Taken from my bedroom window soon after moving to Taipei
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?