December 15, 2009

Friday August 21st: The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Insane

(Authors Note: For those of you wondering how I can describe these experiences which happened well over 3 months ago so accurately, I promise I am not making all of this up. I have taken [and continue to take] painstakingly detailed notes about my days which help me to paint the pictures you now read. Certain romantic liberties are always taken, however, but I consider these my journalistic and literary right. Thank you once again for reading).

As I walk home, my thoughts scatter around like the points of light that reflect off of my metal surroundings and catch my eye like harmless spears of God. I mumble to myself, my dry lips moving slowly, adding up figures, calculating departure and arrival times, my brain tightening the slack on my mental budget. "Yeah, its going to be close" I say out loud, but the whine from the multitude of passing scooters screams over my worried whisper. It is true, I have not gotten here alone, financially or otherwise. I have swallowed my pride many times in the last few years and taken support when it has been offered - much of the largess probably even forgotten by its givers. But although I now own new debts which have helped make this trip possible (and which I will NOT forget), I had hoped that this adventure would mark a turning point for me. When I left Texas less than two weeks ago, Dad had given me $100, saying "this is the last you'll ever get from me". He said it with a smile and I knew that he was less than serious, but I realized that this was an important moment in my life. This was the last time I would rely on my father, or anyone else, to help me (financially) make my way or to acquire the things I desired. I am twenty-five years old. I am smart and independent. It is time to accept adulthood. It is time to be on my own.

This is not to say that Dad or the various other people in my life wouldn't rescue me if I was drowning, and truthfully, that notion of security is one of the reasons I can take such risks where others cannot. But it feels exhilarating and terrifying to be out in the rain, out from under the umbrella. Let's hope I won't have to run for cover so soon after my long-awaited liberty.

I turn the corner at the stoplight, glancing into a small shop where a weathered-looking man is staring blindly at a small silent television, the concrete floor of his store littered with green coconuts. The sun is gaining momentum behind me as I walk toward the bridge, my flip-flops making slapping sounds on the uneven blacktop, the cars and scooters flying past close enough for me to feel the air they move and their exhaust on my ankles. As I look ahead, I notice two white men on bicycles, both in white button-down t-shirts, both with sandy brown hair. I smile instinctively, trying to contain my excitement at seeing Westerners other than my co-workers, as these encounters have not happened at all since I've been here. They cycle past me, but then quickly throw on the brakes and turn around, peddling back to where I have stopped to wait for them.

"Hello!" they both gush enthusiastically, as if they were both being reunited with a childhood friend. I return the salutation, my voice involuntarily slipping into a friendly Texas drawl. Names are exchanged but theirs are forgotten almost immediately, as if snatched away by some invisible claw in the space between their mouths and my ears. (I really have got to improve my name-remembering ability). They ask me about my "Taiwan experience", to which I reply that I am "just off the boat" (my new favorite expression) which seems to impress them in a sort of "remember when" kind of way. Shortly, I come to discover that unlike me, they are not here to educate; they are here to convert.

FACT: As of 2007, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (better known as the Mormons) had over 50,000 missionaries working around the world. However, although traditional Christianity may be able to boast higher numbers in terms of "troops on the ground", the average Mormon mission is arguably more intense than working in a Central American hospital or camp for two weeks. Most Mormon missions last two years, during which time the missionary's sole purpose to try to talk to people who would rather put their hand in a blender than discuss Joseph Smith and his crazy golden tablets.

"Now hold on, Tommy" you say, "it's not fair to jump straight into assumptions that Mormonism is some kind of cult". And normally, I would stand by this rebuke, shielding myself from Conservatives behind the first amendment freedom of religion and my belief that we, as human beings, can never fully know or understand the Truth and it is, therefore, not our place to reprimand others for their beliefs when our own could be just as flawed. However, this argument crumbles in the plastic, smiling faces of the Mormons in front of me who ooze congeniality like they eat lovable cartoon characters for breakfast. I mean, come on! NO ONE is this genuinely happy and completely agreeable! And, as hard as I fight it, I begin to feel myself being sucked into their infectiously peppy personalities, being drawn closer as if I am a recovering alcoholic that smells the sweet scent of whiskey on another's breath.

This, I firmly believe, is why Mormonism (principally a Christian denomination separated from that distinction by their belief that the Book of Mormon - based on the writings of Joseph Smith - is a Holy text) is such a successful sect; Mormons, for all their disagreements with Christian doctrine, have somehow managed to take the message of Love that Jesus Christ taught and manifest it in their daily lives. To see this Love in practice, one either has two reactions: The first (the one I now experience) being "these guys are full of shit. No one can really be this overflowing with goodwill unless they are on prescription medication", and the second one being a feeling of uncomfortable awe because of how drastically their actions oppose everything we, as members of society, have come to expect from fellow human beings. In either case, the feelings summoned by an encounter with Mormons can be defined as negative, but only because we are so unused to being exposed to such genuine affability.

On the other hand, perhaps the notion of "too good to be true" applies here, and their kindness is nothing more than a sales pitch for someone to idolize and follow blindly to a new belief system. While that is a bit overly pessimistic for my taste, I can't help but wonder what is behind the curtain. As I turn down requests to attend the Mormon service on Sunday but accept my new acquaintances' cards as consolation, I am tempted to ask them out for drinks, though I know they will decline my invitation just as I have declined theirs. What would they say about their church, their Mission, their LIVES after eight or nine rounds? Would they retain their happiness, their shiny dispositions once the alcohol forced the honesty from their bodies, or would I see the rust under their bellies and the frustration and angst in their words that I secretly wish hides inside them because it hides inside me? Do I just want to see them at my level, to destroy their attempt at Love because mine has failed so many times before? As the conversation draws to a close and I continue on my journey home, I wonder how the conversation would go between we three Believers, and what God would have to say about it.

* * * * *

That night, after recovering for a bit, I walked the 20 minutes to the RT Mart to find some dinner. I have put myself on a $100 NT ($3 US) a day food budget, which still might not be frugal enough, but I'm hoping the cut-back will allow me to make it through the next few weeks without crawling back to Dad's generosity. I am starving, so I head straight for the bakery, knowing that carbs are the cheapest and fastest way to fill one's stomach. After perusing through various muffins, breads and pastries, I finally settle on dinner: donuts. A bag of five costs $40 NT, and although they look soggy and unappealing, I know they will be filling and the sugar will give me a boost. I head to the check-out, pay in change, and eat the entire bag before I get back to my apartment. "So much for eating healthy and staying in shape over here" I think, but if there is one thing I've learned, it's that eating healthy is expensive, and I have now switched to survival mode. Let's hope I start earning some money before I break 200 pounds and find myself with extra chins. I go to sleep late, my stomach protesting loudly at the lack of nutrition that I have forced upon it.

November 16, 2009

Friday August 21st: The Necessities of Lying to Legally Smuggle One's Self Into A Foreign Land OR Who Taught Texas Grammar?

After the successful performances by all the summer school classes and the amazing rendition of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" by Rex and Yuta, summer school is dismissed and the crowded lobby begins to clear as students are whisked away by parents and school buses. The Chinese teachers stay and continue working, preparing for the arrival of the new semester. I stay as well, along with Connie, in order to try and book an upcoming flight to a different country so that I may, eventually, have the appropriate paperwork to legally work in Taiwan. Let me explain.

Before leaving for Taiwan, I did quite a bit of research to determine exactly what I NEEDED to bring so that everything would go smoothly. I didn't want there to be any hang-ups; in my mind, I only got one shot at this thing, and if it didn't work I wouldn't have the money (or the secured job) to try and do it again. I discovered that the list of required documentation was pretty short, but some of the items weren't necessarily easily obtained. I will enumerate the checklist that hung like a bladed pendulum over my head for the final month before I left, inching closer and closer as the days counted down.

1. Passport - Thankfully, I had already gotten my U.S. Passport LAST summer when I thought that this trip was a possibility then, but dragged my feet too much to follow through and ended up wandering around the United States for 12 months. Although I still have the better part of a decade before mine expires, anyone coming to work overseas should be sure to have at least two years before expiration.

2. Passport Photos - Of course, I waited until four days before I left to have these taken, but the process was easy and inexpensive. Several websites informed me to bring at least 12, which I did. However, since I got here several other teachers have expressed that this is probably not going to be enough, so I may have to find some way to have more taken or forge copies. If I could set back the clock, I'd get twenty, just to be safe.

3. University Diploma - For most, this item would probably be pretty easy to come by. Just go in the bathroom (where I WOULD have hung my diploma), take it out of the frame, fold it neatly and put it in your wallet. However, for me, this item took over a year to secure, and was one of the largest factors that went into me NOT going to Taiwan immediately following graduation (as was the original plan). See, instead of using my student loans to pay my tuition expenses, I decided that I needed a new computer. This is a decision that I still do NOT regret (for I use this purchase roughly 3-4 hours a day), but because of it I owed an outstanding debt to the University of Missouri which I didn't have the means to pay until shortly before I fled the country. It did feel mighty satisfying, I must admit, to stroll into the Cashiers Office at Mizzou and finally get that $40,000 unimpressive piece of paper. (Keep in mind that everyone in Taiwan requires your ACTUAL diploma, not a copy - however, as soon as you give it to them, they make a copy and give it back to you).

4. Travel Visa - Procuring this, by far, was the most arduous task of all. Growing up in the U.S., I never had to think about visas or borders; I just drove for hours, catching glimpses of state signs as the sun was rising out of the misty summer half-light. (For example: "Welcome to Kansas - We're Sorry" or "The Lone Star State - Drive Friendly" where the word "friendly" is not actually an adverb...the correct way to say this would be "Drive Friendily", but "friendily" is not a word at there IS no correct way to say it.) Even Mexico was always just a short drive and a hassel-free border stop away. However, now that my world was being broadened to an international scope, I had to consider how to get INTO these nationalities without swimming or hiding amid a herd of goats in the back of an old toothless man's trailer. Luckily, for almost all countries, the U.S. Passport will allow one to visit for up to 30 days without any kind of problems. Unluckily, This did me no good because it would take longer than 30 days to process my Alien Resident Card, which means that the government would have put me on a flight home before I became a legal alien resident. To solve this problem, I needed a 60-day visitors visa, which would require a special application process.

