We arrive at the mall in typical scooter fashion of going the wrong way down a one-way street, the mall security guard directing traffic just staring at us as if to say, "Okay, you got me. I have no real authority here." Luckily we just miss the oncoming cars and scooters which had been newly loosed from their red-lighted prison by ramping our scooters up on to the cobblestone sidewalk. Now we can do some real damage! I look for a small child or an old woman to hit, wondering which one will earn me more points, but to my dismay, the sidewalk actually doubles as a scooter parking zone and we have arrived. This is not quite what I expected. Before me stands a large white building about ten stories tall, but other than its height not terribly imposing in width or length. A large sign near the stop of the building proclaims its name, F.E. 21, and I fail to ask what the initials stand for. This is definitely not the sprawling ode to commercialism that I am used to, and David explains that most malls in Taiwan are nothing like what one would find in the States. "Malls here are more like one massive department store which carries everything," he tells me. "It may be a little more convenient, but they usually only carry the pricier stuff so we usually don't shop at them." As we turn from the cobblestone walk and step through the sliding doors, an icy blast from the overworked air conditioner crystalizes the sweat on the backs of my arms. A chill runs from my shoulders to the small of my back, and I think the thermostat must be set at about 60 degrees. It feels incredible and I allow the synthesized cool to cover me like liquid.
The first floor looks very similar to the make-up section in every department store I have ever been in: white floors, bright lights, pretty girls beckoning customers to allow them to "make them up", the smell of one thousand perfumes blending into an aroma that is sexy, stifling, and comforting all at once. This is not where we want to be. We walk past some Taiwanese makeup associates who are taller than me (which is surprising), and down the escalator to the basement floor. In the basement we find the grocery stores, delis and bakeries, but more specifically, Jason's Grocery Store. Jason's, it is explained as we enter into the small but busy store, is the ONLY place in Hsinchu to find most American grocery products. Thus, my hosts reason, "it will probably be your favorite store." Need ranch dressing? Only at Jason's. Tortilla chips and salsa? Jason's. Cheese? Most other stores only have the processed American cheese slices, but JASON'S has at least FIVE kinds of cheeses! Be still my heart! We walk the isles for a while and David tells me that if you find something you like here, buy ALL of it. "Once we found Cinnamon Life cereal here, so we bought every box they had" he laughs. "You just can't FIND that in Taiwan!" The only downside to Jason's is the price. While most food in Taiwan is inexpensive, Jason's is considered a specialty store and most of the products are imported. Therefore, many of the products actually cost MORE than they would back home. A jar of pickles costs $6 US. Mayonnaise is $7. Cheese is ridiculously expensive, even by American standards. I make a silent vow to only come to Jason's once every few weeks when I have a desperate craving, but secretly know that I will probably be here every few days, scouring the shelves for "foreign" treasures.
After Jason's we take the escalator back up. And up. And up. We pass eight floors of clothing, women's children's, men's. On the ninth floor we find the food court, which is busy and loud with the sound of laughing or screaming children. They have about a dozen eateries, but none that I recognize. No Sabarro's Pizza here. At the back of the food court we take an elevator up to the eleventh floor where, to my surprise, the movie theatre is located. The movie theater is much like any from back home, only this one is extremely busy. Children run around me and teens lean against the walls in groups, ultra-cool. The line for the ticket counter is long and snakes back and forth across the room like the wait for an amusement park ride. Movie posters hang close together, and show a combination of domestic and American films, many of which I recognize, some I do not. As we walk to examine the prices at the ticket counter, Connie explains to me some of the differences between the American and Taiwanese film experience. "In Taiwan, one purchases a specific seat, like at a baseball game. Thats why it's important to get here early, because if you don't all the good seats are already sold." Interesting. She continues, "A lot of times we get movies before their U.S. release dates, but movies also come later sometimes. It just depends. Also, because all American films are subtitled, its hard to watch comedies because people will read faster than the actual dialogue and laugh before the punch-line hits. It's a little distracting." I smile at this, imaging sitting in a room full of Asian psychics. Now beside the ticket counter, I start looking over prices. Everything is in Mandarin, but I notice that there is big green box on the sign that has a picture of a ticket, a soda, popcorn, and a hotdog and the numbers "350" at the bottom. "I guess that's the special" says Connie, "all of that stuff for $350 NT." I am awed by this, because $350 NT is about $10 US and, at some theaters in the States, one can't even buy just a ticket for $10, much less a soda, popcorn, and a hotdog. As we exit the theater lobby and re-board the elevator, I make plans to visit this theater often in the future. Hell, for $10 US I'll even go by myself.
