Taiwan, part II: Airport Profanity Police, Middle School Choirs, and the Taiwanese ROTC

Aaaaaand. . .we’re off!

It took a while to get through immigration and security in the Tianjin airport, due partly to the way the staff there runs things, and partly to my forgetfulness. I got to the immigration desk and the lady there pointed out that I hadn’t filled out one of those little yellow departure cards, prompting a profanity from me. I was a little tired, having only been able to sleep until about 3:30, and few things are more annoying when you’re tired than making a rookie travel mistake. I went and got the departure card, filled it out, and got back in line. (Note: Why on God’s earth do they have those cards? What’s the point? Surely, having put my name into their system when I picked up my boarding pass, then scanning my passport again at the desk, they know everything they need to know. I sometimes suspect that much of airport protocol was designed purely to annoy us.) When I got to the front of the line with the right card, then got my passport back, I was halfway to the security check when a policeman with a very grave expression waved me over. That’s never good. He said in English, “I heard you say (profanity) when you were in line. You know, all foreigners have to fill out those departure cards.”

First of all, there are a lot of reasons for travelers to use profanity. Negotiating security in America, for example, will help you develop a vocabulary that would make a Marine drill sergeant shuffle his feet uncomfortably. If you’ve done much air travel in China, I think you’ll agree with me when I say that the number of situations calling for profanity far outweigh those that don’t. Especially when you’re running on just a few hours of sleep and don’t know what the rest of the trip is going to be like. Second of all, there’s something especially galling about being pulled aside by an overzealous policeman who happens to speak some English, then chastised like you’re a five-year-old who just stole someone’s pudding cup at lunch. I assured comrade policeman that I only said what I said because I was annoyed at my having forgotten something simple, not because I was angry at the airport staff. He mumbled something about hoping we wouldn’t have a problem, then some other things I couldn’t hear clearly, and I reiterated that I was simply annoyed at myself. I wanted to assure him that next time I’d ask his permission before I spoke, but of course I didn’t because my trip would have had a very quick conclusion. Also: “I hope we won’t have a problem”? Really? Are we in an airport or a speakeasy in prohibition-era Chicago?

One other note about the Tianjin airport before I move on. I don’t know the name of the American woman whose voice they used for the flight announcements, but she had easily the most annoying Chinese pronunciation I’ve ever heard. She’s one of those people who is REALLY American, the kind everyone apes when trying to make fun of Americans. She pronounced Tianjin “tee-on-jen”, pausing on each syllable as she spoke, and after hearing her say it probably 500,000 times in the two hours I was in the airport, I wanted to do something that really would give the overzealous policeman something to nail me for. I didn’t, though, and after buying some chocolate in Duty Free because I was starving and had no faith in airline food, I boarded the plane.

The flight to Hong Kong (I had to connect through there) was not one of my favorite travel experiences. Air China is one of the few airlines on the planet I would characterize as “ghetto.” It’s not as bad as one of the airlines run by a former Soviet republic, which are basically prison transport vans with wings, but neither is it as nice as, say, Cathay Pacific. The seats, for example, would only be comfortable for jungle pygmies. I sat down and my knees were absolutely crushed into the seat back in front of me, and it wasn’t even in recline. I was lucky enough to be able to switch to an exit row seat, though because the seat itself was so small, I spent the whole flight with my elbows jammed into my ribs. Too, there’s the food. When are airlines going to figure out that they’re airlines, not Wolfgang Puck franchises? Just bring me a sandwich wrapped in tin foil. That’s all I need. Or some noodles. I don’t need nouveau French cuisine, especially since it looks like it’s been sitting in plastic since the Spanish-American War. Air China decided that what we really needed was some kind of seafood dish served with rice. There were a few pieces of chicken, and I picked those out, but I chose to consign the rest to the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth and, if it truly does contain leftover airline food, not a little vomiting. Few things look less appetizing on a long flight than shrimp and imitation crab meat swimming in a nondescript brown sauce that might very well have been machine oil they siphoned out of the brake valves. They could have given me the option of eating a half-stunned wharf rat and it would have taken me a while to make up my mind. Out of curiosity, I tasted an odd meat-ish substance that was sitting in a different square dish and which they had apparently marinated in airplane glue before packaging it. I didn’t finish it.

