At 7-11 I play it safe and choose a water, and David does the same. As I go to pay, David tells me to hold on, we can pay together. Although I'm not sure why he tells me to do this, I quickly discover that if a person purchases two drinks at 7-11 they are eligible to play a "game", the game consisting of reaching into a big colorful hat and retrieving a token good for prizes. The token David chooses says "79" meaning we pay 79% of our total price. Don't ask me why they don't instead have "21% off" or why the arbitrary number of 79. I didn't ask. Sometimes I feel its better to just accept these things. Especially in Asia, blind acceptance is necessary to get through so much of what one sees, hears, and experiences. There is just too much weird stuff out there to question it all. Other prizes in the 7-11 grab-bag game include a "tea egg", which is an egg boiled in tea instead of water. David tells me this is the worst prize. I believe him. As we walk back out into the afternoon sun that's threatening to bubble the blacktop, David tells me to save my receipt. "What?" I think to myself, "I don't want to RETURN this water. I want to DRINK this water". Sensing my skepticism, he explains that Hsinchu has a weekly lottery, and that every receipt has a lottery number printed on it. "Taiwanese people LOVE to gamble" he says, and I neatly fold my receipt into my wallet. I'm beginning to like this place more and more. Just what I need, one more vice to bring back when I finally come home.
Back in the hospital David and I take our seat in the blue plastic chairs that fill the lobby. We sit next to a woman wearing a SARS mask. Suddenly, I realize that EVERYONE is wearing SARS masks. Should I be worried? I glance up at the large red digital numbers. 583. Wow, David wasn't kidding. They are MOVING these people through here. We stare at the Pepto-Bismol walls and talk about each other's families until my number appears above the reception desk. As I walk up to the desk I realize that there are actually 6 receptionists all displaying numbers above their desks. No wonder things are going so quickly. As I hand my "order" to the non-english speaking receptionist with the english name of "Lisa", I notice that a large flat-screen T.V. on the wall behind the desks is displaying pictures of 8 men in white lab coats with chinese writing beside their pictures. I assume these are the doctors on duty, but the way the images are displayed makes it seem like they are the starting line-up for a baseball team, their stats shown for their future patients to see. My imagination goes crazy with this. "Next up" the announcer says over the loudspeaker "DOCTORRRRR JAAAAAAMES CHENNNNN!!!! Batting a .407 with 26 diagnoses, 3 revivals and only one death in the last 7 games!!!" We could have a fantasy league for physicians. My team would be called the DocSox. Or the RockTors. The possibilities are endless. The receptionist brings me back to reality by saying that I owe $950.00, or about $30 US. I'm fairly certain that doctors in the States charge $30 just for waiting in the waiting room. I gladly pay with my $1000 bill. At least in Taiwan I FEEL rich.
The physical goes off without a hitch. I go to several "stations", one for blood drawing, one for chest x-ray, one for blood pressure and eyesight, one for everything else. The whole process takes maybe 20 minutes. I am very glad David is helping me, because no one seems to speak much English and certain commands like "raise your arms" come across as "ways hars pee", which doesn't make any sense. I leave the hospital with a strong sense of accomplishment and a cotton ball taped to my arm. Back at the apartment, we learn that Connie wants me to officially sign everything and look at my new classroom at 5:00, which means we have three hours to kill. "Wanna see the city?" David asks. He doesn't know me at all! Of COURSE I want to see the city! However, because everything seems to blur together into shades of terrified neons if you try and see it on a scooter, we decide to take a walking tour instead.
As we walk down the street away from the apartment, I notice several things about the city of Hsinchu. First, the streets are much cleaner than I expected, and although I can't seem to locate any trash cans to dispose of my now useless cotton ball, there is virtually no paper or waste on the streets or sidewalk. The buildings are a little worse off, and though not necessarily dirty, are in a state of general disrepair. The air quality, too, leaves much to be desired, the pollution not overpowering but strong enough to taste as the air slides across my tongue when i breathe in deeply. This, I feel, is not unique to Hsinchu but is shared by all cities around the world. The second thing I notice are the Taiwanese people. They seem to be reserved and quiet, laid back and calm. Not one person is loud or obnoxious, no one is calling attention to themselves in action, dress, or otherwise. It's as if everyone is spectating; they are all extras in a film, paid to be a silent part of the background, noticeably unnoticeable. Their respectful politeness might be off-putting if it were interpreted as anything but sincere. However, walking down the street one gets the feeling these people really are just....chill.
