When we first got here in 2004, my friend Cole and I thought we would die from scurvy because on the whole Chinese people think eating raw vegetables is dirty or boring and back in 2004 they were only eating iceberg-lettuce salads with “salad cream” and sprinkles on top so who could blame them? Now loads of places have salads on the menu or even offer a salad bar as part of the meal, but you still don’t know if it’s gonna come standard with “Thousand Island” dressing made of ketchup and the kind of mayonnaise that doesn’t need to be refrigerated or if they splurged on unwilted romaine.
I think MU Cafe over by the motor-vehicle registration building has awesome salads, but don’t let them try to tell you that the large one is too big for one person because it is not. I’ve had the mushroom salad as an entree, and I think the salmon salad, too, and they are both respectable. They also have salads with fruit in them but ew.
The best salad in Zhongli might be at Wild Boar, which conveniently also has the best pizza in Zhongli. The only reason we don’t go here every time we eat out is that we don’t like any of our favorites dishes to think we like them less than others so we have to rotate. But Wild Boar dude tosses his salads with big biceps balsamic vinaigrette, and he also gives some like Ranch-style dip for the “papadam” (dude it’s cheesy bread) that makes everything taste better.
Sometimes I get salads from David’s Diner on the way to work but…ugh I usually love eating there but I don’t think his salads are that great for the price, but don’t tell him that! I will definitely still go there and I will eat the Mexican pizza like groceries. And I will probably still stop by and get a chicken Caesar salad now and then anyways because this is Zhongli and my options are limited.
Anyway no one has posted a picture of their David-Diner salad on Instagram so what does that tell you? That you should order his beer-ritas instead.
There are also some small salads available at Family Mart and PX Marts all over town but generally they are still doing that sad mix of iceberg lettuce, purple cabbage shreds gone a bit soft, dehydrated carrot shreds, and canned corn and also they are about the size of one bite of regular salad. If you are actually thinking salad cause you want to make a healthy choice, just get an apple because these ones are just vehicles for dressing, and as far as vehicles go, they are like 1990-whatever tan Toyota Tercels. Just not worth it…
I would like to point out that most of the grocery stores here now have Romaine for about NT$100 a pack, some local and some imported. And if you haven’t tried this Japanese sesame dressing yet you are not on our level:
Also for the record fucking Harvest Time has salads, too, but they are literally the equivalent of emptying your sandwich into a plastic clamshell and since the worst thing about Harvest Time is that fucking smug sign about the “perfect ratio of ingredients” and not the bread, I don’t really get the point. And there is nothing perfect about a 6-inch sandwich with two fucking slices of jalapeno and two fucking slices of black olive, dickheads.
Red temples ornate with aggressively colorful dragons, phoenixes, and other members of Chinese pantheon are as ubiquitous in Taiwan as convenience stores, but Quan Hua Temple on Lion’s Head Mountain in Miaoli County still manages to awe. It’s not just that it’s one of the biggest temples I’ve ever seen. The way that it’s nestled against the mountain’s dense green growth, a sacred human space in a natural sanctuary, makes for a breathtaking impression. The temple is not competing for attention against neon signs or tall buildings. The red roof and the rainbow parade of mythical creatures and gods dominates your visual field as well as your imagination.
There’s a hotel here, a place for hikers to rest before or after a long day of hiking the local trails. It’s my favorite space, one of my favorite places in the world. The rooms are simple and comfortable, with ceramic-tiled floors, wood-paneled walls, and a balcony looking out over the forest. If you ignore the parking lot to the left, or focus on the mountains looming in shades of gray beyond it, the view is spectacular. It’s just the view to distract and inspire a writer.
I stayed at the temple hotel for the first time in 2009, during the long Dragon Boat Festival weekend in June. I spent four days reading, writing, and hiking the way I imagined a real writer would. The isolation made for quiet and early nights, and early mornings. I took it as an affirmation of my calling that I enjoyed myself so completely with only books and notebooks for company.
I finally made it back over the 2017 Tomb-Sweeping Day weekend. It’s only two hours away by scooter from where I live in Taoyuan City, via the Provincial Highway Number 1 or the Number 3. The drive itself was therapeutic, particularly the part where I missed a turn and the GPS directed me along windy country roads past the Yongheshan Reservoir and up and down the nearby mountains. There’s nothing like swooping through the forest on these roads on a scooter, your whole mind trained on taking the curves. I wish getting in the zone came that automatically to me any other time.
When I checked in this time, the manager showed me to a room that had a double bed, but was against the back wall of the hotel, the side that literally faces the foundation of the temple itself. (Because all of this is built into the side of a mountain, the top floor of the hotel extends below the first floor of the temple.) I asked to switch to a room with the beautiful view that I remembered, but was told they were all booked. It was too late to do anything about it then, so I resolved to make the best of it. A real writer doesn’t need a view!