The real attraction on the flight, though, was the middle-school choir extravaganza. Fully 90% of the seats on the flight were taken up by Chinese middle-school kids who I guess were going to Hong Kong to perform. I know they were a choir (or choirs, anyway) because a group of them performed in the airport. They were good, I have to give them that. They really were. When they started, I had my back to them and thought someone had put on a CD. And their behavior on the plane wasn’t nearly as bad as you might think. The problem is, even if 100+ middle schoolers are behaving pretty well, they get annoying by virtue of sheer numbers. It’s a mathematical law. One person humming “Yesterday Once More” quietly is mildly annoying, mostly because the song is one of the most punishingly awful things ever produced by mankind, but you can tune it out. One hundred people humming the same song quietly is sheer hell. The girl behind me spent most of the flight playing some kind of card game with the girl behind her, and managed to kick the back of my chair every time she moved. I had dozed off for a few minutes at one point and was awakened by about twenty of the kids yelling at the top of their lungs. Apparently one of the choir directors was celebrating her birthday that day. Not that that made it any better. I really didn’t care. About much of anything. Airplane travel will do that. Those twenty shrieking kids could have been gleefully singing happy birthday, then been snatched violently from the plane by a rogue pterodactyl, and I wouldn’t have batted an eye. If I’d been a little more tired, I might not have cared if I’d been among those snatched from the plane by a rogue pterodactyl. Also, who chooses an airplane for their birthday celebration? Why not wait until you get to Hong Kong? Whatever. Oh, and I found it quite amusing that none of the kids on the flight seemed to have any idea how to use the gatefold doors on the bathroom. Everyone that went in had to have help coming out.

I got to Hong Kong and was told to go to the Cathay Pacific desk to pick up my boarding pass. I got there and noticed that there was only one person working the counter, which was unfortunate because the Australian couple in front of me was apparently trying to organize the Berlin Airlift. I don’t know what the problem was, but it involved multiple cities and some kind of extra fee. By the time the manager waved me over to another computer to get me my boarding pass, I had twenty minutes to get to my gate, necessitating a mad dash through the airport. In flip-flops. Ever jogged a full half-mile or more in flip-flops while dragging a suitcase? I wouldn’t recommend it. And here’s the great thing: I dragged up to my gate panting and sweating, only to notice a line of about 80 people waiting calmly. I was told I had to be at the gate 20 minutes beforehand or it would be closed, but in reality I could have waited another twenty minutes. Not only that, but we sat on the runway for thirty minutes more while we waited for three transfer passengers. See what I mean about profanity? When they made that announcement, I swore again and rolled my eyes, which caused the French guy next to me to glance up in concern, thinking maybe he hadn’t heard something important, or maybe thinking, like the overzealous policeman, that we were going to “have a problem.” I thought about explaining to him that I had just run madly through the airport in flip-flops for no reason, but I didn’t care. Again, about much of anything.

We finally did get to Taiwan, and I disembarked and met up with the Chinese Culture University’s contact person, whose name escapes me at the moment, but whose job at the university is to run the ROTC program. I know this because one of my first questions to him was whether or not he’d been to the mainland before. He just shook his head with a little smile and said, “I was in the military.” Ah, yes. If you’re in, or have been in, the Taiwanese military, travel to the mainland, and now Hong Kong and Macau (according to him) is restricted. Interestingly, after the other mainland students arrived and we got settled on the university bus, a massive tour coach with tassled curtains on the windows that looked like they’d been stolen from the pool room of an oil sheik, this was the fact he chose to lead with. He whipped out the requisite Chinese bus microphone, welcomed us, and as the bus pulled out, he introduced himself and told everyone how his travel was restricted. He wasn’t snarky about it, mind you, and he spent the duration of our hour-and-a-half trip making everyone laugh with numerous jokes that were based on very subtle linguistic cues, meaning I had no clue why everyone was laughing, but the fact that he led with a point of conflict was interesting. Interesting, but not, as I have come to see in the 24 hours since, not atypical. More on that when I get to today’s big welcome lecture.

