Saturday, June 18, 2011

Taipei, the sepia and blue edition


Taken from my bedroom window soon after moving to Taipei

I’ve written before about how much I love living in Taiwan, how I feel that I’m fairly high-functioning in society here, how I’m comfortable just being around, speaking the local language(s) and, hey, sometimes I even forget that I’m a foreigner if those around me don’t treat me like one.

What I haven’t written about much is how hard it was to get my act together when I first arrived. Months ago we jumped all over Lindsay Craig’s “article” (I still hesitate to call it journalism in any sense) on how she fancied herself a world traveler, tried living in Taiwan and after seven months she realized she couldn’t do it, packed up and went home.
I was one of those on the side of “c’mon, it’s not that hard, if anything Taiwan is one of the easiest non-Western countries to live in” – and I still believe that’s true. My opinion that Taiwan is a great place to live, and fairly easy to settle into, has not changed.

That opinion, however, was hard-won, which is something I don’t often talk about. So let me tell you a story.

I moved to Taiwan at the beginning of September in 2006. I was living in a shared apartment with three other teachers, who were all pretty good guys but not people I’d likely become good friends with – I knew that from the first day. We simply had nothing in common. The same held true at work: a few people I really didn’t like, a few that I thought were OK, nobody I could envision becoming true friends with. I hadn’t found any alternate venue for making friends yet.

My birthday is in mid-September – a little over fifteen days after I unpacked my things in Taipei. I had known when I bought the plane ticket that I probably wouldn’t have made many social connections yet, but I celebrated my birthday alone in Laos years before and it was fine; I figured it’d be like it was then. A day alone for me, exploring temples or taking a walk before settling in for a nice cup of coffee with my sketch pad. One of my roommates shared my birthday – same year, and only a few hours difference, in fact – and was going to Taroko Gorge for the day with his new Taiwanese girlfriend. I had no such grand plans.
The days alternated between oppressive and unbearably hot, punctuated with sudden and hellish downpours. So, you know, typical Taipei weather for late summer. I’d lived in India – lived through a monsoon in fact – and was handling it alright.
My birthday, however, was a sky-destroying clamor of rain. Bleak and saturated, I couldn’t see from my window – emblazoned for some reason with a sticker that said “SUPER” – across the lane to the sooty cement building across the way.
Super. Just super.

I felt a bit sick. Despite being used to heat and rain, I couldn’t get used to the heat and rain. My bed smelled a bit musty. The air conditioner buzzed over my head, spilling down cold air that made me cough. The floor was gritty even though I’d just swept it. The balcony had a Coke can full of cigarette butts in it – the guys had been using the balcony to smoke again, something I’d said was fine even though I can’t stand the smell of smoke, figuring it’d stay outside. It mostly did, but damn it to hell, that stupid can was so ugly. On that dirty, cracked plastic table. I hated that table. I hated the apartment – with an endless stream of young foreign teachers coming in and out, nobody bothered to seriously clean and by now the bulging detritus behind the couch had become institutional. It looked like if you touched it you’d get slime on your fingers. The only decorations were Taiwan Beer labels soaked off of bottles and stuck onto the sliding glass of the shelving, which stored more unidentifiable ghosts of teachers past.

I thought I would be fine, but I was absolutely not. I had left the USA thinking my Chinese was better than it actually was, it had been years since I’d dealt with this kind of weather and needed time to adjust – time I had not allowed in my psyche – I had thought I would have at least made superficial “meat and liquor friends” (酒肉朋友) by now, but I had not. Taipei can be a lovely city, but I hadn’t discovered the best things about it yet: I thought the National Palace Museum and the top of Taipei 101 were the height of the city’s attractions. I’d re-injured my back in Japan and it ached. I didn’t particularly like my job and the pay was a joke. I was seriously running low on savings. I didn’t realize it yet, but I was suffering from a kind of “not culture shocked enough” culture shock: I had prepared myself mentally for a challenge on the scale of China. Like many foreigners who have never visited Taiwan, I assumed they were roughly similar, with Taiwan merely being somewhat more developed. I had expected a hard-nosed fight to get myself settled, but one never materialized. As such, I couldn’t get settled.

There was only one good thing going for me – I was recently out of a relationship and not interested in dating generally. I was lonely on the social front but not on the romantic one.