This application process demanded that I produce all documentation showing WHY ON EARTH would anyone, especially I, need to stay in the country of Taiwan for longer than 30 days, as well as explicit proof that I would be leaving before my 60 day visa expired. I needed a letter explaining what I was going to do and see in Taiwan. I needed a bank account statement showing I had sufficient funds to do and see all the things in my letter (which was tricky because I didn't actually HAVE any money). I needed an actual ticket or itinerary showing my departure flight and date from Taipei back home to the U.S. Naturally, I didn't have any of these things - I had no travel plans, no money, and a one-way ticket - so I lied.

Less than a week before I was scheduled to leave, I forged bank account statements and round-trip flight itinerary, and constructed a letter detailing my fake travel plans (which prompted my father to ask if I majored in "bullshit"). I sent these, along with my passport and $360 U.S. (for rush service and application fee) off to Washington D.C. to have them processed by VisaHQ, an online visa service that seemed reliable enough and promised my visa and passport would be returned in time for my departure. My other option, instead of going through a visa processing service like VisaHQ, was to drive to Houston and visit the Republic Of China (R.O.C.) Embassy in person, which I imagined to be like the DMV only without fluent English speakers. The online service seemed like the logical choice.

Sure enough, two days before I was set to leave (which would have been impossible without my passport), a FedEx Express envelope was found leaning against the front door of my dad's house. I opened it with anticipation, excited to see my visa and finally be free from the stress of this whole complicated situation, and instead found a letter apologizing; "Your visa application has been denied..." Damnit. Apparently, my forged itinerary had fabricated my "return" date for only 26 days after my arrival, and the letter cheerfully informed me that, because I would be staying less than 30 days, I wouldn't need a 60-day visa after all! I knew that sucking at math would come back to haunt me eventually....what was I thinking?

So now, back in the teacher's area of Miro, Connie and I must book a flight for me to LEAVE the country, then re-enter with a 60-day travel visa. This process is actually quite common and is called a "visa run", but at the moment I am sweating because I am almost out of money and truly cannot afford to go gallivanting around Asia, even if it IS necessary for my prolonged stay. One of the Chinese teachers, Mia, who is very nice but seems extremely busy, finds a cheap round-trip flight to Macao through a travel agent for a little over $6000 NT (just about $200 U.S.) that leaves the following Thursday, and I tell her to book it. My options are either Macao or Honk Kong, and rumor has it that the Taiwan Embassy in Macao is a piece of cake, so that's where I will go. I thank Connie and tell Mia I will bring the money and my passport next week, and head home, wondering how I am going to make it to payday (September 5th) without going completely broke. "Oh well" I think, "You can always do what you did in Colorado, and not eat for a week or so". I suppose I COULD lose a little weight, and now I get to travel to yet ANOTHER country - even if it is for only two days. Besides, what fun would this adventure be if everything went according to plan and I didn't have to tiptoe on the edge of survival for a while? All good stories must find the protagonist up against the odds so that he may eventually overcome and emerge the hero that everyone believed he could be. Or, you know, starve to death. Whichever comes first.

November 8, 2009

Friday, November 6th: Round Up The Usual Suspects (First Trip To Taipei's "Nightlife")

Since making some new friends a couple of weeks ago, weekends have regained their familiar place as the time to "unwind" after a long work week of spelling tests and runny noses; however, while most think of unwinding as a relaxing pursuit, unwinding among twenty-somethings in Taiwan is defined much the same as it was when I was in college - namely, drinking until we all do things we will not be proud of when the morning sun shines light on our torn shirts, bloody knees and heavy eyes. Though I can no longer claim the stamina or tolerance that I proudly called my own in my university days, I am thankful that I now have something more to do on the weekends than just sleep until noon, explore aimlessly on foot and watch Bruce Willis movies alone in my one-room mansion.

Walking home from work on Friday evening, my friend Jamil sends me a text message: "Let's hit the Taipei nightlife tonight. What you say?"

I have been in this country for almost three months and have yet to visit its largest and most "energetic" city. Part of the reason for this has been lack of expendable funds, part has been fear of being in a massive foreign city by myself, which I have never done save for my limited experience in Macao (a decidedly more English friendly tourist city). However, now with this month's freshly deposited paycheck waiting to be tapped and at least one friend to go with, any reservations I have been nurturing are slaughtered at the hands of my ravenous sense of adventure. "Pick you up at nine" texts Jamil. I shower and am ready by 8:00 p.m.

Before getting on the bus to Taipei we stop off to pick up a couple of Jamil's friends, a Frenchman by the name of (can you guess it?) Pierre and a Moroccan Frenchman who goes by "Face", and to wait for our British friend Marc to finish giving a guitar lesson. I have never been in the company of Frenchmen before, but they seem to fit into the preconceived stereotypes that I have been doing my best to shake since I left the States; they are smooth and friendly, well-dressed and well-groomed. After everyone arrives we hop the bus to Taipei, passing a bottle of Scotch whiskey around and drinking beer, talking too loudly and trading questions and answers about each other's personal histories and cultures. I learn that Face is from the city of Casablanca, and I do my best Humphrey Bogart impression, which falls flat because no one else has seen the movie. As we talk and laugh and drink it amazes me that six months ago everyone I associated with was from the same state, or even the same town. Now, between the five guys disturbing the other passengers from the back of the bus, we represent four continents (Jamil - Honduras [Central/South America], Pierre and Marc - France and the U.K., respectively [Europe], Face - Morocco [Africa], and me [U.S.A], can speak just as many languages, and are going drinking in one of the larger cities in East Asia.

The bus fare is $105 NT ($3.40 US) for the hour-long trip to Taipei, and though I'm not exactly sure what time we arrive, it is probably approaching midnight when we all pack into one cab and pull up to our first destination. Upon getting out of the cab, Marc asks where Taipei 101 is. "Oh, you can't see it now," replies Jamil "its over there, but the buildings are in the way". Marc laughs. "The tallest building in the world and we can't even see it over the buildings?!" I, too, am disappointed, but the alcohol consumed on the way up is beginning to take effect and the lights and sounds of the city are igniting my senses. I soon forget the tallest building in the world and focus my attention on the activity at street level.

I am not exactly sure what the names of the bars are called or how Jamil knows how to find them (I guess he HAS been in this country for a while, now), but I soon find myself gliding up the side of a building in an elevator and slipping through well-dressed men and woman at an upscale lounge. A waitress comes and takes our drink orders, I order the margarita martini for a taste of home. At $300 NT a piece the martinis are not terribly overpriced by U.S. standards, but expensive enough to keep us from ordering a second and we soon leave the pounding house music in search of something a little cheaper and somewhere a little crazier. The next bar is, literally, underground. We descend the black staircase and pay the $600 NT cover charge, which would usually elicit complaints; however, this fee also included all of one's drinks for the evening.

Forgive me if the following seems to lack detail or description. These were both lost somewhere in the music and the tequila sunrises:

We drink tequila sunrises. I switch to whiskey & cokes at some point and never look back. The deejays are Asian, but have dreads and wear N.B.A. jerseys. I remember singing some remix of Red Hot Chili Peppers when one of the deejays holds the microphone in front of me. (Yeah, I am "that guy"). I dance. A lot. We meet a girl who claims she is from Miami, Florida but looks and acts very Taiwanese. We call her Miami the rest of the night. I jump up on the stage. I dance until my legs hurt. Miami bites me on the shoulder, I still have no idea why. We leave the club and I buy everyone sausages from a street vendor, but eat it so fast that I burn the hell out of my tongue. We wander around a corporate park for what seems like hours. I buy a stick of gum from a homeless lady for $100 NT. I let some random Taiwanese man use my sim card from my phone. I lose my shirt. Jamil finds my shirt in Miami's purse. I begin to think Miami is a little crazy.

After this the night fades to black, like a movie where the protagonist is poisoned and all the audience sees is his world blurring, spinning, and stopping. When my memory resets itself I am in a two-story McDonalds and the sun is rising. I eat the over-processed calorie-laden sustenance without tasting it. I feel ashamed that I have broken one of my rules of living in Taiwan (never eat something you can get back home), but my body has convinced my brain that I will die without ingesting something that begins with "Mc" and will surely end with a stomach ache. We leave the McDonalds and drag our feet along the sidewalk; the sun has been born once again. People are heading to work, glancing quickly at us as they pass. I'd like to think that they smile inside, remembering a past life when days and nights melted into each other in a seamless haze, when they too were young, irresponsible, invincible.

We take the bus home and Marc and I talk about Southpark, music and video games while everyone else sleeps. My body begs for sleep, my veins need rest to strain all the poison from my blood and make me new again, but I fight on, prolonging the inevitable until it will be sweetest. Finally back home, I draw the curtain and collapse into bed, succumbing to exhaustion. My muscles shudder and stop, my lungs exhaling fumes in shallow breaths while the world slowly grinds on without me far below. I will not dream, and the memories of the night that should be saved will elude my sleeping mind and be lost forever to the ringing in my ears. But there will be more memories to erase, more nights to embrace this life. Don't wake me I plan on sleeping in...

November 3, 2009

Friday, August 21 2009: It Doesn't Matter Who's Wrong Or Right

The end of my first full week of teaching comes without much in the way of fanfare or any "congratulations! You didn't screw everything up immediately!" from my colleagues or superiors. I guess this is because I have been trying to disguise the fact that I have no idea what I'm doing, and my faux-confidence seems to be doing the trick. I, on the other hand, am thrilled with my relative success (or lack of failing disaster) and silently praise my own accomplishments. I tend to be my own biggest fan sometimes, but this helps keep my chin up and allows me to live independent of the opinions of others, which can be fickle or damaging to the foundations of my self-esteem. There are, however, a small number of opinions I value very highly...I'm sure you know who you are...

Today in summer school my class is to perform the song "Wonderwall" (if you want the full effect, you can listen to the actual version here:, but no one in class seems nearly as nervous as I. This is probably because, of the 18 eight, nine, and ten year-olds in my class, only four or five have decided they are going to try and sing the lyrics. The rest are content with mumbling along incoherently or not even making an attempt at all. It's a shame; apathy seems to be claiming younger and younger victims these days. I remember being at LEAST twelve before doing this kind of thing in school became lame. Regardless, as the hour of our "performance" draws nearer the lack of participation begins to unsettle me, not only because I fear I will be the ONLY person singing to a room full of Taiwanese children but also because I do not want the faculty to think me an "uninspiring" teacher. Time to pull out the secret weapon: choreography.

It is a well-known fact that children love to beat on things and to make as much noise as possible. Why is this? My theory suggests that because society has deemed loud children to be annoying and their creative expression - at least when it bursts forth in the form of shrieks, yells or disruptive, deafening banging sounds - is to be suppressed and not tolerated, kids naturally rebel against this oppression whenever possible. Its almost sad because at some point most of us lose this spirit of individuality and rebellion; the world says "we don't want to hear what you have to say," so we bite our tongues, tie our shoes, and keep our heads down. What ever happened to "making a joyful noise to the Lord?" Or simply allowing our voices to carry into the heavens, the waves rippling out into space forever, tiny pulsating evidences of our fleeting existence echoing off the walls of eternity?

It is also a well-known fact that Taiwan has a readily available supply of disposable wooden chopsticks, of which I now had in my possession thanks to a Chinese teacher who had raided the local 7-11's condiment and food accessories section hours earlier. Lucky for me, "Wonderwall" just so happens to have nice drum fill about halfway through the song, which I meticulously and skillfully choreograph by saying "Okay, GO!" and telling everyone to start banging on whatever is around them with their miniature, flimsy drum sticks when they hear the rapid snare drum pops on the CD. This creates both noise and laughter, and suddenly everyone is enthusiastic, knowing that maybe their small contributions will be heard. Never mind that no one can hear the music from the weak boom-box speakers anymore; at least we are having fun.

The performance comes and goes, my class does about how I expect them to - very little singing or enthusiasm, but their efforts are applauded and no one seems to be looking at us disapprovingly. After all of the classes finish their respective songs, the encore is herded onto the stage and subsequently steals the entire show. The "encore" is actually two elementary students, named Rex and Yuta (pronounced almost like the state), who have been coerced by fellow students and faculty into singing Michael Jackson's "Beat It". I am told that we have another Foreign Teacher to thank for teaching them this, a quiet-spoken Philippine, Maynard, who plays the original song through the computer's speakers while Rex and Yuta sing, from MEMORY, every word to the King of Pop's hit. I am floored, and cannot stop smiling as I exalt to everyone around me, "This is the GREATEST THING I HAVE EVER SEEN!" It is truly a spectacle, to see two ten year-old Taiwanese boys belting out a song usually reserved for drunken 2 a.m. Karaoke nights. I honestly can't imagine a better eulogy.

October 25, 2009

The Sticker On The Bathroom Wall Asks The Question: "What Are We Going To Do About The U.S.A?"

I realize that I have been lazy. As it happens, just like with anything else, even the things we love doing most can begin to wear us down and become a chore rather than a pleasure if the proper steps aren't taken to fan the flames of enthusiasm. A couple of weeks ago I discovered that my blog entries totaled over one hundred pages - a good start to my novel, and an even better resting place. I needed to catch my breath. But I am back now and have decided that, thanks to some suggestions, I am going to try to do things a little differently. First, I am going to try to write less but say more, which is difficult for me because I love to ramble and use endless commas and semicolons. No one should ever accuse me of excessive conciseness or brevity in my life or my writing, but I have always admired those men who are described as being a "man of wisdom with little words". Perhaps I can be more like them. Secondly, now that a decent enough foundation of setting and mindset has been establish concerning the first week of my adventure, I plan on swinging back and forth between past and present, which will help show what I am doing NOW as well as the events that led me here. Although this might be devastating to my narrative cohesiveness, it will help me to stay inspired. Living in the past can be tiring even though I believe reflection is important. Besides, I can iron it all out later, and chronology isn't a huge concern for me right now; perhaps one day my publisher will disagree.

Last night I was invited to a birthday party by a girl named Janneke, a South African whom I met when I was trying to find an apartment in my first few days here. Janneke had listed a place on a popular expat Taiwanese website, and since our initial correspondence we have talked occasionally on the internet, me always promising to, in typical exaggerated Texas swagger, come out with them and show them how a real American could "drink them under the table". Having no excuse not to go (previously money has always been a deterrent), I walked the three minutes to the 7-11 across the street from the Hsinchu General Hospital and shared a cab with Janneke and her friends Robert and Lucy, all South Africans of varied ages. It was my first time meeting any of them, and they were friendly although they mostly spoke their first language, Afrikaans, which discovered is closely related to German or Dutch. I didn't mind, though, as I have become used to people speaking languages I cannot understand.

The night went exceptionally well, and evolved into something of a bar tour of Hsinchu. The first stop was at a tiny bar in Nanliao - the fishing harbor by the ocean. The establishment was run by a man named Ahur, who I likened to a Taiwanese hippie, and who was drunk when we arrived at 8:30 and continued to become friendlier and more talkative as the toasts went up and down. At one point in the evening he put his arm around me and we talked for a few minutes about his travels around the world and some of the things he has seen. His English was excellent, almost native sounding, and I was fascinated by his life.

The bar itself was even less formal than its proprietor. There was not actually any "bar", from what I could tell, and if one wanted a drink they simply had to find Ahur or one of his friends, who would cooly slip behind a curtain and disappear from sight, emerging seconds later with one's beverage of choice. The decor was amazing, the walls completely covered with posters, records, photographs, magazine cutouts; the furniture was warm and inviting, mostly couches and hand-carved wooden stools. The music was played through a small but powerful set of speakers connected to a computer in the corner, and the South Africans seemed comfortable enough to take control away from the deejay often, which contributed to a strange mix of techno, Afrikaans music and American pop as the soundtrack for the evening. When the small bar became too hot or crowded, or when one of the drunk South Africans shattered a glass of red wine on the floor, the party would spill into the street and onto the wooden dock opposite the bar, and dancing or smoking would ensue as the wet night air swept away the sweat and the darkness of the ocean lapped against the wooden pillars. I hadn't seen stars since leaving Texas on the night when Katherine and I had escaped into the night. In Nanliao, we were just far enough away from the city lights that the brightest ones burned through the cloudy atmosphere. It was nice, romantic, and the warm tequila and cold beer left my lips feeling numb and my head feeling light and carefree.

After midnight we took a cab back to Hsinchu where we stopped in a little bar district and had a couple drinks. Apparently, this area is where all the Westerners go during the weekends, and it was strange to see so many of us in one place. I met a girl named Emily from Ontario, a guy named Russell from Scotland, and a kid from Michigan who had arrived in Taiwan less than 24 hours earlier. I met an middle-aged man named Sean who told me he produced adult films because, and I quote: "The girls will do anything for almost no pay". After allowing me to awkwardly stutter some response about the value of pornography in today's society, he handed me his card which read "Sales Manager for the Gram English Center", and informed that he did not, actually, produce adult films. "When you told me you had only been here two months, I had to mess with you" he said. I drank to gullibility.

We finished the night at a "club", or possibly the closest thing to a club that Hsinchu has to offer. It was not my scene, but I didn't want to be rude and leave the party early, even though it was almost 4:00 in the morning. I didn't dance much, but made a new friend in Joanita, a very pretty South African girl with big dark eyes, and we talked loudly over the beating house music and watched the evening's stragglers dance clumsily on the lighted dance floor. Afterward, I showed the girls into the cab and walked home through the cool autumn air, the light from the new day whispering into the horizon and warming the grey-sky morning.

While this night was good and marks the first time I have really been "out" since my arrival in Taiwan, it was no different than anything I could've done back home in the States. The descriptions are mostly to lay foundation for my commentary which is as follows:

First, last night was the first time I have had to clarify the statement "I am from Texas" with "Texas...United States". In the U.S., it is a given that everyone you meet knows where Texas is, or has at least HEARD of Texas and understands it to be a part of America. However, as Americans we take this knowledge for granted and do not realize that our identities, insofar as our specific home makes up our identity, must be simplified as we broaden our horizons. No longer is my home a house or an address or a city or state; my home is now a NATION, which serves to both inspire pride and national identity, but also to create a small feeling of ambiguousness - a homeless feeling, like you belong everywhere and nowhere all at the same time.

Secondly, last night is the first time I have ever been "attacked" for no other reason than because I am an American. This attack came from a South African girl, a friend of a friend of Janneke's, who was VERY drunk and very obviously wanted to take me home with her (I am not being arrogant here...she was disgustingly indiscreet). However, her tactics for wooing me was to continually insult my nationality, which she must have likened to flirting, but which I likened to insulting. On top of all this, she was far too drunk or too rude to learn my name and insisted on calling me "Bob", while I made a strong effort to learn everyone's name, as well as the correct pronunciation. I listened quietly along with other wide-eyed Taiwanese locals while famous South African songs were being played on the stereo and the South African National Anthem was being sung loudly throughout Ahur's bar . I tried to speak little of America, though it is difficult to speak of much else because it is all I have known in 25 years, and asked many questions about culture and language different from my own. Yet, despite my concentrated effort at open-mindedness, I was still accused of arrogance and small-thinking.

I realize now that this girl was probably too intoxicated to know how judgmental and hypocritical she was being, and she was definitely a poor representation of South Africans as a whole, who are very friendly and generally accepting. However, they are also passionate and they love their country and, from what I have seen, are not afraid to display their national pride. So why the double-standard? Why are South Africans allowed to revel in the colors of their country while American have to live in fear that we will be labeled as arrogant or boastful if we speak or celebrate our home? Perhaps, as I see more of this world and meet more fellow travelers who have left their homes I will understand and sympathize more, I will begin to see the ugliness of American pride. Or maybe, just like as a middle-class white male in America can never really identify with centuries of oppression or socioeconomic determinism that flourishes in the undercurrents of American society, I will always be blind to the reasons why Americans are despised because I am not on the outside looking in. Maybe my mere existence is a testament to the perceived superiority of American ideology. I hope all of this becomes more clear as the world gets smaller and the list of places I have called home gets bigger.

Ahur's bar in Nanliao (photo courtesy of Joanita Stander)

One of my favorite lines from the movie "Into The WIld":

Man: "Hello! Where are you from?"

Alexander Supertramp: "I haven't decided yet."

October 11, 2009

All The Roads That Lead Us There Are WInding, And All The Lights That Light The Way Are Blinding

Thursday morning I wake up refreshed but sore and roll slowly into a sitting position on the edge of my box spring, rubbing my eyes and willing myself to walk to the shower so that the day can begin. I faintly remember waking sometime last night to take out my contacts and put on boxers before returning to sleep, and now I undo both of these things and get in the shower. I have learned that the temperature of the water in the shower doesn't necessarily respond to the position of handle, and thus I usually settle for something CLOSE to satisfactory. Today the water is warmer than I would have preferred, but the heat seems to relax my muscles so I don't mess with it. After soaking up the soothing warmth for a few extra minutes, I turn off the shower and towel off, neglecting to shave. I usually don't like shaving everyday, and due to the lax working environment I doubt anyone will care, so I give my stubbly skin a break from the irritation of steel. Anyway, I think a hint of a beard makes me look more...genuine. As if my personality is so amiable that it does not need to be softened by a smooth exterior. That, and I am lazy.

Today is an exciting day, for today I begin working at the elementary school in addition to my morning shift as an English instructor for the Kindergartners. Although I am growing fonder of my Kindy kids by the day, all my previous experience with children has been with those a little older, mostly through my volunteer work as a counselor at Christian Hockey Camps in the hot St. Louis summers (where I usually mentored to 8-11 year old boys) and my limited stint as a substitute teacher in Louise, Texas (where I babysat middle-school and high-schoolers); therefore, I feel that I will be more comfortable around the elementary students and will be able to both teach and "control" them more effectively. I am not really sure what to expect - Connie has told me that I will be teaching a "summer school" class, but I have no idea what that entails, or why, suddenly, they have enlisted ME to teach the class which has been in session for weeks prior to my arrival. Not one to retreat from a new adventure and needing the hours in order to make enough money to pay the bills which seem closer than they really are, I walk to school briskly, looking forward to the afternoon.

The morning's patterns continue on as scheduled, and the fourth day of teaching my Kindergarten class goes better than each of it predecessors. Each day I am learning more and more, figuring out what works and what doesn't, adapting to each child's individual personality and reacting accordingly to how they each learn, communicate, and interact with me and with their classmates. I am sinking my teeth into the intangibles now, the things that no amount of college or instruction or reading or friendly warnings can prepare you for. Everything we do before we get to these intangibles teaches us WHAT it is to be something or to do something, but not until we are in over our heads do we actually learn HOW to be something or HOW to do something. I suppose this is why every employer is so insistent on job experience, because ultimately, this is the only experience that actually amounts to anything at all. As Henry Rollin says: "Knowledge without mileage equals bullshit" - this is fast becoming one of the favorite and most relevant proverbs in my life.

At 11:45 the Kindergarten class ends, and I exit to a few random "bye bye Teacher Tommy"s (although the word for "goodbye" in Chinese is "zia jian" - pronounced "zi [rhymes with 'die'] gen [as in 'genetic'], most Taiwanese people actually just say "bye bye", which is the less formal and friendlier way of saying goodbye - very easy for me to remember) and head upstairs to get lunch. Once again, lunch consists of rice, some seasoned beef, and a side of sliced guava. Very basic, but I suppose most Kindies in the States won't eat much outside of mac n' cheese and apple slices, so I blame the lack of culinary variety on the children's picky taste buds. It doesn't matter much to me anyway; all I taste is how "free" the food is. If there is one thing I have learned in my last two years of relative poverty, it's NEVER turn down free food.

After lunch, I walk up to the Elementary School, which takes about three minutes. The sun is doing some unknown, underhanded business behind a grey-tinted cloud, and the world can feel the effects of its shadiness as I glide along the sidewalk, catching fleeting reflections of myself in the mirrored shop windows. Upon entering the Elementary, I find Connie and ask her what exactly I am to be doing in this summer school class. I remind her that the class starts in less than an hour, and therefore I don't have much time to prepare anything, but she assures me that the class is extremely laid back and I should have no problem "winging it". Ahhh, yes. My specialty. Connie also tells me that this week in summer school the theme is "music", and that everyone is just learning about different instruments, musical styles, and making noise-making machines out of random scraps that are lying around; the one thing I DO need to prepare is a song that I will teach the children, and which we will perform on Friday (tomorrow). "The song should be something popular, but also something slow enough for them to learn the words and sing along to" she says, and I begin rifling through my massive mental library of music, sorting my favorites into "popular hits" and "unheard-ofs", then refining the category of popular hits into "slow songs" and "upbeat songs". Eventually, I feel like I have selected a good song, and Connie approves. The song is downloaded, put on a CD, and lyrics are printed. At 1:30, I climb the three flights on stairs to the small, drab classroom where eighteen 2nd and 3rd graders are waiting for me.

I am not nervous to be in front the grade-schoolers, but their apprehension feels more defined, and I am aware that these kids are old enough to smell fear. I use the same upbeat approach that has served me relatively well with the Kindergartners, speaking loudly and with enthusiasm, gesticulating with my arms and hands for emphasis. I introduce myself, telling the students that I am from "America", and their eyes light up with recognition. Apparently they have heard of America, and their attention has been momentarily captured. I ask each of their names, only understanding about half of the students due to their poor pronunciation skills or quiet speaking voices, but to keep them from getting frustrated I don't press them to articulate or speak up. (After all, I have an entire year to learn their names, and they won't really start to stick until the second or third week anyway).

After introductions are made, I begin to ask the kids what they have been doing up until my arrival, and they all seem eager to provide me with answers pertaining to the class. Although their English is not excellent, it is still refreshing to be able to communicate WITH my students rather than speaking AT them. With some difficulty and often having to ask for things to be repeated, I learn that earlier in the week they were introduced to musical styles and musical instruments. Using this as a segway, I find the large box of scrap paper, rubber bands, marbles, styrofoam, cardboard tubes, tape, and scissors that Connie had earlier said would be in the room, and drag it to the front of the class. "Now", I announce to my curious audience, "we are going to make instruments. The children seem very excited at this, and immediately begin digging into the box and working away, chattering excitedly in a combination on English and Chinese. I oversee production, and I'm genuinely impressed by some of their designs. There is something so beautiful about a child's mind; they are not concerned with functionality or symmetry or aesthetic beauty, they only want to create something unique, caring very little about how others will judge or interpret it. They put little pieces of themselves into everything they make, and send it out into the world proudly, allowing the world to be changed by their raw, beating creativity. For whatever reason, growing up suddenly makes us so concerned with how others view our work, we become so AFRAID that we will fail. We forget how it feels to invent something truly original and personal and unique, and keep all those pieces of ourselves locked inside where no one can laugh or scoff at our efforts. The world needs more pieces of me, pieces of you. It will grow cold without them.

After an hour or so, I think it is time to start learning our "class song", which I have chosen to be "Wonderwall" by Oasis. I find it fitting that my class is going to be singing this song, as Oasis' "What's The Story Morning Glory" was the first actual rock record I ever bought, and so many of the songs on that album still resonate so deeply as the music that opened my twelve year-old eyes to the world of rock n' roll, power chords, and thinly veiled lyrical metaphors about drugs and sex. I remember sitting and listening to the tracks over and over, allowing the music to fill me up and become a permeating soundtrack to my adolescence. Although I know that Oasis is now outdated and foreign and it will not have nearly the same effect on my class of 3rd grade Taiwanese kids as it did on me over a decade ago, it still hits a sentimental chord as I pass out the lyrics, press play on the CD player, and sing along loudly to a live version of "Wonderwall" that someone must have downloaded by mistake instead of the original version. We sing over the song five or six times, and I dodge questions between rehearsals: "What is wonderwall?" someone asks. Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe if we do some drugs we could find out.

Finally, class ends and I walk downstairs, ready to be finished for the day. Rehearsals went well and, although we are supposed to perform in front of the entire summer school tomorrow (not really as daunting as it seems, there are only around 40 kids total), I feel confident that we will do well. I chat with Connie for a minute and meet another teacher, Maynard, who is from the Philippines and speaks with a soft, soothing tenor voice. He seems friendly and experienced, and I feel he might be someone I could hang out with outside of school. I leave school around 4 o'clock, and the day is already feeling much cooler from the clouds and the setting sun. I walk home in a good mood, humming the tune to "Champagne Supernova" by Oasis in my head.

