November 16, 2009

Friday August 21st: The Necessities of Lying to Legally Smuggle One's Self Into A Foreign Land OR Who Taught Texas Grammar?

After the successful performances by all the summer school classes and the amazing rendition of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" by Rex and Yuta, summer school is dismissed and the crowded lobby begins to clear as students are whisked away by parents and school buses. The Chinese teachers stay and continue working, preparing for the arrival of the new semester. I stay as well, along with Connie, in order to try and book an upcoming flight to a different country so that I may, eventually, have the appropriate paperwork to legally work in Taiwan. Let me explain.

Before leaving for Taiwan, I did quite a bit of research to determine exactly what I NEEDED to bring so that everything would go smoothly. I didn't want there to be any hang-ups; in my mind, I only got one shot at this thing, and if it didn't work I wouldn't have the money (or the secured job) to try and do it again. I discovered that the list of required documentation was pretty short, but some of the items weren't necessarily easily obtained. I will enumerate the checklist that hung like a bladed pendulum over my head for the final month before I left, inching closer and closer as the days counted down.

1. Passport - Thankfully, I had already gotten my U.S. Passport LAST summer when I thought that this trip was a possibility then, but dragged my feet too much to follow through and ended up wandering around the United States for 12 months. Although I still have the better part of a decade before mine expires, anyone coming to work overseas should be sure to have at least two years before expiration.

2. Passport Photos - Of course, I waited until four days before I left to have these taken, but the process was easy and inexpensive. Several websites informed me to bring at least 12, which I did. However, since I got here several other teachers have expressed that this is probably not going to be enough, so I may have to find some way to have more taken or forge copies. If I could set back the clock, I'd get twenty, just to be safe.

3. University Diploma - For most, this item would probably be pretty easy to come by. Just go in the bathroom (where I WOULD have hung my diploma), take it out of the frame, fold it neatly and put it in your wallet. However, for me, this item took over a year to secure, and was one of the largest factors that went into me NOT going to Taiwan immediately following graduation (as was the original plan). See, instead of using my student loans to pay my tuition expenses, I decided that I needed a new computer. This is a decision that I still do NOT regret (for I use this purchase roughly 3-4 hours a day), but because of it I owed an outstanding debt to the University of Missouri which I didn't have the means to pay until shortly before I fled the country. It did feel mighty satisfying, I must admit, to stroll into the Cashiers Office at Mizzou and finally get that $40,000 unimpressive piece of paper. (Keep in mind that everyone in Taiwan requires your ACTUAL diploma, not a copy - however, as soon as you give it to them, they make a copy and give it back to you).

4. Travel Visa - Procuring this, by far, was the most arduous task of all. Growing up in the U.S., I never had to think about visas or borders; I just drove for hours, catching glimpses of state signs as the sun was rising out of the misty summer half-light. (For example: "Welcome to Kansas - We're Sorry" or "The Lone Star State - Drive Friendly" where the word "friendly" is not actually an adverb...the correct way to say this would be "Drive Friendily", but "friendily" is not a word at there IS no correct way to say it.) Even Mexico was always just a short drive and a hassel-free border stop away. However, now that my world was being broadened to an international scope, I had to consider how to get INTO these nationalities without swimming or hiding amid a herd of goats in the back of an old toothless man's trailer. Luckily, for almost all countries, the U.S. Passport will allow one to visit for up to 30 days without any kind of problems. Unluckily, This did me no good because it would take longer than 30 days to process my Alien Resident Card, which means that the government would have put me on a flight home before I became a legal alien resident. To solve this problem, I needed a 60-day visitors visa, which would require a special application process.

This application process demanded that I produce all documentation showing WHY ON EARTH would anyone, especially I, need to stay in the country of Taiwan for longer than 30 days, as well as explicit proof that I would be leaving before my 60 day visa expired. I needed a letter explaining what I was going to do and see in Taiwan. I needed a bank account statement showing I had sufficient funds to do and see all the things in my letter (which was tricky because I didn't actually HAVE any money). I needed an actual ticket or itinerary showing my departure flight and date from Taipei back home to the U.S. Naturally, I didn't have any of these things - I had no travel plans, no money, and a one-way ticket - so I lied.

