First night back

I ran into Chris. I didn’t remember his name until much later, when he told me. He had to ask mine, too. “It’s been eight years!” he said, over and over again. How could I reply? It’s been eight years since we flirted and he once kissed me but I didn’t follow him back to his hotel because I had guests visiting from America. But we’re both married now, and he has kids, a daughter and a son with disabilities. All of that is too intense–not for me at 34, a woman, a wife, and a teacher, but it’s all too much for some girl he kissed in a bar eight years ago. But we adjust.

We adjust and we talk until dawn, only I have no idea the sun is coming up. But —- hasn’t left my side. She has class, she’s worked all day, her husband has gone home hours ago, but she stands there: she is a good friend, and she is at that awkward age where reason hasn’t trumped being there for your friends. I asked her to go home, but I never meant it. Her being there means that Chris’ remembering kissing me eight years ago is meaningless. I have a new world now.

But finally, we not only finish our drinks, but the bartender says it’s last call. No more drinks for us. —- calls a cab and offers me a ride, but I refuse. I want barbecue from around the corner and there’s no danger in it as Chris promises he’ll walk to his hotel at any moment. We’ve been talking about moving out of our family homes when we were just teenagers, which —- did and Chris wanted to do and I never knew was an option.

I walk —- to the taxi and I am surprised to find it’s light outside. It’s well past dawn, only it’s still the weird hour when the barbecue places have closed, but the breakfast shops haven’t opened. I start toward home, but then I remember the fact that I remembered and forgot an hour ago: I don’t have my keys.

J and I always have our own keys. It’s not much of a strategy, we are just both very independent and used to being able to take care of ourselves. But we’ve just gotten back and my keys for the front door are still in my carry-on bag. I call him and let the phone ring and ring until a woman’s voice tells me in Chinese that he’s not answering. I call again and again and the same woman tells me to give up.

I wish you could see Zhongli at the last hour before dawn. It’s almost clean. The drunks are home, but there are a few cars on the street. A taxi passes now and then. It’s the most quiet and boring the city will ever be, so I feel like she could belong to anyone, like it’s my home as much as anyone else’s. She is unsuspecting and she has no agenda. There’s room enough for me here now.

J doesn’t answer. I called three times and let it ring. Maybe the battery is dead, maybe it’s off, maybe the volume is down, maybe he’s so asleep that the phone ring won’t answer him. I think about sleeping in the stairwell, but then being discovered by the neighbor’s young children. I don’t want to hurt anyone. —- doesn’t answer.

I search through my purse for another idea and my hands wrap around my keys, with corks from Virginia wineries as new keychains. I can’t believe my hands, can’t believe my eyes. They were in my carry-on bag, but then I have vague memories of moving them into my purse, a lifetime ago, when I had no motive except putting them somewhere they weren’t already at. I thank that sober, presciecent version of myself, the one who listens to gut feelings and premonitions. No stairwell for me.

I stop at Family Mart for something to kill all the unsatisfied cravings within me.  Safe in my living room, I strip down to my underwear and eat a packet of microwaved chicken nuggets and a packet of microwaved dim sum. I’m not hungry, but it tastes like home.

Eating healthy in Taiwan

Back in the States, when I wanted a healthy meal, I just dug up a recipe for quinoa and kale, maybe with a slab of tempeh. With the language barrier and the array of foreign (to me) foods, it’s all so much more complicated here, or it can be if you don’t do a little homework. I was inspired by this post to start a Pinterest board of recipes for healthy ingredients that are easy to find here. I’ve actually put more than a couple of hours of work into it, and I’ve been cooking the recipes I’ve found. It’s about three weeks now that I’ve been eating mostly very healthy (with the occasional poor decision when I am short on time or…drunk…).

Here’s what I’ve been eating and drinking. I’m just gonna assume you don’t need more pictures of my groceries to know what’s up.