Having exhausted all that the mall has to offer, we take the elevator down to the first floor and back outside. The air feels heavier than when we entered, and I debate if it's relative to the frigid air inside or because a storm is looming in the distance. The sky above us is getting slightly darker, but we don't seem to be in any immediate danger of getting soaked and the clouds have actually cooled the temperature to being almost bearable. Connie notices this and suggests we go to a place called 18 Peaks, which I am told is a park in town. This sounds nice, so we set out for the park, this time going the CORRECT way down the one way street, and melding into the busy Sunday traffic.
18 Peaks, I soon discover, is much more than just a park; it is an entire nature AREA, complete with miles of hiking trails and beautiful scenic views. As we arrive, we park our scooters just outsides of the entry gate and I am amazed. The ride from the mall to the park took maybe five minutes, and we are technically still IN the city. However, it looks as if we have journeyed hours into the thick uninhabited forests of Taiwan, and we are surrounded my massive trees and everything is green and alive. I breathe in and the air feels clean, and I can no longer hear the hum of the cars and scooters as they race around the city. We have been transported into another world. We begin slowly hiking up the slight grade on the paved trail, passing families and being passed by women power-walking. The trail is well maintained and is cut into the side of the mountain, and on my right the forest stretches high above and the trees hang over the trail while on my left the mountain drops off suddenly and the ground is lost beneath a thick covering of foliage. We walk along, noticing the sculptures made out of vines and leaves and watching the insect hanging in the air by invisible threads. The sound of unseen birds echos off the bluffs, and rock speakers play soft violin and sitar music that floats and dances around us. Ahead, a break in the trees to our left reveals a stunning view of the city and shows us just how close we are to the buildings. It seems strange and out of place, like looking at a picture hanging on a wall. Hsinchu stretches for miles beneath our feet yet seems so far away. Suddenly, a clap of thunder breaks in the distance, but closer than we expect it to be. "I think we better get going" says David, and we hike the quarter-mile back to the scooters and head out, fleeing the impending storm. Within minutes we are back on the crowded city streets, and I am unable to understand how the beauty of nature and the concrete world of man can be juxtaposed so forcefully yet so seamlessly. It is a collision that astounds me, but it is effortless and extraordinary.
The rain never comes, but the atmosphere is cool and wet when we get back to Connie and David's place. We decide to take it easy for a while and spend the rest of the afternoon dozing and watching funny videos on YouTube and reruns of Friends. Dinnertime eventually comes and I am grateful, as hunger has been nagging at me for a couple of hours now. David decides that he is in the mood for a hamburger and asks me if that's all right. He is far too considerate, and although a part of me wants to eat ONLY local cuisine, I remind myself that I am going to be here a year and will have plenty of time to try everything the locals have to offer. Besides, a burger sounds amazing right now. We head downtown, and arrive at a restaurant directly across from the small park where David and I had walked days earlier. The restaurant is called Squares, and has a narrow dining room with a random assortment of decorations on the walls, from models of classic cars to an old-time sewing machine. We are taken to a wooden booth in the back where a small teenage waitress brings us small glasses of water. The menu is not extensive but is familiar; they have hamburgers, cheeseburgers, bar-b-que burgers, chicken sandwiches, and various other American food (all in English). I am a little excited, simply because I really LOVE hamburgers and now know where to find one should I ever find myself in desperate want of one. I order the bar-b-que burger and fries, and after the waitress leaves laugh because the ketchup bottle is in Chinese with the words "premium tomato paste" written in English at the bottom of the label. Sounds delicious, the Taiwanese sure know how to market a product. The burgers arrive, and they are good, not great, but I appreciate the effort and know that I will return in the future. We leave feeling satisfied, and as we make our way back to my hosts' apartment the night air is soothing against my skin.
Back at Connie and David's, I am suddenly very sleepy and excuse myself early. Tomorrow is a big day. First day of school. Meeting with the landlady and moving in to my new apartment. First night on my own. My head is swimming. I have no idea what to expect regarding my class or my kids, but I release the anxiety in deep breaths and know that everything will go well. I feel my toes relax, my fingers easing their tension, my face becoming placid. I drift off thinking about nothing at all, just listening to the sound of my own breathing. Tomorrow is a big day.