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Having spent a year away from Taiwan now, I am continually amazed by just how cheap things were there. Of course, it helped that we were living in Kaohsiung, which is less expensive than Taipei, but it is still almost ridiculous how far our stipend of NT42,000 (a little under $1,300 USD a month) managed to stretch.

For a start, there was our apartment. Situated in a luxury complex in the heart of the city, facing the 文化中心 and featuring lovely guards, a multitude of apartments, a leafy green courtyard and a koi pond, our apartments were huge. Our rents were charged by the size of our room, so my monthly share worked out to around $200 USD, plus gas, cable, electricity, water and internet, which worked out to maybe another $100 more. For $300 then, this is what I got:

Food is also very cheap – lunch would be purchased from my favorite noodle or dumpling shop down the street from San Min, and dinner would be from any number of restaurants located within five-ten minutes walking distance from our apartments. A hearty meal of niu rou hui fan (beef in a delicious sauce with bok choy, gravy and rice from the sweet old couple who run a restaurant on Linde Jie would set me back roughly 70NT, and failing that, there was always our favorite standby dish, 餃子.

Even shopping proved a relatively inexpensive habit – between night markets and sales, I scored some awesome deals, which is always a good thing. Was it possible to overspend? Of course, but I would say that it takes good effort to exceed your income as an expat in Taiwan. Certain things were pricey – fancy shoes, movie tickets, shopping in malls – but these were not necessary elements to my daily life, so it hardly mattered.

It’s worth noting too that we made less than your average buxiban teacher, but lived comparatively luxuriously by Taiwanese standards, where our wages were above normal. Still, as I prepare to move to Boston and begin the clichéd life of a broke grad student, I can’t help but feel nostalgia for the cheapness of a wonderful life in Taiwan. I miss many things about Taiwan, but living the good life on the cheap is definitely on the list.

Since coming back from Taiwan a nearly a year ago (goodness, has it already been that long?) and paying a return visit at the beginning of April, I have been asked by many people whether I enjoyed my time. The answer is always an unequivocal yes – no matter that there were moments of extreme difficulty and tension during the year, overall, I would do it again in a heartbeat. Taiwan has taken a piece of my heart, and I would jump at the chance to hop on the next flight out.

Inevitably the next question is “why?” and this is my cue to start gushing about Taiwan and all its wonderfulness. I have been many places in the world (I think my tally is shortly about to hit 30 when I go to Malaysia next month). I have lived in America, France, India and Taiwan. And never, ever, have I met people as consistently wonderful, warm-hearted, generous and downright kind as Taiwanese people. I really think people don’t believe me when I share my stories to prove just how wonderful Taiwanese people can be in their acts of kindness, but it really is true. A few weeks ago, a Slovakian couple got stranded in Taoyuan because of the Icelandic volcano, their hotel organized a wedding for them, complete with priest and video hookup so that their family back in Slovakia could watch the wedding for them. Not only did the story make me smile, my instant reaction was “I am SO not surprised this happened in Taiwan.”

Some other examples:

Upon hearing I was coming back to Taiwan, Lucy (my co-teacher last year) immediately emailed me asking if she should arrange a homestay with her daughter (who actually went into labor and delivered a baby girl the day I was in town) or with one of the students’ families.

My housemate Nicki last year got a ride to her school from an old man who took pity on her for missing the bus – he scootered her all the way from the Cultural Center to Zuoying, a good half-hour away.

My host-sister Rachel invited me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding after having met me for a total of 45 minutes at the host family matchup party.

When my friend Melanie’s parents heard I was coming to Taiwan, they decided we would go on a four day road trip through Taiwan, just for the heck of it. On this note, befriend a Taiwanese person and get taken to their home for dinner. I guarantee if the dinner is cooked by a Taiwanese mom or grandmom, it will be beyond delicious. Her entire extended family welcomed me into their Chinese New Year celebrations last year as well.

When my friend Alissa came to visit, she lost her camera in Taedong. A group of teenagers, upon hearing her story, took it upon themselves to organize a search for her camera on the streets nearby. Another person hopped on his scooter, retraced her steps, found her camera lying on the street and returned it to her.

Gered reports that he left his keys in his scooter engine one weekend and returned to find the keys removed and tucked safely inside his scooter seat, and as an extra kindness, the mystery person straightened his scooter.

I could go on, but it would be repetitive. Suffice to say, Taiwanese people are wonderfully awesome and generous and if you meet and make friends with a Taiwanese person, the next thing you know, you may well be adopted into their family as though you’ve known them for years even if you only met a few hours earlier. Of course, there is much more to love about Taiwan (delicious food, stunning natural scenery), but its people are definitely its biggest asset.

Life is slowly finding a routine here, which is nice. I wake up most mornings at 6:30 am, though if I’ve gone to bed later or slept poorly, I let the maid in and go back to sleep. I hop on the bus whenever I get up and out the door, usually at 7:05, and reach my building by 7:40. Then it’s sit at my desk and write and work and read and research until 5:05, when I clock out to come home. My evening activities involve thrilling things like surfing the internet, watching TV, and cooking dinner for myself. My landlord is, I believe, very amused at my self-reliance in the culinary department. Then bed by 11:30 at the latest, rinse, recycle, and repeat.

