Taiwan, part III: Cockroaches, Bubble Tea, and Did He Just Say That?

Well, it’s some horrible time in the wee hours and I still can’t seem to get to sleep, so I’ll do some writing instead. Is it a good or a bad ambition to want your writing to put you to sleep?

Today started out quite well indeed. I got to sleep just fine last night, due largely to extreme fatigue coupled with the relief of knowing I had my own room, and woke up this morning ready to go. I decided to go out and get some coffee. When I left my room and got into the hallway, I looked out the window. Whoever had prepared my room had also clipped the curtains closed and it hadn’t yet occurred to me to unclip them, so I had no idea what the view was like. And because we arrived after dark, I hadn’t been able to see much of the scenery, so when I looked out the window this morning and discovered the university was set high up on a hill, overlooking Taipei just to the south, I was frankly stunned. It’s a beautiful area, absolutely covered with lush trees and plants, and we all spent quite a bit of time this morning sitting by one window or another watching the clouds roll in over the surrounding hills. In Tianjin it’s mostly just the pollution that rolls in or out.

I finally linked up with my friends from Nankai, too. I don’t know what time Xuebin and Xu Xu got back to their dorm room last night, but when I knocked on their door at 9:45 this morning they were still in their underwear. (Note: am I the only male who doesn’t quite know how to respond to an exuberant greeting from a man in his underwear?) Xuebin threw some clothes on and went with me to the registration center, where I got my class selected and paid for all my other stuff. So far it’s felt very much like the first week of school in a foreign city. I am literally the only white face here, which makes me a huge curiosity for everyone. Nobody stops and stares, but I clearly have a reputation, which Xu Xu notified me of at lunch today. He clapped me on the shoulder and said, “You’re famous! Everyone keeps asking me if I know Mo Haoran,” (my Chinese name), When we got to this morning’s big opening ceremony, I was half-expecting to walk into the room and hear it get very quiet while everyone gawked at me, like the outlaw in an old west saloon. That didn’t happen, of course, but I can tell you that my presence is definitely incongruous.

Xuebin got in line with me while I waited to pay my fees, and we started talking to two girls from Jilin University. Most of our conversation was about insects. When you live in one of China’s huge northern cities, which are nothing but concrete and steel with the occasional park thrown in, there aren’t many impressive insects to speak of. Mosquitoes and flies don’t count, and everything bigger apparently just can’t hack it. Taiwan’s got the whole family, though, including cockroaches that made the Texan in me nod in approval. These are the kind of cockroaches that make you pause before you step on them because you’re not sure your foot is big enough to get the entire thing, and if you don’t kill it in one go, reprisals are sure to follow. Xuebin also mentioned having thrown some scraps of leftover food in the trash, then waking up the next morning to find it covered in ants. Yes, the mainland has ants, but they’re not widespread enough to end up in your trash. Usually you see them in parks, clustered in one small area like survivors of an apocalypse of some kind, huddling in their protected enclave against the inevitable zombie uprising. Which, of course, isn’t far off, given Tianjin’s environmental state.

The opening ceremony was interesting, mostly because a notable professor from Taiwan University gave a short lecture whose main topic I’m still not sure of. He touched on everything from the definition of democracy to America’s recent sub-prime lending crisis to the abject poverty that existed during the Cultural Revolution. As I mentioned in reference to the ROTC teacher, our Taiwanese hosts seem eager to keep the political differences on the table. I couldn’t shake the feeling he was dubious as to our collective intelligence because most of what he talked about sounded like he’d taken it from a Wikipedia page. For five year-olds. Who grew up on a raft in the middle of the Pacific. Here’s a sample: “In a democracy, people vote for their leader, and this leader is not able to control the whole country.” He also pointed out that money is not a determining factor in a democracy, which would have gotten a rim-shot and a good laugh from the audience in America, but then he oversimplified everything else, too. I won’t give you the full breakdown, but we spent the majority of his lecture quietly whispering about what the possible reason could be for him to be speaking on such a subject. Why give a simplistic treatment of democracy and authoritarian government? The only thing I can think of is that he might have assumed mainland students simply didn’t know.

Curiously overt politics aside, everyone’s incredibly impressed with Taiwan. Really, all you need to do is take a walk down the main drag of the Chinese Culture University. The only sound is the birds in the trees and the occasional conversation floating past. No cars, no tour bus horns sounding at levels loud enough to warp the fabric of space-time, no wedding firecrackers. It also smells like plants and fresh air, as opposed to whatever Tianjin smells like. I’m not sure I could describe it. No, I know I couldn’t. We all must look very strange indeed to the Taiwanese students because we’re constantly taking deep whiffs of air, as though we’re never entirely sure it’s still there. Everyone’s also mightily impressed with how polite people are here. When we got off the bus earlier today to go to the Palace Museum, we stood grouped on the pavement like a cluster of frightened deer trying to figure out where to go next, and then the bus driver, who hadn’t left yet, got on the speaker and told us where to go. This was met with something approaching awe from my mainland friends, who commented extensively one what a driver in Tianjin might have done, a selection of options ranging from “nothing” to “scream at us.” This so far is probably the biggest difference. People on the mainland can be helpful, but generally helpful people are either in the lowest class (street-cleaners and san lun che drivers), or have to be helpful for the sake of keeping their jobs. Here people are just. . .helpful. Without any other incentive. A few people have actually smiled at me!

One other random note in closing: Taiwanese bubble tea lives up to its billing. Wow. The bubble tea on the mainland tastes sweet. . .and that’s it. It could be anything at all, and the tapioca balls could be motor oil. Who knows? Taiwanese bubble tea actually tastes like tea, and whatever else is advertised on the menu. If you order pineapple bubble tea, that’s just what it tastes like. There won’t be any going back after this.

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1 Responses to Taiwan, part III: Cockroaches, Bubble Tea, and Did He Just Say That?

  1. Joel says:

    There are massive spiders on the mountains… with giant webs with thick yellow threads.

    We loved the Museum — free English tours, and they had this program where they teach you the history for free and then you volunteer as a tour guide. We would have gone more if we’d been able. Were there pr0testers outside the entrance when you went?

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