I fell asleep early—there are no restaurants or bars here, nothing to distract you from feeling tired. But I was awakened—everybody for a mile was awakened—at five a.m. by a ten-minute long round of bell ringing. I concentrated on taking deep breaths and listening to how the reverberations of the bell differed slightly after each clang, but in other little crevices of my brain, I was wondering why we humans can’t just appreciate the sounds of birds in the morning, or the wind in the trees. After a few minutes, I felt like I was seeing sound waves. When the bell ringing stopped, my blood pressure finally dropped. Then the drums started up. By now, of course, everyone in the hotel was awake, so the hallways were alive with the sounds of stomping and screeching didis and meimeis, and parents trying to get them ready for a day of hiking or travelling after what could not have felt like enough sleep.
I couldn’t get back to sleep. At seven, the hills were alive with the sounds of angry car horns and the frantic whistles of someone trying very hard to herd traffic. I definitely picked the wrong weekend to reject civilization and look for solitude in the mountains. Children raced back and forth over a metal grate above my window, bridging the gap between the wall of the hotel and the foundation of the temple. There I was, fuming like a bridge troll.
I tried to write when I got out of bed at 9 a.m., but I was using all my energy telling myself that I should be able to concentrate anywhere. Finally, I just found the manager and asked her if I couldn’t change rooms for the next two nights. It was no problem. I got my view and a balcony. However, the new room had two twin beds instead of a double, and no bathtub–but I am willing to make sacrifices for my art.
I switched rooms just in time to hear the chanting start at the pagoda across the way. The sound traveled through the hotel, the temple and the trails throughout the mountains. It went on for about two hours while I tried to write, tried to convince myself there must be some spiritual benefit in it. The benefit only came when it stopped and I felt incredibly relieved.
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Then it was time for lunch and hunger compelled me to face other humans. Goals aside, we were all united in trying to get that free lunch. I came out a winner: Unlike all the families, I had no trouble finding a place to sit at a thin table up smooshed against the wall. It was ideal for eating but not having to hazard any questions about why my husband wasn’t with me. The meal was surprisingly tasty. Of course, it was all vegetarian, which is fine by me, but if you struggle to enjoy seaweed, fried gluten, or meat-shaped chunks of vegetarian edibles, you might want to stick with the instant noodles and cereals available at the little shop on the temple grounds.
After lunch, more chanting. On a loop, I told myself it was good for me, wished it would stop soon, and berated myself for coming on a religious holiday weekend. But by the time it stopped at four o’clock, I had finished a first draft of one story. I spent the rest of the day reading and watching the parking lot clear out, drivers honking and car alarms sounding off until sunset.
As I was getting into bed around nine o’clock, I resolved to get myself upstairs when I heard the bell tolling to see if I could get any photos of the sunrise. Instead I woke up at 5:30 to the pleasant sound of chirping birds. Without the bell, getting out of bed seemed less urgent. I didn’t get upstairs until 6:15 and then I headed off to stretch my legs along the Lion’s Head Mountain Historic Trail. Before I got very far, an elderly monk wiping down a giant urn stopped me to find out where I was from. I must have been just the audience he was waiting for, because he launched into a long, fluid speech about all the foreign friends from different countries who come to visit little Taiwan, which is in fact a very wonderful place, and it’s very important for everyone in the whole world to get along. I only understood about half of what he was saying, but as long as I stood there smiling and nodding, the old monk kept talking. So I smiled and nodded and reflected on what kind of stereotype it was, talking to a monk in a temple on a mountain in Taiwan, the kind of experience that friends back home might imagine is available to me all the time. Then the monk’s phone rang very loudly, breaking the mythical spell. He pulled a slick red flip phone out of the pocket of his orange robe and I escaped up the trail.
There are loads of temples within walking distance from Quan Hua, and loads of mountain trails in this area, but I’m not an adventurer on my own. I worry too much about getting lost, getting bitten by snakes or dogs, getting assaulted, or some horrible combination of the three. So I stuck to the trails and the roads, and had a lovely walk through the still-quiet forest. I even saw four incredible Formosan blue magpies and a large hawk, none of whom would cooperate for a photo. When I got back to my room, it was just past eight o’clock. I had my coffee and a shower, and went over the draft of my story from the day before. The bells rang, briefly, and farther away, and I could hear the cars navigating the three-story parking lot, but overall, the second full day was much quieter. There was still a lot of chanting at lengthy intervals, but it stopped again after lunch and I took a nap with the door open and the room full of fresh air. The rest of the day I spent reading and writing, more motivated knowing I would leave the next day.
Even with the curtains open, I didn’t wake up until 6:30 the next morning. It was blissfully quiet outside except for bird songs. The light came in soft and quiet through the beveled glass. Taking another walk would have been healthy, but I had to check out at 11 and didn’t want to give up the last few hours of writing time. Of course, the writing was going very well, and I wanted to stay another day, but it only comes so easily when there’s a deadline coming at you with a gun to your head.
I confirmed with the woman at the front desk that it’s much quieter when it’s not a holiday weekend. I’ll come back again when everyone else is too busy, and I’ll leave my phone at home. The only thing to distract me will be the view of the trees that extend the mountains and the mountains that extend to the sky, as far as you can imagine.