At home at last, I pass the rest of the evening reading and writing, and forgo dinner to save money. I also do my first load of laundry in my new apartment, which is a little confusing considering that ALL of the buttons on the small wash machine are in Chinese. I end up just smashing the controls until the machine starts filling up with water, then throw in what clothes will fit and closely monitor everything for the next 30 minutes to make sure nothing explodes and my clothes aren't destroyed. Everything seems to work out okay; my clothes smell better than before and don't seem to have holes in them. Success. I (miraculously) find a musty old box full of bent wire hangers out on my patio area, and use them to hang up my freshly washed t-shirts in my closet. My jeans I hang over a wooden rod that is suspended overhead on the patio, looking disapprovingly at them, knowing they will be stiff and uncomfortable in the morning. "Oh well", I think, "one more luxury you can learn to live without." I've gotten pretty good at roughing it.

October 2, 2009

Exploring Part II: The Gate To The Past And The Loss Of Humanity

I turn a corner, my eyes running along the street and eventually landing on East Gate, Hsinchu's most famous landmark and the unofficial heart of the city. I walk toward the giant stone structure, stopping to stand on the other side of the four-lane road that encircles the monument. Along the road, cars orbit clockwise and then tear from the landmark's gravity and carom off onto perpendicular streets, while along the outer circles of the sidewalk people move in all directions and without pattern or predictability. The entire spectacle reminds me of a solar system, or the structure of an atom, but without the laws of physics to govern the actions of the objects within the structure. There is only free will and change, and all of this spins madly around the sad, lonely relic of the past, its permanence a testament to both its integrity and its uselessness. "The world is moving much too fast for something so eternal. Buildings and people and beliefs and ideas must be born and die so that new ones can take their place. This world has no place for history" the people and cars say, failing to look up and see the beautiful sky darkening above the East Gate. "Remember" say the stone walls, but no one is listening.

I explore for a few hours, finding many shops that are of interest but nothing that carries any merchandise I cannot live without. The nice thing about having no money is that you begin to reevaluate what you truly need, and in the end, you realize that you can survive with almost nothing. Somewhere to sleep, somewhere to bathe. One meal a day. One pair of jeans, a couple t-shirts, a pair of shoes. A passport. These are the only things I truly need; everything else is a luxury that I can bypass at the moment. It seems that when the choice is present to "buy" or "not to buy", or deciding which thing to buy over some other thing to buy, an added element of stress is introduced into one's life. By completely removing the option of consumerism, I am no longer burdened by these choices and life becomes much simpler. That being said, I still believe that a pair of athletic shorts would improve the quality of my life, so these are fast becoming a part of my canon of "things I need to survive".

Eventually, I stumble upon a Nike outlet store not dissimilar to the one I saw at the RT Mart the day before, its entrance almost obscured by the sidewalk merchandise being flaunted by stores on either side. I go in, look around and am rather disappointed by the selection; after all, if I am going to be wearing these shorts every day, I want to feel comfortable - this means function AND fashion. I keep searching and soon find several more small outlet stores, each one much like the first in size and selection. (Note: One thing that is interesting about shoe stores in Taiwan is that ALL of the display shoes are wrapped in shiny plastic wrap to keep them looking new). After going in and out of several of these stores, I finally find one that has a pair of black Nike basketball shorts in my size. I don't bother trying them on, and pay almost $700 NT which I think is a little expensive by outlet standards, but the shorts seem pretty nice so I am not too concerned about spending a little extra. I'm sure I will get my money's worth from them. As I leave the outlet store with my small brown merchandise bag in hand I realize that I am very hungry and, having not eaten since lunch time, think that I cannot wait until I get home (because I have to FIND home first) before I eat. Once again, my familiar problem of not knowing any Chinese and thus not being able to place an food order plagues and limits my decision making, but I settle on a small shop called Pizza50 which is located right on the circle drive and stands in the shadow of the hulking, historic Gate. As I approach the window to order, I mentally justify my choice of restaurant - which most certainly is NOT a place specializing in local cuisine - by reminding myself how much I miss pizza and how hungry I am. We do not have Pizza50 in the States; therefore, it still counts as a cultural experience. Thankfully, the menu is subtitled in English, and although they have an expansive variety of pastas, wings, and other items one might find at a typical chain pizzeria-esqu place, I choose the "Hawaiian", which is topped with ham and pineapple. The teenager working the counter figures out what I want after I point and gesture in the shape of a large pizza with my hands (my options being an 20 cm [8 inch] pizza or smaller pizza-bagel) and my total comes to $180 NT, or about $5 US. Reasonable. I take a seat at one of the rusty patio-furnitute tables on the sidewalk and watch the cars pass, blurs of taillights and exhaust fumes.

The teenaged worker brings out my pizza about ten minutes later, and it is smaller than I expect it to be. I begin eating and notice several things immediately; first, there is no marinara sauce, or any sauce whatsoever, on my pizza. The cheese has been baked directly onto the crispy, thin crust, and thus the pizza is missing, in my opinion, one of the key elements of "pizza-ness" (to use Platonic terminology); second, there is CORN in the cheese. I'm not sure if this is a characteristic of my particular choice of pizza or of all Taiwanese pizza in general, but I am decidedly against it. I eat it anyway, not seeing a reason to waste perfectly good pizza corn, and the entire pizza is gone in less than five minutes. I am torn in my opinion of Pizza50, but my fullness and my relatively low starting expectations help to quell my disappointment in the lack of quality and, of course, the corn.

At this moment (I blame the corn), my stomach tells me that I must make way for the new addition to my digestive system. My stomach also makes it clear that this task cannot wait, it must be done NOW. Stupid, pushy stomach. Luckily, just as I am about to start panicking (as Hsinchu does not have an abundance of publicly accessible restroom facilities) I see a sign hanging from the corner of the Pizza50 building, brandishing a Pizza50 logo and an arrow that points down the alley along the side of the building. I follow the arrow and discover a small indoor dining room cleverly hidden in the dark avenue, inside the air-conditioning is burning and the tables and floors are clean. The room smells like disinfectant. I find a small hallway in the back of the room and make my way to the bathroom, my stomach beginning to knot in discomfort.

As I enter the bathroom, I am at a loss. There is no toilet. The only thing in the room, besides a single, bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, is a white porcelain bowl recessed into the ground with a small lever positioned behind it, a package of folded toilet tissues sitting on the sea-foam green tile floor at arm's length away. Well, hell. Now I remember reading about this in my research prior to leaving the States: Taiwan's infrastructure was not constructed with internal plumbing in mind, and therefore many public facilities, especially in older buildings, implement the "squatter toilet" for public use. I take a second to work out the logistics and positioning, and then... I will save anyone reading the unpleasantries. Suffice to say, it is a new and unforgettable experience. The luxuries we have become accustomed to at home do much to add a level of comfort to our lives, but also allows us to forget that, in essence, we are all nothing more than animals operating first on life's most basic levels. Money, clothing, fame, and power mean nothing when one is hovering six inches above a hole in the ground in the most degrading position known to man. It is truly a humbling experience. The squatter toilet is the great equalizer.

(Don't worry, my apartment has an ACTUAL toilet).

As I leave the bathroom and walk back out into the city street, I feel a clash between expectation and experience. The only other time I have had to "squat" to use the restroom has been on camping trips, and the closeness to nature allows one to ease more comfortably into undomesticated behavior, the trees and the feeling of seclusion easing the dissonance between the body's natural desires and the years of societal indoctrination regarding how a civilized person "ought to" behave. However, here there is no distance between civilization, with its norms and rules, and the natural and unapologetic acts that are so distinctly human. I feel a slight tinge of guilt, as if I had violated some unspoken statute and succumbed to the animalistic instincts that we are taught, from birth, to repress and to be ashamed of. I have desecrated the city. I look up to see the East Gate looking down on me, its illuminated face warmly watching me. It tells me not to worry, that it remembers when there were no buildings, no restaurants, no internal plumbing. It tells me it remembers a time when human beings embraced their humanity, their human-ess, instead of drowning themselves in technology, in materialism, in progress. Look how far we have come, but at what cost? Have we sacrificed what it means to be human, or enhanced it? The old Gate doesn't know the answer, so I start walking on.

I pretend to know the way home, but I am not fooling anyone. It is completely dark now, and as I walk my skin is showered in a endless multitude of colored lights, their reflections dancing on wide, wetted eyes. I try to remember the path that David and I went the other day, but cannot recall the specific street we took, so I settle for a general course of direction. All of the small shops begin to look the same, seemingly familiar but too analogous to give me any confidence in my bearings. I walk for a half-mile or so away from the busy commercial area around the East Gate, the sound from the people and cars dying away as the streets become less traveled, the lights becoming less generous. YES! Up ahead I see the Windance Center, letting me know I am on the right path. Thank God. It is getting late and, although I know crime is almost non-existant in Hsinchu, I still don't want to be slogging through the streets in the dead of night.

I keep walking for what seems like hours. I'm not exactly sure where I have gone wrong, but the street I am on does not lead me to my doorstep. In fact, it seems to be leading me out of town, but I have walked too far to turn around now. I continue on, fingers crossed, until I begin to pass some familiar sights. FInally, I run into my old friend Jinguo Rd, and I am ecstatic to have found my way back to my way back home. I walk the last mile or so home with a light heart, proud of myself for having navigated the city without using or map or once asking for directions, though I doubt it would have done much good anyway. At home, I immediately take off my clothes and get in the shower, washing the sweat from my body and the dirt and blood from my aching feet. I estimate that I have walked somewhere between four and six miles, and the toll is already being felt on my inactive muscles. After the shower, I put on my new shorts which fit perfectly and lay on my back on my "bed". The mesh of the shorts feels cool and soft against my legs, and I am grateful I now have a third option between khaki shorts and nudity. I close my eyes and fall asleep with all the lights still on, my hair still wet from the shower.

