I had no idea what I was getting myself into moving to Taiwan. I had spent a magical summer there several years prior. I had lived with close relatives in Ban Chiao (a suburb of Taipei) and enjoyed company and home-cooked dinners.
This time around things were different. I was on my own. Upon my arrival I lived with relatives in a small, dark apartment in Taipei. The building itself was part museum, part temple, part haunted house. It was several stories high and austere, located within some type of wind tunnel created by its proximity to the local airport. I had to trudge against a pummel of wind to get inside. The entrance was a dark and cavernous hall decorated with gargoyle-like statues of mythical creatures. There was a huge, red ancestral altar smoking with incense, and an old man working as a guard (also smoking) sat on a wicker chair and nodded as residents walked by. He never smiled, just sat expressionless, following with his eyes.
My grandfather had informed my aunt and uncle whose home I was staying in that I was going to study in Taipei and needed to stay with them. The couple were grandparents whose grandchildren lived with them as a result of their son’s recent divorce. They couldn’t say no and we didn’t know one another, so I was an awkward presence. Since the family went to bed at 6pm, by the time I returned in the evening all lights were off. Going home each night was a strange routine of violent wind to gargoyle entrance to creepy stare, to tiptoeing straight to my room in darkness. A dim, red lamp from the ancestral altar lit my way. My relatives were courteous and kind to host me, but I knew I needed to move out.
Even though I lived and studied in Taipei, the commute to school (National Taiwan Normal University’s Mandarin Training Center) was brutal. The city had no subway. It was in the process of being built. The construction caused the already crowded bus system to be further jammed in gridlock. I had to fight my way onto the bus, push myself in, pry myself out, and repeat it again if necessary depending on the bus route I’d take. Sometimes I just walked. I got lost often because there were sometimes multiple busses per route and my reading skills was limited. There was no GPS and I was inept at reading maps. The worst part of the commute was waiting in line a final 15 minutes to cram into the one malodorous elevator that took students from the bottom floor of the department building to the language classrooms. Sometimes I’d just walk up the four or five flights of stairs. Either way, I started each day of classes sweaty, thirsty, and exhausted.
Not to mention the stomach aches. My first four months in Taiwan I had constant stomach discomfort. It was a combination of feverishness, chills, and diarrhea; probably from the street food or unboiled water. I was always looking for a bathroom and splashing water on myself after washing my hands to cool myself down. The public bathrooms were often unclean and smelled of urine. I couldn’t be picky. Walking to and from home to school I would sometimes rest my forehead on telephone and traffic light poles to wait for the waves of cramps and sweat pass. I had once even slammed my head hard against a low- hanging tree branch after resting on my forehead against the trunk of the tree. ( I had walked away from the tree with my eyes closed after a particularly painful episode. ) It was a lot of work to study Chinese.
I enjoyed my classes, but living overseas was off to a rough start.