Tips: If you plan on spending a chunk of time in your room, don’t bother coming unless you get one of the rooms with the balconies. The rooms on the other side of the hotel are fine and clean, but about as cheery as prison cells—not exactly an environment conducive to creativity.
If you don’t plan on eating the free vegetarian meal (served at 6:30 a.m., 12:00p.m., and 5:30 p.m.) and you don’t want to lose writing time driving around, bring your own (non-perishable) snacks and drinks. There is a small shop on the temple grounds, but the selection is very limited.
The cost of a room is NT$1000 for 1-2 people. Ask about charges for additional guests.
There is an air conditioner and a TV in each room, but you won’t need the TV because you’ll be writing.
There is a desk-like vanity in each room, with a stool, and also 1-2 beds, a nightstand, a small coffee table, and two wooden chairs. I pulled one of the chairs in front of the vanity to write, and when I got tired of sitting, I put the coffee table on the bed and wrote standing up. There is plenty of room for pacing and the balcony is an excellent place to stand and stare at the skyline.
When February second became February third, I was at River with an old friend drinking vodka tonics. We met in 2004, a couple of wild English teachers getting into boy trouble. Now we’re both married, and she has a six-year-old daughter. Her daughter is one of the coolest little people I’ve ever met, but nobody gets wilder after they have a kid.
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She claims that she lost her groove somewhere along the line, but she found it that night. “Usually I feel drunk after one or two drinks anymore, but tonight I feel great!”
“Go back towards the light!” I wanted to say. “Don’t follow me down this dark path!” But it’s always best to let friends do what they want. Don’t stop them from jumping; just tell them you’ll be there if they fall.
I’ve caught up with enough old friends now that the initial conversations have become familiar, like so many others scripts in our relationships. Remember when we used to be wilder than we are now? Remember when we never had hangovers? Remember when nothing ever hurt? When we hadn’t gained any weight? When nothing had consequences? It’s like the years want to chain you down as much as anything else. Even out here, doing our damnedest to opt out, we still feel the drag of time.
I didn’t get to sleep until 4:30 in the morning, but I didn’t have to work until 1:00, so that was fine. It wasn’t great: I didn’t read or write, I didn’t play the guitar or practice with the hula hoop. I passed out and got up with an alarm at 11:00 a.m. But I made it to work on time, with lunch, coffee, a liter of water, and loads of little snacks. Sometimes you can’t expect much more from me.
A third-grader wanted me to tell her what she had got stuck in her hair, and help her get it out. It was most definitely a booger, and it had gone all hard. Nope. Wordlessly, I handed her a tissue, and when she said she couldn’t get it out herself, I asked my pet to help her. “It’s not a booger!” I heard her say, but I pretended not to. My pet followed suit and returned to her chair, unmoved.
I take the trash out every Friday after work when the garbage truck comes round at 6:10. The new elderly neighbor woman from the third-floor accosted me: Where were we when she came to knock on our door during the vacation? She came twice! (One of those times I was home, but I had thought she was knocking on the neighbor’s door, though even when I realized she was looking for me, I remained quiet until she went away.) This is the stuff of nightmares, old ladies trying to enter my sanctuary without warning, without invitation. Worse yet, she asked us to dinner, specifically on Saturday, February 18. Now we have to move.
Only about half my friends understand why we can’t live here anymore. The other half are friendly, generous, and tolerant, which is why they have a friend like me when they could do so much better.
After work I went to dinner with old friends and new. They didn’t mix so well–was it because some of us hadn’t seen each other for so long and meeting new friends and catching up with old ones was too much for one meal? Was it because a gaggle of Western women was too much for a Western guys who are used to not having to fight for the floor? Was it too much for people facing big life transitions to chat about recent vacations and the pleasures of a drunk weekend?
Friends come in flavors and even if you like them all, they don’t always meld well together. Roasted garlic ice cream might be a lovely surprise, but chocolate-covered pickles are not.
I lost everyone I’d started off with along the way, but I made it to the bar eventually and immediately made new friends. One was stumbling into a taxi, but invited us to any and all future barbecues he had, and for drinks the next night. We exchanged Line IDs, and then on Sunday exchanged pictures of our dinner. He grilled pork belly; J made a tray of seaweed chicken wings.
My friends and I spent the night smoking, drinking, and racing each other to the bar to pay for drinks. We were 23, 24 years old again, and we didn’t have husbands or kids, or even shitty boyfriends or Saturday classes. I told the bartender “I need four drinks” and she said, “A vodka soda, rum and coke, gin and tonic, and a Taiwan draft.” I was so impressed. You can’t just tell somebody how to be a good bartender. Some people are just smart and personable and attentive. I would be a terrible bartender.
Around 3 o’clock, we started racing across the crosswalk. You’re only allowed to touch the white stripes. I don’t remember who won, only that drunk and on a street in the dark, I felt like a kid on the playground in the spring sun.