I can honestly say, I never imagined myself doing this – if you’d told me a month ago I’d be waking up at 6:30 am most mornings, I’d have laughed at you. Still, this is my routine, and it seems to be working fairly well.

I really love my apartment, which is nice. It already feels like home, even if I haven’t decorated. There’s something very satisfying about cleaning up and tidying and making sure everything is put away – I’m excited about silly things like buying new curtains. There’s a sense of ownership over this apartment that was missing in Taiwan, maybe because I was sharing with other people. That was nice because there was always someone outside (or at least, usually), but my solitude is nice too.

I’ve begun working on speeches for Murthy, and sent off my first fully written piece to him this week, and am anxiously awaiting feedback on that. I ventured out on Wednesday night to the weekly CouchSurfing meet and met some interesting people, including a really nice girl who picked me up. Hopefully we’ll make good on her offer to introduce me to a local brunch hotspot! Other plans include joining a book club and finding out about a local choir.

So, that’s about it, really. Nothing terribly interesting, photos will come soon, I promise, as will more details about work and what I do, but until then, my potato is nearly done.

I had the good fortune to have several friends swing through Kaohsiung while I was there – Mel came, Alissa came, and one sunny afternoon, so did Cedric and Annalisa. Annalisa was teaching English for the year in Taejong through Princeton in Asia, and Cedric was on the Taiwanese leg of his around the world tour. They called me out of the blue one day to tell me they were coming to Kaohsiung for the afternoon, so we made plans to meet and head over to Cijin Island.

On the way, we saw the most ridiculous hats ever. These things were solar powered, so they had a solar panel, a fan (that was powered by said solar panel), and shades that slipped down from the brim. Cedric was very tempted to buy one, Annalisa was not in favor of this idea.
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We then proceeded to have a thoroughly excellent seafood lunch followed by some leisurely hanging out at the beach. We were getting ready to leave when suddenly the familiar cacophony of a temple procession reached my ears. Sure enough, I wound up having the good fortune to once again find myself smack dab in the middle of a really fascinating temple celebration.

The pictures that follow are really similar to the ones I took in Tainan, but hopefully they’ll give you a sense of just how massive the statue puppets are. Along the way, each time the procession stopped, an aide would rush to the person inside the costume and lift it off of them to give them a few moments respite. These things look like they weigh quite a bit, and in the sweltering Kaohsiung heat, it cannot have been the most pleasant experience.
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What I loved about this procession was that we got to actually be in it, walking alongside the participants. My hearing may have suffered a bit as a result, but it was one of the most unique experiences of my time in Taiwan.

I know I promised I’d keep updating, and I do have a heap of stories left to share from my time in Taiwan. But I’ve been lazy. A part of me hasn’t been ready to go back and address all the stories, the feelings, the problems I encountered (and grew from!) because it was all so fresh in my mind, and another part of me has just been lazy. To be fair, I’ve also had computer troubles, so updating and uploading my remaining photos has been difficult at best.

I’ve been spending time reading the blogs of the new crop of ETAs, which has been a lovely experience. Having come through the other side of the experience, I can relate to their first impressions, their confusions, and the things that catch their attention. It’s like getting to observe my experience from a distance, as an interested observer. I definitely feel a sense of being connected to these people whom I’ve never met because there are so many little things that only another Kaohsiung ETA will ever really “get,” but at the same time, I’m glad to be done with that part of my adventures in life. It was a phenomenal experience, it changed me in innumerable ways, and I will forever be grateful that I was given the chance to go, but I’m glad to be on to a new phase of my life.

So, when I get my act together, I will have more stories for you. I’m a bit awed at the fact that this blog has been viewed some 3000 times, and the fact that people out there are still reading is a great motivation to keep writing. Until next time then.

I suddenly realized that today marks the opening ceremony of the much-awaited 2009 World Games being hosted by Kaohsiung City. So much attention and publicity has been devoted to the Games all year both on an official level and in our schools (like teaching all the kids in English Village the colors of the Hungarian flag, or Gered having to teach first graders the word “volcano” and Katie picking up Polish accessories for Fu Xing) that I’m kind of sad that I’m not around to see it. I may not have heard of several of the sports that are offered during the World Games (Korfball and Tchoukball, I’m looking at you), but it would have been fun to stay for the festivities.

So to Kaohsiung, I say “good luck.” Knock ’em dead. And don’t forget to talk about the Love River ;).

Addendum

After going by 貝小梅 all year, my Chinese teacher bestowed upon me a new name this afternoon, one that is more sophisticated and appropriate for a young woman (xiao, meaning small, is associated with things that are cute, young, and small, not really so great for being taken seriously). From now on, my new Chinese name shall be 貝梅雅. The “mei hua” is the Taiwanese national flower, and in traditional Chinese thinking, is held up as a symbol of beauty and strength. The flowers are delicate and lovely to behold, but they are strong because they will only bloom in the coldest winter weather. “Ya” means elegant, graceful, or refined, so I make this announcement now that the next time I find myself in need of a Chinese name, I shall be Bei Mei-Ya.