This makes me recall a dream I had in college-I walked out on a theater stage with some play going on. I remember being extremely anxious because everyone seemed to know me quite well and acted like I totally belonged there. The only thing was I didn’t have a clue who they were or what the play was or what my lines were. The craziest thing was that whatever I said or did they responded to like it was correct and completely normal.
When we arrived at the Grand Hotel in Taipei it was absolutely glorious. It was like a dream coming true-well one I never had but somehow it resonated subconsciously with impressions and feelings I had about Chinese architecture and experiencing China in all of her uniquely beautiful Chineseness. You climb a hill along a winding road and voila-You arrive at this impressive classic Chinese structure all red and gold and lit up with that beautiful Chinese roof curving at the ends. This was truly the culmination of my Chinese studies cultural fantasy being realized.
I ended up taking an interior room which had a window out onto the hallway but not outside?? I never knew that rooms like that existed but I figured what the heck if it saved me 15 or twenty something dollars why not. The bed was like a tombstone. I guessed that Chinese people must like really firm beds. Maybe because they tended to be smaller and lighter it wasn’t as aggressive of an assault on the senses to them. It was still a bed and I managed to sleep a few hours but before doing that I had some more pressing business to attend to-trying to reach Crack my friend. I called the first number which was for Sam’s Pub. I finally got Sam on the phone and explained who I was and how I was told that I could reach Crack here. How I just got here from the States after traveling for 13 or 14 hours and was Crack’s friend from the University of Arizona,etc. etc Sam responded, “So you want to see Crack right?” I said, “Yes.” he then said,”You should probably go to his house then.” At which point the phone went,”click.” I was shocked?? I couldn’t believe that anyone would be so cold especially after me having explained my predicament. Remembering my New York roots and DNA I quickly shrugged it off and proceeded to call contact # 2 -some lady named Pearl. She managed yet another pub Crack frequented. I was greeted by a friendly voice that told me that Pearl was on her day off but would I like to leave a message? I did.
I was still very much ignorant of this cultural dynamic and wasn’t complimentary of the stewardesses efforts with the warm water that was “better for me.” I did thank her when I got my ice cold ice water a few minutes later and thereafter. This was all small potatoes compared to my second lesson when I got to the airport in Taipei.
After flying for what seemed like forever we finally arrived at the CKS Airport. I didn’t sleep a wink on the plane. Too excited about my new adventure and also had 2 new business friends that ended up introducing me to my first job in Taiwan (we’ll get to that later). First thing I needed to do after getting my luggage was to change some greenbacks into New Taiwan Dollars(NT$). I don’t think that was even possible to due stateside since NT$ not a market currency. I got in line at the bank counter and all of a sudden this older Chinese man nonchalantly walks up and tries to cut in front of me. I had been living in Tucson, AZ for about 11 years so I was a little bit mellower than I was in my straight from Brooklyn days. I did tap him on the back and with a stern look and my thumb rocking backwards I got my point across. My Chinese was still far too rusty and my temper was going a bit so I opted not to try and voice my idea in Mandarin. He caught on and gave a look of feigned surprise while quickly moving to the back of the line. So here it was I learned of the Chinese custom of ignoring rules but not ignoring the enforcement thereof.
Wait until I get going on the traffic… To be continued…
I had been wanting to go to Taiwan or China for a long time after finishing my studies. My reason was to gain fluency in Mandarin Chinese which both interested me personally and also offered some potential benefit as a business tool since China has been gradually opening up to the west since the late 70’s and Taiwan at least a decade or more before that. At that time there were not many non-Chinese American born Mandarin speakers around too. I had a number of University of AZ classmates that had studied and /or taught English in Taiwan. They all reported favorable experiences and encouraged me to consider living in Taiwan for a while. I decided to go to Taiwan as opposed to China because in my mind Taiwan was somewhat further ahead of China at that time in modernization and with martial law having just been lifted back in 1987 it appeared they were further ahead democratically as well.
I pooled my savings and got a one way ticket to Taiwan with the plan to live there for at least 2 years, figuring that I’d need at least that much time to reach a basic level of linguistic proficiency. I’d re-evaluate at the 2 year point and see if I’d stay or what I’d do then. My first cultural conflict experience occurred early on in the flight. I asked the friendly stewardess to please get me a glass of ice water and even added, “with ice in it please.” She smiled and said she’d be right back. Well I was very surprised and a bit miffed when not only didn’t the cup of water not have the requested ice cubes but the water itself was far from ice cold and in fact was warm. I then reminded her of my request and asked her why she didn’t fulfill it. She replied, “In Taiwan we drink warm or hot water because cold water is not good for you.” I quickly responded that while that might be the case in Taiwan or even a correct but unknown medical or health fact to American or other westerner people, Americans are in the habit of drinking cold water often even in the winter months. This was my first contact with a well-intentioned disregard of my request or modifying the execution because the other party thought they were doing something better for me. I came to realize the Chinese were a people of many good intentions but sadly not that good about following instructions.
To be continued…