Less than a week before I was scheduled to leave, I forged bank account statements and round-trip flight itinerary, and constructed a letter detailing my fake travel plans (which prompted my father to ask if I majored in "bullshit"). I sent these, along with my passport and $360 U.S. (for rush service and application fee) off to Washington D.C. to have them processed by VisaHQ, an online visa service that seemed reliable enough and promised my visa and passport would be returned in time for my departure. My other option, instead of going through a visa processing service like VisaHQ, was to drive to Houston and visit the Republic Of China (R.O.C.) Embassy in person, which I imagined to be like the DMV only without fluent English speakers. The online service seemed like the logical choice.

Sure enough, two days before I was set to leave (which would have been impossible without my passport), a FedEx Express envelope was found leaning against the front door of my dad's house. I opened it with anticipation, excited to see my visa and finally be free from the stress of this whole complicated situation, and instead found a letter apologizing; "Your visa application has been denied..." Damnit. Apparently, my forged itinerary had fabricated my "return" date for only 26 days after my arrival, and the letter cheerfully informed me that, because I would be staying less than 30 days, I wouldn't need a 60-day visa after all! I knew that sucking at math would come back to haunt me eventually....what was I thinking?

So now, back in the teacher's area of Miro, Connie and I must book a flight for me to LEAVE the country, then re-enter with a 60-day travel visa. This process is actually quite common and is called a "visa run", but at the moment I am sweating because I am almost out of money and truly cannot afford to go gallivanting around Asia, even if it IS necessary for my prolonged stay. One of the Chinese teachers, Mia, who is very nice but seems extremely busy, finds a cheap round-trip flight to Macao through a travel agent for a little over $6000 NT (just about $200 U.S.) that leaves the following Thursday, and I tell her to book it. My options are either Macao or Honk Kong, and rumor has it that the Taiwan Embassy in Macao is a piece of cake, so that's where I will go. I thank Connie and tell Mia I will bring the money and my passport next week, and head home, wondering how I am going to make it to payday (September 5th) without going completely broke. "Oh well" I think, "You can always do what you did in Colorado, and not eat for a week or so". I suppose I COULD lose a little weight, and now I get to travel to yet ANOTHER country - even if it is for only two days. Besides, what fun would this adventure be if everything went according to plan and I didn't have to tiptoe on the edge of survival for a while? All good stories must find the protagonist up against the odds so that he may eventually overcome and emerge the hero that everyone believed he could be. Or, you know, starve to death. Whichever comes first.

November 8, 2009

Friday, November 6th: Round Up The Usual Suspects (First Trip To Taipei's "Nightlife")

Since making some new friends a couple of weeks ago, weekends have regained their familiar place as the time to "unwind" after a long work week of spelling tests and runny noses; however, while most think of unwinding as a relaxing pursuit, unwinding among twenty-somethings in Taiwan is defined much the same as it was when I was in college - namely, drinking until we all do things we will not be proud of when the morning sun shines light on our torn shirts, bloody knees and heavy eyes. Though I can no longer claim the stamina or tolerance that I proudly called my own in my university days, I am thankful that I now have something more to do on the weekends than just sleep until noon, explore aimlessly on foot and watch Bruce Willis movies alone in my one-room mansion.

Walking home from work on Friday evening, my friend Jamil sends me a text message: "Let's hit the Taipei nightlife tonight. What you say?"

I have been in this country for almost three months and have yet to visit its largest and most "energetic" city. Part of the reason for this has been lack of expendable funds, part has been fear of being in a massive foreign city by myself, which I have never done save for my limited experience in Macao (a decidedly more English friendly tourist city). However, now with this month's freshly deposited paycheck waiting to be tapped and at least one friend to go with, any reservations I have been nurturing are slaughtered at the hands of my ravenous sense of adventure. "Pick you up at nine" texts Jamil. I shower and am ready by 8:00 p.m.

