I gather my thoughts, which have become fractured with echoes of piano lullabies in A Minor, and leave shortly after Connie. My responsibilities as a teacher do not yet extend past 12:00 noon, which is both a blessing and a curse. The positive of this situation is that I do not feel completely overwhelmed, not only due to the unfamiliarity with teaching but also in regard to the amount of hours I am working. I imagine that being thrust abruptly into one's first 40 hour-a-week job can be shocking; although one learns to swim faster by jumping in over their head, in this circumstance I am perfectly happy to ease myself in, catching my shorts breaths as the ice chills run up the back of my legs, letting myself adjust to the dark and unknown waters. The negative side of this, of course, is that I am only getting paid for three hours each day, and with money problems looming on my financial horizon, my brain is already crunching the numbers to see if how close I'm going to cut it. "Lets see" I talk out loud to myself, which is something I have discovered I always do when I'm stressed about money or time and am trying to find a way to make my ends meet (this happens fairly often in my life), "I make $400 NT an hour (which is roughly $12.00 US), and I have worked six hours thus far. My total earnings are....(this takes much longer to process than it should)...$2,400 NT." Congratulations - Call MENSA, we got a real prodigy here. I have also gotten into the habit of converting everything into US Dollars, mostly because it's fun to see how inexpensive everything is compared to the prices back home. The conversion is fairly simple once you get the hang of it: $100 NT = $3 US, $1000 NT = $30 US, etc. So once again, taking far too long for my brain full of words, poetry, metaphors, and songs to compute, I struggle to figure I have made close to $75 US. Not great, but not horrible for two days work.
[My salary, should anyone want to know, is approximately $60,000 NT a month, or a little under $2000 US. Although my annual salary of $22,000 US is much lower than what a new teacher in the United States would make, which according to a 2006 survey was between $35 and $40,000, the cost of living allows foreign teachers to exist very comfortably (unless you are trying to pay everyone back who got you to Taiwan in the first place!) here, which is why these jobs are perfect for the directionless, debt-ridden, or unemployable (due to lack of experience) - I happen to fit into all three of these categories. In comparison with other professionals in Taiwan, foreign teachers are one of the higher paid occupations, with first-year engineers making about $15,000 US a year, and beginning domestic teachers making about $12,000 US annually. Doctors still have the upper hand, though. While residents make about as much as I do (about $60,000 NT monthly) which is consistent with the poor compensation for residents Stateside, a full-time family practice doctors will make, on average, $140,000 US a year. Once again, these figures must be viewed through the lens of the extremely low cost of living in Taiwan.]
My mind whirring with numbers, I walk down the sidewalk toward the main road, the heat from the sun pushing its way into the threads of my t-shirt and warming my shoulders through the fabric. The trek back home is uneventful and plays out like my morning commute in reverse, the only difference being the temperature, which seems to have risen at least ten degrees, as well as the relative inactivity on the streets and sidewalks. The noon-day lull is at its peak. Shop owners peer out through windows and garages as I pass, amazed at the foreigner who would brave the midday fire that stalks the blacktop, its pervasiveness challenging anyone who dares to venture out from the shadows or air-conditioned havens to face its febrile breath. By the time I arrive home sweat is pouring from my forehead and running into my eyes, the burning sensation accompanied by the taste of salt on my upper lip. I immediately take off my clothes and turn on the shower, letting the chilled water wash away the sticky summer that clings to the back of my neck and in the crooks of my arms and knees. I feel baptized, reborn. Out of the bathroom now, I lay naked on box spring bed, the humid air stealing the moisture from my skin, leaving refreshing chills in its place. I am comfortable. I am happy. I close my eyes and let my body fully relax under the weight of the heavy air that fills my apartment.
I wake up, completely unaware that I had fallen asleep. I feel a faint breeze from the open porch door, but other than that the air is stagnant, carrying sounds of passing vehicles from the street as offerings to celebrate my return to consciousness. I have not moved from the position I had laid down in earlier, on my back with arms and legs spread, palms facing the ceiling, vulnerable and unclothed. I am DaVinci's Vitruvian Man. Perhaps I died for a minute, but was pulled back from the gnarled clutches of Ender by some force beyond my comprehension and for a reason I will never understand. I don't remember any bright lights - should this upset me? Despite my complete lack of motion, however, my body has recommenced its efforts to keep my temperature cool at the cost of becoming disgustingly clammy. I sit up, beads of sweat running down my bare chest and collecting in the creases of my stomach, and check the time on my phone. 3:30 p.m. I have been asleep for three hours and was not even aware that I was tired. This kind of exhaustion is the worst, the kind that you cannot see coming and thus cannot combat. The battle was lost before the first punch was even out the door.