    1. Overnight oats with two tablespoons of flaxseed: lots of fiber and good bacteria and whatnot. I started off with 1/2 cup of oats and 1/2 a cup of yogurt, but I realized it was too much food (I hardly ever realize that…). I went down to 1/3 cup, then 1/4 cup, and now I’m lazy and usually just toss some muesli in with my bit yogurt and add my 2 tablespoons of flax. Same same, but different.
    2. Mixed-grain rice: lots of fiber and stuff; better than white rice
    3. Seaweed: lots of iodine and stuff
    4. Kimchi: lots of good bacteria and makes everything taste better
    5. Miso soup: Contains magical, healthy salt; very filling when it’s too late for me to make a full meal. I make it with bonito broth granules, and I add seaweed, green onions, maybe some tofu, oftentimes some kimchi.
    6. Matcha: I’ve been in a much better mood since I started working out and eating really healthy and I’m sure it’s all connected, but I really think the biggest mood booster for me has been switching from a morning cup of coffee (which was often a quickie HFCS-sweetened latte at the convenience store) to matcha, sweetened with black sugar and some soy milk. I was totally sold on all the health benefits of matcha, and I’ve suspected for a while that the caffeine and sugar from my daily coffee routine was the source of some of my irritability.
    7. Black sugar: So this is a kind of less processed (I think?) sugar that all my Taiwanese female friends claim is “very good for women.” A lot of my friends eat it (literally nibble on ice-cube-sized cubes of it) when they have their periods. I haven’t found a ton of information about it in English, except for the link back there, so I am still uncertain about it. But obviously different countries and cultures have different ideas about health foods, and black sugar is probably better than refined white sugar and not worse, so I’ve been putting it in my matcha and sometimes in my morning oats.
    8. Goji berries: possibly a superfood; at least pretty good for you. I eat them by the handful, though you could use them to make a tea or soup. Sometimes after I rinse and soak them, I put them in my morning yogurt concoction. Keeps things colorful.
    9. Blackstrap molasses: lots of crazy vitamins and minerals; I make a drink with this and some all-natural apple cider vinegar. I found it once at Wellcome and then never again, so I’ve been buying it online at PCHome.
    10. Apple cider vinegar: cleansing.as.fuck.
    11. Mung beans: so much fiber, some protein; I make a big pot of mung bean dahl (ish) almost every week and eat it for lunch and dinner all the time. I add whatever vegetables are about to go bad (esp. root vegetables and tomatoes), then onions, ginger, garlic; curry powder, turmeric and cumin; and at the end, drizzle it with some butter or olive oil, lemon juice, and a handful of chopped fresh cilantro. Make it rain! It’s different every time I make it and I haven’t gotten sick of it yet. Love it with Sriracha, too.
    12. Black adzuki beans: I’m still figuring these out, but I’ve made some salsas/salads that are nice. I think I need to start soaking them before cooking them, which isn’t necessary for mung beans.
    13. Kohlrabi: Super good for you, really low in carbs; I can eat an entire kohlrabi, cut up, seasoned and roasted like baked french fries.
    14. 4-6 liters of water: just to keep everything running smoothly, keep me from feeling hungry when I’m really just thirsty. BTW, 4 liters is more than a gallon. Sweet!
    15. Fresh fruit, especially guavas: guavas are just ridiculously good for you. We have no idea about them in the US.
    16. Tofu: I really don’t like to buy, cook, or eat meat much anymore (I still manage chicken wings and street-food skewers, somehow, because I lack moral fortitude), so I throw a lot of tofu into dishes just for good measure. Tofu steak, tofu pizza, tofu scramble
    17. Hard-boiled eggs: Haven’t completely sworn off animals products, so I’m still doing yogurt and hard-boiled eggs. I sometimes have one with a big pile of greens just to top it off and make sure I’m full, make sure I am getting a good meal. I fucking love a hard-boiled egg with ketchup and furikake. It’s not natural how much I enjoy such a simple snack. And cheap!
    18. Sweet potatoes: So convenient, so filling, so good for you. You can find roasted sweet potatoes at Family Mart convenience stores here, leaving me with no excuse for not having a super healthy meal even when I don’t have time to cook at home.
    19. Cauliflower: Super good for you, kind of trendy right now with the cauliflower steaks and cauliflower pizza crust. I love it roasted, love it in this salad (which I have to make with a grater instead of a food processor here.)
    20. Chinese kale/jie lan: Good for you and just so tasty. I can eat a whole plate of it myself. Add a little butter, a little black bean soy sauce, some lemon juice
    21. Peanut butter: Meh, a conventional favorite. Am having trouble finding all-natural peanut butter here, especially made without any sugar, so I am investigating the possibility of switching over to a black-sesame butter. But then I might start eating toast, and it’s all downhill from there. But a spoonful of peanut butter is so satisfying right after work when I am about to start eating anything I can get my hands on. I eat my peanut butter out of the jar, then make dinner like an adult.
    22. Soba noodles/buckwheat noodles: An imperfect solution to the problem of not wanting a terrible carb or starch with my meal. Soba noodles are better for you than white-flour noodles or white bread, so if we want to make a soup for lunch, we can have soba noodles instead. I’ve recently found buckwheat groats for sale at the local grocery store, and I thought I might try those instead of rice some time.
    23. Yonanas: We just got a Yonanas machine to make frozen-banana “ice cream”. You’d definitely have to like the flavor of bananas for this to be a possibility, but then you can add peanut butter, chocolate, other fruits, etc to mix it up. Obviously, this isn’t super healthy, but it’s better than ice cream, it’s vegan, and gosh darn it, I like it.