Before getting on the bus to Taipei we stop off to pick up a couple of Jamil's friends, a Frenchman by the name of (can you guess it?) Pierre and a Moroccan Frenchman who goes by "Face", and to wait for our British friend Marc to finish giving a guitar lesson. I have never been in the company of Frenchmen before, but they seem to fit into the preconceived stereotypes that I have been doing my best to shake since I left the States; they are smooth and friendly, well-dressed and well-groomed. After everyone arrives we hop the bus to Taipei, passing a bottle of Scotch whiskey around and drinking beer, talking too loudly and trading questions and answers about each other's personal histories and cultures. I learn that Face is from the city of Casablanca, and I do my best Humphrey Bogart impression, which falls flat because no one else has seen the movie. As we talk and laugh and drink it amazes me that six months ago everyone I associated with was from the same state, or even the same town. Now, between the five guys disturbing the other passengers from the back of the bus, we represent four continents (Jamil - Honduras [Central/South America], Pierre and Marc - France and the U.K., respectively [Europe], Face - Morocco [Africa], and me [U.S.A], can speak just as many languages, and are going drinking in one of the larger cities in East Asia.

The bus fare is $105 NT ($3.40 US) for the hour-long trip to Taipei, and though I'm not exactly sure what time we arrive, it is probably approaching midnight when we all pack into one cab and pull up to our first destination. Upon getting out of the cab, Marc asks where Taipei 101 is. "Oh, you can't see it now," replies Jamil "its over there, but the buildings are in the way". Marc laughs. "The tallest building in the world and we can't even see it over the buildings?!" I, too, am disappointed, but the alcohol consumed on the way up is beginning to take effect and the lights and sounds of the city are igniting my senses. I soon forget the tallest building in the world and focus my attention on the activity at street level.

I am not exactly sure what the names of the bars are called or how Jamil knows how to find them (I guess he HAS been in this country for a while, now), but I soon find myself gliding up the side of a building in an elevator and slipping through well-dressed men and woman at an upscale lounge. A waitress comes and takes our drink orders, I order the margarita martini for a taste of home. At $300 NT a piece the martinis are not terribly overpriced by U.S. standards, but expensive enough to keep us from ordering a second and we soon leave the pounding house music in search of something a little cheaper and somewhere a little crazier. The next bar is, literally, underground. We descend the black staircase and pay the $600 NT cover charge, which would usually elicit complaints; however, this fee also included all of one's drinks for the evening.

Forgive me if the following seems to lack detail or description. These were both lost somewhere in the music and the tequila sunrises:

We drink tequila sunrises. I switch to whiskey & cokes at some point and never look back. The deejays are Asian, but have dreads and wear N.B.A. jerseys. I remember singing some remix of Red Hot Chili Peppers when one of the deejays holds the microphone in front of me. (Yeah, I am "that guy"). I dance. A lot. We meet a girl who claims she is from Miami, Florida but looks and acts very Taiwanese. We call her Miami the rest of the night. I jump up on the stage. I dance until my legs hurt. Miami bites me on the shoulder, I still have no idea why. We leave the club and I buy everyone sausages from a street vendor, but eat it so fast that I burn the hell out of my tongue. We wander around a corporate park for what seems like hours. I buy a stick of gum from a homeless lady for $100 NT. I let some random Taiwanese man use my sim card from my phone. I lose my shirt. Jamil finds my shirt in Miami's purse. I begin to think Miami is a little crazy.

After this the night fades to black, like a movie where the protagonist is poisoned and all the audience sees is his world blurring, spinning, and stopping. When my memory resets itself I am in a two-story McDonalds and the sun is rising. I eat the over-processed calorie-laden sustenance without tasting it. I feel ashamed that I have broken one of my rules of living in Taiwan (never eat something you can get back home), but my body has convinced my brain that I will die without ingesting something that begins with "Mc" and will surely end with a stomach ache. We leave the McDonalds and drag our feet along the sidewalk; the sun has been born once again. People are heading to work, glancing quickly at us as they pass. I'd like to think that they smile inside, remembering a past life when days and nights melted into each other in a seamless haze, when they too were young, irresponsible, invincible.