When we arrived at the university it was already dark, and drizzling fitfully, though as with all areas in this part of the world, the rain wasn’t the fire-hose apocalypse you get in northern regions. It’s softer, cleaner, the kind where even when you get wet you don’t particularly mind. I went to our dorm building, where I knew I was going to run into problems because before I left I had noticed that my name wasn’t on the dorm name list. Again, though, having been in China long enough I was confident that things would either get settled somehow, or I would take a cab to a nearby hotel. Sure enough, no one knew anything, and none of my classmates or professors were about, so I just left my bags with the front desk, grabbed an umbrella, and headed down the street to get some dinner.

By the time I got back, someone at least knew the person I should talk to, a very helpful teacher named Mr. Bi. He walked me to the dorm office, booked me a room, then seconded a student to help me get settled. I should mention that this entire process definitely showed the holes in my Chinese. Once we start talking about literature or philosophy I’m fine, but when we’re talking about other things like, say, where and how to register for the program essentials, I just stare blankly like an imbecile. My student guide and I had a fun exchange outside the sheets-and-blankets room where he pointed at the door, then at my bags and said, “You’ve got a lot with you. Maybe you should blah-blah-blah.” I thought he was suggesting I deposit my bags in the room (which I didn’t know contained sheets and blankets for guests) because they wouldn’t fit in mine. I frowned and said I’d prefer just to take my bags myself. He shook his head and said, “No, your bags blah-blah other things blah-blah.” I just blinked at him, and after a few more minutes of this I finally figured out he was saying we should take my bags to my room and then come back to get my sheets and blanket. Sigh. When people tell me my Chinese must be fantastic because of what I do, and they snort in disbelief when I tell them it’s really not, this is what I mean. I can understand a whole lecture on postmodern literary theory in Chinese, but I can’t understand when a student wants me to put my bags in my room. And I’m sure I could come up with a fancy reason if you gave me a while, but really it’s just that Chinese is a ridiculous language to learn. But we did get things settled in the end, and he took me upstairs.

Before I set out from Tianjin, one thing was giving me a great deal of stress: the housing situation. I’m not exactly old, but I’m way past the point where I find it fun to have four roommates and sleep on summer-camp-style bunks for a month. For a few days, fine, but not four months. Well, as it turns out I’m staying in my own room, which is a blessing I can’t even begin to stress enough. I can handle just about anything if I know I’ll be able to go back to my own room at the end of the day. Also, this particular room is actually bigger than my dorm at Nankai, and has a view that can really only be described as spectacular. I’ll comment more on the Chinese Culture University later, but for now you’ll have to take my word for it that after only one day here I’m already not looking forward to returning to Tianjin and studying by my dorm window. Here I look out on the hills and highlands around Yang Ming Mountain, watching clouds roll in from the bay and over the nearby peaks. In Tianjin I look out on a parking lot. Sigh.

So far Taiwan is approximately five million times nicer than Tianjin. My classmates and I have already decided we’re not going back. We’re just going to buy tends and hide out in the mountains somewhere.


1 Responses to Taiwan, part II: Airport Profanity Police, Middle School Choirs, and the Taiwanese ROTC

  1. Joel says:

    I know exactly what you mean about the airport American lady’s “Ti-on-jin” — so weird, never heard anyone say it that badly.

    You’ve got to do a day hike in the mountains while you’re there! Public transit and a short walk can get you there… there should be maps in the MRT stations that have all the routes and everything, at least that’s where we got them.

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