September 29, 2009

Exploring Part I: Not All Who Wander Are Lost

As I ride the elevator down to street level, it occurs to me that I really have no idea where I am going. I have brought $1000 NT with me in the hope that I find the downtown area and can buy some athletic shorts, but I will not be overly disappointed if I don't. I suppose my primary objective is just to walk around the neighborhood and try to get some sense of direction, or at least mentally pinpoint my residence in the city in relation to everything else. As of now I only know the location of my school, which is somewhere East of my apartment, but other than that, I am completely lost. It might have been wise to draw a map - or at least LOOK at one - before embarking on my journey. However, I do not yet have the internet, and because I did not have the presence of mind to print out a map of the city before I left the school, I have no choice but to go without, wandering aimless and directionlessly around the unfamiliar streets. Reaching the ground floor, I decide that I prefer it this way; ignorance makes my discoveries seem more authentic, and makes my campaign seem less cautious and thus more deserving of admiration. "Besides", I reason, "if somehow I get lost and something terrible happens to me, it will make a GREAT story later...I mean, assuming I live to tell it".

My walk to school has me take a right out of my building, walking down Zi You and across the bridge, over the train tracks, and in the direction of the RT Mart. Not wanting to retread familiar steps, I now turn LEFT, turning my back on the sights that are starting to become unnoticed as my memory now expects their existence and is thus fading their importance into the background of my sensory perception. I walk about a hundred yards, past a hair salon, several shops, and a large corporate bank. Here, Zi You Road ends at a "T" with Jinguo Rd (pronounced "Jing" as in "Jingle Bells" and "gwa" as in guava, the fruit), and I stand at the corner trying to see far down in either direction, wondering which path will lead me somewhere interesting. The sun is weakening slightly from its afternoon supremacy, but its light is still fierce as it reflects off of the metal buildings and catches my eyes, causing me to squint hard as I examine my options. Judging by the traffic and the number of businesses lining the street, I deduce that Jinguo is a major thoroughfare, which seems promising. Maybe this will take me somewhere that has shorts. At last, I decide to go left, which is done arbitrarily but with conviction. Hey, when you don't know where you're going, there are no wrong directions.

I walk down Jinguo, which is difficult because there is absolutely no sidewalk for the first fifteen minutes of my hike, relegating me to either the street or the gutter. I pass many large stores and nice looking restaurants, all with glass picture windows and colorful signs, some in English, most in Chinese. Eventually I come to a familiar sight: The Golden Arches. And only about a ten minute walk from my house, as well. Although it is across the four lanes of busy traffic, I can clearly see the writing on the window says "Open 24 Hours", which means that I must always have food stocked in my apartment so that I resist the urge of making a 4 a.m. McDonalds run when my self-control is at its lowest due to alcohol consumption. I continue walking, trying to forget that I ever saw its generic, soulless corporate facade. No one should ever eat at McDonalds. Ever.

I continue walking. And walking. And walking. Eventually, the road gives way to a narrow roadside park, which (thankfully) has a sidewalk running through it. The park has trees and playgrounds and exercise equipment, and although it is only about as wide as the four-lane road it parallels, it extends for several blocks and gives refuge from the concrete, glass, and asphalt. Walking through the park, I see a small collection of restaurants to my left, the sparse grass of the park coming between their quaint storefronts and the roar of the busy Jinguo traffic. I go to investigate, and discover that there are three separate restaurants which all seem to be Italian themed. Out front they have signs or boards announcing the specials, and I see familiar dishes like "pasta con broccoli" and "meatballs marinara". Wow. Looks like I sound Hsinchu's version of Little Italy. I make a mental note to try these restaurants sometime in the future (because I will undoubtedly get tired of Asian food at some point in the next twelve months here) and keep moving through the park, toward an unknown goal.

After a few more blocks, I take a short break. Although I know I have been walking for less than an hour, the heat and the sun have left me sticky and thirsty, but I will refrain from buying something to drink until I feel I can no longer live without it. I stand in the shade of an old, gnarled tree with wispy branches and watch four old men sit around a small card table and drink tea. They do not appear to have anywhere to be, and they smile and laugh and I imagine that they do this every single day. They do not wonder what else they could be doing or what other places they could be. They are living fully in this single moment in time, their wrinkled hands slowly bringing their brown mugs to their thin lips, their trousers rolled to show leather sandals that have seen years of sun and rain, miles and miles. I stand silently and watch them, and secretly want to know everything they know; I want their wisdom, their contentment, their happiness. But I know they have earned this place in the sun drinking tea at a flimsy card table. They have already lived and seen and loved and told. I could not join them even if I wanted to, because this is not the place for me. I move on, their laughter following me like a song.

I reach a major intersection and decide that I should change direction. The stores are becoming less impressive on Jinguo now, and I assume this is either because the road is heading somewhere more residential or out of town completely. Both cases sound less than desirable, so I turn left at the intersection, failing to see the name of the busy road that is leading me toward my new destination. In my head, I say "Jinguo Jinguo Jinguo" over and over, knowing that if I get lost, at LEAST I know how to get home from Jinguo. This new road takes me past several more shops, restaurants, and a large park. Seeing nothing of interest on this road, I turn left once again, heading down a crowded street that seems to be lined with miniature casinos. As I walk past these brightly advertised establishments, I vaguely remember something David said about these places - something about gambling being illegal, so these venues allow you to buy tokens and play various slot machines and card games. This, to me, seems even LESS productive than gambling for money, where at least you have a CHANCE of winning some money back. I keep walking, the shadows of the buildings becoming longer and providing some relief from the heat.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I am not certain how many times I turn left or right, or for how many miles I walk. The sun is low now, and the stores and restaurants have begun to turn on their lights. The bright colors from their neon signs mixed with the cooling air sends a shock to my tired body and rejuvenates me, pushing me forward. Suddenly, I think I see a sign I recognize in my memory, an advertisement from the other day when David and I walked down to the center of the city. No, maybe not. Wait! Another sign! And a building! I KNOW I have seen that building before! The stores are becoming more dense, the people seem to be hurried. It feel like I am getting close to something now. This could be....

September 25, 2009

A River Runs Through It

The next day, Wednesday, my third day of teaching, I wake up feeling surprisingly well-rested and alert. I don't feel like I slept all that well the previous night, possibly due to some combination of sweating from every pore like my skin was a sieve and sleeping on a sheet-less collection of hard, coiled pieces of metal. But although conditions were identical to last night - sweltering heat, rock hard sleeping surface, noisy street sounds - my reflection in the morning's mirror looks bright-eyed, my muscles feeling relaxed and not at all sore or lethargic. "Probably just so exhausted that I had no CHOICE but to coma-sleep" I think, knowing it is much too soon for my body to be adjusting to the unfamiliar and rather uncomfortable arrangements. This, if possible, will take at least two or three weeks, and I am inclined to believe that last night was a fluke and I am in for more rough nights to come.

I walk to school once again, the scenery unchanged from the day before save for subtle difference that would elude most people, but because this world is still new, my senses are like sponges soaking up every color, sound, and smell, making secret observations about the shopkeepers' attire, the length of a streetlight, the depth of the shadows. It takes me 20 minutes to reach the the fruit stand, and by the time I do the moisture is soaking through the chest and back of my t-shirt and the fronts of my pant legs. Again I select my breakfast of one yellow apple (today I looked a little more thoroughly; no red or green, just yellow) and one ripe banana. The price is different today, and although my fruit was not weighed yesterday nor today, the check-out lady with deep lines traveling across her forehead and cheeks tells me my total is "er-ba" (sounds exactly how it looks: err-bah, except "er" is pronounced by inflecting down and "ba" is spoken with a high, strong tone...almost like a yell), which means nothing to me until I look at the digital price indicator, which tells me that "er-ba" is $28 NT. I hand the lady three $10 coins and take my fruit without a bag, wondering why my total was $5 NT cheaper than yesterday. I have no way to ask the fruit-stand workers, so I leave the question to hang in the balmy air, then let it fall and break into equal parts trivial and futile. I walk down the road while a million other questions, about everything and nothing, swim through the periphery of my thoughts, my consciousness sitting lazily and barefooted on the dock, catching the biggest or prettiest for my brain to measure, photograph, and throw back. I wonder if these questions will always exist, if they will continue to persist and come to sit with me in the quiet afternoons or long walks through the endless summer days? Or will they someday disappear, my wisdom answering those that are within my grasp and shooing the others away, replacing their nagging with the rhythmic creak of a rocking chair? The deepest parts of me hope that they don't.

This day continues to playfully mimic its predecessors though I arrive at school later than I did on Tuesday, right around 9:00 a.m. I can see a faint outline of a routine starting to form as I exchange casual greetings with the Chinese staff, Connie, and Kara; normally, the threat of sameness would unnerve me and, eventually, my whispering thirst for adventure would begin to call loudly for a radical change to be made. However, it seems that enough radical steps have already been taken, and my fickle nature is content to cling to the comforts that come with least for now. Walking past Kara, I see that she is busily working on some elaborate poster-sized teaching aid with creative fonts and full-color, eye-catching pictures. Once again, I hope that I am not expected to be creating such intricate visual accompaniment for my lessons. I suppose someone will let me know if I'm slacking; I have a little bit of leeway, I AM the new guy, after all. I sit on a desk and listen to the friendly bantering between Kara and Connie, watching the clock as the seconds tick by, thinking about the chronology of my lesson. I have decided that my teaching style will be similar to an effective workout, wherein the routine is changed often to prevent boredom and create "muscle confusion". In my classroom the students will be bombarded with knowledge from all sides, never knowing where the next hit is coming from, keeping them on their toes and mentally sharp. It sounds good on paper; I wonder how it will work in practice? Probably just result in total chaos. I have no contingency plan for this.

