August 15, 2009

My First Day: Part I

The sun is already high in the sky as I wake up. It filters lazily through the mid morning clouds that roll over the city like glaciers suspended against the calm light blue. It is 8:45 a.m. It is a beautiful day. The guest room smells faintly like an old person's house, the scent of human existence enhanced by the lack of central air circulation lingers around me as I sit up on my Futon. I am sweating and the light pours in through the small trapezoid-shaped window in the corner of the room. I stand and look out the window, taking in the view from the 7th floor. Around the apartment the buildings are close together, and have no logical pattern or organization. Every building is unique, and I like this. The apartment directly across the street has a traditional-looking gazebo on the roof surrounded by trees, a tiny garden raised high above the grime and the noise. Past the gazebo I see the city extends for miles, with buildings completely covering the gently rolling hills. In the far distance I see a small mountain, barely visible through the heavy city atmosphere. The streets are crowded with scooters already, and none of them seem to have any regard for traffic laws. In the 30 seconds I see three ignored red lights, 2 illegal left hand turns and one guy just doing donuts in the middle of a busy intersection. I recommit myself to never owning a scooter. The city is not dirty, but the haphazard arrangement of heterogenous buildings and the confused streets that attempt to accommodate give the place a jumbled, frantic feel. There is little foliage at street level save for a few trees and patches of grass here and there. I am truly in a city, the first time I have ever lived in a city. Strange I had to come halfway around the world to experience city life, to feel the concrete and traffic and buildings and pollution and call this home. But I will. I never do anything the easy way.

Connie has already left for work early, and after a few minutes David wakes up and pokes his head of tousled brown hair into the door. "Up?" he says in characteristic quietness. I nod and walk out of the guest room, where David is already putting on his sandals. "Lets go get something to drink". Because one cannot drink the water from Taiwanese faucets, all beverages must be purchased from the local groceries or, more commonly, from the hundreds of 7-11s that are on most street corners. We take the elevator downstairs and out of the heavy, metal reinforced door that leads to the street. Just outside of the door the street is lined with parked scooters waiting to take their respective owners into the jaws of death. It is already sweltering, and the David comments that it is probably about 30 degrees. Quickly realizing that I am not familiar with celsius yet, he does the conversion for me: "about 85, 90 degrees". Scorcher, and humid to boot. We cross the busy street which i cannot pronounce and walk about 100 yards to the nearest convenience store. We pass through the glass sliding doors which "whoosh" open like Star Trek doors, escaping the sweet smell of gasoline and hot pastries that float out from the open-air bakeries. The store is white and clean. I go to the back where the drinks are kept and am instantly befuddled; nothing is in english, and so I must make my selections based on the color of the liquid within the bottles. I see a familiar face - an apple! I know what an apple is! I grab the drink and make my way to the counter, where the register reads "$40.00", which is a little over a dollar. I pay the lady with 4 ten dollar coins and we leave. My first official purchase in Taiwan. Apple juice.

Next stop: breakfast. Along the way I discover that my purchase was made perhaps a bit too hastily, as my apple juice contains chucks of apple in it. I don't believe we have apple juice with apple chucks in the States. I wasn't even aware that this was an option. It's not bad, though, so I play it off like i really WANTED apple chucks in my apple juice. Breakfast is had in a tiny little open-air shop a couple doors down from the convenience store. Absolutely everything is in Mandarin, and there are no pictures. Even though David is from Austin, he has been studying Chinese for the last year, and he can read and speak enough to get by. Thank God for David, who orders us "Dan Bing", which are onion pancakes, eggs and sausage all rolled into a sushi-like roll and covered in sweet sauce, as well as turnip cakes, which are sweet and have a texture like cooked new potatoes. The entire meal costs us about $60.00 NT, or a little under $2.00 US, and is very filling. During breakfast David teaches me my first Mandarin word. As we leave the shop I give the tiny Taiwanese woman my money, mumbling a less than confident "xiexie", which is pronounced "shi-shi" (like profanity except without the "t"). I am on my way to becoming fluent. The tiny woman smiles warmly, appreciative of the effort I have made to become part of her world. It would be easy to be an arrogant American, to not bend and not learn and not make the effort. But what would that accomplish? What am I to get in return if I never surrender any of myself? I feel like too many people will never take that risk, and therefore will never receive all that life is begging to give them.