So far, I’ve been in a much better mood! I’ve also been sleeping better and waking up more easily. I’ve learned that eating sugary foods early in the day will make me crave sugar all day, and that being sleepy will be make ravenous after dinner–best just to go to bed! Anyway, I’ve lost a few pounds, a couple of kilos, and I am feeling better. I’m glad I did all this research so I don’t end up making bad choices out of ignorance or laziness. Instead, I make bad choices because I am stubborn, or possibly drunk. Anyway, if I’m full up of healthy food, it’s harder to make bad choices.

Buying groceries in Taiwan

I feel a little silly writing about this stuff, but it interests me and I haven’t had a lot of success finding answers online and in English to my questions about trying to eat healthy, especially in ways that I recognize (as in I will probably not be avoiding tea and fruit when I have a cold because that seems crazy to me). So I have this post and a few others to share, and maybe it will help someone else who is looking for answers or ideas about eating healthy and cooking healthy meals as a foreigner in Taiwan.

Here are my groceries for the next couple of weeks:

may groceries

Obviously the greens are going to have to go in the next couple of days. I take it as a challenge! I bought them at A-Tan, which is about as close to an open market as a grocery store can be. The produce section takes up the largest part of the store by far, and the fruit and veg are always fresh and colorful. I went a little overboard because I didn’t see the gai lan/Chinese broccoli at first, so I bought chayote leaves (called dragon’s beard vegetable here, how fun!) and fiddlehead ferns, and then I found what I was looking for.

may vegetables

What I really wanted to say is that ALL THESE FRUITS AND VEGETABLES COST LESS THAN US$10. My total was NT$280, and at the moment, that’s like US$9. No matter how long I live here, I don’t think I will get over how low the cost of living is, in so many ways.

I also hit the organic store for some coconut oil, multigrain rice, and soba noodles. They sell quinoa, but it’s about US$13-US$15 for a sad little bag, and even the owner of the shop admitted it was too expensive. But it seems the buckwheat used to make soba noodles is a pretty powerful little psuedograin itself, and so very much cheaper, so I’ll stick with that when I am looking for subbing out my carbs and starches. I did see straight up buckwheat in the bulk bins at A-Tan (but strangely not at the organic store), and I’ll have to get some next time.

I couldn’t find out what percentage of buckwheat was used in making the noodles I bought, but the only ingredients are buckwheat, whole wheat, and salt, and I am okay with all that. You really do have to pay attention to the labels when you want to eat healthier. On top of cooking, meal planning, and grocery shopping, trying to eat healthy is a lot more involved than allowing yourself to eat out all the time or heat up processed foods at home.

