I was amazed at how clean everything was, how nice the people were, and struck by the beauty of the landscape. But food soon proved to be an issue. Taiwanese cuisine is very snack-oriented, so if I wanted to eat a meal, it was typically at a Japanese or Korean-style restaurant. There is one Sichuan-style restaurant near campus, but, if you've been to the Mainland, or Sichuan itself, you can tell in a second it's not the real McCoy. For "real" Taiwanese food, the word on the street is head to a night market, but the closest one is half an hour away by bus. And really, they're not much different from New York's Chinatown. Cheap trinkets and street food. But I didn't like the street food. I thought it was bland and its texture amorphous. My tolerance for spice increased as I added tobasco sauce to remind my taste buds what I was eating. My thought process when eating Taiwanese went along these lines:
"Hmm...this could be chicken, pork...or even fish...which is it? Forget it. I'm doing this for cheap nourishment."
I found myself caving and eating Western-style food. It was the only way I could feel full.
Then there's the local culture.
From what I've gathered, local Taiwanese students are reluctant to get involved with something that does not concern them. And communication was really tough. I can't tell you how many times I've had wide-eyed stares I've gotten, even in a neighborhood with a high population of exchange students. I felt I was breaking a cultural rule during every encounter, but no one would tell me what it was. I was left to guess. I am not a fan of guessing games.
Practicing Mandarin with locals other than my tutors was stressful. Mandarin is hard enough without someone staring blankly at you, not even trying to guess what you meant. "Huh?" That's all the feedback you get. Try again, foreigner.
It was hard not to take these disappointing experiences personally. My tutors were very encouraging, and empathized with my difficulties. But I still felt misunderstood, and I operated in a constant state of low-level frustration. If my tutors could understand what I was saying, why couldn't anyone else? Was my Mandarin that bad?
It was around this time I was interviewing Taiwanese students to come to the United Sates to work and travel through the CIEE program. In so many words, that experience made me want to bang my head on the desk and howl like the Incredible Hulk.
And let's not forget mei you ban fa. Four words that can render any attempts to communicate null and void.
Mei you ban fa's literal translation is "there is no way", but in practice it is used more like "it can't be done", "it's impossible," or "you can't". So I'd spend a solid two minutes trying to clarify that I wanted a certain dish on the menu, only to find it was sold out, or I'd leave to meet a friend or do a job only to have them call and cancel. Sorry. Mei you ban fa.
I wasn't the only foreign student who wanted to rip out her hair. One of my Polish friends blew a fuse one night while working on a group project with some local Taiwanese and other international students. She too, had had enough of mei you banfa. I quickly escorted her out of the building before she thumped skulls.
"Mei you ban fa?!? Mei you ban fa KURWA MAC!" she hollered. Sometimes, Polish is much better than English at conveying frustration.
But things have gotten easier. My friends, both local and international, have done wonders to help. They've listened, offered hugs, sent me packages (thanks Mom), gone out with me. Because it's sometimes necessary to, well, throw a fit when you're feeling really aggravated. But it's equally necessary to do so in a healthy way, and then move on. And with the departure of some of my friends, I've realized that my time here is valuable. A day is coming when I'm going to pack all of my things and go home. I don't want to look back on my time here and think about how my quest for authentic lasagna came up short.
A sense of humor doesn't hurt either. I've learned to say "I'm a foreigner" in Taiwanese. Except that I always say it wrong, so it comes out "I'm a dead foreinger".
(Also: new Decemberists album on YouTube. Huzzah.)
It was nice to spend New Years' at a translation retreat where I listened to Mandarin for hours on end. I realized my Mandarin had improved a lot in four months, and the ladies spent meals explaining Taiwanese culture, filling in gaping holes in my knowledge. I lapped it up like a dog dying of thirst. I was deeply grateful to have someone put everything in context for me.
I still run into potentially irritating cultural encounters all the time. For example, today I went to rent "Salt" from the video store. I wanted to rent two videos, but it was explained to me there is absolutely no way I could rent two movies. None whatsoever. I asked the clerk (nicely, and several times because she did not understand me at first) if I could come back tomorrow and rent another DVD. I was informed I could do so if and only if I returned the DVD I had borrowed the day before.
But it's cool. Because I have my bowlful of peace/contentment/acceptance, and the rest of the world can go stuff themselves...with love and happiness and sunshine, of course!*
*except on days when I am PMS-ing. Then you're on your own.
That's pretty much it.