Despite being such excellent customers, they kicked us out at 4 a.m. My friend inexplicably had a bottle of red wine in her purse, so we popped the cork and took it to the park. Her husband passed out in the grass and we listened to music on YouTube with a Canadian friend and his brother. The brother had a smile so sweet I would have liked to bottle it up and spray it on myself like perfume. When the sun came up and revealed a circle of early-morning walkers and dogs spinning around us, the guys and I watched my friend kick her husband awake on the grass. We didn’t think it would work, so when he stood up it was like seeing Lazarus come back to life. The brothers and I went to the breakfast shop. I realized I was crashing the last few hours my buddy had with his brother before the latter returned to Canada, so I took my leave and stumbled home in the soft, enthusiastic early-morning light, still listening to Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself on my phone, no headphones.
It’s still the good old days, maybe even a little better.
Read 110 books I read 100 books last year, so I don’t think this will be impossible. If you sign up for the Goodreads challenge, you get a handy little meter that tracks your progress and tells you when you’re ahead of or behind your goal. If you’re trying to read at least two books a week, this is invaluable. Also: short books are books, too!
Complete the Yale lecture series on The Novel: 1945-Now (read all the books and listen to all the lectures) I followed the Yale lecture series on Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner last year and it was really enriching. Definitely put me on track in terms of trying to read the “American canon”, whatever that might be. I mean, whatever it is, The Great Gatsby, something by Hemingway, and something by Faulkner are on it. I have high expectations for this series and the books I’ll be reading.
Complete the list of 100 things to do in Zhongli and all blog posts Why? I don’t know. It’s fun for me, gets me engaged with what’s going on outside, and gives me something to say when partypoopers say Zhongli is boring. It’s not Tainan or Hualien or Taipei, but we have a good time.
Plank for two minute every day (even if it’s not continuous) Um I am already failing this. It’s not too late to get back on track, though. Just I’ve been having these lower back pains…
Stick with yoga 2-3x a week; if class with Neil ends, enroll in a yoga gym
My buddy has been showing me some of the ashtanga yoga moves and we’ve been meeting up to go through Leslie Fightmaster’s 50-minute ashtanga yoga video three days a week. I am worried that taking Chinese class might make it easy for me to find excuses not to go, but so far, so good. It feels great and I know it’s good for me in terms of mindfulness, too. (That back pain tho…)
Keep hula hooping, even if it’s just five minutes a day
I wish I had some people to hula hoop with because having someone show me what they know would be so helpful, but until then me and my exercise hoop can spin around the living room in between classes. I’m not really committed to the every day thing, but I learned a lot last year just by hooping every couple of weeks, so I want it stay on the menu.
*Pay off all our student-loan debt
This would be so great, but unless we make it absolutely our number one priority, I don’t think it’s possible. I don’t want to teach more than I have to, but I want to the go to the U.S. to see my family this year. Also I want to take Chinese classes at the university, J has some trips in mind, and my scooter is possibly dead now, so I think the realistic thing is just to keep on paying and saving what we can.
Resume studying Chinese with a tutor or at the uni or a language exchange partner
So right before the end of 2016, like literally the last Friday of 2016, I enrolled in a Chinese class. So I have eight hours of Chinese every week now, and I am considering upping it to 12 or 15 hours a week next semester. I know that I always get excited at the beginning of new projects, but I am especially excited this time, and as long as the enthusiasm’s there, why not ride the wave? Also, tutoring is way boring in comparison, and I kinda sorta don’t love language exchanges as they usually end up being either free language lessons or you spend like two hours a week chilling with someone who isn’t actually your chosen friend when you don’t even have enough time for your real friends.
Get back on the Wahls Protocol diet-HFLC, organ meats, no dairy, limited alcohol, lots of fruits+veggies
So that probably isn’t exactly how Dr. Wahl would have described her diet, but that version of it was working really well for me and J in the beginning of this year. We both lost weight and every day it was like a competition of who felt better and had more energy. We rode that wagon until June, when we went to Thailand and Cambodia and decided nothing was off limits. Now we’re back to chasing that wagon as it rolls down the road. But now that holidays are over, we have no more excuses for making or eating hash brown casserole, and I feel like there’s a better chance we can stick to it.
Play the receipt lottery
So in Taiwan in order to encourage businesses to actually provide receipts (and thus keep their books in order and pay their taxes), the government came up with a plan to provide lottery numbers on every receipt. So every time you buy something, you get a lottery ticket. J and I have never really participated, but it seems like you can win a little bit of money quite often, and who are to throw money away? The Rockefellers? Maybe some of that can go towards our student loan payments or helping someone in need…
Give charitably every month We haven’t figured out like life insurance or our retirement funds yet, but we have more than most people on this planet. I wish we were better stewards of it, to give ourselves a more secure base from which to help others…anyway, start small. Maybe sponsor a grandmother in Cambodia? Donate money to build toilets in India? You really gotta do your homework, too.
Re: writing = measure activity, not results
Yeah I am getting sick of myself talking about writing, too, except that I do write a lot, whether it’s this blog, short stories, memoir, or in my diary. I beat myself up regularly for not finishing more things, for not submitting anything, for never really being published, but all I need to do is write, and anything that gets in the way of that, including self-flagellation, has to go.
