Friday, January 28, 2011

A Few Good Finds

New beginnings are a melting pot of emotions. I grappled my way out of homesickness absolutely as fast as I could. I'm glad those days are behind me. Making new friends has been touch and go because I still have no phone, transportation, interest in going out to drink at smokey bars and I'm the only foreigner at my school. Little things like buying a small carpet for my room make me feel more at home and loneliness has been replaced with boredom which seems much easier to remedy. Because I arrived at the end of the school semester my school felt it was best to start fresh after the Chinese New Year and winter holiday. But don't worry, I signed my contract weeks ago and am being paid for all this time at home. Another reason these sometimes endless days have been easier to swallow. So what does a person do with few friends, no phone or transportation, complete illiteracy, an inability to communicate with anyone and no obligations? The answer is simple... absolutely anything I can. Walking to the post office to buy stamps may very well have been the highlight outing of my day. Cooking a yummy breakfast made me feel at home and that was good for at least a couple hours of contentment. But as time has moved on each day has brought with it a few good finds; new places, new people, new things to do, new foods, new markets. The day I found peanut butter was like a flash of hope that I would find happiness here. For $2.15/load I can drop my laundry off and come back later to a bag of washed, dried and folded clothes. The guy there smiles and simply points to the clock for when I can pick it up. The woman at the grocery store knows I like to put my food in my backpack,not a plastic bag and the people at the sushi place know I don't like the dried, shredded beef stuff in my rolls. I found a great Indian restaurant just a 20 min walk from my home. They know I like it mild. I found mint tea in the import isle at another store and the girls at the internet cafe know I like water instead of tea for my complimentary beverage. I found an awesome stationary store when out for a walk the other night. It has everything and I can't wait to go back when I actually need to buy something. I can get fresh squeezed orange juice for $1 from the fruit stand on the corner and if I get up early enough to hit the morning market I can get a real taste of local flavor. A few days ago a girl in her late 20s came up to me on the street and asked if I could help her prepare for a civil service exam which is in English. I told her I'd be happy to help her if she would help me with my Chinese. It was a deal. We meet this Monday. I joined the gym and it's walking distance from my apartment. Score! I'm still in search of a bookstore with a good English selection. I'm flying through my books. And for those of you who know that I have the attention span of a goldfish, I seem to have found some focus here too.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Someone's gotta do it

It's human nature to fear our own suffering and to be deeply effected by the suffering of others. There are ethics and laws involved with humans which eliminate our legal ability to end suffering when there is no chance of recovery. We are forced to sit and wait it out. So in the mean time we can peruse the five stages of mourning, justify, reason, process and do our best to understand why what is is and do our best to prepare for the end. It's painful, sad and as onlookers, we feel completely helpless to make anything better. But when it comes to animals the rules are different.

Today, I came out of my apartment building, which sits on a narrow alleyway, and saw a cat laying in the road. At first I thought it was sunning itself but as it lifted it's head and failed to get it's front paws under itself I realized it was terribly hurt. In fact, as I got closer, I could see that it's back had been broken by some sort of accident. I felt nauseous. Devistated. I had to look away. Another cat was circling near by. His friend was dying and he could do nothing about it. I looked around to consider my options. A car drove by and straddled it. A couple scooters swerved around it and an older woman stepped off to the side and I could see her purposefully not look down as she walked by. Now I know the psychology behind mulitple bystanders and I don't play that game anymore. I needed to do something. But what? It was still alive, breathing. I brought the security guy from my building out to see it and he just gestured "a toss to the side," turned around and walked away. Garbage is dealt with very differently here. There are no dumpsters around or outdoor trashcans. And besides, it was still alive. A small sewage river runs along the road but throwing it in didn't seem right either. My roommate and I decided that a plastic bag was a good place to start. I went back up to my apartment to find something to put the cat in and thankfully, by the time I got back, it had died. So now I have this cat in a bag and don't know what to do with it. There is no recycling bin for dead cats. People sort through all the trash for unrecycled material. That would be a cruel surprise for anyone. Compost? Nope. Big body of water? Not even close. I know, I could burn it. But the only place to burn stuff here is for ghost money being offered up to the ancestors. Not for dead cats. So I took a walk to the mountain and hiked up far enough to get away from others. I stood on the edge of a small cliff and dedicated a moment to this cat that no one seemed willing to help. I couldn't litter in the woods so I untied the bag, grabbed the bottom, said a small prayer, closed my eyes and gave it the ol' 1-2-3. I felt bad that I couldn't comfort the cat and tell it the catbulance was on it's way. It surely didn't understand what was going on. And when it did take it's last breaths, it was alone. I know, most of you are saying to yourself, "Darcy, it's just a cat." I know it's just a cat but it was suffering. And suffering is something I have little capacity to deal with. If I was in the states it wouldn't have been any different, I'm sure. What do you do with a dead cat in the middle of a city? Needless to say my day got off to a rough start. Then on my way to the gym I passed a little old man walking a dog. I crouched down to the dog and it came up to me. It was super cute and the old man spoke a bit of English. We had a nice little chat and I got some good lovin' from the dog. All's well that ends well.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Culture Shock Again?

