Crossing the Street
The seafood and noodle soup, my first meal in the country, looked revolting. I wondered if I had made a mistake coming to Taiwan. Officially it was the Festival of the Moon, but Taiwan was not the romantic new home I had envisioned. The filthy, crumbling buildings, unbiquitious garbage, and intense humidity made me rethink my decision to drop everything, move abroad, indefinitely, at age 22.
My lack of confidence caught me by surprise as I was not a first time traveler. After living in South Africa for nine months and backpacking through Europe, I considered myself an experienced traveler. However, I was totally unprepared for immersion in a non-English-speaking country. My heart began to beat faster when I flipped through the television channels in my hotel room only to discover they were almost all in Chinese. Street signs in Chinese only intimidated me and I was terrified of teaching.
Intellectually frustrated with working for nonprofits in Washington, D.C., led me to accept a teaching position in Changhua City. Ironically, if it had not been for a fateful encounter with a businessman who had lived in Taiwan, I would not have chosen Taiwan as my next home. When I imagined myself on the road, Asia never factored into the picture.
Taiwan is certainly no idealized exotic backpacker destination. Few foreigners go there to do anything but work. Despite being one of the world’s leading producers of computer parts with a highly educated population, Taiwan looks and feels more like a developing country. The abundance of street vendors, diseased stray dogs roaming the streets, noise and apathy does not correspond to a country with a vibrant economy.
The behavior of Taiwanese people is also reminiscent of a country that is far more isolated than Taiwan actually is. Taiwanese people are fun loving, warm and unpretentious. They are possibly the most generous people a traveler will encounter living abroad, almost to a fault. They seem incapable of separating decent foreigners from ones that will try to take advantage of a local’s kindness. My Taiwanese friend, Theresa, said, “We are very kind to foreigners. We save the ugliness for ourselves.”
But for all the challenges of life in Taiwan, I genuinely considered it my home. After various excursions in neighboring countries, I always felt happy to land in Chiang Kai Shek International Airport. Strangely, many Taiwanese people seem to hold their country in low esteem. For example, when I first arrived, my students actually asked, “Why did you even come to Taiwan? There’s nothing to see here.”
There is a dark side to life in Taiwan. I realized this one memorable night as I saw a woman being beaten up and the police unwilling to do anything about it because they considered her “cheap.” Or, when I watched the detergent commercial that trivializes the mistreatment of animals. Or, the corrupt English language schools that cheat their teachers.
Taiwanese culture is best illustrated by the words of my Taiwanese friend and fellow teacher. Paralyzed by the chaotic traffic whizzing around me, I was too afraid to even attempt to cross the street. Jenny said, “Take a chance, THIS is Taiwan! There are rules here but people like to forget them.” She then proceeded to walk out into traffic. I thought she was a lunatic but her carefree attitude was infectious.
I spent the next few months forgetting about the inhibitions that ruled my prior life. I began to see the potential I had for navigating a brand new culture, one vastly different geographically and socially from where I grew up. My time spent working there broke down many boundaries for me. I stopped placing limitations on myself. Three years ago, if someone had told me I would be living in a country with no sidewalks and sleeping on a mountain with the largest Buddha statue in the world, I would have thought they were mad.
It is no exaggeration that I had more fun in my seven months in Taiwan than in the past seven years in the States. I was glad I was able to gather the courage to cross the street.