Taiwan: Final Days

This is the final installment in a series of essays by jet-setter Jordan Barber, who is currently studying Mandarin at Donghai University in Taichung, Taiwan. Jordan reflects on his time in East Asia and the experience of living as a “semi-citizen.”

For an American, it’s strange to imagine a country the size of Taiwan. It’s roughly as large as Maryland, and as an island there’s nothing beyond its borders. But, despite Taiwan’s relative confinement and incredible population density (636 people per sq. km), I’ve found that there’s quite a lot to do here. Even though I can take a bus around the island in less than a day, I’ve been here for several months and am now frantically planning my final weeks.

One of my instructors here at Donghai has been telling us about our last day of school. Apparently after our final, they take us out to a hotel buffet that is apparently a big deal. Once, we stopped the class entirely so she could explain it to us. All of the instructors are fairly easygoing; with classes of three or four people, we sometimes have moments of personal conversation, which can be hard to come by in a place like Taiwan.

Three of my instructors are sisters, all with the last name Zhang. One is Da Zhang (big Zhang), Zhong Zhang (middle Zhang) and Xiao Zhang (little Zhang). They’re like characters from an Amy Tan novel: Da Zhang is older and boisterous, Zhong Zhang is quiet and apprehensive, and Xiao Zhang is younger and silly. They always walk together, and you can tell when they’re coming through the hallway because you can hear them laughing. We have a running joke with Da Zhang that involves stealing a student’s shoes and hiding them in her closet. This typically interrupts class for 10 minutes or so because the shoeless student has to rummage through all of Da Zhang’s stuff to find the shoe. Xiao Zhang just likes to hit people and then run away.

But despite the random distractions, my Mandarin speaking ability has improved tremendously. I can’t imagine receiving this same level of education back home. Now that I’ve studied here, learning a language in America seems inefficient. And while language isn’t my study area of choice, I have appreciated its immediate applicability in Taiwan. It’s always nice to recognize a recently learned character while riding the bus, or to properly pronounce a different fruit tea rather than ordering the same one every day.

As someone who plans to be in school for quite a while, I’ve found that the only way to maintain sanity is to truly delve into your subjects. If you can force yourself to be interested in a subject, then it’s a lot easier to learn. I’m not sure how this process works, but I’ve done it with a couple of subjects. Before coming to Taiwan, Chinese was the least of my cares, and my mediocre grades reflected that. But living in Taiwan has sparked new intrigue for me: I’m suddenly gratified by my long hours of studying. I’ve facebooked some new friends, tried new foods, and generally adapted to the culture. Zhong Zhang taught us an idiom that goes: “Du wanjuan shu, buru xing wanli lu,” or “the knowledge of 10,000 books cannot compare to the experience of traveling.”

We took a trip to a city called Kenting a couple weeks ago, located in southern Taiwan. Though Taiwan is small, the difference between northern and southern lifestyle and weather is surprisingly significant. Kenting is a combination of Southern California and Thailand. The weather is humid and hot, but along the coast there are sandy beaches and a warm ocean. Tiny surf shops dot the roads, and every restaurant serves some variation of Thai food.

We took some time out at one of the larger temples to look around and explore. Most temples in Taiwan are mixed religious establishments, catering to local beliefs but also representing the more popular deities. Their design is also are fairly generic: most feature a short courtyard before a central building holding various icons. Larger temples have a second building in the back, but beyond that there’s little difference. At this particular temple in Kenting there were many locals, including some older men sitting at a table stacked with books. I’d wanted to pick up some books before I left, and I saw that they had a bunch of comics that would probably be easier for me to translate than a full book. I picked one up: this particular comic was fairly gruesome with cartoon men being tortured and killed in various positions on the front cover.

“Diyu,” one of the men told me.

Oh. A picture of hell: I probably could have figured that out from the illustration. I asked him how much the comics cost.

“Do you understand Chinese?” he asked.

“A little bit.”

Then he picked up two books—one with heaven and one with hell—and handed them to me. “Here, give you: they are free,” he told me.

I’m not sure if the books were simply free (they are very well designed) or only free because I’m a foreigner. Regardless, this event describes much of my outlook concerning Taiwan: I feel at once included in their culture but treated differently.
After the old man handed me the books, he went back to talking to the other old man by his side. They spoke too quickly for me to understand, but after a few sentences he grabbed my arm.

“Typhoon is coming, you know?”

He looked up at the sky, filled with dark rain clouds.

“Will is rain soon?” I asked.

“Yes, you better get back with your friends, they are all leaving.” He signaled to the rest of my foreigner friends, who were getting their umbrellas ready and departing from the temple. I took out my umbrella and walked off to join them.

“Wait one moment: give you one more.” The old man stopped me and handed me a smaller book. It had some sort of religious figure on the front, and I couldn’t read many of the characters. “Give to your girlfriend, or keep it yourself.” He laughed as I thanked him, then he walked off.

As of today, I have about one week left. I don’t think I’ll do a whole lot before I leave. I have settled down from being a tourist to becoming a semi-citizen. There’s a typhoon coming this weekend, but I’m not particularly worried. I’ve been through this before; it’s old news to me now.

Read more from Taiwan.

Jordan Barber is proud that the internet allows him to criticize, admonish, and irritate people from his own living room. And though this immense power only comes to the few, he promises to wield his hammer of judgment with a standoffish, thoughtful outlook.