At 9:30 I go up to the room, taking the stairs two at a time to the third floor. I have become a familiar face to the kids now, and I whistle the theme from "The Andy Griffith Show" as I enter. Ian laughs like an idiot, and Howie (who normally looks meek and terrified) gets up and runs in a circle, tripping over Yuka and wiping out on his face. Luckily, he is unfazed, and the lesson commences. Once again, same as before, I begin with calisthenics, then good mornings, then speaking exercises. I teach basically the exact same lesson as yesterday, only with more energy and in a different order. The children seem to respond to my enthusiasm, which inspires me to act even MORE goofy and over-the top. At one point, as I am pretending to throw up a handful of colored yarn balls on Cynthia (which the kids think is HYSTERICAL), I look up to see Yvonne laughing at me. I smile, grateful that she is entertained and not disgusted by my teaching techniques or by the fact that I am fake-vomiting on a four-year old. I may just win her over yet. More "A! A! A!", more small plastic animals. The two hours goes by quickly with little downtime, and most of the kids are laughing and squealing by the time I am supposed to leave for lunch. Yuka and Jeffrey even come up and grab my legs as I am walking out, and I have to tickle them so they let me go. I am thrilled they feel comfortable enough to touch me now. Once their walls have crumbled, the armies of knowledge will have free reign over their tiny, moldable minds. Yes, I will use war metaphors often to describe teaching. The fight for the mind is nothing short of what it claims to be.

I go downstairs, talk with Connie a bit about how everything is going. Today I feel more energetic and am excited about the progress I am making with the kids, and this must be evident in my zealousness, for as I talk loudly her eyes get big and she leans back in her chair, as if she is being physical pushed away by my intensity. She offers warm words of encouragement, which I appreciate and take to heart. I also ask her about getting internet in my apartment, because even though I know my days are going to start becoming more fun-fllled and my free time is going to rapidly shrivel up to only evenings and weekends, I still like the feeling of being connected and the superabundance of information and entertainment that the internet provides. She assures me that she will ask Mia, who I have probably met in the past couple days but can't yet place a face to the name, to call the cable company and set up an appointment for me. "Just write down your address and bring it to the elementary tomorrow. We can take care of it then." Happy that I am becoming more permanent and proud of myself for my initiative (which I have been known to lack in the past), I reward myself by heading upstairs and stealing lunch from the hard-working lunch lady. I find a bowl and fill it with white rice, then cover the rice with some kind of broth and add several pieces of what appears to be chicken on top of this. This chicken pieces, however, include a large circular bone in the center, the bone showing the marrow from where it was cut on either end. As i head back downstairs, I wonder momentarily what part of the chicken this is from, then decide it is best if I don't know. I eat quickly and in silence, holding the small bowl close to my chin, my lack of profieciency with the chopsticks forcing me to spoon the rice into my mouth from point blank. I try the chicken, and it is slimy and fatty, but I eat it anyway for the protein. When I am finished, my lap is covered in fallen rice in spite of my best efforts, and I take my bowl back to the kitchen, wash it, and tell the lunch lady "thank you" in english as I leave. She either doesn't hear me or doesn't understand, for she makes no acknowledgment of my courtesy.

I walk back home, arms swingly lazily by my sides, the afternoon sun sucking up my energy and replacing it with a salty heat that squints my eyes and bakes the skin on my face and neck. I stop by the 7-11 and buy a giant bottle of water, drinking it as I walk the rest of the way to my apartment, not caring as the jolting movements from my walking causes some water to drip down onto my sweat-soaked shirt. Home at last, I strip down and jump in the shower, then sit in my underwear on the black vinyl couch, feeling the air close in around me and begin to draw the perspiration to the surface. Suddenly, I am extremely tired, and almost let sleep take me into its embrace of compacency before shaking myself back to life. "NO!" I mentally shout at the apathy and fatigue that is threatening to rip the consciousness from my body and rob me of my afternoon. "I have only been here a WEEK. I still have too much to see to be sleeping away all of my days!". With this I rise, put on shorts, a dry t-shirt, and flip-flops, and hastily leave the feeling of listlessness behind, disappointed, cursing itself for failing to recruit another convert. I have saved the day from the bloody jaws of incuriosity. It is time to go exploring.

September 20, 2009

RT Mart: The King of Pop and Chocolate Flavored Beef

I enter the RT Mart - which the foreign people I have met pronounce "ArdyMart" - and slow my walk to a near stop, shuffling along and taking in all the sights that I didn't have time for last time I was here with Connie and David. I am in no hurry, so I figure I will spend some time tracing through the isles, making mental lists of desired future purchases, noting the differences in products and packaging from what I am accustomed to seeing back home. The first discrepancy between the RT Mart and a traditional grocery or one-stop-shop in the States is the layout; I have just walked into the entrance of the store, but I am not actually in the RT yet. This area is large and open with white floors and high ceilings, and functions as a welcoming zone before one actually begins shopping. On my right is a Nike Factory Outlet store, inside its employees wearing bright orange baseball-style jerseys and looking bored and ready to leave. Further down on my right are more small shops, each on specializing in everything from women's clothing to women's underwear to massage equipment to bedroom furniture. Directly to my left is a very tiny shop where three middle-aged Taiwanese women huddle around three closely crammed barber chairs and work furiously to cut the hair of three impatient looking men. The sign above the glass barbershop windows says "100" in big white letters, leading me to believe that a haircut here is only $100 NT. Not bad; $3 US for a haircut. However, the prospect of going to this place is a little risky for a number of reasons, the first being that I can't speak Chinese and thus can't tell them HOW I would like my hair to look after they get finished hacking away at it, the second being that almost every Taiwanese man I have seen has had a goofy-looking haircut (I'm not sure if this is a testament to their culture, their type of hair, or the terrible quality of barbershops on the island), and the third being that, I mean come on, how good can the quality of service really be for $3 US? Luckily, I don't need a haircut just yet, so I can put off deciding just where to go and how to avoid getting butchered without knowing proper phrases like "not too short" and "don't make me look like Jackie Chan". I'll cross that bridge when the shagginess becomes unbearable

Looking past the barbershop I see that a path branches off from the entryway and slopes downward and to the left, leading past a Kentucky Fried Chicken and two more clothing stores before disappearing around the corner. A sign informs me first in Chinese, then under it in English, that this is the food court area. Although I am curious to see what other kinds of restaurants are hiding down in the food court, I decide that it will probably be cheaper to buy something in the RT Mart, so I decline exploring (for now) and instead walk straight ahead, toward where I believe the real entrance to the store will be. Thankfully, my guess is correct and I avoid looking like I have no idea how a grocery store works. I walk through the store merchandise detectors and past a security guard and what appears to be some kind of manager, judging by his shined shoes and tie. He smiles at me and I smile back, but have no kind words to offer so just keep walking into the plethora of cheap Asian goods, their brightly colored packaging and strange characters begging for my attention.

The first thing I notice upon entering the RT Mart is a large CD rack on my left covered with an enormous poster of Michael Jackson. A crowd has gathered around a television suspended from the ceiling, and as I get closer I can see the low-qulaity screen is playing a video of Michael Jackson singing "Billy Jean" live in concert. Apparently, even before Michael Jackson had died he was big over here - now he is EVERYWHERE. I walk past the mob and toward the rest of the electronics, noticing the large tables covered in piles with everything from Ramen to baby clothes that line the walkway on my right. Signs hanging above the piles or stacks denote their prices with big yellow letters, and I assume that these items are on some kind of clearance or special. Arriving in the electronics department, I skim quickly over the cameras, not really looking at prices, and then head for the fans. Because my apartment does not have air conditioning and, with my budget being fairly tight I am tempted to forgo the luxury to keep my electric bills low, a fan seems to be a commodity that I cannot live without. The least expensive fans are about $200 NT, but none of these look like they will hold together for more than a few weeks, especially not with me running them all hours of the day and night. Unfortunately, the nicer and more study-looking fans start at around $500 NT, which (even at $15 US) feels a little out of my price range. I resolve to hold out for a few more days, and continue to examine the other small appliances.

One thing that I also desperately need is some way to prepare food, seeing as how my apartment failed to come equipped with either a stove, microwave, or oven. (Most apartments, and even houses in Taiwan do not have ovens - this is why bakeries are so popular here). I peruse through various crock-pots and steamers, eventually coming to the portable electric ranges. These single-burner stovetops would be perfect for everything I wanted to make which, giving my limited cooking ability, is basically just chicken, eggs, hamburgers, and anything that involves boiling water. I look at the prices and find a decent looking one that lists for $2,200 NT, or about $70 US. DONE. This, along with some cooking utensils, a pot and a pan, and something to eat on and with are added to my mental list of things to buy with my October paycheck. I'm not exactly sure what I am going to do about food until then, or if I'll even have enough money to eat at all in September, but I'm not worried. Somehow, these things always manage to work themselves out, even if you end up losing fifteen pounds and eating only the free Nature Valley granola bars at the ski resort to keep from starving to death. (This, unfortunately, is not in any way an exaggeration. By the end of my stay in Colorado last winter I was living off of 75 cents a day and had dropped from 182 pounds to 160-something. When I finally left to come home, I deemed my return "The End of an Error". In retrospect, however, I consider the experience one of best times of my life - funny how I don't remember things like poverty and hunger pains in my memories. I only remember the beauty of the mountains and the rush of the snow beneath my board...the feeling of total freedom. Ultimate escapism).

