A Day in the Life of a Foreigner in Taipei
The High Fiber Cockroach Diet – Horoscopic Hounds – The Boss – Speaking Chinese – “Can You Fly A Kite? / Yes, I can. Yes, I can. Yes, I Can” – Pho – Life’s Big Question
Ever since truly settling in, my life has suddenly become a lot more of a routine than I had originally anticipated. My days aren’t monotonous but they do tend to blur together with weeks and months flying by. Part of this sudden change was due to my decision to sign up for an intensive Beginner’s Mandarin course Monday-Friday, from 9:30 in the morning to noon.
Working the standard six-day teaching week doesn’t help and I’ve found it more difficult to get away on weekend adventures. Still I’ve been able to soak in all that Taipei has to offer and more these last couple months, and there is more than enough to see in the island’s Northern corners.
I attended various screenings at the 11th annual Taipei International Film Festival, have attended two separate music festivals, and I recently discovered I enjoy traversing up climbing walls like a 6’5” spider-man thanks to a trip to a local indoor sports center.
The Carsick Cars, a punk group from Beijing that is a happy blend of the
Velvet Underground, The Strokes, and the guitar range of Sonic Youth.
When I’m not exploring the city or making a fool of myself in front of a room of Taiwanese Karaoke enthusiasts, my life is very much a daily grind, with the occasional surprise adventure. The following is a day in the life of Teacher Warner, written in the key of Sgt. Pepper.
7:15am-Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head. Found my way into the kitchen to get a glass of juice. Surprise the morning cockroaches as they enjoy their high-fiber feast of my housemate’s bottom-of-the-sink oatmeal remains, then head for the shower.
7:25A.M. – Showering is a bit of a challenge when the showerhead sits (or rather, hangs) just above the nipple. It’s hot in Taipei so cold showers generally do the trick. If I’m feeling up to it I’ll sing a little jingle while I crouch around the low-pressure showerhead. The Lovin’s Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” is fun, and timely. (SIDE NOTE: Since I started writing this piece we remedied the Hobbit shower nozzle, now enabling the cold water to flow down from the heavens, rather than at crouching height.)
9:00A.M. -After goofing around on the computer, checking nytimes.com, looking over my Chinese workbook, and going through some listening pronunciation exercises, I head towards class, which is about an ten minute walk from my apartment.
9:02A.M. -You can often tell how your day is going to be depending on the mood of the dogs that hang around outside my apartment door. If they move out of fear (or respect, I suppose) when my building’s metal door opens, confidence will be high for the rest of the day. If the dogs growl and stare me down like a tall and lanky Milk Bone, then who knows where the day will take me.
From left to right: Vincent, his brother Jules, and Horace
9:10 A.M. If I’m feeling hungry I may stop along the way at one of the 30 or so different breakfast sandwich shops that I encounter on my route to school. These tasty little egg/meat/cucumber sandwiches are extremely cheap and are more than ample to hold you over till lunch. They seem to be the breakfast staple in Taiwan and are on every corner. Many of the proprietors seem to only tap into the breakfast market, which makes you wonder if there’s good money in fried-egg sandwiches or if these people have other jobs on the side.
Along the way I generally listen to my iPod since I have long discovered that the most mundane parts of life, i.e. walking to class, can become amusing when set to the right soundtrack. For my ‘songs in the key of Taipei’ I often mix it up. Frantic or tired mornings often call for something more drastic. Lately, in mourning of a canceled Nine Inch Nails concert that was supposed to make my day last month, I will start my fast-paced mornings off with something like, NIN’s “Mr. Self Destruct” or Pantera’s “Domination” (yes, Paul, I still dig “Domination”).
More relaxed mornings will call for something lighter. Amadou & Mariam’s new album has been a favorite, as has St. Vincent’s “Actor” and Animal Collective’s “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” which is still hands down the best album of 2009 thus far.
Sometimes shuffle mode is needed, which often brings on pleasant sonic surprises. One recent sunny morning I got to sashay down the street to the 0ne-two punch of Bruce Springsteen doing the wild and innocent “E-Street Shuffle,” and The Traveling Wilburys “Margarita.” Both are curious diegetic samples that shed an interesting light on watching the Taiwanese begin their daily routines. Case in point, the Boss line, “Well the kids down there are either dancing or hooked up in a scuffle / Dressed in snakeskin suits packed with Detroit muscle,” paired with the image of an old laoban (shop owner) crouched in gutter washing a soup pot with a makeshift hose while her husband slaves over a scorching hot wok that issues a heavenly aroma.
9:30A.M. The first hour of my Chinese class at the Taipei Language Institute is generally spent going through new material, primarily vocabulary building. Lai Laoshi (laoshi meaning teacher) is very nice and helpful but she will not let you slide on your pronunciation, especially when it comes to mastering the tones.
My class started with seven and has now dropped down to three. There was my pregnant Japanese classmate Yuki, who must have delivered by now though nobody really knows. Riette is from South Africa, Michael is from San Francisco and for the first two months we had an extremely young albeit ambitious high school kid, Drew, from Oklahoma who was in Taipei for a couple months learning Chinese and exploring. He is pictured below with a hat that he so generously gifted me when I told him of my admiration for its message and my desire to pay him for it. I own one baseball cap that I’ve had since Junior year in High School. It has a kangaroo on it. It’s blue. I can now wear this hat with pride.
Calf to Carcass. Brilliant.
10:30A.M. We’re on our second teacher for hour-two. The first one disappeared randomly without telling anyone. The school gave us the excuse that she moved on to a different job, but I believe witchcraft was at play.
Our new teacher tries to only speak to us in Chinese, which is challenging but ultimately very effective in terms of soaking up all the sentence patterns. I like having fun with the teachers and am always trying to conjure up new ridiculous sentence that make use of whatever vocab words or new grammatical structures we’re learning.
