I have accidentally said “fuck” to elementary students in two languages in two different countries, both within two weeks of arriving in those countries. Can you say the same? Probably not, I’m guessing, but no worries. It’s an extraordinarily simple thing to do. For example, in Korean, the word for “eighteen” is ship-pal and the word for “fuck” is sshib-bal (the only real difference is that the entry “s” sound is strongly aspirated for “fuck”). Therefore, you can probably understand how I once said, “I left home when I was fuck [in Korean].” Now, in the Taiwanese dialect of Chinese, the word for fuck is gahn, but the “n” sound is almost silent (on the mainland, this verb merely means “to do”). The main elementary school where I now work in Douliu City has a small English village and I’ve been assigned to teach the Airport class on Tuesdays and Fridays. On my first day, while attempting to say, “ A gun is very dangerous. You can’t take a gun on the airplane,” my voice wasn’t its normal self due to my allergies being particularly bad that day. So, with the help of nasal congestion, what I actually said was, “A fuck [in Chinese] is very dangerous. You can’t take a fuck on the airplane.” This leads me to a new personal goal I’ve established: whatever country I move to next, I want to make it at least a month before I accidentally swear at students in whatever language they speak.
I really wasn’t kidding when I wrote almost almost three weeks ago that I was moving to Taiwan. “Make sure it’s the strongest stuff you’ve got, please,” I asked the barista after I’ve made it through the security checkpoint at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport at around 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 21. “We’ve only got the medium roast brewed. I’m sorry,” she replied, and I believe she truly was. I still had two and half hours until my twelve-hour flight to Taipei left Sea-Tac. Just over a month ago, I was wrapping up my job at the English camp in South Korea and getting ready to head to Seattle for a month-long vacation before taking a meandering bus journey home and hanging out in Oklahoma for the summer. The plan was to move to Taipei in August, but I couldn’t let this opportunity pass me up. I boarded EVA Air Flight 25, non-stop from Seattle to Taipei, at around 1:15 a.m. Seattle local time and, after taking two melatonin tablets, slept fitfully for most of the flight. Every time I’d be jostled awake, though, I’d look around and hate all the people I could see sleeping soundly. God, what I wouldn’t give to be able to sleep on an airplane.
My plane touched down at Taoyuan-Taiwan International Airport at around 5:15 a.m. Taipei local time on Monday, March 23. The recruiting agent had arranged for a shuttle to take me to Douliu City (pronounced “Doh-Lee-o”; located about a hundred miles south of Taipei) and the driver–who spoke no English–found me by tapping me on my shoulder and pointing to my name that was printed on what I guessed was a receipt of some sort for the shuttle ride. It was a collective shuttle, so I and about five other Taiwanese people (none of whom seemed to speak English) loaded into a big van and started driving south. At this point, I’d like to say that I don’t know how much people know about Taiwan, but I had no idea it was so beautifully tropical. There are palm trees literally everywhere, many hanging heavy with coconuts. There are these trees (Taiwanese Banyan trees) that have roots growing from their branches that look like hair. If left to their own devices, these roots would latch onto the ground and coalesce into new trunks. Seeing as how such a thing would be bad for roadways and sidewalks and such in the city though, they appear to be regularly trimmed, which gives these trees a decidedly hippie-esque look with their long, straight locks of proto-root hair.
I arrived at my main new school at around 8:30 a.m. Monday morning and emerged from the taxi to find myself surrounded by children, all wielding brooms, rakes, and other assorted garden tools furiously cleaning the school grounds. Shortly thereafter, I learned from my contact at the recruiting agency that students clean schools themselves in Taiwan (and also apparently in Japan). I tried very hard—without success, I’m afraid—to see a similar such scenario unfolding in a typical American school and was immediately impressed by this particular Taiwanese social ethic.
By the end of this first, eventful day, I had signed a lease on an apartment, gone to the local hospital to complete my health check, and bought a few home living essentials from the local Walmart/Target-equivalent in Douliu City, CarreFour, which I think is a French company but I’m not sure. By the time I went to sleep that night, I’d been on the go for almost 36 hours and I don’t know that I’d ever been so happy to sleep on a floor mat in my life.
Douliu City is the main city in Yunlin County, located on Taiwan’s densely populated western coast (the one that faces China). It’s a small city (about 100,000 people call it home) and is principally a farming area. In recent years has suffered from a low birth-rate and a high rate of emigration to more populous and prosperous areas of Taiwan, which means it is one of the lesser developed areas of the country. On Mondays, I travel to a small, rural school in a township called Linnei that has 43 students (the first grade has only three students) in grades K-6, even smaller than the tiny elementary school that I attended as a kid in Stringtown, Oklahoma. The school is actually in danger of being closed by the government and the students bused to a larger school nearby but the teachers are dead-set on that not happening. Since I understand that a school is often an integral cornerstone of small rural communities, I hope they succeed.
My contract at my current job is only for four months and my plan is still to move to Taipei in August assuming the job I’m hoping to get works out as planned. Even so, I’m grateful for the opportunity to live in an area few foreigners visit in Taiwan. It’s afforded me a chance to interact with many people who probably haven’t seen many, if any, non-Taiwanese people in their lifetimes. Much of my daily life in Douliu is a matter of being a good sport about being the dumb foreigner, the one who needs extensive help ordering food because he can’t read the menu and yet tries not to go to Subway more than once or twice a week because he doesn’t want to be that foreigner. I just wrapped up my first four-day weekend (thanks to Children’s Day and Tomb Sweeping Day) in which I explored the city of Koahsiung on Taiwan’s southern coast with a new Taiwanese friend, Ryan, and even though it’s been less than two weeks since I moved to this country, I can already tell I’m going to love it. After all, what’s not to love about coconut palms and turquoise waters and genuinely nice people? Do you know? ‘Cause I sure as hell don’t.
I plan to visit Taipei for the first time next weekend and hopefully get a better of idea of whether or not it’s a place I want to live. In the meantime, it’s back to work tomorrow. Oh, did I mention I only work about six hours a day, teach about twenty hours a week, and live right across the street from where I work? No? Well, now I have. If you want to know what a dream set-up is for a Type B personality like me, that’s a pretty good idea of one. It’s okay to be jealous—I would be. Until next time, my friends.