The Sweet Potato Times: A Primer
Hello friends and family! Welcome to the Sweet Potato Times. I have decided to start this newsletter to keep everyone informed on my life here in Taiwan. I need to give a shout out to my friend and do-gooder Ross Jensen for the inspiration and the format of this Newsletter. As they say, good artists borrow – great artists steal.
A more enlightening version - with photos - is attached as a PDF.
I hope to share some of the idiosyncrasies and beauty of the culture here and let you all know I'm still alive. Please, if I have in my hastiness over-sighted anyone from receiving this mail, let me know their e-mail addresses. Should you wish to be removed, that is insane. Moreover, It's my understanding that Taiwan means "Sweet Potato," as the island is shaped like a sweet potato. It really does look like a sweet potato. And so this is "The Sweet Potato Times."
(This is where a picture would be)
After twenty-four hours in airplanes and airports, I arrived safely at Taoyuan City Airport, exactly twelve hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone. Hello from the future. It is hot, humid, and rich with smells. Immediately I imagine that this is what a rainforest sloth must feel like. I'm beginning to regret bringing twenty long-sleeve dress shirts and only two polo shirts. The airport, however, has a bit air-conditioning and marble bathrooms. My trip through customs is uneventful, though confusing. There is no English here, save a few misspelled, broken phrases. This will become a point of annoyance and comfort over the course of the next weeks: though I'm consistently confused, I can come to expect that confusion.
My contact at the airport, I believe his name is Tom, is about thirty minutes behind schedule. Later I will learn that this is almost a ritual with Tom, but now I'm stealing free Wi-Fi from something called CAFE SANDWICH! and sending SOS e-mails to my coordinator here. A futile attempt to use a pay phone reveals Tom at the doorway, with broken English and a bit of a harried look on his face, but a smile that immediately endeared him to me.
As I'm sitting in his car on the way to get a first glimpse of my apartment, Tom speaks rapidly about the sites in Taiwan and the set-up with Gloria English Schools. My first impression of the city is of a grey morning and industry shooting up from fields of trash and tall grass, everything running together. The streets are like that too: cars, bicycles, scooters, old men with fruit carts, people crossing, everyone one big massive organism of life and bustle. Tom says that this will take some getting used to. We are in Taoyuan City, Taoyuan County: "peach garden," though I've yet to see a peach. If Taipei is New York, Taoyuan is like an industrialized Chicago. The disordered, natural feel of the place puts me oddly at home.
As we get closer I have a brief conversation with my roommate, partner-in-crime, and siren-call for Taiwan, Alex Guppy. It's hard to imagine that, as two twenty-some-things running into each-other at a leadership conference in Washington, D.C., we would two years later be hanging out drinking beers in Taiwan. Of course, today, Alex saunters out as if someone is delivering a pizza, shakes my hand, and we travel through security guarded gates up to the elevator which will take us to our 12th story apartment, affectionately called "The Palace."
The Sites and The Excitement
As if my arrival was not intense enough, Alex decided that I ought to immerse myself in an entirely different kind of culture: namely a strip of dance clubs known affectionately as "Thai Disco." There doesn't seem to be a great deal of information about these places online, but with an influx of foreigners from Thailand and other poorer nations coming to work in Taiwan, there are a plethora of clubs immersed in these foreign cultures which strictly forbid Chinese from coming in on the fun... still leaving doors open for Westerners. My trip to Thai Disco began with delicious Thai food –unidentifiable—and ended with spice in my eye, four beers, a sweat-drenched shirt, and four hours of dancing in a club with two-hundred Thai people, many eager to shake my hand. So. It. Goes.
My friend Megan and I also made the trip up to Taipei 101, currently the worlds tallest building open to the public, which also holds the record for the fastest elevator (soon to be over-shadowed by construction in Dubai... like all things.) The base of this awe-inspiring building is filled with six stories of the most expensive stores the mind can imagine: an Italian fiesta from Gucci to Dolce. Above this sits, one assumes, rows and rows of offices and other such commercial excitement, though we skipped all this, straight to the 83rd floor up the super-fast elevator. We also saw the super-big wind damper which keeps the building standing in wind and earth-quakes, which is a giant yellow ball, though I prefer the sign leading up to the thing.
I also made my visit to Fulong Beach in the North of Taipei, a scenic vista known for its beautiful beaches, abundant sun, and awesome surfing. Well, we had all the intention in the world of surfing, but found ourselves waiting around for the Winter tides to come rolling in: a period of time long enough to char my back into one sheet of dead, burnt skin. On the plus side, the green, rolling mountains encircling the crystal-clear ocean around the beach were breath-taking, and the famous Lunch Boxes of Fulong were filled with a delicious medley of foods. After we're certified, Fulong also offers some of the best scuba-diving around: look for Jerry-with-puffer-fish in the near future.
After a long Saturday night of hanging out in the Jingho clubs and eating at the ever-greasy Moss Burger, I embarked with about ten other foreigners on an effort clean a local beach here. We spent about four hours cleaning up the beach, sharing laughs and drinks, and, by the end, had made a surprising dent in the area. Though at times we questioned why we were there, while finding the syringe parts of needles and Monopoly houses and about thirty-seven shoes (none with it's rightful match), the beach clean effort was met with support by many on the beach, who chipped in and bagged with an amazing strength. The guard at the front of the beach saluted us while we took the trash to the grass to be picked up by the government. In that moment, to know that we had given a little back to this country which has given me so much... this was the best moment here so far.