I move on past the small appliances and stumble upon the "home" section of the store. Here I find everything I would need if I owned a home, and nothing I will need because I do not. This is one of the things I have always found liberating about living a relatively non-materialistic existence; it seems to me that, the more stuff you have, the more stuff you need. Logic would deduce that, by having more things, one would move closer to the goal of having everything they required to live and therefore their list of needed items would be smaller. The reality of this materialistic lifestyle, however, is counterintuitive to reason - by owning more possessions, one must begin to buy more and more things to maintain these possessions until eventually they are no longer satisfying their own needs, but instead satisfying the needs of their possessions, of these THINGS that have cluttered their life and robbed them of their independence. Life is no longer self-serving. They exist to maintain the materials around them but in the process forget to maintain themselves, forget to LIVE. This is why I have always chosen to invest in people and experiences rather than things. To invest in things is to lose oneself in a maelstrom, to get caught in the cyclical spiral of materialism that drags one down until they are no longer ABLE to invest in anything else. I have almost nothing to my name, yet I am no less happy despite all I can call my own fitting in a duffle bag, a backpack, and a few cardboard boxes in my Grandma's basement. I have navigated through the waters without the fancy possessions that the world demands I own to prove my life is meaningful, and have avoided the swirling dangers that threaten to trap me, to enslave ALL of us into a life filled with soulless objects that cannot love and cannot give us true happiness or memories. I am now sailing on the open sea, the sun on my face and the waters calm and beautiful...

Damnit. I have stumbled into the bedding items, which is something I actually DO need. They do not have mattresses here, but do have a wide selection of padded mattress toppers and fold-up cushions. This might be worth considering, but at this point I am still leaning towards an actual mattress over a thin mattress substitute. I also find the pillows, which are pillowy (and fairly inexpensive), and the sheets, which are hideous. RT Mart has neglected to carry any sheets that do not have gaudy floral print or some kind of cartoon characters on them. "Hmmm, so much for my apartment looking cool" I think to myself. Although I have never cared too much what my living quarters have looked like - my friends and past girlfriends can all attest to this - having my own apartment for the first time inspires me to personalize it and try and make it as homey as possible. This is not to say that I want a lot of stuff, I just want the stuff I HAVE to be cool, and preferably match. Apparently, though, this is too much to ask. "Surely they have something resembling a Bed Bath and Beyond in Taiwan" I hope, and choose to delay any sheet buying until a more favorable selection presents itself.

I wander up and down more isles, finding the sports and recreation sections. They have an extensive collection of badminton rackets and lots of basketball and baseball stuff. No soccer balls and no footballs, though, which are the only two sports I can play with any amount of grace or proficiency. Looks like I will not be impressing anyone with my athletic prowess any time soon. The lack of soccer apparel shocks me a little, as I was previously under the impression that soccer (or football everywhere but America) was the most popular sport in every country EXCEPT America. This is not the case on this Asian island nation, as my Lonely Planet (courtesy of my dear sister) informs me that baseball is actually the most popular sport here, followed closely by basketball, then tennis. I am awful at all three, and thus move past the sports section with little hesitation.

My next stop is in the cleaning isle, where absolutely nothing is in English and I therefore have no idea which of the brightly colored bottles contains which cleaning solutions. Although my apartment is not yet dirty, Connie and David have warned me that dust and dirt builds up very fast, so I need to clean at least once a week to avoid this unthinkable and awful outcome. Personally, I have never been big on cleaning, and at the moment I choose to risk the possibility that I may have a massive allergy attack from dust build-up. The next isle down from the cleaning supplies holds the detergents. I have only brought about eight pairs of underwear with me and am getting dangerously close to having to recycle, so the decision is made to make detergent my first purchase at the RT Mart. I scan over the bottles, the only one in English being TIDE brand which, at $400 NT a bottle, is ridiculously expensive. I eventually settle on one of the cheapest selections, a large green bottle that costs $130 NT and resembles the color and font of an ERA brand bottle from back home, though completely in Chinese. I assume this is what it is, and head for a new isle, happy with my choice.

As I walk out of the cleaning section, I come to the "personal care" section, which has things like soap, make-up, shampoo, razors, deodorant, and feminine products. This section seems to divide the non-food part of the store from the food part of the store, as I can see further down the shelves are lined with edible products. I look around a bit, comparing prices and seeing if they have anything that looks even vaguely familiar. To my surprise, the RT Mart carries almost every product that I am used to using, and this comforts me a little knowing that I will not have to experiment with finding a new shampoo or deodorant. (It took me YEARS to find a deodorant that actually works. That's right, I am a sweaty guy - easy ladies, not everyone at once). Also, they have a MASSIVE selection of male soap, face wash, and moisturizer, more so than I have seen at even the Super Centers stateside. I guess Taiwanese men are more vain than I had previously thought. I should fit in wonderfully here!

Finally, onto the food. At this point I am far past hungry, and EVERYTHING looks phenomenal. I cruise up and down the walkways, desperately searching for something that I will not have to prepare and can eat almost immediately. Also, although I really want to try something new and foreign, I find myself seeking out only those products that have english writing on the boxes. I justify this to myself by thinking that, due to my hunger AND lack of funds, if I select something risky and I do not like it I will have suffered a failure nearly too heartbreaking to overcome. In the cookie isle I am tempted by the Oreos and the crackers, but decide against eating cookies for dinner. I skip the ramen and tea isles - yes, they have an entire isle devoted to tea - and eventually end up in the pre-packaged food section, which has everything from candy to beef jerky. For some reason, beef jerky sounds like exactly what I want, so I look over all the packages, trying to find one that I KNOW will be beef, or jerky, or both. Ah HA! I see a bright package full of shredded meat, completely in Chinese except for the words "BEEF" on the front and a picture of a cartoon cow. Perfect. It is also one of the least expensive beef jerky items at $110, and even though I know it is not the most nutritious of purchases, I try to justify it by looking at the protein content in the nutrition facts on the back. Of course, I have forgotten that they are all in Chinese, so I assume that this beef jerky has a LOT of protein. Looks like, unless I learn to read Chinese, I won't be counting any calories in Taiwan. Shucks.

Now clutching detergent in one hand and beef jerky in the other, I emerge from the rows of isles into a large open area that contains the produce on one side and the frozen or refrigerated goods on the other. I walk around aimlessly, looking at the fruits and vegetables, none of which look appealing, and at the dairy products, all of which look confusing. I find the meat sections and marvel at the strange items under the clear plastic wrapping. Thankfully, I discover the chicken breasts which, although I cannot cook until I get a electric range, has been one of my favorite foods for years and I am grateful that RT Mart carries them. I come to a large spread of what appears to be fried foods, all of them glistening under the heat lamps, the man behind the counter staring at me attentively. I look over each item, and see something that resembles a large crab cake. In my current state of abdominal vacancy I know that fried foods are disgusting yet filling, so I shift my items into one hand and point at the crab cake thing with the other, holding up one finger and saying "one" in english, as if this will do any good. The man is perceptive and understands, picking up my item with tongs and placing it in a bag, then printing out a price sticker and placing it on the bad before giving it to me. I say "xiexie" politely, and look at the price as I walk away; $85 NT. Eh, it's a little steep, but I am proud of myself for both trying something new as well as the successful communication with the fried food clerk. I believe it will be worth it.

At this point, my hands are growing tired from holding all of my items, so I elect to bypass the bakery which is located against the far wall. I make my way to the checkout counters that are off to my right, but see a nice yellow box with a picture of a cake filled with custard on the front. The sign above the box says "79", obviously denoting that these items are on clearance. "Well, if they are on sale...." my starving sweet tooth begs persuasively, so I impulsively grab the desserts and head to the checkout. The line is long but the checkout girl is efficient, and I watch each customer's actions before me to see if there is any protocol I must be aware of before my turn is up. I notice that everyone seems to have some sort of "shoppers card", and I vaguely remember Connie having one when I was here with them a few days ago. Suddenly, I am gripped with panic! What if I NEED a card to buy my things?! What if this is like Sam's Club, but crueler, because instead of denying you entrance they allow you to THINK you are going to get to buy your items, then shut you down at the last minute?! It is finally my turn, and I turn and face the lady with a look of apology and terror. She says something in Chinese, and holds her hands in the shape of a rectangle. I hold my breath and shake my head "no", but to my relief she hits a button on the register and begins to scan my few items. I watch the digital numbers add up, the total coming to just under $400. Because sales tax is already figured into the prices of all items, one can figure out EXACTLY how much they will have to pay before coming to check out, so I am not surprised by this number. I hand the checkout girl 4 pink $100's, and she gives me back my change and receipt, but no bag. Hm? Perhaps she thinks I do not need a bag, perhaps she thinks I am just going to my scooter outside instead of walking a mile down the street to my apartment. I don't want to bother her, and I have no idea how to ask for a bag, so I gather my things in my arms and walk back towards the entrance, NOT looking forward to the long walk home.

Before I leave I decide to explore the food court and eat my crab cake thing before the grease congeals and it becomes inedible. I stroll down the walkway and into the food court, which is extensive but otherwise not out of the ordinary. The right-hand wall is lined with small food kiosks, and the middle of the floor is filled with tables and chairs, most of which are empty. I sit down by myself and take my crab cake out of the bag, smelling it first, then taking a bite. It is not exactly like I expected; instead of being bread-like and crumbly, it is chewy and spongy, but still tastes okay so I eat it quickly. I move on to the custard treats, eating three before I realize that they are not very good. I am so hungry I don't even care at this point. After my mini gorge session I gather my things and walk back up towards the door and out into the night air, adjusting my grip on my items as I go.

Walking home I realize that I am still very hungry, so I open the beef jerky and try it. To my surprise, the jerky seems to be covered in something that tastes and resembles baking chocolate. I can't decide if I like this at first, but after eating a few pieces my stomach begins to tell me that beef and chocolate are not a desirable combination. I eat one more custard cake to clear the taste of the choco-jerky from my mouth, and walk the rest of the way home nursing an upset stomach, feeling guilty and a little disappointed that I have splurged on items that have taken away my hunger at the cost of my comfort. "Next time will be different" I think optimistically, and make it home safely, leaving the sound and smell of the city far below.