Flying from LA to Beijing

I arrived, Taiwan-time, Friday afternoon at around 1pm. To say I hit the ground running would be an understatement, seeing as how within just under four days I’ve moved into my room, interviewed for a job, taught two classes, bought a pay-as-you-go phone, learned how to drive a scooter, gotten lost in Hsinchu, and bought a helmet. I’ve met several South Africans, a Nicaraguan, someone from Colorado, and a handful of other people.

There’s the CliffsNotes version.

Friday Gretchen, my roommate, picked me up from the airport in a taxi. After the ride from Taipei to Hsinchu (Sheen-Jew), which was roughly an hour and cost $30-40 US, Gretchen, her boyfriend Juan (from South Africa, pronounced John), and I had a late lunch at a little place called Table Joe; later we ate dinner at a streetside restaurant and enjoyed clams, a pork dish and a local beer. Afterward we went to a bar called Red where a lot of foreigners congregate; Gretchen and Juan are also good friends with the entire crew there. It was a good evening, but I played the jet-lag card and left around 11pm so I could crash.

Saturday was lazy-ish, and Gretchen, Hannah (a local Taiwanese friend), and I went to a store called RT Mart, which is essentially a Taiwan version of Wal-Mart. They even have the blue vests, which I’ll have to sneak a picture of when I go next time. Standing in the middle of a major aisle, turning 360 degrees and seeing thousands of products and very few English words, I realized just how far away from home I was. When the ATM in the store wouldn’t accept my debit card, I not only felt far from home, I also felt broke, and that was the only time so far that I’ve felt nervous and unprepared. Gretchen lent me some money for a few necessities, and we headed back to the apartment so I could clean and organize.

That night, after I cleaned my room and unsuccessfully tried calling Bank of America, Gretchen, Juan and I went to Tepanyaky, when the food is cooked on an open hot plate between the cook and the counter where the patron eats. We had sprouts, mushrooms, chicken and beef, and it was one of the tastiest meals I’ve had in a while. For the three of us to eat, we paid approximately $3 US. We then went back to Red and talked to some other teachers and enjoyed sharing stories of travel mishaps.

Sunday was busy. After grabbing some breakfast to go and finally finding an ATM that would let me access my account, Gretchen and I rode her scooter to my interview for a tutoring gig. Then we returned to the apartment for a few hours before Gretchen, Juan and I rode out to an empty parking lot outside of town – one that just happened to have a pagoda gate standing in the middle. Juan proceeded to teach me how to ride a scooter and Gretchen how to drive a motorcycle.

The parking lot where I learned to drive a scooter

Once our lessons were over, we hopped back on the scooter and motorcycle and rode back into town, making several stops to find me a cell phone, a sim card (for a pay-as-you-go phone), and a helmet. After riding another ten minutes to a four star hotel where Hannah works, we feasted for free at the hotel’s buffet thanks to Hannah’s connections. The food was absolutely wonderful, especially after a long day on riding the scooter all over Hsinchu County.

Today was a challenge. I followed Gretchen to work: she rode a scooter Juan lent her while I rode hers. It was a 30-minute ride in heavy traffic, and while maneuvering the scooter isn’t necessarily difficult, following Gretchen in traffic while learning the ins and outs of scooter handling firsthand was a little stressful. I drove like a novice, often holding my legs out to the sides for balance.

Upon arriving at the school, we found out that I would essentially be entertaining four groups of children, one after another, in 30-minute intervals for the morning. Since it’s the tail end of summer, I don’t yet have lesson plans, so I was stuck reading from a giant copy of Ten Little Monkeys and making it last as long as possible. Some of the children knew little to no English, which added to the fun. One little boy wet himself while sitting on the floor, and that summed up the entire morning.

Lunch and naptime were spent in Gretchen’s classroom, and then I was told I could leave for the day. With sketchy directions and a hand-drawn map, I began the trip back to the apartment.

So here’s the thing about getting lost in a foreign country: even though the street signs are in both Chinese and English, remembering which streets you want and where to turn can be daunting. This is especially true, I later found out, when street names change several times over a few miles; it turns out I could have been back at the apartment 20 minutes earlier had I simply made a right turn down a road I wasn’t familiar with. Instead, I drove around for 50 minutes before finally finding our building and shouting, “YES!”

I relaxed for an hour or so and then headed out to my tutoring gig. I wasn’t looking forward to it after the disaster this morning, but I only tutor three kids, they’re fairly advanced, and I have books to guide me through the lessons. Looking back, I realize I pushed the kids a little too hard, though they did well. These are kindergarteners, and I was teaching them “sh” and “th” and other difficult letter combinations. Oops. No wonder they hit a wall when I followed the lesson plans and tried to teach them how adding an “e” to the end of a word makes the preceding “a” long (cap versus cape, for instance). I filled their heads with too many complicated ideas. Thank goodness tomorrow’s just story time. Their heads might explode otherwise.

So now I’m laying on my bed, not entirely looking forward to my day tomorrow. We’re getting hit by the outer bands of a typhoon just north of Taiwan, which means torrential rains… which will likely continue through next week. Scooters and rain make for miserable driving, but at least we can avoid to insane traffic jams and just ride around them. Literally: scooters and motorcycles can drive between cars, in the oncoming traffic’s lane, whatever they want. It’ll be fun once I’m better at driving, but right now I’m driving like an eighty-year-old.

That’s me right now. I know this is a pretty dry recounting of the past few days but, while it’s been fun, getting settled in anywhere is never fun dinner conversation. Soon I should have stories and interesting tidbits that are a little more entertaining to read. I’ll also get pictures online, though I’m not sure when that will happen – this week’s busy with work and errands. I’m going to rest on my laurels after sending this email, too, because after typing it, proofreading it (I proofread texts, so of course I’m going to read this over), and going through the effort of hitting send, being productive will be the last thing I want to be.

So there you have it. Having everyone I love 13 hours behind me and a million miles away isn’t my first choice, but I’m glad I’ve come here. If you asked me right now, I’d say I want to spend a year here, and then move back to North America; that game plan will change daily, though. Nothing’s set in stone and I have a ton of freedom, which is the most exhilarating part of this whole adventure. I can do whatever I want as long as I pay my bills on time. Cool.

Love to all. I’ll try to send out updates once a week and post pictures at least that often, but I’m lazy. I’m also planning on becoming ridiculously popular and maintaining a busy social calendar, so who knows how often I’ll be on my computer. Whatever the case, if any of you find yourselves on this tiny island hanging out off the coast of China, look me up. It’s kinda fun here.