A patchwork of lights shimmered along the night sky’s horizon. I looked out over the wing of the China Airlines 747 down at the Taiwan’s approaching radiance. I was excited, and I tried to discern signs of what lay ahead of me. I had twenty minutes left on my one-way ticket to Taiwan and $2000 dollars in my pocket. Surely the mystical East would deliver the excitement I felt lacking in my American life. With a couple of entry level jobs, a dozen or so short stories, one brief novel and a lot of food service experience behind me, I didn’t feel like I was risking very much by launching this journey; but you couldn’t tell the women in my family that. Somehow my mother, sister and aunt saw it as a foolish gamble, another in a series of dodges away from the inevitable: the normalcy of responsibility and the consistency of a career.
Maybe they were right, but some of us have to travel; we need to remain in motion, drawing on the energy of other cultures and other lives to help expand our own. I didn’t really know any of this yet. I was 26 years old and I was on the run from boredom.
As I looked out the window of the 747 that evening, notions of ancient temples framed by flying buttresses and protected by statues of gilded lions were still safely intact. I was hoping for a seamless incorporation of past and present. A Paris of the East.
After landing, the girls at the tourist desk in the main terminal of the airport were friendly and helpful. They booked me a room in downtown Taipei and sent me on my way, pointing out the place to buy my bus ticket into the city.
The next day I took a two-hour bus ride south to the city of Taichung. Someone on the bus who had a smattering of English told me we were riding on a “wild chicken bus.” This came as a surprise to me since the inside of the bus was plush–the seats were comfortable and a number of televisions were positioned for easy viewing and the air was well-chilled. In short, this was the nicest bus ride I had ever taken.
It turns out that the name does not refer to the quality of the ride, instead a “wild chicken” company is an illegal, unlicensed operation. Since the government owned bus line, which is less comfortable, is the only one permitted, all others are “wild chickens” by default. But they are necessary. The government buses are usually full and the system is near capacity.
I was soon to learn that there are many degrees of illegal in Taiwan. In fact much of the economy operates outside the strict parameters set by the government. Restaurants, dance clubs, bars, KTV’s–private room rental services where people go to sing karoake– and cable TV stations among others all operate outside the law.
This atmosphere does not so much give the feeling of pervasive criminality; instead the effect is of an unfettered capitalism. The best and worst characteristics of this ambitious, hard-working population is allowed to run riot and the collisions are both metaphorical and real, creating bursts of progress that are also often accompanied by pain. A general disregard for traffic laws such as speed limits and red lights is a product of this frame of mind, and the resulting collisions are very real. During my stay in Taiwan I saw a number of gruesome accidents and I very nearly had a few myself. I soon learned to drive aggressively to protect myself from being run off the road, while never taking a green light as a signal of free passage. Especially at night I gave every intersection a good look, regardless the color of the light.
A friend of a friend was living in Taiwan, and he was the one who had suggested I bypass the large, congested city of Taipei for Taichung–a city whose name simply means central Taiwan. Taipei on the other hand means Northern Taiwan. Taichung is still a city of one million, but the pace of life is slower and more parochial than its international cousin to the north. You can still drive around the streets of Taichung for hours without seeing a foreigner. He was also kind enough to pick me up when I arrived.
When Joe showed up he was quite a site–he was unlike anyone I had ever met. He pulled up in a rusty, old Japanese car. He introduced himself, explaining proudly that I could call him Yellow Joe, a moniker he had picked for himself. In China yellow is the color for pornography, much like we use the color red in The West. He was quite skinny, had a swath of course, dark facial hair that didn’t quite qualify as a beard, and when he walked his long arms and legs moved in a manner that suggested he was paddling through the air.
He told me to hop in the back because the passenger seat door was broken. He was wiping perspiration from his face as we got in the car. He explained that he was allergic to the heat so he had to take unusual steps to remain cool. With that he picked up a plastic bottle with a nozzle from the seat and started spraying a mist of water on his face and chest. He gunned the car out into the sea of traffic and proceeded to explain his connections to the CIA in a very uncovert way–all the while spraying his face with water and yelling what I would later learn were Chinese swear words out the window at other drivers. As a matter of fact they may be following me right now, he added without really clarifying who “they” were. Over the next few months I would find out that Joe was a nice guy. He set me up in the house where he was renting a room and showed me around the city. He was an interesting character who loved to tell stories that he gave every appearance of believing no matter how fantastical. And he was a paradox: He was one of the guys who had gone “native;” he was a cast-off from The States and he would very likely never make his home there again; when I arrived he had lived in Taiwan five years but knew only a couple Chinese words other than the hundreds of swear words that he regularly delivered with relish.
Joe introduced me to the city and showed me where to get a cheap bowl of noodles. He also brought me to the local expat pub called The Frog which was really an open air teahouse that served San Miguel beer and played loud Western Music. This is where newcomers make their debuts. After a few nights at the pub you are categorized and filed. The easiest classifications are American-Canadian, Commonwealth and former Commonwealth, or Continental. Certainly some people are crossovers but that is a starting point. One significant sub-grouping which welcomes all comers is the drunks club, especially prominent at the pub not surprisingly. Musicians form another group, but nothing says they can’t belong to the drunks club. English teachers comprise yet another significant sub-set, and the pub fills up quickly every evening around ten after night classes end for a few hours of shop talk. Other groups include the engineers, the shoe company execs and some of the guys who have gone native who do not let that stop them from making appearances at local watering holes.
Taichung’s expat community is small enough that most of the long-term residents–by that I mean a year and over–have at least a passing familiarity with each other. The one group that moves in and out fast are the travelers, who find Taiwan a convenient spot for refueling the wallet with cash. Taiwan has an insatiable demand for English teachers. Office buildings throughout the island are filled with countless bushibans. Every weekday streams of chattering uniformed high school kids leave their campuses and head for these nighttime language schools, only stopping quickly at push-cart vendors and small noodle shops for a snack to get them through the evening.
A quick glance at the help-wanted section of The China Post or The China News–the island’s two English language newspapers–sets a prospective teacher up with a number of phone numbers to get a job. There are three types of jobs available: tutoring a private student, which is a difficult to line up but quite lucrative; working in the kindergartens, a job that calls for singing songs and playing games with little kids; and the bushibans, which provide evening lessons for teenagers and are also known as cram schools.
I opted for the bushiban. I thought that would be the least painful. I figured I’d get in there, give a short lesson, go through some verbal exercises from the lesson book, and then give them some written exercises. Sounds reasonable, but my first few months of classes were stunning failures. One of the first Chinese words I learned was the word for boring, and that’s what they thought about my classes. It turns out that’s not what they want at all. They don’t really want instruction. They get plenty of that in school where English is a mandatory subject. Taught by Chinese teachers, instruction is often impractical and incorrect, but it provides a base of vocabulary and grammar. What they want foremost is entertainment. Most of them are there because their parents make them go. They want someone to get up there and clown around and be friends with them. If they pick-up some English and get the opportunity for some conversational practice, so much the better.
Gradually, I learned how to keep things moving and most classes turned out to be pretty fun. Playing little games about life proved to be an interesting window on Chinese culture. My students could spend a whole class explaining in fractured English how blood type affected a person’s psychology–and it forced them to use adjectives. I learned they believed that people with type A blood were supposed to be aggressive go-getters while type B individuals were quiet and reserved. Another game we played left me confused for a couple years until someone finally straightened me out. I would start the class out by making everyone make a list of attributes they would like a future mate to possess. We would then compare and discuss the boys’ and the girls’ attitudes. One word that continually popped up on the girls lists was “obedience.” I was somewhat taken aback, but the boys would nod, yes the girls were right to expect obedience. So much for the reputation of the demure Asian woman. Somehow this word which came up so often and was readily accepted by all as a good thing that it was never put in context. This was probably my fault. The enthusiastic approval of all cowed me into accepting this concept without probing.
My girlfriend was Chinese, and she wanted her way just as often as an American woman might, but I did not sense an outright demand for obedience. It wasn’t until much later, after a couple of years musing about the iron rule of law that the Chinese wife must wield that I found out obedience referred, instead, to a son’s deference to his parents. Now it all fell into place; this was part of one of the most important pillars of Chinese society: respect for elders. The eldest son in most cases is expected to work in the family business regardless of his interests. He is expected to preserve the wealth, well-being and continuity of the family and obedience to these values is of supreme importance. The girls were endorsing closely woven roles that give the fabric of Chinese society its strength.
Life in another culture is filled with these little epiphanies if you keep your eyes open and remain curious. These little nuggets also give impetus to reflect on how our culture handles similar issues. Sometimes you shake your head in disbelief: How can a wealthy country like Taiwan maintain a hands-off policy in the face of gross polluters who are ruining the island’s natural resources at a furious pace; but then other times you notice there isn’t really any need for nursing homes in Chinese culture, and you say yes that’s good, children should take care of their parents in their old age–we can learn from this.
The months slipped by at a rapid clip, and soon the wild scooter rides, dry cement river beds that funneled filthy water to the ocean during the rainy season, the collage of frying garlic and seafood in the night markets, the ceremony of formal Chinese dinners, the din of traffic and music blasting out of every open storefront, the expatriate bars–all the experiences that made my adventure; at some point became my life instead…
I got a job at a Taiwanese company that bought advertising space in American and European manufacturing magazines for local producers of heavy machinery. Acquaintances became friends and I started studying Chinese. I left The States in search of some mystical Somerset Maughm voyage; but now, living on the other side of the planet, living amidst a society that can be brutally practical, and where almost everyone is concentrating on working hard to make money, I acquired more mundane purpose: growing up….
Some people may find the Chinese fixation on wealth shallow. But these pecuniary pursuits must be placed in the context of Chinese history. The lives lived in The Middle Kingdom over the last 3000 years cover epic breadth. The panoply of experiences has been passed through the generations. Floods and famines have visited unimaginable misery over the millennia–the penchant for wrap-up every little left-over from a restaurant or wedding banquet table and the way every part of an amazing variety of animals is eaten stem from these repeated disasters–but at the same time literature and art played a central role in Chinese culture during many dynasties and well known advances in mathematics and the sciences were achieved while the Europeans were singing “Ring around the Posies.” Living for an extended period among the Chinese exposes one to the sheer weight of this history which is metaphorically represented by the crushing number of people and noise that make up a Chinese city. You cannot ignore the proximity of so many people: they jostle and breath on you in the markets and nearly run you over in the streets. And like these people, the sum total of their ancient experience surrounds you, oozing in through your pores and demanding a response. Some people have an allergic response and every street corner, every interaction pours new fuel on their burning misery, but many others, like myself, embrace the new alchemy, and they become a little–or a lot–Chinese.