or, “Why am I in the family photo?”
A year ago, on a solo hike, I chatted with a nice lady at a rest stop. I was still on my way up the mountain and she and her friend were heading down. Her English wasn’t very good, but she was enthusiastic and friendly and I liked the cut of her jib. So when I summited and caught up with them on the way back down, we both took it as a sign that we should be friends. Since then, Yi Hua and I have gone on a few hikes and bikes and walks together. Our conversations are strained and limited, but we laugh about our struggles and enjoy each other’s company nonetheless.
A few weeks ago, Yi Hua invited me to a celebratory tea party at her office. She was recently promoted to director and wanted to share her honor with me. Happy to support my friend, and interested in a new cultural experience, I said of course I would be there. I was admittedly a bit skeptical of spending two hours on a Saturday afternoon in a room full of strangers speaking Chinese, but YOLITO*!
*you only live in Taiwan once
When I arrived at Nan Shan Insurance, on the 13th floor of a nice building in Taichung, I was immediately and loudly welcomed by Yi Hua and several of her coworkers. Everyone was shouting and laughing and one woman made us take a picture together before I even had my jacket off. Yi Hua escorted me to my seat next to her parents and sister and I only had to wait a few minutes for the festivities to begin.
The 20 of us in attendance were first treated with a choreographed dance by some of the office ladies. From the best I could tell, this was a nod to a traditional type of performance, but with a bit of silliness to it. Next, there were a few speeches from people who seemed important. It’s funny – it’s commonly said that language is about 10% words and 90% tone, body language, and context and I guess this was a testament to that figure. “Thank you for coming, we here at Nan Shan have a long-standing tradition of excellence and growth. When my father started this company in 1964, he promised to always put people first. Sixty years later, his legacy remains in the employees of this office. Today, we honor someone who upholds all of the pillars of this company: hard work, dedication, compassion, and growth. I am delighted to introduce our newest director, whateverherfamilynameis Yi Hua!” …probably. I mean, what else could a man in a suit say at a thing like this?
Then it was Yi Hua’s turn to give a presentation. Her slides (with English subtitles, made especially for me) went through her career path and her time at Nan Shan. The surprise twist came on the last slide which contained a picture of me and her hiking Hehuan Mountain last spring. Next to it was an inspirational quote that was translated “You don’t have to be excellent to begin to do things but you need to get to start in order to become the excellent.” The she turned to me and said in English, “Evan, thank you for bringing me up the mountain.” Everyone looked at me and clapped. (In Chinese, “shan” means “mountain,” so I’m thinking there had to be some allegory here to her journey within the company. But still, I was not expecting to be part of the inspirational climax of this speech.) Because witty comebacks are at the core of my DNA, I responded by saying, “Well actually, you brought me,” as a made a steering wheel motion with my hands, implying that she drove us there while trying to deflect attention back to the star of the show. I’m not sure if anyone got it.
Later that evening, Yi Hua sent me a picture of her notecards in English with pronunciation cues, which I think might be the cutest damn thing ever.
After the speech, the important man presented her with a glass statue thing, and her parents gave her some flowers. Then it was time for a family photo… so you can understand my surprise when everyone was calling and motioning for me to come too. It makes sense right? The biggest highlight of her career and there she is on stage with her team of coworkers, her parents, sister, husband, kids, and a random American she’s hung out with 4 times. Little did I know, the over-the-top celebrity treatment was just beginning.
After the speeches, it was time for some games. The emcee was an effervescent woman with a strong stage presence. We played pick-an-envelope, guess-the-number, and even paper-scissors-stone. The first few winners got things like a bottle of wine or a bag of tea. It was clear that this generous host really wanted me to win something. She kept checking my envelope and giving me hints at the number game, but to no avail. The fourth contest was riddles. At this point, she switched to English and asked me directly, “What letter… is your eye?”
“What letter is my eye?” I stammered.
“Yes. What letter, is your eye?” She clarified.
“Yayyy!” she screamed, and pulled me up to the front. I have to imagine that in Chinese, that is a trickier question, but I appreciated her kindness and effort to send me home a winner. And boy, did I ever win. I picked a number. The card said “1.” The woman next to me screamed. “I brought this prize! You are so lucky!”
“Oh wow, thank you so much,” I said graciously as someone brought me the biggest bag from the prize table. “What is it?” I asked, politely peeking inside. The man next to me picked up his leg, motioned to his calf, and laughed loudly. “Oh wow!” I said, as I saw the picture on the box, “A foot massager! Thank you! Xie Xie!” Once again, was not expecting that.
After games and prizes, it was time for some snacks. One of Yi Hua’s other friends spoke pretty good English so the three of us chatted a bit. We made loose plans to hike Yushan, the highest mountain in Taiwan, in May. A coworker came over and told me he really liked the Super Bowl Halftime show and he started dancing. I said, “Yeah, that was good, huh?!” Then I told him my favorite team was the Packers and he had no idea what I was talking about. “You know, Wisconsin? Green Bay Packers? Aaron Rodgers?” Blank stare. Change tactics. “Snoop Dogg?!” His eyes lit up again. “Yeah! So good!” he replied.
Eventually, like a good midwesterner, I slapped my thighs and sighed while saying “Welp, time to get going.” It was feeling like it was about to be a smooth exit until Yi Hua announced to the room that I was leaving. Everyone stopped their conversations to wave, say bye, and shout at me. “Bye bye!” “Thank you to come!” “So handsome!” And best of all, as I’m walking past the tables like a celebrity leaving the Met Gala, a woman points at me with full arm extension and shouts, “Superstar! Future superstar!” I was followed to the elevators by no fewer than 5 people while I did a million small bows of humility and said “Thank you” and “bye bye” each time.
I went to this event expecting to say congratulations to my friend, have some tea, exchange a few awkward pleasantries, and be on my way. I was even slightly annoyed that it was causing me to miss the weekly Hash run. It ended up being one of the most fun and memorable events of my time in Taiwan. It was a very fun party and I was thrilled to be there to support my friend on her special day of honor. It was good reminder to keep pushing the boundaries of the comfort zone and not be afraid to chat with a stranger on a hike. You never know what it could lead to. As a bonus, I walked away with a confidence high and a foot massager, which feels like something a legitimate superstar would own, so maybe that lady was right.