Thursday, November 03, 2005

What is it like to live there?

People ask me “what is it like to live here?” So I will try to tell you. For starters, being Goliath in Lilliput has its ways, but also has its faults. Yesterday a man came up to me on the street, looked up at me, and announced “You really tall. You too tall.” I resisted responding as I would at home since he intended no insult, most likely; he was just stating what he saw as a fact, and an unusual one at that. In Taiwan I can find people easily and am myself easy to find. However, I cannot find clothes to fit, or shoes, without ordering them from the states. And when I look in a mirror, I get a great view of my shoulders and torso. To see my head I need to sit down.

Then the issue of stairs arises (pun intended). The Chinese think that high=good, and anything higher than anything else is naturally better. So they put stairs wherever they can. (If you think this is hyperbole you have never spent time in the Pacific Rim.) Stairs and platforms are everywhere, sometimes for no discernable reason. We like stairs, especially when they go up. And so we have as many as possible. I go up three sets (two flights of 12 in each set) OUTDOORS to get to the building where most of my classes are. And after I get to the building either two or four more, depending on the day, await me. I can use the elevator but the building has only one very small one which is usually teeming with students, so unless I am very early or very late this is not a viable option. However, stairs are of course excellent exercise and I realize it’s quite curmudgeonly of me to complain. But when the outside temperature is 40 degrees Celsius, one wants to complain but the sweat dripping from one’s nose into one’s mouth makes that impossible.

And the temperature is another matter. Everyone here is wearing jackets and sweaters except me. Never mind that it’s still hot as the devil himself, the name of the month is November (actually in Chinese it’s eleven) and therefore one needs a jacket or sweater or at least a long-sleeved shirt. I have had a persistent cough, the result, I think, of the quite visible and tangible pollution, but now that “cold” weather is upon us several people have told me my cough is a result of not being dressed warmly and one dear friend even brought me some scarves I am to wear around my throat. Again, not one syllable of hyperbole. The students in my classes, especially the females, wear sweaters and jackets and shiver when I insist on turning on the AC. When I point out that the temperature is the same as it was in August, when I arrived, I am met with silence and blank stares.

Shopping. Now this is really a hoot. Would you believe that most of my shopping is done at the 7-11? That’s right, you read that correctly. The ubiquitous 7-11 in Taiwan has two stellar advantages:
1. A store on every block, sometimes two
2. Carries everything except large furniture and produce.
3. Is inexpensive.
(Well, that obviously is three but you all know numbers are not my best thing.)

In a 7-11 in Taiwan you can pay your utility bills, get copies made, buy cell phones, buy more time on cell phones, buy magazines and newspapers in most languages, buy wine and beer and gin and vodka and brandy, buy Haagan-Daas (sp?) ice cream, fax things, and do any number of other very necessary tasks. And the post office also is a bank, only people don’t use checks here. Just ATM machines or tellers/postal clerks. Need an ATM machine? Go to 7-11. Are you beginning to get the picture?

Our guide at a temple. The green staircase is carved jade.

They have grocery stores, which are small, mostly, and a few supermarkets, but those of us without an auto (and in our right mind so not willing to drive here) don’t go to them very often and really don’t need to. My building has a general store, a bakery, a post office/bank, a coffee shop, an optician, a copy center, a peripatetic jewelry store and flower shop, and a cafeteria. Another, much larger cafeteria is next door to my building where I can buy cut up fruit and vegetables as well as hot meals. Since I can’t buy clothes here anyway, the 7-11 is my Foley’s/Kroger/TJMaxx. It’s hard to spend a lot of money here, even for me, who have pretty finely honed skills in that arena. I challenge even Pat Wente to spend more than $10,000 NT in a month. In her wildest excessive dreams. Now $10K NT amounts to about $300 US, give or take a little. $100 NT equals about $3.00 US, or as they say here, Meijing. Sort of like saying ‘Mercan (remember Lyndon Johnson?) and adding the sound of a cash register . . .

You know, our postal employees might not be so crazy if they got to be bankers, too. But then if they “went postal” they might steal our money. On second thought, forget it.

Love those Chinese dogs!

And the dragons! (see corners of temple silhouetted above, click on photo to enlarge)

I’m sorry I haven’t written more lately. I have lots of work and I am tired most of the time. Yesterday I slept a couple of hours in the afternoon after I returned from a visit to some temples and a museum. Bessie’s (one of my colleagues) students were interesting, particularly one older man who kept trying to talk to me in what (I think) he considered excellent English but I had great difficulty understanding., His wife’s was much better. He wanted to be the center of attention all the time, and that is always off-putting. And then he got us to go in his house, which is very crowded with machines and too much furniture of dubious origins, and after showing us his calligraphy, which I must admit was quite excellent, played a CD of his performance in a play at a volume so high I am sure my hearing was permanently damaged and my ears are still ringing! He is apparently very talented but has the social skills of a gorilla. I was just glad he didn’t have a microphone to hand (see earlier explanation of Chinese men with microphones).