Write for myself every day For me, this kind of means journaling, but also not wondering what anyone else thinks about what I am writing. I mean, blogging, obviously, somebody might be reading it, and I’d like reading it to be a good experience, otherwise I am an asshole/sadist, but anything else, man, worrying about what people think before I’ve even started writing is creative suicide.
Make writing a priority: first thing every morning
Okay, so, no, ten days into January, still not good at this. I am still figuring out how to make time for Chinese class and Chinese homework, so I am not going to beat myself up. However! I know that I am quick to discover things that will distract me from all the complicated feelings I have about writing/not-writing or will substitute for the sense of accomplishment I get from writing, so no excuses: writing has to come before anything else.
Say yes more often!
If it’s not obvious to you, I am generally anxious and always worried about the consequences of my actions, which makes for a very boring day/year/life when you look back on it. I hemmed and hawed about taking Chinese classes for like a year, but so far, I am so glad I just made the impulsive decision to sign up. What else has this year got in store for me?
My scooter won’t start, so it’s in the shop. That meant J and I had to do some maneuvering on Friday so he could teach his high school classes and I could go to my Chinese class. I ended up with his scooter. After class, when I had to dash across town to hand it off to him so I could get to my next class in under an hour, I couldn’t get the seat/trunk to open.
I fought and fought with the key, tried pushing and pulling, twisting both ways, turned the key around and tried that, and nothing was working. Called J, but he got all stressed out, so I assured him I’d figure it out and be on my way asap. I knew in that busy neighborhood I could find somebody to help me if I asked, and even if I just stood there and looked sad, somebody would eventually stop and give me a hand.
Because Taiwanese people are maybe the kindest people in the world.
Eventually, a middle-aged dude on a scooter pulled up and asked me if I was trying to leave my parking spot. I told him I would, if he could help me get the trunk open. He tried for all of thirty seconds before deciding he couldn’t do it, but he tapped in an adorable college boy before he left. That guy probably wished he hadn’t been standing there across the street at just that moment, but he dropped whatever he was doing and spend a good fifteen minutes working up a sweat trying to get that trunk open. I tried telling him I would just call a cab, tried telling him I would just get another helmet and drive the scooter back to my husband for his magic touch, but that guy wasn’t having any of it. He fought with that key until it finally gave in. And then I didn’t know what to do. This stranger had just worked up a sweat for me, refused to give up the challenge until he was successful, and had really helped me out. I thought about giving him money, but really, Taiwanese people are quite proud when it comes to money and I would have hated to embarrass him right after he was so helpful. (Seriously, some people here can get offended if you give them a tip, like you think they need charity.) But I didn’t even get his name and I had no idea what was appropriate besides chanting “thank you, thank you” until it was awkward.
And like a month ago, my scooter wouldn’t start in front of a breakfast shop. I knew the owner was noticing, so I tried to push it down the street a little and fight with it. But the breakfast shop guy came out, and the woman who was there, and then two people from the flower shop next door, and eventually four total strangers were discussing what I should do and also taking turns trying to kickstart my scooter. Eventually it started, and I said thank you, and they waved me off like superheros who had to get back to work.
That reminds me of another time a Taiwanese friend offered to drive her boyfriend, me, and J to a campsite where we’d meet up with a bunch of other friends. But on the way, her transmission died. Two Taiwanese friends on a scooter caught up to us, and refused to leave us even as we waited for the two truck and then got towed to the mechanic. All in all, it was like four hours until we even got home. J kept saying that he and I should take a cab to the campsite and figure out how to get home in the morning, which made sense to me, but if those other women who weren’t even in the car were insisting on being there with us, I didn’t see how we could leave without being assholes.
I didn’t see how six of us needed to hang out together waiting for the tow truck, but I also didn’t see how we could leave.
To me, that’s so Taiwanese. You rise to the occasion, you support your friends and family, and if somebody reaches out for help, you roll up your sleeves and get in there…
…until they get on a scooter or behind the wheel of a car. Then Taiwanese people become finely-honed murder bots, or recklessly oblivious to everyone else on the road.
And that’s where I am at right now, trying to reconcile how incredibly kind people here are with how incredibly dangerous it is to drive here.
I see accidents or the immediate aftermath almost every day here, and I only drive five days a week and never for more than twenty minutes or so.
Anything goes: double parking, random U-turns, rights and lefts on red, driving on the sidewalk (when there is anything like a sidewalk), running red lights. Cutting people off is as normal as farting.
I have literally had to link arms with school staff to make a barrier to protect children on a crosswalk because even though there was a crosswalk full of children, drivers were trying to edge their scooters and cars around the teachers instead of waiting one minute for the kids to get safely across.
Why is the driving culture so different from the culture of kindness and generosity that you see when you’re walking, when you’re stranded? It would be a silly question, except that driving makes me so angry and anxious that I avoid it, which means I sometimes avoid leaving my house so I don’t have to deal with crazy drivers. It’s a thing.
So if a driver here knocked me over, would they stop to make sure I was okay and stick with me til I was back on my feet? I definitely don’t want to find out, but who knows.