I looked out the window and saw only rain. I looked around the room and saw only dust – and the shell of a dead beetle. I looked around and saw no friends. I suppose I could have invited some not-really-and-never-going-to-be-friends people along, but that felt, honestly, even sadder.

So I laid on my musty bed with the heinous blue-and-yellow poly-blend comforter and cried deep into the pillow.
Then, as I’m not the sort to do wallow for very long – my lowest moods tend to come and go like plum rains, very intense when the sky breaks but clearing up fairly quickly – I decided that I had to do something on my birthday even if it wasn’t perfect, or even all that great.

So I got up and dusted myself off – this wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t had to literally dust myself off – and grabbed my guidebook to find an Indian restaurant. If I was going to have a craptacular pouring birthday with no friends, I would at least have Indian food!

I didn’t know how to navigate the buses yet and took the MRT, transferring twice to Zhongshan Jr. High School station (now I’d just take the 74, 642 or 643). The only Indian restaurant in the book was called Hindoostan, which didn’t sound promising, but it was something and at least I could get some restorative spices in my gut to work their spicy magic.

The ceiling was decorated with Christmas ornaments (?!), the atmosphere was bland and the food, while spicy, had the slightly turgid aura of pre-cooked and microwaved food – the spices were Indian, but otherwise it was equivalent in quality to 7-11 Japanese curry over rice. Fatty mutton chunks swam sadly in oil-slicked rogan josh paste, samosas deflated softly where they should have been slightly crispy, and the gulab jamun was from a can. Around me, diners ate in groups – some of them Indian, which surprised me, because no Indian I know would eat this food twice – only I consumed my repast alone, shoulders hunched slightly over the table, as though I were trying to keep out the driving rain.

I walked back to the MRT, as deflated as a microwaved samosa, and climbed back on the brown line as dejected as I’d been when I I’d ridden it earlier. The rain started up again, and as I flew over Fuxing Road, I looked down at the streets winding away toward other parts of the city. Full of cars, full of people fighting with their umbrellas and sidestepping puddles. Full of people going about their lives, going to see friends or family, going home and enjoying their loved ones. I am sure plenty of them were not so lucky and as I looked out over Nanjing East Road, crammed with the red rear lights of cars, that some of those drivers were winding their way back to an equally lonely home, but at least they were from here, they lived here, they had a life here and they could at the very least speak the language in more than broken bits. From my fast-moving perch, the streets below were ribbons of urban life, and I was not a part of them.

The windows of the brown line were rippled with rain, the city lights creating undulating colors and blurring the scene. I was not crying outwardly now, but I may as well have been. The slashes of water obscuring my view made me see the world as though I was.

I remember thinking – I wish I had friends here. Not nameless, faceless hypothetical friends, but my friends. If I could have any one of them here, which would I pick? Brendan – immediately Brendan (which was not the first clue that he was the person I should be with).

Soon after that, I did begin to form friendships. I met my good friend Becca and through her, Roy and Cherry. I befriended Ray and Cara – some students of mine – and spent Christmas in Lishan with Cara. My friend Julian visited me, as did Brendan (who, as you know, later moved here). I attended a few parties and expat gatherings. I found a new job after my first year contract was up at Kojen – I really couldn’t stand the idea of staying there for even one more year even though I wanted to stay in Taipei – discovered many of Taipei’s hidden gems, enjoyed occasional good weather, moved out of that dismal apartment, made friends and watched a relationship blossom into marriage.

Things did get better – a lot better! – but I can’t deny it, those first few months in Taipei were wretched. Had I been a weaker person, I probably would have packed up and gone home. Today, I’m glad I stuck it out: I want to try and live in other places at some point, but it can’t be denied – it’s hard to imagine leaving Taipei. I love this place.

Only blue skies from now on?

10 comments:

Holly said...

My goodness, I'm now realizing you lived in the same apartment I did! I moved out around 3 months before you arrived, but your description of the English teacher flophouse is dead on. I think if I'd lived somewhere else, I might have had a different first impression of Taiwan, but luckily I came to see more than just that first arrival experience. Now I can't leave!

MKL said...

First months are really tough. Some days Taipei life is killing me. I really hope that one day I can be where you are now. You seem so at peace with everything around you. I spend 2h on the sub every day and 10 hours in the office, the pressure is big, the weather is so humid and hot and our aircon sucks. I virtually have no life during the week and on the weekend I'm so tired, I can't do anything. I miss last year, when I was here as a traveler. What a different world it was... Sigh...