We take the bus home and Marc and I talk about Southpark, music and video games while everyone else sleeps. My body begs for sleep, my veins need rest to strain all the poison from my blood and make me new again, but I fight on, prolonging the inevitable until it will be sweetest. Finally back home, I draw the curtain and collapse into bed, succumbing to exhaustion. My muscles shudder and stop, my lungs exhaling fumes in shallow breaths while the world slowly grinds on without me far below. I will not dream, and the memories of the night that should be saved will elude my sleeping mind and be lost forever to the ringing in my ears. But there will be more memories to erase, more nights to embrace this life. Don't wake me I plan on sleeping in...

November 3, 2009

Friday, August 21 2009: It Doesn't Matter Who's Wrong Or Right

The end of my first full week of teaching comes without much in the way of fanfare or any "congratulations! You didn't screw everything up immediately!" from my colleagues or superiors. I guess this is because I have been trying to disguise the fact that I have no idea what I'm doing, and my faux-confidence seems to be doing the trick. I, on the other hand, am thrilled with my relative success (or lack of failing disaster) and silently praise my own accomplishments. I tend to be my own biggest fan sometimes, but this helps keep my chin up and allows me to live independent of the opinions of others, which can be fickle or damaging to the foundations of my self-esteem. There are, however, a small number of opinions I value very highly...I'm sure you know who you are...

Today in summer school my class is to perform the song "Wonderwall" (if you want the full effect, you can listen to the actual version here:, but no one in class seems nearly as nervous as I. This is probably because, of the 18 eight, nine, and ten year-olds in my class, only four or five have decided they are going to try and sing the lyrics. The rest are content with mumbling along incoherently or not even making an attempt at all. It's a shame; apathy seems to be claiming younger and younger victims these days. I remember being at LEAST twelve before doing this kind of thing in school became lame. Regardless, as the hour of our "performance" draws nearer the lack of participation begins to unsettle me, not only because I fear I will be the ONLY person singing to a room full of Taiwanese children but also because I do not want the faculty to think me an "uninspiring" teacher. Time to pull out the secret weapon: choreography.

It is a well-known fact that children love to beat on things and to make as much noise as possible. Why is this? My theory suggests that because society has deemed loud children to be annoying and their creative expression - at least when it bursts forth in the form of shrieks, yells or disruptive, deafening banging sounds - is to be suppressed and not tolerated, kids naturally rebel against this oppression whenever possible. Its almost sad because at some point most of us lose this spirit of individuality and rebellion; the world says "we don't want to hear what you have to say," so we bite our tongues, tie our shoes, and keep our heads down. What ever happened to "making a joyful noise to the Lord?" Or simply allowing our voices to carry into the heavens, the waves rippling out into space forever, tiny pulsating evidences of our fleeting existence echoing off the walls of eternity?

It is also a well-known fact that Taiwan has a readily available supply of disposable wooden chopsticks, of which I now had in my possession thanks to a Chinese teacher who had raided the local 7-11's condiment and food accessories section hours earlier. Lucky for me, "Wonderwall" just so happens to have nice drum fill about halfway through the song, which I meticulously and skillfully choreograph by saying "Okay, GO!" and telling everyone to start banging on whatever is around them with their miniature, flimsy drum sticks when they hear the rapid snare drum pops on the CD. This creates both noise and laughter, and suddenly everyone is enthusiastic, knowing that maybe their small contributions will be heard. Never mind that no one can hear the music from the weak boom-box speakers anymore; at least we are having fun.

The performance comes and goes, my class does about how I expect them to - very little singing or enthusiasm, but their efforts are applauded and no one seems to be looking at us disapprovingly. After all of the classes finish their respective songs, the encore is herded onto the stage and subsequently steals the entire show. The "encore" is actually two elementary students, named Rex and Yuta (pronounced almost like the state), who have been coerced by fellow students and faculty into singing Michael Jackson's "Beat It". I am told that we have another Foreign Teacher to thank for teaching them this, a quiet-spoken Philippine, Maynard, who plays the original song through the computer's speakers while Rex and Yuta sing, from MEMORY, every word to the King of Pop's hit. I am floored, and cannot stop smiling as I exalt to everyone around me, "This is the GREATEST THING I HAVE EVER SEEN!" It is truly a spectacle, to see two ten year-old Taiwanese boys belting out a song usually reserved for drunken 2 a.m. Karaoke nights. I honestly can't imagine a better eulogy.