in the beginning . . .

Taipei 101

Taipei 101

Something old and something new:

My last few posts have catapulted my mind in a million different directions. All of my posts do, actually. It’s just . . .

Sometimes it’s hard to focus on a single string of thoughts. Tangents are everywhere.

Today, then, rather than wax philosophical, I’ve decided to talk history. It occurred to me recently that I’ve never explained how I ended up in Asia in the first place. I’ve also been thinking about starting a weekly section — “Forever Friday” . . . maybe? — and, well, if I do that, why not combine the two?

And so, without further ado, here is the first installment of . . . whatever this is. I hope you approve!

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In the Beginning . . .

A sheltered white girl from Northern California wanted to get away from home. After graduating from high school, she went to a private university in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Here, she thought about pursuing many different things, but in the end — no matter where it led (or didn’t) — English had her heart.

Upon graduation, she entered the work force as a copy writer in Tennessee. It was a good job, and one she excelled at, but one she didn’t love. (Deadlines are stressful!) And so, at the end of 2008, she moved home . . . and couldn’t find a job. She ended up working as an ophthalmology assistant for a year — a job she was grateful for but detested — and thus was thrilled when, in late 2009, a friend asked if she’d be interested in teaching in Taiwan. Though Taiwan was not her first choice, she’d always wanted to live abroad. She said, “YES!”

She arrived in Taipei just in time to welcome the new year. Helloooo 2010! It was a big change, and not at all what she had expected. The following were some of her impressions during the first few days she was there (from my former blog, tai tao, which I wrote while in Taiwan):

me, new years 2010

Waiting for the fireworks

Taiwan is wet. For the first two weeks I was here, our town Sanjhih was so socked in fog that I had no idea we lived on the coast, no idea that our apartments were located on a mountain . . .

Drivers are crazy here, and scooters and stray dogs swarm cars like gnats. You can park anywhere — including in the middle of the street. And the temples! There are temples everywhere! . . .

Reflecting on New Years Eve downtown:

I’m not used to this — not used to standing out. But here in Asia, where even cartoon characters have dark hair and slanted eyes, I do — like a sore thumb . . .

And it makes me wonder: What is the value of diversity?

In the States, it doesn’t matter if you are black or white or Filipino or Hispanic—when I look at you, I think “American.” In Taiwan, nothing could be further from the truth. You have brown hair and green eyes? Red hair and freckles? Must not be from around here . . .

And it’s not that you’re not welcome—you are! It’s just that they notice: You’re different. And you notice, too.

I miss blending in.

It was a big change. And, as it turned out, a good one. That little island was going to challenge this sheltered white girl, and mold her, and take her to new, unimagined heights. She was going to become a better person with a whole new perspective of the world at large, and she’d owe it all  — to Taiwan.

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waiting for the fireworks

Waiting for the fireworks at Taipei 101. Notice all of the blond hair — ha.

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Happy 2010!!!

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Images: Mine

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34 thoughts

  1. Leaving your comfort zone and going into a totally new environment is brave and scary. And especially so when you’re part of the minority, I totally get that.

    So I was intrigued by your question, “What is the value of diversity?” … plenty!!! I imagine though when you’re visiting a country, the natives will always be the majority; and you do want to preserve the identity of a place, otherwise what’s the value in visiting places that “all look the same?” So I think when it comes to diversity, it’s about acceptance. It’s ok to be different, but don’t discriminate/judge/abuse people for those differences. I love different people because I get to experience world views I wouldn’t get to know otherwise.

    My daughter was previously going to an “all white” daycare, so she would stick out like a sore thumb, don’t get me wrong, they loved her, but she was definitely the minority. Now she goes to totally diverse daycare, with kids from different places, and I love that. I want her to learn that the world is full of diversity…and she needs to love people from all walks…

    • Hi Bupe. I couldn’t agree more. To me, the value of diversity is learning to appreciate all kinds of people, no matter how different from you, and to try to understand them. As I’ve said in many posts, no matter how different we are on the surface, we really are all the same underneath. I think one nice thing about countries with diverse populations is that it’s easier to recognize this fact. I remember walking through an MRT station in Taiwan and having children gape at me — they’d never seen a blonde before. It was strange to me…

      Your daughter is a lucky little girl. :)

      • Yup, you hit the nail on the head: no matter how different we are on the surface, we really are all the same underneath.

        eek, that’s kinda crazy to be gaped at…I guess that comes with all things new and unseen. At least now the kids can speak of the day they saw a real live blonde, lol.