Last, I went to Wellcome just to get some things for the pantry. We’ve been using a lot of black bean sauce instead of conventional soy sauce. We aren’t trying to be gluten free really, just cutting back on carbs, but this sauce has such a tasty funk on it that I use it instead of salt whenever possible. As in I ate two bowls of Chinese cabbage with just a little butter, black bean sauce, and lemon juice on top the other day. Simple stuff, and so good.

I got some goji berries and red dates (jujubes) at Wellcome, too. To be honest, I would have been slightly more comfortable buying them at the organic store, but they are three times the price, and I don’t entirely trust the “organic” labels, either. There was a big cooking oil scandal here, and now there are pesticides showing up in the tea, real olive oil is hard to find (and I assume it’s damn near impossible here), there’s all sorts of weird additives being put in the fast food in the States (one of a million reasons to avoid it). Anyway, I feel like I can’t assume the organic red dates would be any better, coming from China, even though they cost more, so I’ll buy the cheap ones, rinse them, and pray. I mean, I smoke when I drink, so how uptight can I possibly be?

After I put away the groceries, I made soba noodles and topped them with steamed bok choy, kimchi, seaweed, and this crazy addictive miso dressing from Smitten Kitchen.

Now if I can just get someone else do my push-ups for me…soba noodle bowl

How to ruin Christmas in Taiwan

Some quick anecdotes:

1. Christmas 2004: My manager at a big chain school here made me dress up like Santa Claus to hand out gifts to the kids. I was a 24-year-old woman: my ho-ho-hos were fooling no one, including the preschool and kindergarten students. (Incidentally, the mask reeked of my co-worker’s coffee breath and I almost puked.)

The parents bought and wrapped the gift themselves. We put them in a big black garbage bag, and I handed them out. Some parents had taken Christmas-gift-giving very seriously and had lovely boxes professionally wrapped at the department store. Other parents didn’t put as much effort in–most people in Taiwan aren’t Christian, Christmas isn’t traditionally celebrated here, and people typically exchange red envelopes stuffed with cash during Chinese New Year, not gifts. Some students got pretty packages with shiny wrapping paper, and some kids got shitty toys in plastic bags.

The next day, two of my little girls ran up to me all upset and asked me why I gave Melody FOUR Pearl Mermaid coloring books, but I gave Vivian TWO Pearl Mermaid coloring books. “It wasn’t me, it was your parents!” is what I wanted to say, but instead I told them to wait. I ran down to the manager to ask her what she wanted me to do now that I had ruined Christmas for kids who wouldn’t even be celebrating it if everyone wasn’t trying to cash in.

“Just keep telling them it wasn’t you, it was Santa,” she said with a laugh.

“They’re six, not stupid!” I told her.

sad snowman
don’t worry, he wasn’t really upset. he was just goofing off.

2. Christmas past: This isn’t even my anecdote, but only because I’d already had such a bad experience that I wouldn’t think of doing this. A Chinese teacher (just clarifying that it wasn’t a foreigner’s hopeful idea) arranged a gift-exchange for her students. All the gifts had a limit of NT$50-$100 (US$3 max), so not a whole lot. But the same thing happened: some students parents went above and beyond with fancy gifts in fancy paper, and some kids were sent to class with shitty secondhand toys that nobody played with anymore. The kids who got the great gifts were pumped, but the kids who got the shitty gifts were totally bummed. And because not losing face is so important here, the kids who gave the shitty gifts were crying by the end of it all. And you can’t exactly tell them that Christmas isn’t about gifts, because it isn’t about anything else here.

3. Christmas party last night: Everyone brought a gift that cost about NT$500 (US$15). You can actually get quite nice stuff for that amount. Most people got gifts from Costco. We (still) don’t have a  Costco membership, so we bought two bottles of wine from Carrefour (grocery store; not the best place to buy wine but we think we did okay for fifteen bucks). J drew before me and got a gift-set of anti-dandruff shampoos. Based on what I know about Taiwanese culture, that still doesn’t make any fucking sense. Who gives anti-dandruff shampoo for a gift?! Especially if any random person is going to get it at a party? Ironically, he has no hair and I’ve been shampoo-free for about two months now. But even if we were both into regularly shampooing our lovely, Fabian locks, it’s a bummer of a gift. Even the dude who got the chamber pot got a bottle of liquor inside. You can’t drink anti-dandruff shampoo.