David and I make our first stop at a chain Tea Shop. "Ever had milk tea?" he asks, and then adds "it's kind of a big deal here in Taiwan". Milk tea, apparently, is just what it sounds like: black tea sweetened with condensed or evaporated milk. However, to make sure I get the full experience, David orders me a PEARL milk tea (also called "bubble tea"), which is milk tea with tiny tapioca balls mixed in. Think Jumba Juice if they served iced lattes....sort of. It is different, but I like it, and am only a little freaked out when I realize the tapioca balls are black. Black? Since when is tapioca black? I finish it despite my reservations about black pudding and we continue hoofing it down the street. (We are literally IN the street much of the time as Hsinchu's sidewalks often disappear or are too crowded with parked scooters to use). We make our way to the heart of downtown, or City Circle, which is a large outdoor amphitheater recessed into the ground and lined with vendors selling all kinds of crazy Taiwanese delicacies. This part of town is crowded, but not unbearably so, and traffic is dense. I also notice several familiar stores, such as an Adidas Store, a Levi's Store, and of course, a McDonalds (how did that damn clown find me here?!). In City Circle we pass a vendor who appears to be selling hot dogs. "Hot Dogs", I say. This is false. "Actually, they are Taiwanese sausages and they're pretty good", David informs me, so we get two, each with garlic pepper sauce (spicy) and wasabi (very spicy). David is, once again, correct. The sausages are good. We sit under a tree on the steps of the amphitheater and eat our sausages, while I comment on the lack of obesity in Taiwan. "Keep eating like this" I think to myself, "and you won't be able to talk shit about fat people anymore".
After we finish our spicy sausages on a stick, David and I make our way to the various landmarks associated with Hsinchu. We see historic East Gate (photos to come), a large Japanese style monument which is all that remains of the wall that used to surround the city. It is actually in the middle of traffic and looks ridiculously out of place amidst the sea of scooters and Toyota Camrys. We walk through a small, narrow park which has several large trees that look like they should be in a Kung Fu movie and a very scenic fish pond where an old Asian man is feeding the giant gold and white goldfish. We find City God Temple, which is a Taoist temple overrun by food stands and tourist-attracting booths selling souvenirs and incense to burn in the temple. Inside the dark temple it is cramped and smells of incense and dusty concrete. The walls are decorated sparingly, the ceiling covered in eye-catching reds and golds. Huge cases display traditional Taoist costumes, which look like massive colorful Samurais and, I am told, are used during celebrations to ward away evil. "I bet his name is Tao Jones" I think to myself as we walk past one of the "guardians". Terrible joke. In the center of the Temple are large pillars covered in tiny lights, which are probably supposed to represent candles, which in turn are supposed to represent peoples' ancestors. Incense sticks burn on a raised platform in front of the pillars, sending thin lines of aroma up into the air, dancing in and out of the rays of sunlight that filter through the walls and ceiling. Food is also on this platform, an offering to one's ancestors in case they decide they do not like the cuisine in the afterlife. The whole experience does not feel particularly spiritual, and tastes vaguely of Catholicism. No one appears to be worshipping or praying. I remind myself that we are at a tourist attraction, and wonder how many people actually pray at St. Peter's Basilica. I make a mental note to find these things out, as well as to do more research on Taoism in general. We escape City God Temple into the late-afternoon sun which is already beginning to set, and I feel a little cheated that my 17 years of public education failed to prepare me for what I would find inside my first Taoist temple. Then again, maybe it is better to experience it as a child, with no expectations, just allowing my senses to collect like spring rain in the rusty pale of my perceptions. I suppose I am trying hard to unlearn a lot of things, to shake off my prejudices and preconceptions and approach life as a "tabula rasa". Ultimately, it seems that wisdom through ignorance is far greater than ignorance because of wisdom.
City God Temple
Now that we had hit the major landmarks, we decide to start heading home, taking a different path than the one we came from. The streets are actually fairly deserted on this route, and the claustrophobic stores are not nearly as busy as the ones closer to City Circle. As we turn a corner, an enormous structure looms off to our left, big enough to house a professional football team. This seems like a big deal to me, and I speechlessly point at it in awe. "Oh yeah," says David, "thats the Windance Center". Apparently at the time of its construction in 2003, the Windance Center was the largest mall in Southeast Asia, sporting hundreds of stores, an olympic-sized pool, movie theaters, and a ferris wheel. The mall went completely bankrupt in 2007, and now it, along with the four-star hotel connected to it, are completely abandoned. Ghost mall. We continue on in what seems like a random direction (for at this point I am totally lost) and eventually arrive back at the apartment, sweaty and a little worn out. No time to rest, though, as we have to meet Connie at the school in 20 minutes. Back on the scooter we go, and as we cross the bridge that runs over the train tracks the sun is setting in the distance, the humidity and pollutants in the air causing the colors to explode out from its center like watercolors on a wet canvas.