      • Haha. Oh, it went wayyyy beyond gaping. I didn’t include it in this post, but often in Taiwan people would say, “Hi! Hi! Hi!” and then giggle as if what they’d just said was the funniest thing in the world. Or they’d ask if you’d take a picture with them… And I was always like, “What? Why? I’m not a celebrity!” Another point of interest is that you hardly ever see a black person in Taiwan…

        Hong Kong was a lot different, though. It’s a much more international place and foreigners are everywhere. I think that’s why I usually quote Taiwan as being the more influential location for me. It blew me away!

    • I’m glad you like my ideas. We’ll see if I pull through. I’m not always the most scheduled person! I *do* have some good stories from Chattanooga. Am really glad to have spent a few years in that part of the country… It all seems so long ago, though, and like I was a baby when I went away to school. ;)

    • Indeed it is. And especially when you commit to staying in a place for a period of time. Living in Taipei is a lot different than just passing through…

      Thanks so much! I hope you’re having a great weekend. :)

  2. Hey, you are not giving up! I don’t know about North Carolina or Tennessee, but I can’t imagine myself teaching Chinese as a second language for a living. People wouldn’t respect me, at least not in Taiwan or in Canada. Lots of people graduate from colleges and universities, but can’t find a job because their fields don’t have an industry that can provide sufficient employment. Teaching English is always a last career choice, if it is a career choice at all. On the other hand, if your Chinese is very good, you can translate or even interpret, in which case you become more marketable and earn more respect. However, if you are taking that route, it’s better to learn Spanish, because the job market in Spanish is greater in the U.S..

    Language is a field with a high barrier to entry. If you can’t at least master 7000 vocabularies and string them together in a way that delivers fluency, the language you learn means nothing at all. Learning English as a second language in Taiwan usually doesn’t expect to breach this barrier, which is a big problem. However, better little than nothing. What do you want me to say? Teaching is a highly respected profession in Taiwan, so you were probably very well treated there, even without possessing any hard skill. There’s a reason to miss it.

    The Taiwanese culture is quite diverse, because there are many tribes and dialects that create small communities. However, it is frankly very boring once you understand it. Don’t waste your time on that. We only live a few years in this life. Self-discovery shouldn’t take that much time of ours.

    You had a very good job. You shouldn’t have quit. That’s just too bad.

    • Hi there. I’m so sorry I haven’t responded to your other comments yet. I will do that right after this!

      Thank you so much for taking interest in my blog. I am always happy to talk to people from Taiwan who understand the culture.

      I’m a little confused by your comment, honestly. I taught in Taiwan for two years and then moved to Hong Kong for a year. I came home to be closer to my family and possibly pursue writing, and now I’ve decided I’d like to teach abroad again. I never gave up and still have many good friends in Taiwan. I recognize that teaching English as a second language is not exactly a lucrative field, but I’m not really worried about that. So long as I can get by… (And I wish my Mandarin were good enough to translate! But, alas, it is not.)

      So, anyway… Thanks again for your comment. I hope you’re having a good day!

      Jessica

      • Taiwan is the former China, retreated from its mainland and now stuck forever. Taiwanese are seeking independence, but it’s just not going to happen. Besides, what for? Does Malaysia, Mongolia or Kenya have an international voice? It’s not who you are but what you can do. The best asset of Taiwan is probably still its computing industry. There’s not much else to be said. As a small island, I think this achievement is already pretty good. Capacity is not the key, but capability is. It’s all about doing something that no one else can do.

        Most Taiwanese are still very naive. They don’t get this yet. These ideas are only circulated among the elites, published through a few magazines in the hope that the general public can wake up and run for a brighter future for the island as one community. You have to read Chinese to understand this. Most Taiwanese are too emotional when it comes to politics. They are worse than the rednecks in the U.S..

        Teaching English can still be very lucrative if you can find the right audience. Junior high school students are the best targets, because they are at the age when their parents are the most concerned with their futures. You can talk to those rock-star after-school teachers to work out some interesting deals if you know how to do business. Internal competition in Taiwan is probably one of the worst in the world due to its high population density.

        Again, what for? Unless money is everything, these are not the pursuits you should care about. The local food is okay. I still believe that French-Italian cuisine is the best in the world. The culture is really very Chinese anyway. There’s not much to talk about. Air pollution sucks, but Taiwanese are miraculously healthy anyway. I don’t know. You keep on saying that Taiwan is amazing. The food, the culture and the religion blew you away. It’s too empty for me. Empty praises don’t mean much at all. I still don’t know if you have got it or not. Be specific in your feedback.