Being a big kid at heart, J said he wanted to open the gift I drew, too, and I let him because I wanted to see him smile. He got a box of incense sticks and three car air-fresheners. It reminded me totally of that Friends Christmas episode when Joey and Chandler wait til the last minute to go shopping and end up buying everybody’s gifts at the gas station.

And then Ross gets two cans of off-brand soda is like, “This is too much. I’ll have to get you another sweater.” That’s basically how I felt, so I guess that makes me a petty bitch who doesn’t know the true meaning of Christmas, but man, C— got three little mini cast iron skillets with cookie mix and I got car fresheners for the car we don’t own, so by the end of it I was like, man, just give me my Puppy Chow and let me get out of here. J said I can buy the Hunter boots I’ve been wanting so I don’t even care about that anti-dandruff shampoo.

So Christmas in Taiwan is still under negotiation as not everyone is on the same page. Got any cool stories to share?

TGIF: Taiwan’s Got Insane Food (2)

So, I’m still looking for those doughnut hot dogs, though some people seem to think I’ve made them up. If I can’t find them soon, I will have to make them up.

In the meantime, here are some awesome…pastries? I found at a bakery. However! The bakery was Yamazaki, which is definitely a Japanese bakery, so Taiwan can’t take all the credit for being awesome this time.

 

spicy kimchi lunch pack at yamazaki bakery in chungli taiwan
This is a “spicy kimchi lunch pack”.
insane carbs of taiwan
Turns out that a spicy kimchi lunch pack is kimchi set between two pieces of white bread that are breaded in panko and fried. I actually liked it, but I like kimchi, white bread, and fried things. I don’t think I’d eat it again, though. I’d be the first to admit I don’t have a very healthy diet, and this does not need to be a part of it.
Pickles sandwich from Yamazaki bakery in Chungli Taiwan
This was called a “pickles sandwich.” It’s filled with a very salty, sour pickled vegetable that is kind of like sauerkraut. However, the bun was crazy sweet and even tasted a bit of peanuts. I like these vegetables as a  condiment with rice, but I only found this bun “interesting”, not delicious.
fried noodle bun from yamazaki bakery in chungli taiwan
Fried noodle bun: Breakfast of people who aren’t doing a damn thing for the rest of the day.

Bugs to come across

bugs in taiwan
acceptable

 

big bug in taiwan
unacceptable

PS: I’ve found snails inside my scooter (like in the compartment under the seat) more than once. One time, I found TWO of them in there. Another time, I had just parked in a very busy area downtown when I saw a snail crawling around on my rain gear. I had to leave it there while I ran some errands, but then I drove it to school. I let it loose in the garden. But what the heck, how did they get in there? And more than one?

TGIF: Taiwan’s Got Insane Food

I work on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, so I have nothing to look forward to except extra playground time with the students I see every day during the week. But since I don’t drink lots of sweet coffee drinks every day like I used to, Friday is my day for caramel macchiatos and xiao long bao  from the best little vendor in Chung Yuan.

This guy:

good xiao long bao tang bao in chungli taiwan chung yuan university
Best Little Tang Bao in Chungli

The reason this picture is so vague and far away is because I am too scared to be like, “Can I take a picture?” Instead, I creep around the streets like a nutter taking photos and shuffling away.

Here is another surreptitious photo I took:

soup dumpling guy boxing them up in chungli taiwan
My mouth is watering!

“Soup dumplings” are awesome: they’re delicious little meatballs wrapped in a noodley casing that leaks a flavorful broth when you bite into them. And the hot sauce this guys gives away with each box is downright addictive. I’m practically purring by the time I take my first bite. Here’s a picture of my lunch most Fridays:

xiao long bao tang bao soup dumplings chungli taiwan

Also…don’t get mad now, but that box cost NT$50, which is like US$1.66. It’s been the same price since I first went there in 2007 or so. I was having a laugh about how cheap and delicious they were with the owner of this tea shop (scroll down), which I also started frequenting in the late ‘aughts.

“You ever been to Din Tai Fung?” she asked me. That’s a Michelin-starred dumpling restaurant that first opened in Taipei, but now has branches all over the world. Same little soup dumplings, but a lot pricier and you generally have to make reservations weeks in advance or risk standing in line for a long time.

“Yeah! Super expensive and not any better! Actually, I think the ones over there are better.”

“You’re right!”

Here’s the tea shop where I get my iced caramel macchiato to keep me from getting parched while giving my students their Friday spelling tests. Obviously I hid across the street when taking this photo, too:

my favorite tea shop in town chungli taiwan
My long-time favorite tea shop.

I was so excited when I came back after four years and found out that not only was this place still open, but they actually have franchises around the city now. My enthusiasm was slightly dampened when the mom/owner recognized me and she was like, “Wow! You got fat! What happened?” and then later when the daughter said, “You’ve been studying Chinese for so long, why is your Chinese still so bad?” At least we still have our favorite tang bao in common…and neither of them were looking none too thin, anyway.

I grab a spring roll from this place (scroll down) for dinner a couple nights a week. Traditional Chinese spring rolls (LOOK AT HOW THEY TRANSLATED IT AS “TRADITIONAL CHINESE BURRITOS” OMG LOL) are thin cakes stuffed mostly with boiled vegetables and just a pinch of pork floss (that’s a thing) and like three shitty little strips of pork. My Chinese friends insist they aren’t bad for you, they cost NT$35 (like about a US dollar), they are crazy filling, and I can get one and finish it off at 7-11 in the short time I have between classes.

I would have liked to get a picture of the store front, but the owner really wanted me to take this picture standing in front of the restaurant. This is me in my awesome teaching clothes. You’re welcome.

spring rolls chungli taiwan
Nice old Vespa sitting out front of my favorite spring roll place in Chungli, near Chung Yuan University.

Sweet buns

My first thought when I saw a picture of the Donut Burger (TM) was that it was everything that’s wrong with the world. That’s just so many calories and carbs and things that are bad for you, there’s no way you wouldn’t feel like shit. It brought to mind Bill Burr saying, “You eat one egg McMuffin and you’re just on the couch, “Eh, y’know what? Fuck my dreams””and a Cake lyric, “Excess ain’t rebellion.”

Cause that’s what it is, right? You order it, it comes, you Instagram it, post it on Facebook, eat it, tweet about it, then lay around in a food coma for four hours and probably get a headache. Life is a terrible thing to waste.

And besides all that, Taiwan has New York beat because they’ve been serving up sugar donuts that are roughly the size of hot dogs, with a hot dog inside, slathered with mayonnaise. (And because Taiwanese bakeries are basically Japanese, Japan probably has everyone beat.) I have never eaten one. In fact, it’s one of the few things in Taiwan I refused to even try, and I’ve at least tried pig intestines, congealed duck’s blood, and chicken feet. The sight of a hot dog with the yellowish mayonnaise squirted decoratively over the top, on a fried, sugary doughnut just made my stomach turn a little.

“It’s a famous food!” my friend said. (But that’s what Taiwanese folks say about everything so I am no longer swayed.)

But…that was a long time ago, and when I went to the bakery downstairs, I could only find these:

hot dogs in buns at the bakery in chungli taiwan
not quite fresh-off-the-grill, nor refrigerated (you get used to it)
bakery goods in chungli taiwan
Other baked goods stuff with tuna, ham, fried chicken, processed cheese, etc. Ketchup and mayo are decorative and tasty.

bakery hot dog chungli taiwan
This is what a hot dog that’s been fried then left to sit on a bakery shelf for hours looks like. (The kewpie doll is my writing talisman.)

The buns were more like bread than I wanted for this picture, but here they are, and I can only promise to keep looking for the dogs of legend. When I find them, I’ll update this post accordingly.

Also, it occurred to me in writing this post that I was pretty excited to move back to the US after I found out Dunkin’ Donuts had added those sausage-pancake balls to the menu, so I can’t judge.