At the school, I formally meet the principal and happily sign away the next year of my life. The classroom is extremely nice, and I am already looking forward to Monday. Connie is hungry, so we travel up the road to a small Teppanaki joint, which is located on a busy street with hundreds of street vendors and small restaurants. I don't know what Teppanaki means, but apparently they are all set up pretty much the same way. Similar to a Hibachi restaurant but with the facade of a late-night diner, we sit around a giant metal grill while several men prepare the food in front of us. My options are "what meat?" and "how spicy". I choose a beef of some sort and a spicy level of 2 out of 3. A woman comes by and gives us a bowl of white rice (included in almost EVERY Taiwanese meal), a bowl of thick corn soup (better than it sounds), and a cup of cold black tea. As we eat our soup, the glistening men working the grill begin heaping food on our plates. First the spicy greens, then the cabbage, then the meat which has been cooked in the spices of my choosing. Finally, a fried fish filet is piled on top of my already overflowing plate. Corn soup refills and tea are free, though I don't ask for seconds. The food is greasy and excellent, not particularly Asian tasting, though quite a bit spicier that I expected for it being only a "2". Americans are weak when it comes to spicy. After completely stuffing ourselves, we go to pay. I offer to buy Connie and David's dinner as a thank you for their hospitality, but David says "wait until you start working, THEN we'll make you take us out somewhere nice". He smiles. "Just give me $100". I start to protest, "You don't have to pay for part of mine, I got it man". "What are you talking about?", he says, "that's what yours costs...$100". $100 NT. That's $3.00 U.S. And with that, I had over the pink $100 bill and resign to becoming a fat person in Taiwan.
Back on the street I realize I've overeaten and wonder if David's scooter will be able to haul my fat ass all the way to the apartment. As I put on my stylishly dorky helmet, I realize something strange. Although the streets are busy and hundreds of people are talking around me, my brain is telling me that it is quiet. Somehow, because I cannot understand what anyone is saying, I am phasing out all of their words and channeling their voices into some inaudible background track. The only sounds my ears are aware of are the noise of the traffic, the clanging of shops doors, the sizzle from the fried food vendors. Its as if my body has grown tired of trying to process and understand this language which it can not possibly know or decipher, and so it has just given up and put everyone on mute. This is a disturbing phenomenon to me, and I reprimand my brain for trying to cheat me of experiences, however frustrating they may be to my frontal temporal lobe. "You don't decide what's best for me, brain!" I shout inside my own head. I swear I'm not going crazy.
Before we leave it is decided that we simply MUST stop by RT Mart before going home. RT Mart is Taiwan's version to Wal-Mart, which is kind of funny because while all of Wal-Marts products are imported and thus slowly destroying the American economy, all of RT Mart's products are locally produced and manufactured, often just minutes away. We pull into the megastore which is about as large as a small Wal-Mart, and step out of the humid night air into the florescent air-conditioning. Yep, pretty much spot on: The Asian Wally World. Things are a little more disorganized than in the States, but it is truly a one-stop shop, with everything from $100 polos ($3 US) to groceries to electronics to beer. The Ramen isle is particularly impressive; while Ramen in the U.S. is generally only reserved for starving college students, Ramen here does not discriminate. There is gourmet Ramen. There are giant Ramen bowls with actual MEAT included. Much to my surprise, I cannot actually find the traditional Ramen bricks that sustained my through most of my sophomore year of college. Apparently they've been sending us the shitty stuff and keeping the good Ramen for themselves. Also notable in the RT Mart: Flavored milks of all varieties: The best seafood selection I have ever seen, including sharks, squids, and (Dad would be proud) fish heads: Pig ears, tongues, feet, intestines (they REALLY like pig). And guess what the most popular American imported beer is? That's right, Busch. Very classy. While in the beer isle I stumble across a beer that is labeled, not kidding, "Taiwan Beer". That is, literally, all it says on the label. "We HAVE to get this" I gush, so Connie and I each buy a 24 oz Taiwan beer and head to the checkout. $40.00 ($1.15) and a short scooter ride later, we arrive at their apartment, exhausted from the full day.
As we unwind by watching a poorly edited and overly-sensored version of Sweeny Todd (yes, they do have several American networks over here, but apparently Taiwanese don't do well with violence), we sip our beer from traditional Chinese glasses, which are small and keep the beer cold. David lets me try some of his "Taiwan Beer Dark", which, honest to God, tastes and looks like soy sauce. I'm fairly convinced that he ACTUALLY gave me chilled soy sauce as a joke, but I drink it anyway and no one breaks into laughter at my expense. I write as much as I can before excusing myself to bed, my eyelids heavy, the jet-lag taking me down to the depths of dreams. It has been one of the best days of my life. How many times can we say this so soon after it occurs, to say this and really know it to be true? I realize that soon the newness of this place will wear off, the food will be everyday, the streets will all start to look the same. But as I close my eyes which have been open so wide all day, I am happier than I have been in some time. I am doing something new. I am refusing to take this life for granted. I am writing my story.