I stand up and go to my closet to find something to wear, but dread the feeling clothing gives when it clings to wet skin. I decide to rinse off, once again with cold water, which helps to clear the fuzz still lingering in my head from my unplanned nap. Quickly then, I towel off and dress before my skin powers up the perspiration factory, putting on khaki shorts and one of the only loose-fitting t-shirts that I packed. I desperately need a pair of athletic shorts, not only because they are comfortable and perfect for these times of inactivity and laziness, but also because I want to start running soon and need something to wear besides sweat pants, which would probably kill me after being outside for five minutes. I don't know why I chose to pack three pairs of sweatpants but neglected to bring even ONE pair of running shorts for my year-long excursion to a country in a sub-tropical climate. The inner-workings of my brain are a mystery. I resolve to buy some running shorts as soon as possible, and wonder where the best place to go to buy said clothing would be. I decide to go exploring tomorrow after class, hoping I can find something that won't kill my budget. At this point, though, shorts have transcended thrift and have reach "necessity" status. The Taiwanese humidity mocks my feeble attempts at frugality.
For the next few hours I sit at my computer and write, the sun dropping slowly and lowering the brightness of the sky as if adjusting a giant fader, setting the mood for lovers across the city and darkening my small studio until the shadows have replaced the last remaining colors clinging to their once-brilliant objects. I write until the computer screen is the only light I can see, my fingers painted with the unnatural and sickly-looking glow of its luminescence, the poised tips hovering above the keyboard trying to translate the jumble of expressions and details in my head into something coherent on the artificial piece of digital paper in front of me. Part of me yearns for the days of the typewriter, though I have never actually used one and can only guess at how terribly frustrating and time-consuming fixing errors must be. It just carries with it some romantic notion, some connection between the tangible product of one's work with the quality and substance reflected on the physical pages. It seems to my imagination that all great writers have scribbled by candlelight or punched typewriter keys loudly in lonely apartments or sequestered cabins, losing themselves in the pages of their work, smearing the ink with their fingers that shake from insomnia and caffein. The dehumanizing luminosity of a computer screen certainly robs the artist and the art of its sentimentality. I long for the good ol' days which were gone before I even arrived.
Around eight o'clock my eyes begin to burn and my back aches from my hunched position. Suddenly, I realize that I am starving, and my stomach is making it clear that forgoing dinner will not be an option tonight. But I am at a loss: Where am I going to eat? From what I have noticed in my preliminary surveys of the neighborhood, none of the close-by restaurants or food vendors have any menus or signs in English - most of them don't even have pictures, which, if I were desperate enough, could just point to the item I wanted and go "ehh, ehh!" like an infant. Because I do not know the Chinese name for ANYTHING, this puts these restaurants temporarily out of my access. My second option would be some form of American fast food, such as one of the many McDonalds or KFCs that can be found around Hsinchu. I am against this idea for three reasons, namely; a) going to McDonalds of KFC is decidedly NOT in any way a unique OR cultural experience, which was one of the biggest motivating factors for my coming here in the first place - to experience a culture completely different from anything I could find in the U.S. Thus I refuse to eat there; b) I don't like any of McDonald's food, save for their breakfast sandwiches and pretty much everything when I'm very inebriated. After I eat McDonalds, I feel like shit for about three days and can swear I hear my body whispering "why???? What have we done to deserve this???" And you know what? I can't give my body a straight answer, so I then have to pile guilt on top of my feelings of nausea; c) I have no clue where the closest McChain restaurant is, and in my current state of famished-ness, I don't feel that wandering aimless around the city looking for one is a great idea. The authorities might find me naked in a park somewhere, meandering around glassy-eyed mumbling "Quarter Pounder with cheese, no pickles....no pickles....no pickles...."
The only other place I can think to go is the 7-11 two blocks from my apartment, but convenience store food sounds even worse than McDonalds at the moment (or always). Therefore, I opt for secret option Number D, which is to try and find something at the RT Mart that doesn't require any kind of preparation, utensils, or fresh drinking water to consume. I am not exactly sure what foods would fall into this category. I'm know they'll probably have cookies and pre-packaged crackers and candy, but my body, having eaten only fruit, white rice, and ground beef in the last twenty-four hours, is craving something with nutritional value. I grab my wallet, making sure there is at least $500 in it, and head down to the street. The air is cool and the humidity has subsided substantially, leaving in its absence a clear, starless evening that smells of exhaust fumes and contracting pavement. The light breeze gives new life to my legs, which feel shaky as they pump the ground under my flip-flops, striding briskly down the sidewalks and alleyways, crossing over the bridge to the end of Zi You Road. Earlier this morning at this same intersection, I took a left, heading East in the direction of my school. Now, I turn right, walking in front of a large two-story pet store with big windows, none of which house dogs or cats, jumping over black and yellow striped parking curbs as I go. I continue walking down this road, which is wide and busy, until I reach the pedestrian and scooter entrance to the RT Mart parking lot (I love how these are often one in the same). Inside, a world of mediocre goods and low, low prices await me. I am so hungry at this point, I'd settle for a fish head. I stroll past the rows and rows of scooters, noting how busy the store seems for it being close to 9:00 p.m. Yellow lights swarm with insects and hum in different frequencies as I pass beneath them. I slip under the shelter of the corrugated metal walkway, and momentarily join a mass of people as we walk through the automatic sliding glass doors with a "WHOOSH" of cold, clean-smelling air. My stomach, having sensed that food is nearby, begins to whine and my mouth starts to water. I have violated the #1 rule of budget shopping: Never EVER go when you're hungry. I take my first steps into the RT Mart, looking forward to exploring on my first solo shopping trip in my new country. The pink $100 bills have already begun to burn tiny holes in my pockets....