Bonus picture of a potato-salad bun. It’s just potato salad in a soft bun, with some ham and cheese for decoration. The tiny ham-funnel of ketchup in the middle of the bun was a nice touch and a real boost to the flavor.

potato salad sandwich from chungli taiwan bakery
A potato salad sandwich. This is not even leftovers; I straight up bought this.

Living behind the language barrier

View from our old apartment.
View from our old apartment.

My Chinese isn’t great. The most I can say is that it’s inconsistent. For example, I’ve managed to have a conversation with a woman who explained to me that she met her husband late in life and they were only able to conceive after a few rounds of in vitro fertilization. And then I order “shoes” instead of “shrimp” and the waitress claps her hands at me like I’m a gifted parrot.

However, the most frustrating occasions are when my Chinese is on point and I know what I’m saying and and some silly bitch starts barking, “Hot-tuh, hot-tuh? Cold-duh? Cold-duh?” at me like I’m not only a foreigner but also someone who shouldn’t leave the house without an escort.

I have a friend who’s lived her twenty years and is married to a Taiwanese man. She speaks Chinese to her husband, to his family, to their kids, to all her Taiwanese friends. She knows the language, right? She told me that once when she tried to initiate a conversation with a stranger in Chinese, he said, “I’m sorry, no English.”

She told him in Chinese, “No, but I’m speaking Chinese to you.”

“No English!” he said, turned, and fled. (I like to imagine that he ran down the beach waving his arms above his head while my friend stood there with her mouth open and her eyebrows furrowed.)

I try not to get angry because so many foreigners here really don’t speak Chinese. Stereotypes exist for a reason, and I can’t expect to be treated like a unique special snowflake every time I rock up when 9 times out of 10, some grumpy foreigner is going to stand in front of the counter at 7-11 wagging his index finger and saying “Marlboro Reds” like the clerk is stupid instead of not bilingual. Also, if you’ve never heard your language being botched by someone who isn’t a native speaker, you might not have an ear for my American-accented Chinese. (I’ve seen foreigners struggle to understand Chinese accents. I have a friend with an Australian accent so thick it takes a committee of Westerners to figure out what he’s saying.) Fair enough.

Also, I think a lot of people who reply to me in English know that they studied English for years in public schools here and assume that I didn’t study Chinese until I was an adult, which is true. It’s humbling to have a local person here apologize for his/her poor English without complaining about my bad Chinese.

Can you imagine how that would play out in the US or Canada? Yeah…

My favorite strangers are the ones who listen to what I am saying and toss out predicates like candy at a parade whenever I am struggling to complete a thought. They can get past my accent, they get the gist of what I’m saying, they’ve even figured out that I can understand a lot more than I can say. I love you people. I promise to start studying again because I owe it to people like you to stop being such a lazy dead-weight.

Shout out specifically to the nice lady at the dentist office and the nice lady at the bank who have called me up personally to have me come in and sort something out. It’s not their job to give me one-on-one attention, but they call me, struggle through what usually starts off as a very weird conversation, and get me in there to sign documents or whatever. After the hours I racked up waiting in lines watching customer service employees and government clerks berate immigrants in Small Town, Virginia, I know that Americans won’t always go out of their way to help people who don’t speak the language. (Okay, I knew that already.)

now speak English :(
This is America (Philly). In Taiwan, they just have English menus. Or picture menus. Or a young person who’s been studying English since s/he started school. We’ve even had a whole family of customers come and help us order from a seafood menu when I was struggling.

Conversations with Chinese bosses

angry me
This is me telling it how it is in front of a waterfall in Wulai.

I was thinking about my two landlords and also how a lot of the people I work for and with are like my first landlord, the one who wasn’t really bothered about the terms of the lease because he assumed we weren’t going to be dicks, and seemed to think we should have expected him to come to us with six months’ of electricity bills because he was too busy to get in touch with us at any other time.