Jenna said...

Well, I'm partly at peace with everything because - except for recently - I have a job that doesn't exhaust me. (These days it really is exhausting, but that will end). I don't generally need to spend that much time on the subway, and when I do I get paid a generous travel allowance that, if I am smart about my transportation choices, I can keep as extra income. Sometimes work kills me, but other times I'll wake up on a random weekday and find that just due to scheduling, I have no commitments that day (other times I'm looking at 12 days worth of work straight - but that's not common).

The energy to do things on the weekend and an active social circle are important elements to why I get on here so well now. It took years to build that, though. My wonderful marriage helps, too!

But I'm with you on the aircon. Ours sucks too, and if you read my post on "Things and Stuff", I don't like my apartment. I like the location, though.

Jenna said...

You know, Holly, I wonder if I were to go back to that apartment and see what it's like, what I'd find is the same beer labels on the cabinets and the same crud stacked behind the couch, just covered in an additional five years' worth of layered dirt and grime. I bet nobody's bothered to clean it in that time.

Did you also have the guy who'd come work in the office there, leave the door open and chat loudly with the cleaning lady outside?

Holly said...

MKL: It gets better! One of the most important things I think is to get out and explore, and to pursue the same interests you had before living in Taiwan. Even if you're in a different place, you're still the same person, so presumably you have the same needs for fulfillment and entertainment. Getting involved in things was what really got me hooked on Taipei - otherwise, I probably would have left after a year.

Jenna: I wonder the same thing! Sometimes I think it would be cool to go back up there and check it out. I always do make sure to pass by when I do my annual Taiwan anniversary trip to the neighborhood - get a shawarma and say hi to Mohammad and his wife, stop in Eslite for a browse, look up at that apartment and be thankful I don't live there anymore! I did a huge kitchen cleaning when I first arrived because I was so disgusted, and the other tenants (who'd been there for months) said "Oh, wow, you cleaned it!" I was shocked they could stand it for so long. And yes! I remember that guy. Sometimes he'd come in while I was in the shower, and it would freak me out. Once, we also had a student come upstairs exploring and he walked right in!

J said...

That picture looks like something out of mid-'70's New York. If I didn't know better I'd assume it was taken in some decrepit bar somewhere seedy.

Jenna said...

Holly - haha, well, your cleaning was obviously much needed but it didn't last for long if three months later, I moved in and was thoroughly disgusted (and I am hardly a neat freak. I am OK with clutter to an extent but dirt I can't take). Hell, we had a "finally take out the trash night" in which I was on Maggot Patrol - making sure that none of the maggots infesting the bags fell out of the holes in the bags as the guys brought them downstairs. I am not joking. It was awful.

What's funny is that while I live in Jingmei, I totally hang in the same neighborhood all the time. In fact, I'm posting this from Shake House, just across the street from Bastille only a block or two north of that place. I too thank the lucky stars that I don't live there anymore, and that I don't need roommates. (I generally felt I was a pretty good roommate, and I could get on with roommates, I just much prefer it being me and my husband alone).

H said...

Oh, that cleaning took place in June 2005, so the grime had certainly grown back by the time you arrived. Same with the bathroom, which was full of mold when I arrived late at night in desperate need of a shower, and there was not a single cleaning product in the apartment besides dish liquid. I eventually got tired of cleaning, since none of the other dozen or so people who came and went (with the exception of one long-term roommate) ever contributed to the housekeeping, and I was always left taking out their trash that had been left behind, attracting monster cockroaches. It wasn't until I moved out that I realized life in Taipei didn't have to be that way. Seems like a lifetime ago, living like that. Thank goodness for progress.

Jenna said...

Ah, that's why. We weren't three months apart - we were a year and three months apart. I moved in in 2006, not 2005. IT GREW BACK.

Our place now isn't great - I could do without the ancient linoleum and the plastic ceiling - but it's *clean* and a damn sight better than the flophouse.

Holly said...

Oh, I was there until 2006 for sure - I just arrived in 2005, which is when I was so disgusted. I stayed there longer than most, about a year, and moved to Guting in summer of 2006. It's just that the grime built up again for sure while I was still there. I'm trying to think of who lived there when I moved out... I've pretty much forgotten everyone except 3 or 4 of them!