re here, and there’s no definitive overarching subculture beyond being strange enough to be willing to live outside of the US (most, but certainly not all, were born in the US).
The next day I saw more apartments and walked around Taichung exploring different streets while trying to keep a sense of direction. I failed, and resorted to my map and any landmarks I could find to point me back in the right direction. Contributing, at least in my own mind, to my state of lost-ness was that the printed Taiwanese street names don’t match their actual names. Xianshang Road for example, isn’t pronounced how it appears to native English speakers. You just have to hear the correct pronunciation until you figure it out. It was on this walk that I got acquainted with the garbage trucks. In Taiwan, there are almost no public waste receptacles. You also cannot legally leave your garbage outside. Instead, the garbage trucks play a familiar tune (at a decibel level higher than my eardrums can comfortably tolerate) to let you know that they’re close. So essentially Taiwanese garbage trucks are the equivalent of ice cream trucks.
So I did more exploring and searching and meeting foreigners and on that Saturday I chose an apartment. It’s about a 17-18 minute walk from the school (that’s about 6 7Elevens….) and on the second floor. On the fifth floor is the purified water, which is absolutely necessary because in Taiwan you can’t drink tap water because the frequent earthquakes tend to damage the pipes. My room is on the second floor, which is two floors below the fifth floor. There is no fourth floor. In Chinese, four means death.
Later that night I had my first scooter ride. Neither I or the guy who was nice enough to give me a lift to the hotel were sure how to get there, so it took a while. It was a slightly frightening experience, especially because of the way the scooter tips down to make turns. But regardless, I made it home and into bed, leaving me a short window of time to sleep, and get my things packed to leave the next morning for Taipei.