A lot of my issues with this way of doing things can be explained by an exploration of the differences between high-context and low-context cultures. Chinese culture is high context: they assume every one is on the same page and asking questions is weird. American culture is low context: we assume we have no idea what anyone else is thinking, so we want it all spelled out for us, in writing, with dotted i‘s and crossed t‘s. For example, I’d like some numbers multiplied by some other numbers on a piece of paper showing how many hours I worked when they give me my pay every month, and they seem to think I should trust that they probably got it right. (And if not, c’mon, we’re all friends here. We’re practically family. It’s barely about the money.) (That being said, they are more accurate than the HR at Rosetta Stone who used to screw us all coming and going when it came to recording our pay and benefits.)

I’m not an anthropologist, so I’ll just tell you some of the things that frustrate me less as time goes on, but still baffle me even after years here. Sometimes, you have conversations, very explicit, where you say, maybe, “Okay, but you have to watch our performance rehearsal a month before the show, two weeks before the show, not two days before the show, because if you want us to change something, you have to give us time. We’re working with young learners here, and we can’t change things on them too fast or they’ll get confused and that’s not fair.”

“Of course, of course,” your manager says. It’s nonsense to imply she is not reasonable or that she does not realize how long it takes to teach a class of kindergartners your original choreography for Katy Perry’s Firework.

But then, she walks into the gym two days before the show and the kids are near tears because they are sick to death of being told to smile and sing loudly and dance properly NO NOT LIKE THAT NOBODY TOLD YOU TO KICK HIM FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS HOLY DO NOT I SAID NO I AM SO DONE WITH THIS I HAVE A PHILOSOPHY DEGREE I NEVER WANTED THIS FOR MYSELF and she asks you to change the choreography because there isn’t enough dancing in circles. “It’s boring, they’re just dancing in lines.” No one ever mentioned anything about any kind of standards, let alone circles, and you didn’t think it would be possible for twenty kids dressed as baby zoo animals to be at all boring, so you tell them you have to go to the bathroom and you run to parking lot and flail your arms and smoke a cigarette and wait for a foreign teacher to walk by so you can complain about unfair life is and how she agreed weeks ago not to change anything two days before the performance.

But then, if you’ve lived here a while and you like living here, you knew that was going to happen anyway and you just go with it. You smile and you spend six hours over the next two days begging twenty four-year-olds to please remember to make two circles and turn around for the chorus of Katy Perry’s Firework.

Or you go to a job interview, you tell them you’re available to on Tuesday and Thursday for NT$700 an hour. You do a demo and they tell you “Good, good” and they write down your phone number. A month later you ask your buddy who told you about the job if they are still looking or if they’ve found someone else, and he’s confused because they said they were going to hire you. So he reaches out to them and they say, “Yes, yes, we want her. Classes start in September and we’ll contact her then.” (As in the week before classes start. No need to try to prepare ahead.)

Then when they contact you, they say, “Sorry, how about NT$650 an hour instead of the NT$700 we agreed on?”

“No.”

“Oh, okay. And did your friend tell you about exercise time?”

“No, what’s that?”

“Oh, I thought he told you everything!”

(Friend: “I brought her in for the interview. It’s your job to tell her what her responsibilities are.” And that made perfect sense to me.)

“You have to come in ten minutes early and lead the entire kindergarten in an exercise routine. It’s unpaid. You have to find your own music.”

“I can do that.” [← That is how a teacher who’s been here almost a decade responds to this kind of request.]

“Okay, great. Exercise time is on Wednesday.”

“I told [Manager] I could do Tuesday and Thursday.”

“But exercise time is on Wednesday.”

“Okay, let me rearrange my schedule with my other school, see if I can accommodate you…Okay, great, we’re sorted. I’ll come in on Tuesday and Wednesday.” [← Ten years of being overruled.]

“Okay, then Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning.”

“I said Tuesday morning, not afternoon.”

“Okay, let me talk to the manager and see if that’s okay.”

Not gonna pretend like I didn’t work at an American office that wasn’t rife with miscommunications and inefficiencies, but they usually came about after meetings where at least some people tried to drag everyone onto the same page. Here, it’s more like the assumption is that everyone is already magically on the same page, or once the boss has spoken, everyone will be on the same page. You can voice your opinion if you want people to know you’re difficult and insubordinate, but then you had better just get on with it.