Welcome To Taiwan
Getting directions to my abode in Chinese was easy… getting them in English, however, was another story. Even though “Yo,” my host, had English directions on the map that he sent me, there were several gaps, and parts that were difficult to decipher due to non-native grammar. I got as far as I did after numerous messages back and forth to try to clarify all the different parts, and then just prayed. A lot.
I arrived to the airport, walked out the front door, and found the buses into Taipei. Like many airports, TPE is about 45 minutes outside of the city center, in Taoyuan. I ask the bus driver for help, knowing by the number that it is the correct bus. He answers me in remarkably good but gruff English, directing me back inside the airport to buy a ticket for the ride into town.
I duly go back inside and ask to buy a ticket into town, and the attendant rolls her eyes at me and fires off a rapid string of Chinese, which is meaningless to me. I repeat the name of the stop I need to get off at, and show her the name in written Chinese on my map. She huffs annoyedly at me and fires off an amount in Chinese, holding her hand out for the money. She huffs some more when I don’t understand the amount I need to give her.
She proceeds to write the number down, and then state it loudly and slowly while glaring at me with a condescending look on her face and a sneer on her lips.
Jesus, this is almost as bad as we treat non-English speakers in the USA.
Eventually I get the amount paid and run back out to the bus, which is getting ready to leave. Glad to get back to a demonstrated English speaker, I beg the bus driver to tell me when we reach my stop, since I have no earthly idea where I am going, except for the name of the station in Chinese, which I can just barely grasp. It is well after 10pm at this point, and I am not in a happy-go-lucky state of mind.
Instead of responding, he just grunts angrily at me and points at the stairs, indicating I should get on. I explain again patiently that I need help finding the right stop, since I have NO IDEA where I am going, and can barely pronounce the name of my stop. He rolls his eyes theatrically and grudgingly assents, and again motions for me to get on the bus, this time angrily.
At this point, I realize that I’ve just landed myself in a country where I only speak 2 words of the language (hello and thank you). I am here to learn the language, starting from nil. This is straight off my bucket list, too, so I’ve not only asked the universe for this experience, I’ve begged for it.
My previous experience in Taiwan was barely 30 hours long but excellent, with kindness, fun and smooth transitions, and I was fully expecting a repeat of that.
Instead, the bus driver never does tell me when my stop is, and I spend the entire 40-minute bus ride anxiously straining my eyes and ears for any clue as to when I should get off the bus. I eventually do hear the name of my stop, and clamber off the bus with my large backpack, get my suitcase out and then realize I never did figure out exactly what to do from here.
Welcome to Taiwan.
A Proper Chinese Welcome (Reprise)
After 10 minutes or so of wandering up and down the street and starting to feel scared, a moped pulls up and slows down in front of me. The driver pulls of his helmet, looks right at me and and says “Sa… uhh… Sem…” and hoping beyond hope I respond “Samantha? Yeah, that’s me! Are you Yo?” He nodded, and motioned for me to follow him.
We get inside the house, and Yo explains to me that he is very sorry but the room I rented is not available. I didn’t understand why at the time, but it was because they had put someone else in my room by mistake, and didn’t want to kick them out until the morning. Yo says that they do have a smaller room available, and that he will give me a cash refund on the spot for my entire night’s payment as an apology for their mistake.
As soon as I understand the situation, and agree to accept the smaller room, he pulls out NT$800 (US$26) and hands it to me. The following morning at 9:30am, I move into the bigger room that I rented in the first place.
Now that’s customer service done right.
Am I Learning Chinese? Uhh, No. But at Least I’m Not Going Hungry
After one week in Taipei, I learned a grand total of 2 new Mandarin words, the word for “oil” (yo2) and “rice,” (fang2), which when put together as “yo2 fang2” indicate “oil rice,” one of the most delicious things I have tasted here in Taiwan, and which I ordered at least once every other day. So now I’m up to a whopping 4 words. Whoop de doo.
One of the reasons I was not spending time/energy learning Mandarin was because I met a vegetarian British guy during my first search for food in Taipei. I met him a 2-minute walk from my apartment, at what turned out to be a vegetarian street food vendor.