Bessie herself is quite wonderful—very funny and a quick wit. Last night we attended a concert in my building (I forgot to mention we also have a concert hall) and though I missed the first half I arrived in time for the second, which consisted largely of a karaoke flautist. (Don’t ask.) The performer obviously had limited Chinese-speaking ability (he could say che che, which is thank you), and she leaned over to tell me “His Chinese is almost as good as yours.” She has a car and has taken me to some really good restaurants, and I have joined her students on a couple of field trips which were enjoyable. Any outing with Bessie is sure to involve a lot of laughing. We also went with some of her students to a spa and enjoyed the hot and cold tubs for a while before class.

Bessie at the spa.

Explaining American culture (not easily done!)

My Chinese lesson starts in about 20 minutes so I’d better get ready and go. Learning Chinese is the last in my chronicle of incredible events. When I think about studying Chinese it makes me cry. That is the truth, I am astonished to report. This must be my body screaming at me that I am much too old to undertake learning a language which is a. unpronounceable; b. has ten thousand characters one must learn just to read a newspaper, hundreds of thousands to be literate; c. has “measure words”•; d. has fifteen ways to say ch which they insist are all different, and certainly they are spelled differently but none are spelled ch; e. I could go on and on but this is getting maudlin. I learned Old English a few years ago; isn't that enough?

I am settling for learning spoken Chinese enough to hire a cab, order a meal, answer the phone, and make very small conversation about the weather and the time. As in “Isn’t the time flying! I must go.”

My friends and colleagues here happily translate for me, which of course makes them enablers in my illiteracy of Chinese. And that’s why I love them so! As my boss said recently, “We brought you here to speak English. Forget about Chinese.” A little know fact, moreover, is that speaking Chinese ruins one’s English. A colleague (native English speaker) recently told some students, when asked if she minded if they did something, “No, I don’t have a mind.” See what I mean? And yesterday a student sent me an email, which I will quote entire so you don’t miss any of the charm:

Dear Miss Golemon,
I'm the student in Professional Writting Class at 8:00 this morning. I overslept today because my alarm clock didn't work. I am so sorry! I've already put the cover letter and resume in your mailbox in the office. I hope you could accept it. I'm sorry for turning my homework lately. And I'll buy a new alarm clock today. Ying-Yen

I never thought of lately as being the opposite of early, but it certainly makes sense. Do you see why the Mandarin she is damage my speech? See you lately . . .

•measure words will be explained later, when I have more world and time.


At 11:17 AM, Blogger Pat Wente said...

I had no idea my shopping skills were impressive on a global basis, but thank you anyway.

I buy from and return things to TJ Maxx and Marshall's so regularly that I think it's called "catch and release."

Stairs are very good for you unless you fall down or up them. Be careful. We are missing you like mad.

At 10:43 PM, Blogger dan said...

you wrote:
"Then the issue of stairs arises (pun intended). The *Chinese* think that high=good, and anything higher than anything else is naturally better. "

a relay message

Dear Professor,

This is Taiwan. Not China.
You have a great blog, but please,refer to the people you are living among for a year as Taiwanese. They are ethnically Chinese yes, but they should be referred to as Taiwanese.''


A Taiwanese gal
i aM TAll too

At 12:00 AM, Blogger Patricia Golemon said...

I had no intention of slighting anyone in Taiwan. I was told this is a characteristic of Chinese culture, brought here by the people who came to settle Taiwan from China. I don't think it is a characteristic of the aboriginal people here, but then I don't really know. It's really hard to know where, culturally speaking, China stops and Taiwan begins, even if you ask the Taiwanese. And I do.

At 1:04 PM, Blogger K. A. Laity said...

Pat -- this is a delight as always! I think tall will have to figure in your non-fiction account of your time in Taiwan, to be published by, oh let's say Harpers, sometimes in 2007. All you'll have to do is copy and paste from the blog!

At 7:32 AM, Blogger Patricia Golemon said...

Dear Kate,
From your lips to Gods ears, as Sophie would say!

At 10:38 AM, Blogger Mark said...

It sounds like you're having an interesting experience. What do you teach?

At 7:05 AM, Blogger Patricia Golemon said...

I teach American and British literature and business writing. The students are quite wonderful and amazing, and one of the best parts of being here. I do wish they would talk more in class, however. To me, that is; they talk to each other quite readily!


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