Am now enrolled and attending Chinese classes at CYCU here in Zhongli, and it’s awesome and I am having a great time. I was so glad that I was able to get into a class studying nearly the same chapter of the same book I was using when I stopped working with my tutor like…a year ago? Almost two years? I can’t quite remember….
Anyway! Before I joined the class, I had to meet with the head of the Mandarin Learning Center, and she had to assess me. We were grooving, no English necessary, sorting out the details. She asked me to read from the textbook, and I did, and I sounded like a semi-literate adult, which I am in Chinese, but it was all good. Definitely gonna get into the class. Then she drops this on me:
And I have no idea what she said, so I asked her to repeat the question, and she did, and I still didn’t catch it. And then she’s like, “妳幾歲? How old are you?” and I realize now this woman has to decide whether to admit me to this class of people who can speak Chinese and I can’t understand her when she tries to politely ask my age.
So that’s my Chinese level: I can have a fifteen-minute chat about my life experiences and goals, but I can’t answer the question, “How old are you?”
That was embarrassing, but I outdid myself the next day. I sat in on the class for an hour and loved it. The other students were like oh my god, your Chinese is awesome, there’s a competition in February for foreigners who speak Chinese, you should totally join, you could win, you’re so great, and I’m like no, no, teehee. But secretly I am like, “I AM THE QUEEN OF THE WORLD!”
So I wasn’t sure that morning how it would go, and I wasn’t sure what they would charge me entering mid-semester, so I had decided not to bring a pile of cash. But I went immediately to the director to confirm that I wanted to join the class asap. I asked her if it was okay if I paid tomorrow, “我今天可以付錢嗎?” which if you know Chinese you will see the problem right away, but let’s keep going.
So I asked her if I could pay tomorrow, and she said it was okay. And she had me fill out a registration form, and she photocopied my passport and my ARC. I was feeling kinda stupid for bringing all that, but no money, so I asked again if I could pay the next day, “我今天可以付錢嗎?” and she smiled and said that was no problem. She calculated how much it was going to be and I wrote it down. We went to the registrar’s office and they put all my info in the computer and then told me that I needed to pay, NT$7000.
“現在嗎？可是我要今天付錢…” And then when they looked at me like I was an alien, I realized that after having living in Taiwan for eight years, after having studied Chinese off and on for ten years, after having a few chats with this director, and getting praised by my new classmates, I still confuse “今天” and “明天”, “today” and “tomorrow.”
I had asked this woman multiple times if it was cool if I paid “today”, and she had confirmed it was very cool, and then when she asked me for the money, I had said, “Now? But I want to pay today,” which made them look at me like I was nuts. Obviously. That is a ridiculous thing to say.
And then I said, “Oh my god, no, sorry, 明天, 明天!” the director and the clerk looked at me like I was a piece of shit, but only for a second, and then they recovered, smiled very gracefully, and said there was no problem, I could certainly come and pay the next morning, and then they nodded their heads and went away.
I will never, ever stop cringing when I think about this day. With any luck, I will also remember how to say “today” and “tomorrow” from now on. But that’s it, that’s my Chinese level: I can converse, I can read and write some, I can order a meal, but don’t ask me how old I am or whether anything is happening today or tomorrow because I will disappoint you.
One of my 2017 resolutions was to study Chinese more. I have tons of textbooks, access to the wealth of resources online, loads of free time, and I fucking live in Taiwan, but somehow every single day goes by and I don’t commit any time to studying Chinese.
I do speak a fair amount of Chinese while I’m teaching at a certain school, which is not at all how I think these things should be done, but since my coworkers there cannot speak English very well, the whole thing is kind of a shitshow.
I digress: I only wanted to point out that I speak Chinese sometimes, but not in a context where my language skills would improve.
So on an impulse (yay ADD!), I decided to give up all my free mornings and sign up for Chinese classes at the local university.
They were actually really accommodating because I don’t need to have a student visa. I opted for the two-hour sessions instead of three, and because I teach Wednesday mornings, I can’t go to class, but then I don’t even have to pay for those sessions. That seemed more than fair to me!
It’s the first time in forever that I’ve been a student in a classroom environment, and the first time since my very first semester of Chinese that I’ve been around other Chinese learners. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much like a fish in water, and so fast. The other learners are very young, college-aged, and from other countries: Vietnam, Indonesia, and Russia. Chinese is our lingua franca. We don’t share another language, so we have to rely on Chinese to express ourselves. It makes my heart skip a beat to realize that because of my years of half-heartedly studying Chinese, I can not only communicate with native Chinese-speakers, but also people from other countries.
My classmates are awesome! They are chatty and curious, unafraid to ask questions, intent on learning the language, and enthusiastic. And we can make jokes! I haven’t been in a class like this before, where we can make each other laugh in Chinese. Sometimes the jokes are intentional, sometimes somebody has a cold and says something ridiculous like “my nose is sick.” Good times!
Anywho, it’s been a wonderful first week. We have a test coming up on Tuesday, and I’m not really sure what to expect, but I feel so good about this. I am doing something useful and constructive with my time, I am meeting new people, improving my language skills, getting out of the house–all wins!