I can only assume that some of you have been wondering if and when I've been doing any actual WORK here in Taiwan. I'm looking at you mom and dad. Well, rest assured, I've been doing some things. My first week at Gloria English Schools was extremely stressful, as I came at just the right time to pick up a ton of classes. Good, right? Well, after seeing two-hundred new students, ranging from the ages of 3-17, and thirteen new co-teachers, at two different schools, things can become quite confusing. Now imagine you have no idea what you're doing.
I came at just the right time to pick up thirteen different classes, but not at the right time for training. Slowly, I remembered that I was, in fact, a native speaker of English, and things started to fall into place. There are now clearly three types of classes: classes without desks which run around me for an hour and a half, classes with desks that yell at me for an hour and a half, and classes which I can actually talk to but are frequently asleep. My typical day is consumed by a mere four hours of work, an hour of lesson plans/commute/getting sticky-balls and large dice to play more games. I work Mondays-Saturdays, mostly nights when the students are off of their regular schooling. Right now is summer vacation, so we try to play three games instead of two.
I've recently finished my training and will have my Alien Resident Certificate (read: health insurance) through the school, so fret not about my scootering family and friends (Read Below.) The health-care system here is remarkably cheap in co-pays, is filled with English-speaking doctors, and on the top of lists world-wide. Money is good. I suppose I could tell you more about my classes and responsibilities and demos, but I'd like the brevity of this discussion to reflect the brevity of my time actually spent working.
In some respects, I have been looking towards the future as well: I've spent my free-time in the mornings and afternoons reading frequently and writing a great deal, this newsletter for instance. I've got a number of screenplays in the works, including Galoshes, and hope to be finished on at least two before my year is out. A lofty goal, but one worth shooting for, and one definitely attainable with this level of work.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Are you eating? What's with the food? Can you get American food?
A: Perhaps the most surprising thing about Taiwan is something all-America: the abundance of 7-11s which are open on every corner. These are not your ordinary 7-11's, however, carrying an amazing amount of different instant foods which 7-11 will nuke for you. And, yes, Slurpees. Aside from this easy access which all foreigners flock to when they arrive, the American food here is often lost in translation. Enjoy burritos now, for you will never taste one quite the same upon arriving. There are "American" dishes here which will redefine the very soul of American food for you, often negatively an irreparably. Avoid Italian food like the plague.
Slowly, however, you begin to appreciate the fact you can get three containers of delicious, freshly-cut fruit for 100NT, or roughly three dollars USD. The fruit here is amazing in diversity and unbelievably juicy. Octopus on a stick and real Bi-Bim-Bop are unbeatable here. Slowly, you begin to appreciate the local buffets and the attempts to make American food, and, if all else fails, you can go into Taipei and order any dish from any culture, anywhere, and have it made exactly to your specifications. Even a burrito, so I am told.
This seems like an awesome time to mention my third partner-in-crime here for the last twenty days, and the next twenty, my friend and colleague Erin Kilburn, as she is also the inspiration of family dinner night. She made us all a delicious chicken and pineapple salad. Erin is a queen and a terror, and you never know what you're going to get. Erin is the best.
Q: ...And the bathrooms?
A: You do not have to poop into a hole, though I have, and did not fall in. Nay, I lived. There are usually toilets in every restaurant. Tissue paper, oddly, does not come on a roll, but in a little bag. Sometimes this is inconvenient, as you must buy tissue paper in bags at malls and other public places, in machines like condom machines. You shouldn't flush that stuff down, apparently, though I've yet to encounter a clog if the necessity strikes or I forget.
Q: Can you get me a Macintosh Computer?
A: Sadly, no. While food and rent here are extraordinarily cheap, and taxes are minimal, electronics and common house-hold items retain their value quite well. Thank you, Globalization.
Q: When are you coming home?
A: I'm set-in here for at least a year, barring some sort of amazing offer from back-home or a calamity. I may be making a surprise trip back in January or sometime in this vicinity, so don't make any plans for a month before and after January.
Q: You're driving now!?!?!
A: The rumors are true. I am a driver. I own a 125cc scooter which, save for the grace of God, should be in shambles by now. But, after my first week in anything-goes traffic, I've developed a sharp eye and a steady, steely gaze. I can see an old man with a fruit cart through two buses, five scooters, and eight cars. The amazing thing about this traffic is that horn-honking is not offensive, but a friendly signal. The first impression I received upon arriving is true: in the absence of any real heavy police force, in the presence of a unified driving culture, I am a phenomenal driver and right at home. In other words, it's hard to screw up.
Q: Earthquakes? Typhoons?
A: Sort of. I experienced an earth-quake here about a week ago, which was little more than a slight dizzy spell and noticing that the chandelier had taken an unexpected slant, slowly waving back and forth. Erin confirmed this terror-quake.
Typhoons are a different beast: while they usually sweep in from the south, hit the mountains and dissipate, sometimes they swing in from the left side, around the sweet potato. These are the ones that hit us hard.
During these types of storms, water can be backed up for up to a week, so we always have a few jugs on hand, and a refill station across the street. Buildings here are built to withstand nuclear bombs, so what a typhoon really means is cancelled school and a chance to go bowling.
As of yet, the only thing we've experienced is soggy socks and pants. These have, during my teaching, been more disastrous than any natural disaster. I've discovered the true value of raincoats and water-proof shoes, the latter of which I don't own. A fan, a drier, and a gust of wind have all become invaluable friends during these times.
Q: Can I come? Someone I know wants to come!
A: Anyone is welcome to come and visit, provided you bring me some tomato soup. I love working for Gloria, so anyone wishing to come work needs only drop me a line at this e-mail, I can provide you with a ton of information.
Q: Has the Ox Cart arrived with your mail?
A: No, but here's my address. You do not need the Chinese, but best to print this out and paste it on the envelope for speedy delivery.
MinYouDongLu #32, Building 11
Taoyuan City, Taiwan