Going to Taiwan, Pt. 1: Mashed Potatoes, Weird Meetings, and Why You Should Always Read Before Choosing a Class

I have decided, after much deliberation and soul-searching, to embrace blog-dom and actually write in standard blog fashion for my trip to Taiwan, which starts on Sunday. That means I’ll be posting fast and furious, without painstakingly culling through vast amounts of material in the hopes of putting up an opus. My goal will be to write something every day while I’m there, but I’m getting started today because things are. . .interesting.

First of all, some specifics. Around 97 students from Nankai University (including yours truly) will spend a month at the Chinese Culture University in Taipei. I’m the only non-Chinese person going. Each of us has signed up for classes (or class, depending on relative interest), and the mainland students will get course credit for it. I won’t, but that’s because I really can’t imagine an American university giving me credit for a class in a foreign country. Nankai might, but I don’t need the credit at this point, so there you go. When I was choosing my class a few months ago, my friend Xu Xu was with me and I asked him for some suggestions. I wanted to take something that I would probably only see at a Taiwanese university. Given my major, a poetry class seemed like a good bet, but Xu Xu made that little sucking sound through the corner of his mouth that’s the nearly universal Chinese indicator for something being a not-so-great idea, and suggested I choose something else because lots of mainland students also study Taiwanese poetry. My friend Xuebin had already signed up for a history class, so I signed up too, thinking it was about ancient history. (Note: This is a problem of mine. I tend to skim quickly when I’m in situations where I have to choose something, at least in China where everyone in the room is watching me, and I often tend to get something other than what I was thinking.) Today I was talking to Xu Xu and learned that in fact I had signed up for a class on the Korean War. Ha! (If you’re ever curious how I managed to mix up Korean War and ancient history, a switch that seems well-nigh impossible in the English-speaking world, I’ll be happy to give you a breakdown, but you’ll have to sit through a short lecture on Chinese characters). Personally, I’d much rather take a class on the Korean War than anything on ancient history anyway, because I can guarantee the Taiwanese point of view is just a WEE bit different than the mainland’s. Xuebin knows it, too, which is why he signed up for it. Knowing him, he probably knows the non-Party version of the history anyway, but just wants to hear it again from the Taiwanese perspective. He’s one of the most thorough people on the planet. I can’t decide which is going to be more interesting: taking a class on the Korean War in Taiwan, or listening to Xuebin talk about taking a class on the Korean War in Taiwan. As a side note, if you’re curious about how mainland Chinese people think about Taiwan, tell someone you’re going to study history in Taiwan and watch their expressions. At least six different times I’ve been asked by a Chinese acquaintance what I’m doing for the summer, told them, and been met with a kind of concerned simper: pursed lips, furrowed brow, but with the mainland Chinese reticence still built in, so the minimum of displeasure displayed. This expression is usually accompanied by the following question: “Why?” The honest answer would be too incendiary, so I usually just shrug and play the stupid foreigner card: “I don’t know.” I can’t wait to see what happens in the class.

Xu Xu, on the other hand, and he’s not in the minority in this, is much more interested in the tourism. Today when we were eating lunch with Mr. Hu, who has been spearheading this little adventure, Xu Xu asked, “Do you think they’d let us not take a class?”

Mr. Hu nodded, then thought for a second and asked, “You mean not take anything at all?”

“Yes.”

“That might be a little strange.”

Xu Xu shrugged and smiled, but I suspect he’d still be perfectly happy just using the university as a jumping-off point and traveling around for the duration of his stay. I don’t blame him, really. One of the biggest reasons I signed up for this trip was to see how my mainland classmates react to Taiwan, none of them having ever left the mainland except for Duan Ying, who went to Hong Kong once. It’s hard to describe the effect such a lack of travel that can have on mainland Chinese people. There’s not much in America that can compare. Yes, if someone from, say, Roscoe, Texas moved to Los Angeles or San Francisco, that would definitely be jarring, but at least he or she could still get the same periodicals and watch the same TV shows there. Not so when mainlanders go to Taiwan. It’s a different world. And given that very few of these students will ever again have the time or the money to go on a trip like this, you can imagine how they feel about spending even a few hours per week in a classroom, especially given that the vast majority of their lives have been spent in precisely this way. I myself, who spend so much time traveling that I’m fairly sure I could qualify as a gypsy in most countries, am truly excited about the academics, but that’s mostly because I’m a full-throttle nerd. Most of my other classmates, excluding Xuebin, who once commented with the kind of ecstatic, faraway look in his eyes other people use to express their feelings on long-lost loves or years living in the Bahamas, that he loved studying Immanuel Kant, are really only in the Literature Department because it was a logical next step in their career paths, not because they have a deep love of literature. That might sound superficial, but bear in mind that jobs are hard to come by in China, and basing your employment decision on interest alone is tantamount to saying you want to live under a bridge.

