It is so weird to think that I’ve only been in Taiwan for three weeks now. In some ways it feels so natural that it’s like I’ve been here forever! That’s definitely not to say that there haven’t been some new and surprising experiences, though.
To begin, Feng Yuan is so different from the US and Europe! Obviously. I knew it would be, but being here has just shown me how incredibly different cultures can
be. My surroundings, for example, are nothing like they were in Colorado or in France. Even though Feng Yuan is a relatively small/medium city, it bustles and hums more than I am used to. There are always sounds of scooters buzzing by on the road, and musical garbage trucks passing by in front of the school. They sound like ice cream trucks out roaming the streets! Except for on the weekend when they blast Beethoven’s Für Elise, because never in my life have a heard an ice cream truck play that. The garbage men broadcast music to let everyone know that they are close and that it is time to bring your trash out to the road, because if you don’t physically hand it to them then your trash doesn’t get picked up that day. Since Taiwan is an island, the garbage men come daily and they are very strict about how you’re supposed to organize your trash. We have 7 trash cans in our kitchen, and each one has a different purpose!
All of the buildings are very condensed. I think the best word I can find to describe the city is “compact”. I feel like all of the buildings are connected to each other, so every block feels like one big strip mall. There aren’t really short buildings here, either. I’m not constantly surrounded by skyscrapers or anything, but I think that all of the buildings are at least 3 or 4 stories high, and due to the humidity they all look a bit run down, but I don’t mind that. I actually love the look that the moss and humidity damage give the buildings because it gives them such personality. The first night that I was here, I went up to the roof of our building and surveyed the modest little streets of our neighborhood. It was interesting to find that amidst the murmur of nearby traffic and the distant cries of disgruntled children, there was a distinct feeling of calm in the cool, damp air, and it soothed my cultural disorientation as the wind tousled my curls. The mountains not far from our home are canvased by a dense green carpet of trees, and their outline is perpetually blurred by the haze of pollution in the sky. I won't complain about that, though, because it does produce some truly beautiful sunsets.
As far as actually interacting with the people goes, I have been pretty limited due to the language barrier, but I have found all the Taiwanese people I’ve met to be incredibly kind and caring. No matter how much they don’t understand you, they genuinely want to help you and figure out what you need. The school secretaries are all Taiwanese and they are fantastic! I find it funny to just sit back and watch them interact sometimes, because even though I can’t tell what they are saying I can understand so much of what is going on due to their reactions. They chatter away and laugh, scold, and tease each other, letting out occasional bursts of playful indignation or anger. My favorite moment was when we first met them and had a little impromptu talent show. They performed a synchronized dance to a Chinese song, and we sang I’m Yours while one of the other new teachers played the ukulele.
The secretaries have also been very helpful with showing us the ropes around the school and helping us get our visa paperwork all set up, which seems to be quite the process. Something funny did happen last week with that, though, when we went to the hospital to get our mandatory physicals done. There are five of us new teachers, and all of us were standing a few yards away from the front desk near the automated doors just gabbing while we waited for our numbers to be called to have our blood taken. I felt a tug on my arm and turned to see a sweet little middle-aged Taiwanese woman attached to my sleeve. Thinking that she wanted me to move, I tried to scoot away from her to allow her to pass by, but she hurriedly told me “no, no, no!” and pointed to something in front of us as she pulled me in closer to the group. Glancing over, I saw a young girl a couple of yards away holding up her phone prepared to snap a picture of us, and, amused by our new celebrity status, we all huddled in closer to the older woman and gave bewildered little smiles. This is the only time that a stranger has so blatantly taken a picture of us, but we have been met by plenty of unabashed stares as we walked down the road or meandered through a grocery store.
Culturally, it has been an amazing (and often amusing) experience, though I have taken a few missteps. Restaurants, for example, have been particularly interesting. Ordering is a bit of a challenge, and last week I found myself being served a GIANT bowl of soup with long, slimy noodles in it. As I used my chopsticks to attempt to fish the noodles out of the soup, a hand holding a spoon suddenly appeared in front of me. Surprised, I looked over to discover an older man stretching across the gap between the tables, offering me the extra spoon he had gotten for me after seeing that I clearly had no clue what I was supposed to do. I think I must have been very distracted by my unexpected order, because the thought of looking for a spoon never crossed my mind!
Last Sunday, we took a train and a bus to get to our church building in Taichung. Unsurprisingly, we got out the door a little bit later than intended, and what is equally unsurprising is that it was my fault. Due to this, we watched our train pull out of the station, waited an extra twenty minutes for the next one, and then ran a block or two in our skirts and Sunday shoes chasing down our bus, waving our arms frantically trying to get the driver’s attention. We still made it on time, though! Afterwards, we wandered around Taichung searching for a sculpture park, but instead we stumbled upon a beautiful Buddhist temple. Inside, there were gold statues everywhere, and the ceilings were decorated very elaborately. A monk and two volunteers welcomed us and gave us a spontaneous tour of the temple, teachings us along the way how to bow to Buddha as you crossed in front of the statue, how to properly greet the monks, and the correct steps for praying to Buddha. We stayed and visited with them for an hour or two, and even got to have dinner with the volunteers in the mess hall where the monks eat their meals! It was a truly incredible experience.
I have so much more to share but this is already a long post, so I will save it for next time.