        Technology is always the key. If the U.S. can maintain a gap of 50 years to set itself apart from the rest of the world, there’s no need for Americans to learn foreign languages anymore. The world will simply pay to learn English and that’s the end of the story. The only exception will be the continual need to spy on other countries, which use their own languages for internal communication, obviously.

        As for marrying a Taiwanese? It’s pretty easy. Just make sure you find a good one. Your first trump is the almighty Green Card. Of course, there are many, many cards you can play as an American woman, because being #1 in the world is just that great. Deep down, every Taiwanese knows that the U.S. is their only hope if China continues to seek unification by force. Taiwanese men are strange creatures, because they love wives that know their weaknesses while willing to accept them to create that feel of security. It’s probably not worth it. You can try if you want. I’ll be glad to hear good news. This is it. I am putting all replies in one so that I don’t have to click on so many “Reply” links.

        Oh, by the way, Taiwanese men are very weight-conscious and even more so than American men. You will have to hit the gym more often as a Taiwanese wife. Good luck! Don’t say that I never warned you.

      • All right. Fair enough. You were right to criticize for my lack of specifics.

        I grew up a Christian white girl in a small town where everyone I knew was a Christian and believed the same way I did. We drove cars and didn’t know what public transportation meant. Everything was “cultured.” I had AC and a soft bed. I’d never dealt with mosquitoes or cockroaches, never seen meat hanging in butchers’ shops, never been so far out of my comfort zone. In Taiwan, I found a people and a culture so different from anything I’d ever known that I found it difficult to believe that the same stars shone there as shone at home.

        For me, it was kind of an awakening. These people were real, and their ways were so different from mine. It made me analyze why I was the way I was, and how much of me was who I was, and how much was actually simply environmental and cultural — or if the two could even be separated.

        It also made me realize how many physical comforts I had taken for granted growing up, and that I didn’t actually need them to be “happy.”

        I agree with much of what you say about the political climate in Taiwan. I have never claimed to be an expert on that, and I certainly do not speak fluent Mandarin or Taiwanese or Haaka. I hate politics, to be honest. I am much more interested in people.

        I never said Taiwan had the most comfortable climate or the best food. My intent is not to praise the island as a place I’d hope to spend my entire life. If I go back to Asia, I’d been thinking about going to South Korea, honestly. And by saying I cannot predict what’s around the corner or who I’ll meet, I never meant to imply that I would look to marry a Taiwanese man. Nothing could be further from the truth.

      • Okay, I’ve got it. You are treating Taiwan as Africa, just for the contrast against your own homeland. It’s like a spiritual retreat where you get to appreciate how beautiful America is. Without the contrast, you never know how comfortable you are compared to the rest of the world. You can hit L.A. and San Francisco to see how Taiwanese live in the U.S.. They pretty much preserve everything they know about Taiwan to make themselves feel at home. Downtown Taipei is fairly clean though. You shouldn’t have to worry about bugs that much. It’s better that you speak to those Taiwanese who speak English first before you get to know the locals in Taiwan. Lots of Taiwanese live abroad due to their fear of war. You should be able to see them in the U.S. very often. At least, that’s my experience. It’s actually harder to meet a Taiwanese here in Quebec, Canada, because of the requirement to speak French.

      • Precisely. It’s the contrast to my homeland that made my experience in Taiwan so powerful, not that Taiwan in itself is so great. I feel I could have learned just as much by going to other places, too. (Except Hong Kong — too international.) Taiwan just happened to be the first “foreign” place I landed (excepting Europe, which is much closer to home culturally), and *that* is why it made such an impact.

        I know I could get a taste of Taiwanese or other cultures here in the States. I live about two hours from San Francisco. But to me it is not the same as having been inundated with it. I don’t stick out in San Francisco. :D

  3. Nice to hear how and why you went to Taiwan, and that it was such a good experience for you. I agree much with Bupe-Rose and diversity — my time in Asia really made me appreciate all the other cultures, lifestyles and political views, which ended up helping me define what I did (and did not) believe. Hope you have a great weekend.

    • Thanks, Randall. Yes, looking back it was a great experience. In the moment, it wasn’t always fun — I won’t lie. It can be hard to be a foreigner. But Taiwan definitely gave me new eyes with which to view the world and my own country, and in particular, religion (though I don’t talk much about that on my site)…

      I hope you’re having a great weekend, too. :)

  4. Thanks for sharing your story. I remember standing out like this when I travelled to Asia. Someone in Thailand said I was like the ultimate “sore thumb”. I’m white, extremely tall, and blonde (back then, I had enough hair for them to see that.)
    My group visited a high school there once, and I got held up for 30 minutes before we could leave because all the girls wanted to take pictures with me. I think that was the closest to rock star cool I’ll ever get. :)

  5. Thanks for sharing your beginnings in Taiwan. It sounds like you had a very positive outlook about your experience right from the beginning. So true how you say that in Taiwan/Asia, everyone takes notice of the white foreigners, stares a lot at them but they are still welcomed :)

    I noticed you wrote in third person, it was very nice to read. It’s always challenging to write in third person, at least for me.

    • Haha, yes I chose the third person for this post. Not sure why. It just seemed to fit.

      And well… My positive outlook came with time. I was definitely not a happy camper when I first arrived. And you are right about white foreigners being noticed but welcome in Asia. In Taiwan it was not uncommon for people to ask me to take pictures with them!

      • Hey, you are back! I thought about after-school tutoring in Taiwan or South Korea for a while. The pay scale is comparable to that of doctors or even higher. The problem is that these high school students are prepared for national exams and not for speaking English as a second language, where two-way translation is the focus of their curricula. In other words, you spoken Chinese may not have to be good, but your written Chinese must be proficient enough to teach.

        If you don’t know a second language already, try learn something similar to English, such as French, German or Spanish. Italian is not too bad, either, but is a bit further away from the similarity scale. If you can’t even learn a second language that close to English, then you probably don’t have the language talent. Once you determine that picking up a second language is really trivial for you, you can try something quite different like Chinese. The language gap is symmetric, meaning that it’s almost equally difficult for either side to bridge to the other side. In fact, most language barriers are quite symmetric by nature, unlike technological gaps that tend to be asymmetric. Well, it’s really not that easy to compare, because American schools don’t make Chinese a mandatory second language across the board. Anyways. That’s not important. The key is to stay positive even when you can’t make it. After all, Chinese is not a very important language yet. So, stay in the U.S. for another 3-5 years while shopping for a good husband. Once you make it on the language front, you can justify going back to Taiwan to make some pocket money.

        It could be worth your effort, because getting a medical degree is not that much easier, either. Given that you will receive the same pay, why not? The long stay in Taiwan or South Korea for 5-10 years shouldn’t be that hard for you. Cool?

      • Oh my, you must have felt like a celebrity in Taiwan! That reminds me. Some years back, I was traveling in Indonesia, climbing up some monument with my family. A group of local teenage girls nearby thought I was some Caucasian celebrity and followed me all around until I left, taking pictures of me!

  6. your experience in america vs. being in taiwan is so interesting. for me, growing up as asian american, people always asked, “where are you from?” and when i answer, ‘well i was born here, i am american’ they look disappointed because that wasn’t the answer they expected.

    then when i went to asia, i was immediately approached as, ‘how long you visiting?’ because they instantly identified me as american and not as a local. LOL. i can’t fit in anywhere ! so i guess our perspectives (wanting to blend in) are more similar than i thought. =)

  7. Mmmm…”Where do I want to be in five years? Ten?” I also have asked myself (in the past) “Who do I want to be in five, ten years?” One answer that is always the same…

    “I don’t want to be quite the same person; I want to be wiser, stronger, more whole, and experiencing the depths, the highs and lows of life, love, family, and the world!” Can’t do that very well in one place, with the same routines and people, day-in and day-out, for 80, 90, or 100 years, huh? Your doing great Jessica!

    Diversity = More life :-)

    • Diversity = More Life, and I’d like to add to that, “Greater Perspective” and “More Love”!

      I like that… “Who” do I want to be in 5 years… Quite frankly, I have no idea where I want to be in 5 years, and I’m okay with that because life never turns out the way we plan it, anyway. But as far as “who” I want to be…

      I want to be more of me with the greater diversity and perspective and love you speak of! Thank you for your insightful comments, always, and for continuing to inspire me!

  8. Hey Jessica, 2010 is the year I visited Taiwan for the first time in my life! Even as an Asian Chinese, I was afraid of Taiwan and China, I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s the language. I wasn’t very conversant in Mandarin. My cousin and I went together. She’s been there many times and convinced me to go. I haven’t visited other parts of China except for Guangzhou.

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