I've been in the country for 10 days now and what a long strange trip it's been so far. My first day in the country was about finding a place to live. My recruiter, David, and I checked out a few places available and we settled on something that was close to my school but still a 45 min walk away. It was basically a dorm room with a bathroom, bed, fridge and TV. Thank God for the TV for it was my saving grace over the next four days. We went out and bought a few necessities then I was on my own until the next day when David would pick me up to go meet my new school. I didn't sleep well at all. I was awake at 3:00am and would battle the same schedule for the following few nights. The fluorescent light right outside my only window made it feel like daylight all night long. Eventually I taped my Thermarest sleeping pad and an African sarong over the window to win that battle but it only dented my sleeping issues.

After meeting my "go to teacher," Irene, at the school I signed my contract and we secured my start date for the following Monday which turned out to be a painfully long week away. On my way out she reminded to wear a knee-length skirt to accommodate the dress code. I was frozen in my tracks. A dress code? I brought 17 pairs of pant with me. Eleven of them being nice, professional looking slacks to go with my new dress tops and big girl bras. I tossed in a few skirts just in case but certainly not enough for everyday. Nor would I ever consider a job that required that. So I set Irene out to negotiate the dress code for me with the principal. David was in on the negotiations too. In Taiwan there is no wiggle room for a tradition such as that. So I decided to have David look for another job for me. Did I really think I would be happy in a place like that?

Over the next few days I was completely paralysed by my current situation. I was living in a white box, sleeping on a mattress barely softer than the floor, watching TV that was 80% Chinese, limited to where I could get to on foot, completely alone with no phone, no computer and trying desperately to find food that tasted even remotely close to home in my escalated state of hunger, stress, loneliness, fatigue and homesickness. Not to mention I couldn't, still can't, and never will be able to read anything. Illiteracy is very humbling. And when no one around you speaks any English everything you want, need and do requires 10 times the effort and awkwardness. Then, after five days of what felt like the worst days of my life (yes, even worse than adjusting in South Africa) the universe smiled upon me. Just when I was ready to throw the towel in (give up, quit, surrender) I got an email for another foreigner living in the area. He got my address from someone who got it from someone who got it from someone at David's office. Some how he thought I was a "dude" and said he was looking for a roommate. Dude or not, we called Tom and went to meet him. I moved in the next day. The bad news was that there were no other teaching jobs available at daytime schools, only "cram schools" which are English school after regular school and the owners treat their foreign teachers like slaves. And since I'm a certified teacher I can teach at regular schools and enjoy the benefits of paid holidays and vacations. So David convinced me to reconsider the first job and he even took me skirt shopping. No joke. He even told me what colors looked good on me and helped me to decide what style worked for me. I went into this last weekend still with a lot of anxiety about starting school but Tom let me hang with him and he introduced me to some other foreigners (that's what they call us English teachers from away) and English speaking locals. One guy took me on a hike my first morning at the apartment. He lives on the first floor.

Since I moved things have been much better. I cleaned the bachelor pad kitchen so I could start to cook my own food. I have found stores with food I recognize and I'm gaining strategies to get what I need when I can't read labels. I bought a new mattress for my room. I paid extra for a soft one. I still have no phone, computer, TV or transportation but that will be changing over the next weeks. School is a total trip and worthy of a post all on it's own. I'm slowly meeting people and many of the teachers at school have befriended me and are making me feel at home and guiding me through some of the cultural things I don't know. I won't start teaching until after the winter break so no news on that yet. I'm glad I'm here and am looking forward to what is on the horizon. It's so true that what doesn't kill you makes your stronger and I'm getting stronger every day.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Somebody Pinch Me