Case in point, my recent smartass Chinese sentence offering: “During the morning I ride to school by horse.” It should be noted that my third teacher Li-Li Laoshi’s (listed below) response to this silly sentence was, “Impossible! It is too expensive,” ignoring the obvious fact that riding a horse in the middle of Taipei is fairly ridiculous. The Chinese language is like this. “Impossible” isn’t as simple a word as you might think.
11:30A.M. Li-Li Laoshi is my favorite of the three. She’s older but wise in her age. She’s been teaching forever and seems to have the respect of all the students and teachers at T.L.I. She’s tough but fun, thorough in her lessons, but easy going at the same time. Eventually I hope to take some one-on-one classes at the school to either supplement or replace my current group class. If I do, Li-Li Laoshi will be high on my list.
12:20P.M. Lunch has also become a fairly routine part of the day since I’ve found a number of different haunts in my neighborhood that can feed me quickly and on the cheap.
My noodle lady knows by now that I’m the “hen la,” or very spicy, foreigner. I have a lunch box place that serves an incredible Japanese eggplant dish, paired nicely with grilled tofu and a fried egg. Paigufan, or pork cutlet over rice, seems to be the national lunch dish and is everywhere. Tasty but like most things you can only eat so much of it. If I’m not too hungry there is the steamed bun lady that makes a mean steamed pork bun (zhurou bao). She knows me as the tall one who smiles and always practices new Chinese phrases with her while dishing out the hot sauce.
1:00-3:00P.M. There was a time when I had a solid two-hours of break time between Mandarin classes and work. Those days are over ever since my boss added a new four-day a week class to my roster. Before I could use the time to add to this blog, study some of what I just learned, explore some of the city or venture out on a hunt for future lunch destinations. Now I generally race home with a quick bite, check my email, change into my teaching garments (basically blue jeans and a tee shirt/polo) and head to my school for a 2P.M. class.
This is my schedule Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Those days tend to fuse together into a giant amalgamation of Chinese vocab words and sentence patterns and various English language songs, like “Yes, I Can,” the elusive “What Kind of Meat Do You Want?” and little memory joggers like, “He/She/It—SSSS.”
Tuesday is my “easy” day. Mandarin classes are the same as always but I only have one English class to teach (my young girls who you might remember from the aforementioned Goodbye Song video). This gives me two and half hours of down time between class and work, the perfect amount of time for a nice lunch and possibly a haircut, which is an experience worth blogging another time.
On Tuesday’s I finish at around 6:15, which allows for me the luxury of a night free to explore more of Taipei’s various eating neighborhoods and night markets. The hunt for fresh sashimi is my current priority for Tuesdays and sure enough there are a number of places that deliver, often for a fraction of what you would pay in the states.
2:00-8:30P.M. For the other four days of the workweek (not counting Saturday, which is also part of MY work week) I am at work. With the addition of my new class I am now up to 30 teaching hours a week, which is a lot, if you take into account that each of the two hour classes require at least 30 minutes of prep time and transportation time to boot. Still, I am really enjoying the job. My students are all, for the most part, very respectful and willing to learn, even if they need the occasional incentive or dose of humor to get them to wake from their zombie state.
This is pretty self-explanatory
8:30P.M. -1A.M. If I don’t eat at work (delivery dinner boxes are often the cheapest and most convenient way to go) I grab some late night eats on my way home. The Shilin night market, which was the setting for my first escapades into Taiwanese cuisine, is now just another night market, albeit one that is always far too crowded for its own good.
My most treasured discovery is a decent Vietnamese Pho restaurant that dishes out a cheap and plentiful steaming bowl of goodness, often the perfect cap for a long day.
Ahh pho. Comfort in a bowl. I lived off this and chicken curry during my Le Colonial days
My time spent in the evening is entirely based on my demeanor. If I’m feeling motivated I’ll get some Chinese work done. If I’m lazy I’ll put on an episode of Mad Men or get some reading time in. Weeknight bars are always a possibility and there are some decent joints to get a beer or whiskey. Roxy Rocker is the love child of many of my inner music dork fantasies, a music junkie’s cantina with a proper beer selection, lounge setting, great rock music and a separate, soundproof record room with a private DJ and a wall filled with LPs ranging from Abba to Zappa. On one night the DJs played a string of 90s alternative classics followed by The Pixies “Mr. Grieves,” Zeppelin’s “In the Light” and The Clash’s “Career Opportunities.”
The Blue Note is the best jazz bar I’ve discovered here in Taipei, an unassuming and fairly low-key lounge with live music almost every night and a library of music DVDs and jazz staple LPs to fill in the gaps. On my first night there I knew I was somewhere special when the bar’s owner put on a live concert DVD of Paul Simon performing Graceland in Lesotho after the all-female piano trio wrapped. Sipping my drink and watching the mouths of all around me singing along to “Boy in the Bubble,” “Crazy Love, Vol. II” and “I Know What I Know” gave the inner music junkie in me a fix of pure.
At least once a day, be it while I’m riding the MRT, walking to work/class, eating in a hole in the wall food stand–wok up front, condiments tableside, and friendly owners–or merely laying in my bed with the headphones waiting to sleep, I’ll have the ubiquitous, “damn, I can’t believe I’m here” moment. My decision to come here still seems random to most people I know (even to me at times) but it’s this spontaneity that makes this experience thus far so rewarding. Even in the daily grind of life as a teacher there are still those memorable moments of adventure and surprise.
These aforementioned “What am I doing here?” moments are quickly erased when I think of all I’ve seen and done so far. When I look back at all that has happened and then imagine the possibilities ahead of me, these nourishing reality checks are followed by a large grin.