Lunch was quite good overall, aside from one of the oddest dishes I’ve ever had in my life. It featured eight small medallions of fresh watermelon topped with what looked like soft-serve ice cream, but which was actually mashed potatoes with jam dolloped on top. Have you ever bitten into something expecting to taste ice cream and instead tasted mashed potatoes? It might be more shocking if you bit into a piece of chocolate cake and discovered it was actually meatloaf, but it wouldn’t be much more surprising. Everything else at lunch was quite good, though, and I got a chance to talk with Mr. Hu about a few specifics. The funny thing about discussing specifics in China is that, as I’ve noted probably ad-nauseum, no one knows them. I asked Mr. Hu what I should do when I got to the airport in Taipei. Will there be a shuttle to the university? Mr. Hu looked thoughtful again. “I’m not too sure,” he said. “Send me your itinerary. The university will work something out.” It’s a good thing I’ve been in China a long time. When you speak the language decently, you get used to a reality in which things can be “worked out,” not “planned.” I’m pretty Chinese when it comes to trips like these. I know if everything goes to hell I can figure out how to get to the university in a taxi, on a bicycle, on the back of a mule, whatever, and then ask enough random strangers what I’m supposed to do next until I find someone who knows. In the U.S. this would cause widespread stress-induced strokes, but here it’s just the way it is. I still think it’s funny, though, that less than a week before I get on the plane, no one has any idea what’s going to happen when I land. I figure if I’m stuck, there are always coffee shops around, and I’ve got enough reading material to last me years, so I’m not concerned. If I’ve got food, water, shelter, and books, I’ll always be happy.

And this brings us at last to today’s big meeting, which I heard about at lunch. I’d probably read an E-mail about it earlier, but I’d forgotten. It was all about safety and how to conduct yourself in Taiwan. Personally, I find both of those topics about as interesting as an auto-care manual, but I figured I’d go along anyway, just to see how the powers-that-be counseled mainland students. I went with Xu Xu and his girlfriend Gao Qing, and we sat in the front row. I was only there for thirty seconds, though, when Mr. Hu came walking up and gestured for me to follow him. QUICKLY. He seemed very agitated, though still had a smile on his face. “You shouldn’t/can’t/don’t have to be here,” he whispered hoarsely (The triple-word use there is indicative of how hard it is to translate the Chinese word “hui,” though usually it’s closer to “can’t.”) He hustled me out, assuring me he would tell me if there was anything special I needed to know. “I see,” I said. “This is for mainland students only, right?” He nodded emphatically, then disappeared back into the room, closing the door behind him. Now I don’t know about you, but when I’m hustled quickly from a room because I’m American, I get much more curious about what’s going on. Suddenly a boring lecture on personal safety seems much more provocative. I’m hoping to get the skinny on the meeting from Xu Xu later. In the meantime, nothing’s ever dull here. Not even a safety meeting.

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2 Responses to Going to Taiwan, Pt. 1: Mashed Potatoes, Weird Meetings, and Why You Should Always Read Before Choosing a Class

  1. EBTaipei says:

    I moved to Taipei last year after 11 years in China. If you can manage in Tianjin then I think you will absolutely love this place. Great food, super kind people, clean natural atmosphere, hiking, cycling, beaches nearby, etc, not to mention free press and fast, unblocked internet access. I’ll be very interested to know what your classmates think of the place. My friends and I are big fans of your blog and would be happy to show you around if you like. Drop me a message offline. Cheers.

  2. Joel says:

    Bummer you couldn’t sneak in or eavesdrop on that one!

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