Welcome to Paradise!
The Trip that Changed My Life.
by Jessica Fawley
I’m a graduate now. Officially, I graduated from UALR in the spring, but our university has that wonderful policy where you can do six more hours after graduation. I applied to do those six hours in Taiwan, a graduation gift to me paid for by the Taiwanese government.
Every morning, I wake up to electric purple and red sunrises which flash the mountains blue and gold all around us, and stubby trees with thick, rounded leaves twice as large as my head. Welcome to the tropical island of Taiwan.
Here, the people are so friendly that not knowing Chinese is no big deal at all. Sure, you’ll occasionally think you’re ordering chicken and get handed a green milkshake, but mm, it’s delicious. And they’ll mime with you and point at things until you’ve found the best food you could’ve imagined. The choices are endless! Beef noodle, oyster omelet, squid on a stick, crispy duck, egg “hamburgers,” “thick toast” (half-French toast, half toast with jelly, 100% delicious), hot pot swimming in delicious veggies and more kinds of meat than I’ve ever seen in one place, friend rice of a thousand varieties, bubble tea, boba milk tea, tapioca pearls, and apparently Asia invented the hashbrown square (and adds tasty spices)….Or you could just go for all the exotics: the thousand-year egg which was described to me first as a “rotten duck egg,” but is actually fermented. It tastes great, if you can get over how it looks black, green, slimy, and really, really rotten! And then there’s stinky tofu—take the name seriously—and a dozen things made with pig’s blood, snake’s blood, and God only knows what else. Interested in chicken’s foot, pig’s ankle, or chicken butt? One of my classmates is crazy about the last one—“So tender!” he laughs. And try the hot dogs for breakfast wrapped in pastry bread. So great. But mind the ketchup; I think they’ve added a pound of sugar to every teaspoon. The most important words you’ll learn are, “Half sugar please.” And, yes, drinks and add-ons are often so sweet, they overwhelm the Americans. I wasn’t sure that was possible.
And, of course, if you’re in this awesome TUSA Program, you’ll be learning Chinese. Beyond being one of the most marketable languages, Chinese is really fun. And when you’re surrounded by such friendly people, you never have to feel bad about stumbling your way through a sentence, mispronouncing every last tone. We laugh about saying “I want sleep” when we’re trying to order a dumpling. The tones are rather funny. First tone is the one-note song. Second tone climbs the mountain. Third tone dips into the caldera of the volcano and eeks back out. Fourth tone runs down the mountain. And neutral tone whispers its little song of relief.
For many people, learning Chinese is why they’ve come to Taiwan. For me, it’s the culture. I am on the direct opposite side of the earth from home, and the culture, the world, here reflects that. Every morning when I walk to class, I pass a bald man in his 30’s wearing brown monk’s robes who repeatedly raises his arms up, turns his hands, and lowers them slowly. There are usually a few people around him. One woman rubs her back on a tree a lot, another tries to do what the monk is doing but never turns her hands up, only out. I watch them every morning, and now we greet each other with smiles. When I go running, an old woman doing some kind of kung fu tai chi, dipping so low you’d think she was Shakira, smiles so brightly to me her eyes almost disappear. And then there are the groups, everywhere, doing strange flailing exercises, break-dancing, tai chi, and kung fu. It’s incredible to see what these people can do, and at any age.
Everywhere you go, there’s someone to smile and excitedly say, “Hello! How are you?”, which might be the only English they know. Yes, seriously, people yell “Hello” when they’re passing on their bikes and scooters, just because they see you’re American (or might be). And if they ask, watch them leap with joy when you say you are American! 我是美國人。 If you’re white, don’t take offense if kids scream when they see you (you’re a “white ghost,” after all, with a pointy nose!), and be sure to wave at them as they sneak around you, trying to get a better look. You’re probably the first white person they’ve ever seen!
But let’s go back a step, to those scooters. Everywhere, swarming in-and-out all the time, ten times as plentiful as cars, and they’re so much fun. Our roommates, study buddies, and even teachers take us around on scooters all the time, zooming with the wind in our faces, all around Pingtung (our city). It’s a tour every time. Schools that look like military installations (because all the major government buildings are done in the same style here, including our university) or fun houses (private elementary schools), endless signs with Asians so pale they blend with white backgrounds (did you know Asians try to be whiter than we are? That’s the style. Skin whiteners are in most of the skin products, watch out!), and bright primary colors on every store sign. They love their reds and yellows. Red here means luck. And the colors are just as bright in the Buddhist and Confucius temples. Skip off your scooter, pass through the dragon doors, light some incense, and pour over the endless stone etchings of gods and dragon-dog-lions. They’re so cool-looking. And don’t forget to toss the half-moons to see what the gods think of your future.
Tired of the city? Let’s get out. Kenting Beach, swimming in the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Taiwan Strait on the other. Water so crisp and blue, you’ll know it’s a tropical island. In an hour, off I’ll head back to the beach. How about Monkey Mountain? Why do you suppose they named it that? Hike up, up, surrounded by thick, jungle vegetation. Keep your eyes open, because guess who is sitting in the tree above your head? Monkeys! Thousands and thousands of monkeys! Just don’t bring any food, and you’ll all get along great. If you’re calm, they’ll even let you close enough to pet them, but watch the teeth. From there, let’s spirit off to Taroko Gorge, where the mountains split wide open and the rapids play on boulders so huge you’ll feel like a tiny, Lego person, I guarantee. The rocks are swirls of color—metamorphic (if you’ve taken your geology). Oh, yes, and don’t worry when you see the giant spiders in their webs all around you. They’re not dangerous. But they do jump. Five feet at least. Hike the incredible trails around the gorge, and explore the shrines in the mountains. There are no words for this place, and no pictures that do it justice. You have to see it with your own eyes.
Now, go back to the cities. Explore the night markets with their cheap, beautiful clothes, cool t-shirts, and endless arrays of awesome food. Get a traditional Chinese or Thai massage—it only hurts for a second, then you feel great. Try the water park-spa or the hot springs spas, where little fish will nibble on your feet. It tickles like crazy! Or head over to one of the many waterfalls. Yes, you’re still in the cities.
Now take a little trip to the Indigenous People’s Park and shoot a boar with a traditional bow and arrow (like I did! Okay, it was a picture, but I hit it!) or just pay one of the fourteen tribes a visit. They love visitors! Especially the Amis (Ah-mei), who dance and sing their way through every activity, every day, like a perpetual Disney movie. And they’ll sweep you into their dances. Their the largest of the tribes, and they live their traditional life so proudly and with such incredible joy, it’s intoxicating. You’ll want to join the tribe. And the Amis are especially awesome because they’re matriarchal. The women are so powerful.
From there, hop over to the opera where warriors spin in kung fu dancing or to a traditional drumming concert, where they spin the drum sticks in fung fu drumming, pounding the drums with such energy and force, the sound radiates through your whole body and spirit. Fung fu, here, or wushu, is a way of life, the energy of life, that so many people harness doing myriad things. I like to joke that we Americans want the packaged version: “Cool! Can we learn that this weekend?”
Before I came to Taiwan, I read in guide books that this is the friendliest country on earth. Now, I’ve only been to six or nine countries, depending on how you measure it, but there’s no denying that these people are friendly and helpful. Don’t be surprised when your teacher invites you all over for a traditional dinner. And if you get lost in Hualien while looking for the school where you’re doing an interview to teach English, like I did, just stop into one of the fancy hotels. Someone will speak English, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re staying there. They’ll bring you water, print you maps, and if you still can’t find the place, they’ll swoop in and just take you there themselves. In America, I think a ritzy hotel would just kick you, the non-paying non-guest out on the street. Here, everyone wants to help you.
Taiwan has definitely changed my life, both through all of these experiences, and more directly in changing the course of these next few years, if not forever. I decided to look into jobs teaching English, and I’ve been offered an incredible job in Hualien. I’ll be paid more than I’ve ever made in the United States, living in a country so cheap I can live like royalty, and be in Hualien, where the bike paths expand through the entire city and along the coast of the Pacific Ocean. Hualien, too, is the city beside Taroko Gorge; I have hundreds more paths there to explore and rope bridges to leap on. In this economy, America is a difficult place to find a job worth having or at all, but over here, in Taiwan, there are hundreds of jobs just waiting for any native English-speaker with a Bachelor’s degree. It helps that I have a background in teaching, but anyone who wants a job can find one. When you’re here, ask around, and before you know it, you’ll be taking a job in paradise.
There are no words that do this place justice, and no pictures either. No story will tell you what it’s like to wander off on your own and meet the beetle nut girls or run off to KTV for a night of wild, up-scale karaoke with forty of your new friends. You need to be here, to taste the squid, to try your hand at Chinese art and calligraphy, and get buzzed at and massaged or acupunctured by the traditional Chinese doctor. The TUSA Program is an ambassadorial program funded by the Taiwanese government. Check it out, and change your life. It’s adventure time!