We make our way back to Connie and David's apartment, where I shower an prepare for my teaching demonstration. I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous, but I'm pretty good with the little ones and I know I will do fine. I put on my worn-in jeans and t-shirt and as we walk out the door to go to the school, David hands me a helmet and says "don't forget this". What? Is it hailing? Meteor shower? Why on earth would I need a.....oh shit. Apparently the school is about a 20 minute walk...OR a three minute scooter ride. "So this is how I die" I think to myself as we take the elevator down to the street and I climb on the back of David's 125cc black motor scooter. (On a side note, I don't feel like two grown men riding on a scooter would go over so well in the States. One would probably earn nicknames that would haunt them their entire lives. However, in Taiwan, this is perfectly acceptable behavior.) As we accelerate into traffic, I can feel the adrenaline entering my veins, my muscles tensing for the impact that is sure to come at any second. But no, it doesn't come, and although we swerve alarmingly close to other scooters, cars, pedestrians, etc., we somehow make it to the school alive. In truth, once I silence the voice in my head that is screaming "BAIL! BAIL! Save yourself!", it is actually a little fun. Not like "haha" fun; more like "Indiana Jones just barely escaped with my life" fun.

The Miro International School is located in a large building and looks, from the outside, like any other Taiwanese store. Once inside, the interior is modern, clean, and professional, with a large emblem declaring the name of the school above the reception desk. Connie takes me to the office where I am given a stack of oversized books, one from which I will read to the kids as my lesson. I choose "How Will the Weather Be Today?", mostly because it has a lot of pictures of animals. I am taken to the second floor, where a small classroom of five year olds anxiously await me. As Connie gives me last minute instructions outside of the door, I can see 12 sets of tiny curious eyes peering at me from within. Showtime. I enter as a whirlwind of enthusiasm and high fives. I am showering praises, contagious and cartoonish. "What color is the water?!?! What does the cow say?!?!?! HIGH FIVE!!!!" They love me. They are laughing and jumping out of their chairs. The principal, hearing that an insane American has infiltrated one of her classrooms, comes to sit in and witness the scene I am making. She seems a little disturbed, but overall pleased with my teaching techniques. I leave the classroom sweating and smiling, and the kids seem genuinely upset to see me go. Connie tells me that the other teachers and her principal are impressed, and I am officially offered the job of teaching the youngest kindergarten class immediately. Contracts are drawn up, and starting Monday I will be a full time teacher at Miso International School and have a full-time job for the first time in my life. At 25 years old, I may have finally reached adulthood? As if that would ever happen...


  1. 1) Typhoon?

    2) I feel as though I may have made a mistake in not becoming a kindergarten teacher in Taiwan. After all, I know what a cow says. And I can give high fives. And generally, I am no more advanced than the children would be. Seems a fit to me.

  2. Sam - first, the typhoon hit the Southeast side of the island and, although it is making milk prices skyrocket, it has affected us city-folk very little. There are, however, some graphic images on the news of bodies washing up on the beach and rescuers trying to revive them as well as daring rescue missions. Taiwanese television is very sensationalized. You should SEE the commercials here. Think japanese anime and hot girls for EVERYTHING!

    Second - Yes, I believe you WOULD be a good fit here. I'll keep you posted on how my first few days go, but now that you have a man on the ground, maybe I can find you a job at semester if you wanted to get out of the states for a while. Its a whole new world over here, but not so much that you feel like you cant survive (even for a small-town boy like yourself). Thanks for reading my intolerably long posts.

  3. I loved this: "So this is how I die"

  4. I give you a week and you'll be a part of the motorscooter fray. Trust me once you start you will forever hate driving in the states because we have laws and you can't drive for two kilometers on the wrong side of the road. Trust me you'll love the sense of feeling you are apart of the world around you instead of a bistandard.

    Kudos and best of luck