Michael was very kind, and extremely helpful in showing me how to search for vegetarian-friendly food establishments in Taipei, and took me to 3 or 4 of his favorites over my week in Taipei, as well as connecting me with numerous helpful resources. He clued me in on so much basic survival knowledge about Taipei and Taiwan that I am eternally grateful to him.
I still spent quite a few hours searching for food and just trying to figure out the area, but I felt much safer with the places Michael showed me to fall back on, and at least I didn’t go hungry.
Taipei (台北市) - The Good
When I showed up to use the Tokyo metro system for the first time from Narita international airport, I had a complete emotional meltdown. I did okay, and got where I needed to go, but it was not a pleasant or easy experience.
This time, however, I arrived to my accommodation by bus, and accessed Taipei’s MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) system only after a solid night’s sleep. Also, I didn’t have to get anywhere specific – I just went on the MRT to figure it out and get used to it, so I would know what to do when I –did- need to get somewhere. I bought a frequent-use pass so I could just swipe it at the entry machines instead of having to buy a ticket every time.
In addition to the benefits of past experience, Taipei’s MRT system has waaaay better English signage than Tokyo’s train stations do, and I had time to study the bilingual English/Mandarin maps in advance, and plan out some routes to help me learn the ropes.
Context is huge.
So through my second day in Taipei I gleefully zipped around the city via the MRT tourist style. I loved the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, and enjoyed inserting myself into the visiting group of Japanese students. I was so excited to understand what was happening for once!
The “changing of the guard” ceremony at the memorial was surreal. I thought the men on the two podiums were wax mannequins. My sense of reality warped and the skin on the nape of my neck stood up rigidly when they started moving. I was so disturbed by the eerie sensation that I got a full body chill, and I know I’m not the only one. I’m not much interested in military things, but the ceremony was enjoyable to watch, and I especially liked watching all the people watching the ceremony.
I hiked on three separate days in Taipei, and these hikes were some of the highlights of my time there. Taipei is remarkably easy to get around in because of the MRT, and there are even multiple mountains that you can take the MRT to the bottom of, walk five minutes and then start climbing. Both mountains I hiked had carved-stone stairs most of the way to the top, and gorgeous views of the city. The base of one of the mountains was only twenty steps from the entrance to my apartment, so I climbed that one twice.
Taipei (台北市) – The Double-Plus-Ungood
Further complicating things, I didn’t bring any non tropical-heat-appropriate clothing with me to Taiwan, so I ended up wearing 5-6 layers on top and 2 layers on the bottom. I didn’t bring an umbrella, either, though I did pick up a cheap one after a couple days. I wore my yoga pants as long johns to try to keep warm, but failed. I took 30-minute showers where I would scald my skin from wanting the water so hot… and still not warm up.
I kept trying to warm up every way I could though, as I still had a huge backlog of work to catch up with from being mostly offline for almost 2 weeks. The hikes helped especially, but even then I would cool off within half an hour after finishing. I got so cold that my fingers were refusing to type, which I consider a Bad Sign.
Then the morning of day 5 the hot water in the shower went kaput.
I called up my host (he lives downstairs) and begged for help through my teeth chattering and my body shivering, feeling yucky and cold and jetlagged and at my wits’ end. I had gotten in the shower to warm up, but because the water temperature was only luke-cool, I ended up feeling colder, and even more miserabler. Yes, grammar check software, I know “miserabler” isn’t a word, nor is “more miserabler” correct grammar. But it makes me happy, so deal with it.
Fortunately, my host took pity on me, and not only brought me a second quilt, but consented to bring and let me use an electric radiant heater. Blessed be, I could type again!!! It took me 2 days wrapped in 2 quilts and with the heater on full blast for my room and I to fully warm up, but I was ecstatically happy to be warm again.
Taipei did finally start warming up a bit by my last day there, and the clouds cleared up, but by that point I had already decided to head south to warmer climes. I bought a high-speed rail ticket to Tainan a couple hundred miles south, where it averages 5-7°C (10-15°F) warmer, and is considerably drier, and soon was on my merry way.