September 5, 2009

I'm Sorry Life Isn't Perfect, But I Promise We Won't Starve, In This Small, Dark Apartment With Big, Bright Hearts

Today is the day that I will finally move into my new apartment. I say finally like I have been homeless for weeks, when in actuality it has only been a few days since I arrived here and taken up residence in Connie and David's spare room. Nonetheless, I am beginning to feel like I have outstayed my welcome. This feeling does not come because of anything Connie or David have done or said; they have been extremely hospitable and patient with me, treating me like a old friend that has been separated by time and distance, growing apart but still wanting to hang on to faded memories and "remember whens." I guess at heart I am independent to a fault, and often synthesize my own feelings of independence on those around me, believing that they feel exactly as I would in a given situation. I know that I would be growing impatient if a third wheel, a stranger, was taking up space in my girlfriend's and my apartment, and thus I now feel a sense of urgency to leave these incredibly generous people before I become a nuisance. Not only this, but I still feel as if I am on some bizarre vacation, and I crave some sense of permanence to really begin to feel like I am HERE. I need to unpack. I need to throw my dirty clothes on the floor. I need to LIVE here, not just BE here.

The landlady has agreed to meet me at the elementary school where there will be plenty of Chinese speakers around to review the contract and make sure everything looks okay, and where Connie can translate should there be any questions or last-minute changes. Before this, however, I need change the rest of my currency to NT, as I have been carrying around $700 in unusable green United States Dollars for the last five days. In Taiwan, many transactions are done in cash, and it is not uncommon or drug dealer-esque for large sums of money to change hands for house payments, cars, etc. Once I get my Alien Resident Card, I am told that I can open up a bank account here, but for now carrying around large wads of cash seems to be the most convenient method for financial interactions.

David is not sure which bank will change currency, so he decides we should go to the Bank of Taiwan, which he says "sounds the most official." After resting for a few more minutes, I collect my money and passport and David and I head towards the bank, David on his scooter and me trailing on Connie's. We arrive at the bank which, true to David's assumption, looks very official, with large marble walls and impressive glass doors. Inside, a friendly security guard stops us to ask, in broken english, what we need. I take the seven hundred-dollar bills out of my wallet and wave them in the air, saying "NT" as I do. He gets the picture and, smiling, shows us over to the counter where the last of my US currency will be changed to blue, pink, and orange monopoly money. I hand the lady my passport and my money through the small slot in the thick plexiglass divider, and wait as she counts it and processes my request. I am curious as to why they need my passport to complete this transaction, but I am quickly learning that a passport is necessary to do almost EVERYTHING here, and it is thus my most valuable possession. (I have also learned that the U.S. passport will open more doors than any other, save for the Euro passport, which is envied by all). It is strange how what we value can change depending on where we are in the world or in our lives. I would have never thought a tiny blue book would be the object I kept most closely guarded.

The lady hands me my money, passport, and receipt back through the glass with a curt "xiexie". I count it, but am not good enough at math to figure out the conversion so it really does me no good at all. My net worth has now been converted to $23,005 NT, with about $100 US still in my bank account from back home. Damn. As we walk back outside, I start to feel the subtle tickle of anxiety in my throat, the feeling I get when I worry that I am not going to be able to make ends meet. I have grown accustomed to this tickle in the last year of my life, but still dread it all the same. "Well," I think, trying not to worry prematurely, "Lets see how far this goes." Back on the scooters, back to the apartment, back to the air conditioning and waiting for 5:00 to come so I can meet the landlord.

At 4:30 I shake off the laziness that has accumulated on top of me and prepare for my trip to school. Princess Peace was very low on gas by the time we got back to the apartment earlier this afternoon, and I voice this concern to David. First he says that it will be fine, that scooters can run on fumes for days. Then, sensing the trouble he will be in if I DID run out of gas between the apartment and school, he retracts his confidence in the scooter's ability to survive without fuel and offers to let me take his bike. I am a little hesitant at doing this, seeing as how David's bike is almost brand new and very expensive (he told me earlier that it costs just as much as he paid for his scooter), but says it will be fine so I wheel the Giant road bike out into the hall and down the elevator, promising to take care of it as I go. The ride is a little awkward because David is a few inches taller than me and the seat is much too high, making it hard for me to reach the peddles at their lowest point, but I manage to keep from crashing into other vehicles or falling over as my legs churn and I merge into the sea of cars and scooters. Traffic is heavy due to 5:00 rush hour, but I have been somewhat desensitized by the density and sporadic driving styles of the motorists here, so the experience isn't nearly as unnerving as it would have been if I had tried it four days early. How far I've come in such a short time! I make it to school in a little over five minutes, sweating but otherwise unharmed. A bicycle might very well be my preferred method of transportation once I save up enough money to afford one. Though I have never considered myself a cyclist and haven't owned a bike since I was 16, I think that the exercise would be good for me and the environmental friendliness of a bicycle is an added bonus. Why contribute to global warming if it is not necessary? I will definitely look into this bicycle thing later on.