I am taking my Chinese class at Chung Yuan Christian University (CYCU) because it’s not far from where I live and I know the neighborhood. There are like half a dozen universities in Zhongli and Neili, and I know of foreigners studying at CYCU, Chung Yang (National Central), and Yuan Ze (where we play kickball on the first Sunday of every month). Coming from the States, the cost of tuition here is crazy low. I’ve also seen that there are yoga classes and cooking classes at CYCU, and I’m not sure about enrolling in anything else right now, but how fun does that sound?
Winter is coming. We tell people in America it gets cold here in the winter, and they are sympathetic. They know cold. Cold is not great.
“How cold does it get?” they ask.
We cringe when we tell them it gets down to 50°C (around 10°C) because we know they will laugh.
“That’s nothing!” they say.
Yes, but: the houses here are built to be cool in the sickeningly hot and humid summers. So they are built of concrete, often with tile floors and even tile walls. The windows are often big to allow for creating cross breezes, and the ceilings are high. The kitchens are tiny in the newer houses, because nobody wants to be stuck inside cooking in a hot kitchen when you can get dinner outside for cheap.
There are often air conditioners in the apartments, but never heaters. The weather starts to get unpredictable, from day to day, then hour to hour, then one day it starts raining and doesn’t stop raining for two weeks and your clothes and the linens and the bathroom start to smell of damp.
The cold seeps into the wet concrete walls and settles on the ceramic tiles. You want to cuddle up for warmth, but keep your icy feet to yourself if you aren’t wearing socks. You can see your moist breath in the living room. You hang your clothes, but they take three days to dry. By then they are stiff and they smell weird. Room temperature water is cold, and even if drinking cold water weren’t culturally proscribed, it’s hard to do on a cold day. Stick to tea or coffee.
There’s no hot water in the taps to wash your hands. You do it anyway, bracing yourself, cursing if a drop gets on your sleeve. The students’ sleeves are wet and dirty all day. Your contact-lens solution is cold. The toilet seat is very, very cold. The shower is hot and you never want it to end because when you step out it will be cold.
It also starts getting dark earlier and earlier, so that the sun is rising with you in the morning and sets by dinner time. If you’re working 9-5, you might miss it.
You know how in the U.S., if you’re lucky enough to have a car, and lucky enough to have a car-starter, you can stand in your living room, drinking your first cup of coffee, and turn the car on by pressing a button, so that even if you have to move some snow to get to work, it will be melted by the time you get outside?
Yeah, well, in Taiwan you drive a scooter, rain or shine. You don’t want to get wet at all, because any part of you that gets wet on the way to work is going to be wet all day, and cold. You put on rain boots, rain pants and a giant poncho over your winter coat. You don’t want to wear the kind of gloves that will get wet, so you wear big waterproof winter gloves (they are never really waterproof though); or you put industrial rubber gloves over your nice woolly ones. Then you do up your poncho over your scarf, and then put on your helmet, visor down. That’s how you drive to work. In the summer, you would have stopped on the way for a coffee or a sandwich, but in the winter you’ll have to take off half your gear just to go in the store. Then it’ll get wet and so will you, so no coffee today, no sandwich. Just drive in the cold rain, your nose running and your hands too encumbered to wipe it.
A photo posted by Keili Rae Gunden (@amateur_vagrant) on
You take off your rain gear when you get to school. But not your coat, your gloves, or your warm rubber boots because even if you have a space heater at home, there’s no heater in the schools, and you and the kids are all bundled up for the whole class. (Some of the babies will come to class in so many layers of shirts that they get damp with sweat in the cold and can’t move their arms very well, so out of compassion you and your co-teacher remove three or four undershirts and only put them back on again right before Gramma comes back to pick them up.) It’s too cold these days for the kids to go outside, so we all stay inside, locked up germ-incubators, always sputtering and coughing, red-eyed and hoarse, until spring.
“You think that’s cold? Back in Russia…”
Okay, yes. But it still stands that 50°F is a lot colder here than a crisp autumn day is back in Pennsylvania…
So let’s flashback to when I was fresh out of college, a new teacher in Taiwan. I had just turned 23. My co-workers and I, we didn’t have an office: we all shared a giant table with cupboards underneath, so there was plenty of opportunities for everyone to interact. I worked with a woman who became my best friend, a couple of other people, and this older guy named — who was married and had a kid, male pattern baldness, and literal war stories.
Here’s what I remember about –:
He asked me to do a recording session for an English test with him. I did it. In the car on the way home, the man driving asked him how long he’d been in Taiwan. He said, “Taiwan very good.” The man stopped talking to us. I’d been in Taiwan less than six months at that point and knew he didn’t have a clue what was being said.
He used to talk about being in the military and fighting in the Gulf War. But he always said that driving in Taiwan was more dangerous than being in the infantry.
When we all had an hour break between evening classes on Wednesdays for a spell, he invited us into an empty classroom each week to watch Northern Exposure. But then he started making us watch videos about government conspiracies, so we stopped going, which sucked, because Northern Exposure was good TV.
Anyway, I started working elsewhere after two years and did not keep in touch with –.
Jump ahead to just a few weeks ago when we end up at dinner with friends of friends and — is there. Quelle surprise! He’s looking a little more worn, a little more tired, but whatevs, it’s been like a DECADE. So I introduce him to my hubs and that’s it.
Now, I didn’t miss –, and the rest of the people at the table I either don’t know or don’t like, but we’re at like my favorite restaurant that we never go to because J doesn’t like it. Fine. I resolve to love the shit out of my bamboo pork. These people are not gonna take that away from me.
I overhear — telling somebody about being in the military and I think, man, those stories were already old when you were dropping them in 2004, but, bamboo pork. I don’t care.
Then comes the part where someone mentions that a foreigner they know is a “know-it-all”. This strikes me as funny because basically every person at that table falls into that category. (Note to self: do some soul-searching, cause you probably do this shit, too.)
So I say something: “Dude, every foreigner who’s been here like a year is a know-it-all.”
“Do you mean foreigners in general, or specifically people at this table?” queries –. I instantly regret making him think I want to talk to him, but J is on the job.
“No, not necessarily people at this table, but like anybody who’s been here for a while thinks they know all about Taiwan and Chinese culture and whatever,” says J.
“Well, really, that’s funny, because I seem to remember Rae talking a whole lot when I knew her before. It was like, jeez, you couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Isn’t that right, Rae?”
So all at once I’m feeling hot and embarrassed, and I can feel some anger in there somewhere, but it’s not gonna beat the apology out of my mouth, and I am already doubly pissed for apologizing to this guy…
“No,” says J in his nice, big boom.
“What?” says –.
“No. Whatever you just said, no.”
Granted, the rhetoric could be polished up a bit, but that’s how it went down. And — got the point, because now he turns back to me to say, “C’mon, Rae, don’t you remember? I know you’ve changed a lot…”
But something snapped in me when J interrupted him. It wasn’t only that J defended me, because that was cool, but when he did that, I realized I was defendable. That I wasn’t automatically wrong, that I didn’t have to apologize, that I could talk back to this guy. That my apology-reflex is on steroids, but I have other muscles to flex.
“I don’t know about that, but I seem to remember someone not letting us watch Northern Exposure until he proselytized us with government conspiracy theories,” I said.
Again, you know, with time, I could have scripted a wittier exchange, but this is how it went down.
The gall! Even if I did or do talk too much, coming from him, that’s a textbook example of the pot calling the kettle black. And then to observe me during a dinner where I was flanked and outnumbered by my enemies and had resigned myself to just enjoying my meal, and to deduce that I had “changed” in any way…and then to ask me to publicly disagree with my husband while he’s standing up for me was just so stupid.
We all were leaving anyway, so we left, and — shot us a few awkward, possibly conciliatory glances as he left, but we did not acknowledge him. But I got a taste of what it could be like if I don’t automatically cringe and say sorry every time someone drops a complaint at my door. And yeah, shriveled-up, bullshit, ten-year-old complaints are not being received here. Take that shit right to the trash.
I first moved to Zhongli in 2004, and it would have been very cool of me to come up with this list when I arrived. Instead I waited so long that my beloved Zhongli (Chungli/Jungli/Jhongli) stopped being a city in Taoyuan County and was absorbed into the sprawl of Taoyuan City as a district.
At least now we mostly agree on the name.
Here are just a very few of my favorite things to see or do in our fair town:
The River: If you’re so new to town that you don’t know about The River, then you should definitely go there first. You’ll meet the friends you need to help you complete your quest.
Paris Bar: Met somebody special at The River? Invite them to a more private, romantic bar where you can impress them by buying NT$300 cocktails.
Bowling: Every Wednesday at the lanes on Zhongmei Road, not too far from The River.
Kickball: The first Sunday of every month on one of the fields at Yuan Ze University in Neili. (Be sure to connect with someone from the group before you go so you know where everyone will be.)
The Yilan Beer Place: Tasty Taiwan brews on tap, including my favorite green spirulina beer. There’s also an extensive menu of pan-Asian bar food. Great place for a small party.
Roasted Duck: If you’re trying to get this duck for a dinner party, make sure that three or four other people aren’t already doing the same thing.
Daxi Old Street: Nifty little neighborhood just a short scooter drive away from downtown Zhongli. Famous for it’s delicious and cheap tofu.
Xinming Night Market: Your one-stop shopping destination for your dinner, your clothes, your sex toys, your pet hamsters, your milk tea, your incense, your cellphone accessories, etc.
Shrimp Fishing: One of the more unfamiliar things a Westerner can experience in Taiwan is fishing for super-sized shrimp in a big concrete pool in a building the size of an airplane hangar. Some people love it.
Sanmin Bat Cave and Tuba Church: A lovely day trip into the mountains of Fuxing. Check out an old, tiny church in a nearby aboriginal village and quiet, beautiful “cave” and waterfall a little further down the way.