My plane arrived on time after 26 hours of traveling. Like all airports, the signs were designed for international travelers with English translations. I stood at the baggage claim for over 30 min waiting for my bags to emerge from the magic suitcase hole in the floor. With nearly everyone gone I stated to create a plan B in my head. The problem was I had no phone, no internet and I forgot to write down my recruiter's number before I left. I made sure everyone else had it, but not me. Surprisingly, I felt panic free. Maybe I have learned to control only what I can and accept the rest as it comes. As they say in SA, "I'll make a plan." My bags must have been in the last cargo box off that 747 because they came up nearly together in the last stretch of luggage to be unloaded. As I walked away the lights turned off behind me and the carousel powered down. I followed the petering crowd through customs and out to the lobby where I scanned all the name signs being held by men in suits and uniforms. There I was, "Miss Darcy" on a piece of recycled pink paper taped to a small stand. A young man in his late 20's with spiked hair and wearing tight jeans and a pea coat waved me over to follow him. He took off and left in running to catch up. I needed to get money form an ATM before I left the airport or I couldn't pay for anything. He handed me a phone and on the other end was David, my recruiter. He was a welcomed voice speaking English to me. I sighed. One person in the world knew where I was. The young man kept walking way ahead of me and out the doors to a chaotic sidewalk of taxis, horns, luggage and shoulder to shoulder people. He came back and pulled me through the crowd to a van that apparently had been waiting for me. Another woman and I boarded the van while my bags were thrown in the back. Before I knew it we were swerving through traffic and the young man was not with us. We navigated our way out of Taipei and drove for almost an hour. The driver eventually pulled off the highway and made a U-turn under an overpass. I thought he had made a wrong turn until he pulled up next to a car with it's trunk open and a gentleman leaning against the outside. The van door opened and he waved me out to get into the car. I then realized they were a tag-team taxi service because they had the same symbols embroidered on the backs of their shirts. They insisted on transferring my bags for me. It was, after all, their job. I paid the 1st driver 600 NT ($20) and got into the back of the other car alone. It was a nice car with complimentary water provided in the center console. The driver changed the radio station to an English station and I listened to a remake of "The Girl from Ipanema." I appreciated the gesture. He dropped me off at a little hotel on a busy street corner. It was after midnight by this point. The receptionist didn't speak any English. She showed me how much I owed with 6 fingers, another 600 NT. I was handed a room key and a TV remote and she pointed to the tiny elevator. The room was small and tidy. Everything was old and tattered but felt clean. There wasn't a wrinkle on the bed and it was by far the firmest mattress I've ever slept on. If this is the Taiwanese style of sleeping I'm in for an ergonomic awakening. There was no clock in the room and I was worried I wouldn't wake up on time to meet David, my recruiter. I thought "wake-up call?" Then immediately decided I wasn't in the mood to charade that out with the receptionist. I turned my cell phone on to use the clock, low battery. Would you believe I'm on the other side of the earth and they use the same plug we do? I now had a clock and an alarm for the night. And after a couple minutes my phone automatically switched to the local time. Thanks US Cellular. I slept through the night. Most of it anyway. I woke up to the person in the room next to me brushing their teeth. Paper walls maybe? Bathing felt so good followed by clean clothes. Now for some food. I walked down the five flights of stairs to the lobby and out onto what felt like another planet. There were people everywhere going in every direction on foot, scooter, bus, taxi and bicycle. I couldn't read a single sign anywhere. I crossed the street to a 7 Eleven. I felt as though I had entered a Hello Kitty food mart. Much of the packaging and signage was pink and brightly decorated. I perused around the store trying to find something that looked familiar. I bought a pre-packaged sandwich and a sushi wrap. I recognized the bread and nori part of the wrap but what was inside would be a surprise. I bought a cup of coffee from an outside stand. The young girl spoke a few words of English. Well, she knew the words for milk, sugar and coffee. It was a terrible tasting cup of coffee. I sat down at a table literally on the busy corner outside my hotel and ate my breakfast surprise. I looked around at the people going here and there. Many of them wearing face masks in an effort to combat the poor air quality. Their clothes are the same as mine. Their bags are the same as mine. They are all on their way to someplace else. I couldn't help but wonder what their names are. What is their story? What brings them joy? Who speaks English? Are they originally from mainland China? Do they work in a factory? This is my new life. So exciting and unknown. I have so much to learn. My coffee started tasting better.

Designer face masks

They have a lot of "in the with new" but not so much "out with the old."

One must use other creative devices when you can't read anything around you.

This was my first daylight view of Taiwan. I sat on this corner and wrote this blog post on some napkins.