At the elementary school I wait patiently for the landlady, who is 15 minutes late. She eventually arrives with Maggie the real-estate lady, and she is sweet and small and reminds me of my Grandma Mullich. We make our introductions through Connie, and the landlady tells Connie that I am very handsome and asks how old I am. Everyone laughs at this, and I am glad that my landlord isn't imposing or rude. Maggie takes out the contract and makes a few little notes, then gives it to one of the Chinese teachers to read over and make sure there are no loopholes I need to be aware of. After the Chinese teacher gives her stamp of approval, she writes something on the contract saying that, because I am technically still "illegal" here, the school will vouch for me until I get my ARC and can legally rent a house in Taiwan. Next, I sign my name in the places where Maggie points, and my scribbly cursive letters look gaudy and out of place among the neat and geometric Chinese characters. Connie asks if I have the money, and I shell out the $14,000 NT for the first month's rent and the deposit, plus another $2000 NT for Maggie's finders fee, which I feel she has more than earned. I am handed the keys, and the whole transaction feels very straightforward and final, like something out of a movie. The paperwork now finished, Maggie and the landlady (who I find out does not have an english name) want to meet me at the apartment for one last walkthrough, so we wait for Connie to finish up and then make out way, via bicycle, back towards Connie and David's.

We peddle past the street that Connie lives on and down Zihyou Road another half mile, seeing the landlady and Maggie standing at the entrance to the building on our left. We pull in and chain up our bikes, then follow them into the elevator and up to the seventh floor, just as we had done days earlier. Then in through the metal security door and the big red front door, both of which Maggie shows me how to unlock, and into my new home. It is hot inside so we turn on the air conditioner which begins blowing air right away. A good sign. We check the refrigerator and the hot water, and Maggie shows me how to work the washing machine. Everything seems to be in good working order, and I am glad that we don't have to deal with any problems so soon, although it is inevitable that some will arise between now and the end of my year-long contract here. At least the landlady seems good-natured and will probably be easy-going should any repairs or modifications need repairing or modifying. Maggie excuses herself for a minute to take a phone call, and I continue to explore while we wait for her to return. Suddenly, a loud bird call blasts from above my head. "SHIT!" I think to myself as I duck for cover, "I knew this place was too good to be true! They have a BIRD infestation!" I look up to where the sound had come from and see a small white box on the wall near the ceiling. Is there a bird trapped in that box? Are there birds in the WALLS??? I give Connie a bewildered look, and she returns with an "are you serious?" face and laughs, walks toward the door and lets in Maggie, who has just rung the doorbell. The DOORBELL. Of course, why WOULDN'T Taiwanese people have doorbells that sound like realistic birds invading your home? I am embarrassed and try to justify my reaction with something about how real the doorbell sounded, but the damage has already been done. I am a dork.

After we look around for a few minutes, I tell Connie that things seem to be up to my less-than-high standards and that we can all go. She translates this to the landlady and Maggie, who both smile in agreement, and we go back downstairs. Outside, we grin and wave at them as they drive off on Maggie's scooter, and unchain our bicycles. It has gotten dark by now so I switch on the small red taillight attached to David's bicycle and follow Connie back to their apartment, just a few blocks away. Once there, we haul our bikes up the elevator to the apartment, where David is waiting and ready for dinner. An invitation is offered, but I am already considering my future money situation and so decline, saying that I have to pack my bags to get ready to leave. They seem disappointed but understanding, and leave me alone to shower and pack up my things. Upon there return, we make small talk about dinner and I drink the smoothie they have brought me (they are awesome), and then I begin to say my goodbyes. I thank Connie for everything and say that I will see her tomorrow at school, and tell David that we should hang out sometime. It feels strange to leave. I suppose when you are immersed in a place that is completely foreign, one tends to cling to things that are familiar and form bonds faster than they would otherwise. I put on my backpack and wheel my 50 pound duffel bag into the hall, saying one last goodbye as I close the door. There are no hugs and no tears, yet I feel like I am leaving friends that I have known for a long time.

Outside, I shoulder my bag and begin the half-mile trek down the street. I only stop to rest twice, and although I receive several sideways glances from people on scooters and other pedestrians, I make the journey without incident and in about fifteen minutes. I haul my enormous bag into the elevator, push the number "7", and feel the barely perceptible feeling of being lifted high into the air. At my floor, I place the appropriate keys in the appropriate locks, then open the big red door and step into the dark room. The window from the porch is letting in light from the city, casting shadows on the walls and on the floors. This is it. My first night on my own, in my new apartment. The first time I have ever lived alone. The first time that I have ever lived in a foreign country. As I hit the light and close the door behind me, a song comes into my head and plays one line as the soundtrack for this night. The song is by Jimmy Buffett, and the line which repeats over the faint sound of the city below is: "You can have the rest of everything I own, because I have found me a home."

1 comment:

  1. Dear Thomas - I'm caught up, and happy to know that you are well.

    Specifically, I'm excited that you got your own place, and I'm sure you'll transform it into as lovely a place as you've always, umm, done with...all of your other...places.

    Anyway, don't worry too much about these kids...they are four and five. While it will be totally awkward for a bit, they'll warm up to you in short order, and you'll gain some confidence. Also, remember this is just their first day too.

    This will help: