The Taiwanese love formality. This culture is big into structure, rules, accountability, and all of the pomp and circumstance that comes with. It starts when they are in school. Kids are constantly participating in academic, speaking, and music competitions. “Big tests” are frequent, and results and class ranks are published publicly. I have seen this emphasis on accountability have many positive implications — most notably, ubiquitous compliance with government mandates of mask-wearing, hotel quarantine, contact tracing, and countless other Covid regulations. (More on this in a coming post.) I think it also comes with its costs, e.g. extrinsically-motivated students with a penchant for memorization over understanding and book smarts over critical thinking. And before you think this is just one outsider’s uninformed opinion, I’ve heard many Taiwanese people share the same concerns.
Recently, I have been working on a project with two of my colleagues. The owner of my current school has aspirations of opening a new, “experimental,” international school and she asked me and two other teachers to help. Over the past few months we have developed curriculum and a year plan for all subjects including math, language arts, STEAM, social-emotional learning, and physical education. We have created rubrics for teacher evaluation and we have provided counsel on various aspects of the process. It ended up being a bigger project than I thought when I first signed on but, eventually, we finished, everything was translated into Chinese, and the people in charge submitted the proposal to the government.
Here’s where the formality comes in. One of the unique pillars of this new school will be its relationship with National Chung Hsing University (NCHU). For one, the elementary school building will be on the NCHU campus. Second, the owner signed an agreement with the teacher’s college stating that they will help train new teachers coming to Taiwan and in return, their students will be given a place to practice teaching and working with kids. (I think?? We don’t really know what this was all about. It’s amazing how much I don’t know what’s happening around here. Now, where was I? Ah yes, signing ceremony.) So in honor of this partnership, my colleagues and I were invited to attend a “signing ceremony” at the University.
We were driven over to one of the buildings on campus at 11:00 on a Monday where we were greeted by the dean of… something. He welcomed us warmly and led us to a classroom where we found our name cards and stood politely but awkwardly behind our chairs until we saw other people sitting down. The tables were arranged in a horseshoe with six of us from Cornel on one side, four professors from the university on the other, and the owner of the new school and the Dean of Something in the middle. (author’s note: I will continue to refer to this new/experimental school by anything other than its real name because I don’t actually know it. We designed the whole curriculum but were not consulted or informed when it came to naming. I think it has a Chinese name and a clumsy English translation but I can’t remember. Again, you’d be surprised by how little we actually know about seemingly important things.) We looked like this:
After a few minutes, the emcee read from her script that the ceremony would now begin. We would later find out that the emcee was a student in the teacher training program and was also the University (or possibly national?) champion of cup stacking! To being, the leaders each introduced their teams like an NBA starting lineup and we clapped for each individual. As an example, mine went something like this. “This is Evan Wettengal. He has a lot of experience with… teaching and I’m pretty sure he has been very knowledgeable in developing the different parts of this thing that he helped develop.”* Clap clap clap.
After introductions, the emcee informed us that it was time to sign certificates with fancy fonts in leather folders. So they did and, from where I was sitting, it looked like this:
Next, the emcee informed us that now we would all stand together and take a picture. So we did:
After that, each of the leaders gave a short speech saying how proud they were of their teams and how excited they were for this opportunity. Following speeches was a discussion portion. Each of us teachers were expected to ask a question of the committee of professors. We tried to ask thoughtful questions. We received, I felt, rather vague, fluffy responses. It is still mostly unclear to me what this partnership actually is or what this ceremony actually represented.
I should take a moment to point out that while we did our best on this project, none of us will be involved in this school moving forward, so our investment is rather limited. A while back, the owner asked me to lead the new school, which I took as a nice compliment. I did give it brief consideration. Ultimately, the intrigue and potential of this opportunity had more risks than benefits for me at this time. More than that, I feel that it’s time for me to head home, at least for a while. Even still, I am very curious to see what comes of this project!**
Anyway, after the discussion portion, the emcee, ever-professional, and with a careful eye on the clock at all times, informed us that the ceremony was now over. We were each given a box full of various breads and pastries. We shook a few hands, gave a few smiles and bows, and headed back to our real jobs.
Overall, I loved this as a cultural experience. I am proud of our work on this project and honored that I was able to be a part of it. While my American colleagues and I found the ceremony a bit, perhaps, over-the-top, I do appreciate the cultural desire to make a big deal out of inconsequential events. I am in awe of the Taiwanese people’s courtesy, politeness, and adherence to rules and formalities. It’s very different from the way I operate: gregarious, sarcastic, and iconoclastic. I think it has probably been good for me to experience the other end of the spectrum and get some lessons in smiling and nodding shutting the f*ck up sometimes. There are pros and cons to both, of course, as I mentioned at the top of this post. As with anything and everything in life, the best results come from finding the balance in the middle. Be polite, respect authority, honor traditions… AND… question institutions, break rules in the name of justice, and don’t be boring. Is it possible to do both? Should we try?
Footnotes: *paraphrase **DM me for actual opinions
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.
Or, my first (half-hearted) attempt at travel blogging (Everyone keeps saying I should do it, so here’s one for all my fans.)
According to something I heard somewhere once, the Taiwanese work the most out of any country in the world. We don’t get a fall, winter, or spring break here (most local teachers and students don’t even get a summer break), but long hours and low wages are offset by a week off for Chinese New Year! This year, the lovely Nika and I decided to adventure to the east coast for a few days of R AND R (rest, adventure, nibbling, drinking, relaxation). What follows is a recap of our trip, so in the year 2040 when Taiwan finally lets tourists in again, you can follow our itinerary and have a pretty great time!
On Saturday morning, we took the slow train from Taichung all the way up and around to Hualien. Harriet says this railway was on a British TV show once, so we felt pretty special. The trip took about five hours and, due to Covid restrictions, there is no eating or drinking on the train, though we snuck a few sips of water at one point. (Don’t tell the government.)
Upon arriving in Hualien, we rented a scooter, dropped our stuff off at the hotel, and went to find some lunch. Luckily for us, it was raining and everything was closed. Chinese New Year is a bit of a weird holiday. Even though most people have off and like to travel, it is primarily a family holiday, more like Christmas than Spring Break. So a lot of the local shops and restaurants are closed while the owners spend time at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. So while Hualien is a popular travel destination due to its natural beauty, the town felt eerily quiet in most places. Eventually we did find a little Taiwanese cafe that was open and treated ourselves to a tasty lunch.
After a nap at the hotel, we made the 30-minute walk to Salt Lick, which we agree is one of the best American restaurants we’ve been to in Taiwan. This country does not do bars very well. There are restaurants, there are cocktail lounges, and there are clubs. There are very few bars, pubs, or taverns, which has been an unfortunate circumstance for this Wisconsinite. Salt Lick was a rare exception. With a diverse menu that included pulled pork, chicken wings, mac ‘n’ cheese, deep dish pizza, and a handful of desserts, this Chicago-style bar really hit the spot. And lest I forget, craft beer on tap(!), another sadly uncommon occurrence around here.
After consuming a week’s worth of calories, we strolled down the block Komod’z for a cocktail. If you are looking for uninspiring, overpriced, vibey cocktail bars, then Taiwan just might be the place for you. Always in an alley, always dark and trying-to-be-trendy, always underwhelming. But a decent drink and decent company is never a bad time, so we aren’t here to complain.
Day two was our big adventure day. We went to brunch at Country Mother’s to carbo-load. Good selection of local and some western-style food, friendly service, and reasonably priced — high recommend. After that, we made the hour-long scoot to Taroko Gorge to see what we could see. The gorge is one of the most iconic attractions on the island and for good reason. I asked Nika what words she would use to describe it and she said “big, deep, and woah.” Personally, I’d go with breathtaking, awe-inspiring, and incredible, but you get the idea. The scoot was absolutely gorge-ous (pun very intended). We stopped several times to walk along the river and look at the views. There are crazy temples built impossibly high up on the sides of the mountain. There are terrifying suspension bridges that defy gravity. And there are long, winding tunnels that are marvels of engineering. This is one of those places that you can just sit and marvel at the beauty of nature. My second-favorite gorge activity was simply staring at the vastness of these mountain faces and contemplating the largeness and smallness of life. The pictures, of course, do not do it justice. Truly, a place you have to see in person to appreciate it fully.
My third-favorite gorge activity was seeing monkeys along the side of the road because, well, who doesn’t love seeing wild monkeys? We stopped and chatted with them for a bit and obviously named them Curious Gorge and Gorge of the Jungle, but we’re getting off track. My first-favorite gorge activity was undoubtedly the hot springs. Formerly a park-sanctioned space, a recent earthquake and subsequent landslide destroyed most of the structures built around the springs. What remains is a few hand-made rock-walled pools at the bottom of a very sketchy slope. Entrance into this area is one of those things that is “off limits”… but everyone does it anyways. We had been warned that the climb down was a wee bit dangerous, but I thought, “psh, Taiwanese are very safety-conscious, I’m a good hiker, I’m sure it’s no biggie.” Take it from me: this slope is not for the faint of heart. I surmised that in an effort to prevent people from going down to the river, someone tried to scrape off all of the steps of the existing rock staircase, leaving little more than a slope at a 45º angle. Did I mention that it was raining? So add water to the equation. A few industrious adventurers have tied together a makeshift rope railing. What’s left to do but put your faith in this wet rope that’s definitely probably secure, hang on tight, and rappel your way down? We weren’t so sure at first, but we watched a couple who appeared to be in their 70’s and were wearing flip-flops climb right on down without hesitation, so we figured if they could do it, we could too.
After a few knee-knocking minutes, we made it down safely and was it ever worth it! There was a little cave with a stream of water coming out of the wall forming a natural pool. The water in here was way too hot for us, but there were five or six elderly Taiwanese people who were sitting in it and chatting as if it was nothing. The pool overflowed and mixed with the river. Along the banks, people have made some little rock pools. The water in these pools was the perfect temperature and full of minerals that I choose to believe are good for you. On a cool, rainy day, laying in a hot spring at the bottom of a gorge, looking up at 1000 meters of mountain on either side… I’m not sure I’ve experienced a better feeling. I was simultaneously overwhelmed with awe and at total peace. I closed my eyes and felt the water running over me, listened to the sounds of the rushing river, and thanked God, Buddha, and Allah for allowing me to have this moment. I wanted to stay there forever, but it was getting late, and scooting in the dark is no fun, so we got back on the road. (For those wondering, the climb up was much easier and less stressful than it was on the way down.)
For dinner that night we went to Dos Tacos and Nika went three-for-three on her restaurant picks. This is surely one of the best Mexican restaurants in Taiwan, although that isn’t saying much. Good Mexican food, like dive bars, is another thing I miss greatly here. We had some delicious food, good margaritas, fast and friendly service, and peach empanadas with cinnamon ice cream and caramel to seal the deal.
After dinner, we headed down to the night market. As you probably know, night markets are very popular in every part of Taiwan. In most cities, you can throw a rock in any direction and you’re likely to hit a night market. This one, however, was unique because of how organized it was. First off, it was pedestrian only, which is always nice to not have to worry about getting clipped by a scooter while you’re eating your snacks. Secondly, it was organized into sections of games, food, and aboriginal stalls. We played a few games, won a few prizes, had a few snacks, and even found a stall that was a small bar called *pauses for suspense* Small Bar! The walk home was filled with a possibly-unhealthy dose of claw machines. These games are everywhere in Taiwan and most people usually ignore them. But not us. Not this night. We did pretty well too! After winning about 5 stuffed animals, a handful of plastic cockroaches, and a fake banana, it was time to call it a night.
Monday was mostly rainy, so we didn’t want to spend too much time outside. It was also New Year’s Eve and everything was closed, so we couldn’t spend too much time inside either. We scooted along the coast and looked at stopped at some nice ocean viewpoints. It felt like it was probably beautiful there in the summer. The highlight of this day was Pony, the cafe/petting zoo! We were hoping to chill by the ocean for a bit and not only did this place fit the bill, but it was one of the few places open. There were bunnies and puppies (adorable), ponies and pigs (sad-looking), goats (aggressively hungry), and even an ostrich (confusing and sketchy)! Would recommend for anyone with kids who don’t yet have a concept of what healthy animals look like.
It goes against my travel instincts to repeat a restaurant, but partially because there was very little open and partially because it was just that good, we went back to Salt Lick for dinner that night. We ordered different things than the first time, so that counts for something at least.
On Tuesday, I got up and went for a run before we had to catch our train. I found a really nice waterfall just on the edge of town! It was also sunny for a few minutes and I even saw a rainbow, which gave me a true glimpse of how beautiful this area must be in nice weather. I was glad to have at least had this moment on the last day. It felt like Hualien was saying, “come back in the summer!” as we headed back north.
A smooth two-hour train ride (TRA), a 20 minute Metro ride (MRT), and a 15 minute walk later, we were at our second hotel in beautiful Beitou. Beitou is a cute little tourist town situated just on the northern edge of Taipei City and nestled at the bottom of Yangmingshan, a dormant volcano. It is known for its natural hot springs. All of the hotels in the area have natural hot tubs in the rooms and there is even a steamy creek running through the town.
After getting settled, our first stop was a pottery shop run by an adorable old man. He served us tea and told us he had been painting this pottery for over 40 years. He even had old photos to prove it. The artwork on the cups, plates, and bowls really was beautiful, and even if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t have let his hospitality go unrequited, so we each purchased a few souvenirs before continuing on our stroll about town. Unfortunately, many places were still closed for the holiday, so there weren’t many options. We did find an amazing bakery and got a few snacks to hold us over until dinner. After several days of adventure, hiking, and walking, we opted for a night of relaxation. Uber Eats in the hotel room and a soak in the hot springs tub were just what the doctor ordered. (Be careful. Believe it or not, volcano water can get really hot!)
Wednesday was another adventure day. The hotel had a nice continental breakfast buffet. You can even boil your own eggs in the hot springs. (Can’t do that at La Quinta!) After that, we hopped on the local shuttle bus and it carried us right up the mountain. The driver did her best to make Nika as sick as possible with each switchback turn. We got off in Zhuzihu, which is a little village area known for its Calla Lilies. In a relatively common instance of Evan looking at the map and saying, “I’m pretty sure we can walk from here to there,” (I blame the Hash) we took a lovely stroll along a creek, through some fields, up a road, through some bamboo, and eventually, up a few stairs to the Yangmingshan Visitor’s Center. I think most people start here, but we aren’t most people. At this point, the wind and rain were really picking up. We had a coffee and spent some time perusing the gift shop (and buying some sick hats!) while we warmed up and prepared to head to the summit. The trail to the summit is paved with stone and isn’t overly difficult, at least when it’s dry. The views of Taipei and the surrounding area are unparalleled, or so we read online. We made it about halfway up, decided we were too cold, too wet, and too… wet. I mean, we were in a cloud. What do you expect? Like sad, wet puppies, we trudged back down to the Visitor’s Center and called for an Uber home, which took a while because, you know, on a mountain.
I picked up a phrase in Costa Rica. “Some people get wet, others feel the rain.” This has become a bit of a personal motto for me. It makes no difference to the weather if you’re happy or grumpy about it, so you might as well lean into it. Even though the rain made the day less-than-ideal, I couldn’t get over how cool it was to be on a volcano! Along the trail, there were several fumaroles where the steam releases from the heat deep within the earth. I’m not sure what makes them so confident that it isn’t going to erupt at any moment, but if you gotta die somehow, lava river is alright with me. When we got back down, we looked up at the clouds surrounding the mountain peaks and thought whimsically, “We were in that cloud.” Pretty cool stuff. Additionally, I am continually impressed by Nika’s grit and willingness to go along with my foolish desire for adventure. Before we met she hadn’t spent much time hiking at all and now she is climbing through bushes and trekking up rivers like its a walk in the park.
Okay. We’re nearly to the end. I’m tired of typing and you’re probably even more tired of reading so I’ll wrap it up. We went to a restaurant called Kahu for dinner. It was very nice. We tried and failed to dry all of our clothes before packing up and heading home the next morning. The high speed rail (HSR) was our third and final type of train on our journey. The trains and other public transit systems here are things of beauty. They are efficient, easy to figure out, clean and well maintained. It’s a small island, but even still, I am very appreciative how how easy it is to travel all around it. It’s the best we can do, since we can’t leave the country and come back without quarantine.
Overall, it was a very fun adventure – a break well spent exploring some new parts of this beautiful little island. I hope you can all check it out for yourselves someday! Until then, keep reading!
I know my perceived lack of writing recently has been a huge disappointment to all my fans (see also: my aunts). But fear not, dear Earthlings! Like that single set of footprints in the sand, I have not left you. In fact, I have been poking into the writing world a bit more to see what it might hold for me. I have recently had two things “published” on two different sites. It is difficult to say what this actually means. At first, I was excited, but then I realized it wasn’t actually that hard and maybe they just accept any old crap. In either case, I am asking… nay!… allowing you to read them now.
I would greatly appreciate it if you have a couple minutes to check them out! I hate self-promoting, but if you want, you can make an account on Medium and click “follow.” This will help me a lot and, who knows, perhaps I will be writing more in the near future. Let me know what you think! Also let me know if you have any ideas for what I should write or where I should submit. I’m open to feedback and advice. Thanks, and much love!
P.S. Life update, if you care: things are good. Still wearing masks. Still no covid here. Ran a half marathon. Seeing a girl. Missing home. Still trying to figure out what to do next year… maybe more writing.
Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.
Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.
-George Bernard Shaw
I used to think of life like Michelangelo. Chipping away at the rough edges in search of freedom. At various times I have been in love with the romantic idea of “finding myself.” I think most of us are conditioned to think this way. In the movies, the reluctant hero always has a true calling, and eventually, he answers. The two friends come to realize that they were meant to be together the whole time. The pirates find the treasure and the girl finds Mr. Right. The Native Americans had their vision quest. The Amish have Rumspringa. That’s how one’s life is supposed to go, right? Go out, have your fun, figure out what you want to do, then settle down and do it. Find yourself a girl, a career, a small town, a direction… and then by 30, set the cruise control, the sails, get on the right track (choose your preferred method of transportation for this metaphor) and off you go.
Trouble along the way? Don’t worry, there are plenty of fish in the sea – you’ll catch a good one soon enough! You can search for a new job! You can hunt for a new house! Discover a new hobby! Find your passion! Find yourself!
Until recently, I was on one of these quests too. I’ve described myself as feeling a little “lost.” I’ve called this year my rumspringa. I was pretty sure I was supposed to be looking for something… although I never quite knew what it was.
But what if there is nothing to find?
What if, instead of finding ourselves, we create ourselves? What if life is neither a destination or a journey, but a construction project? What if we don’t find happiness, success, or our true selves but rather, build them.
You give four children a pile of Legos. One builds a perfectly symmetrical house. The second builds a spaceship with questionable aerodynamics. The third builds the tallest tower they can with random colors everywhere. The fourth doesn’t build anything recognizable, but spends their time putting a few blocks together, taking them back apart, and merrily enjoying the clinking of the plastic and the texture of the smooth sides, bumpy tops, and sharp corners. To none of these children do you say, “Why didn’t you follow the directions?” or “Are you sure you don’t want yours to look more like your friend’s?” Of course not, they’re Legos! They’re kids! If you’re any sort of a decent parent or teacher you say, “Wow, what are you making? … Oh, how creative! It’s beautiful, I love it! Are you having fun?”
Life isn’t a movie. There’s no script. Life isn’t a puzzle. There’s no picture to follow. Life is a pile of Legos! You can make whatever the hell you want!
I’m building a castle. It’s going to be misshapen and multicolored and unconventional. It will have flaws and weaknesses and holes in the walls. It’s also going to be exciting and welcoming and unique. It’s going to be expansive and powerful and resilient. Everything I do – every decision, every interaction, every triumph, and every mistake – is another piece added to my castle. I’m not searching for treasure; I’m building a kingdom.
It’s only in the last couple of weeks that I have come across this new line of thinking. Admittedly, the metaphors and allegories might still need some workshopping. But even in the short time since putting on these new glasses and looking at my life through the lens of “creating” rather than “finding,” I already feel… lighter. Less pressure. Less worry. If there truly were no right or wrong answers, what would there be to worry about?
Some illustrative examples of the shift towards the building paradigm (patent pending):
In the past year, I have been the butt of many jokes about being the “old guy” teaching abroad. Many of those I have made myself. They say every joke has a hint of truth, but when I really think about it, I’ve never actually felt like I shouldn’t be here. Living abroad has been something I’ve always wanted to do and I’m extremely happy, grateful, and proud that I was able to make this dream a reality. In fact, I believe that being here now as opposed to, say, 8-10 years ago allows me to understand and appreciate this experience in more meaningful ways. It doesn’t matter who finishes their Lego structure first.
In the past year, some good friends have asked me if I am worried that I’m setting myself back by being here – because, you know, my window of… prime mating years(?) isn’t going to stay open much longer. In the same vein, everyone from good friends to strangers is quick to ask, “How long do you think you’ll stay in Taiwan?” My answer is always the same: I don’t know. One year at a time. More often I’m taking it one day at a time. One piece at a time.
In the past year, I have spent a lot of time alone. I have also spent a lot of time “putting myself out there.” To be sure, I do think life might be more fun with a partner in crime. I am accepting applications. But if I were to be desperately looking for my wife, every date that didn’t work out would be a failure – a waste of time. I see dates as an opportunity for a new adventure. I get to meet a new person in a new country. If I’m lucky, she’ll speak Chinese, take me to a new place and help me read the menu. Even if we never talk again, I will always have tried that new food and that brick will always be a part of my castle, strengthening the walls. As for the time alone, I would argue that there might be nothing more valuable than spending time with yourself. You learn a lot about both your needs and wants when you stop finding ways to distract and ignore yourself. In my Lego kingdom, the bricks and the empty spaces are equally valuable.
If this is making any sense at all, then I thank you for sticking with me. In conclusion, I encourage you to start seeing the things you do everyday as adventures, learning experiences, and opportunities for growth. One of my favorite mantras is a quote by Annie Dillard that reads, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Stop spending your days searching for something that you might never find, or worse, waiting for it to come!
Life is a pile of Legos. What will you build today?
It’s a deceptively dramatic title. This isn’t the post about the lessons learned from a year abroad or musings from my month at home. I’ll write that one next. That deserves more time. This is a story about yesterday and the mind-twistingly intense process of getting into a country that would rather not have you.
This is also a return from an apparently noticeable hiatus. I have been amazed by the number of comments I’ve received on this blog – primarily people asking when I’m going to post again. Granted, it’s been about seven, but that’s still more than the number of people I thought cared about my writing at all. So if you are one of the (What should I call my blog followers? Evanatics? Angels? Let’s go with) Earthlings who has been craving more, I’m sorry. I’ve been busy, okay?! This tab has been open for about two months. Back then it started as a post about how the US was opening up and Taiwan was shutting down (with massive Covid outbreaks reaching upwards of *gasp* tens of cases each day!)… But like most world news lately, give it a month and you’ll find out that reports of America’s “success” have been greatly exaggerated. So now, in an Olympic-worthy double fakey McTwist of fate, the pendulum of optimism has already swung back in its original direction. Say what you will about me, but you must admit I have impeccable timing when it comes to mid-pandemic moves around the world.
So how is it that while fears of the Delta variant surge worldwide, Taiwan has recently loosened restrictions on gatherings, is sending kids back to school, and reported just 16 new cases yesterday? (As a reminder for scale, and for those of us who have bad news fatigue, the United States reported over 92,000 new cases yesterday.) The answer is by making it an impossibly huge pain in the ass for Covid to vacation here. If you’re a little coronavirus just trying to survive in the world, where are you going to go? A country where face shield hoodies have become fashionable, or a country where half the population is either stupid enough or brainwashed to believe that this evolutionarily advanced virus doesn’t necessitate a defensive strategy?
So come with me on a journey unlike any other (hopefully).
Normal process for flying back to where you live:
Get on plane.
Get off plane.
Go home. Yay!
Process you need to go through if you want to fly to Taiwan right now:
Three days before flying home have one moron break home quarantine and spread Covid, thus causing the government to cancel the home quarantine option nationwide.
Eventually get over your disappointment and book a quarantine hotel.
Get a PCR test within three days before flight.
Forget to fill out the online quarantine declaration requested by Taiwan’s government. Fill out at airport while carrying a heavy backpack.
Show the nice worker lady your ~quarantine declaration certificate~, your negative PCR test results, and your hotel booking confirmation.
Fly to San Francisco.
Show a different set of workers your ~quarantine declaration certificate~, your negative test results, and your hotel booking confirmation. Get a red “OK” stamp. (More on this later.)
Get on plane using facial recognition technology! This was wild to me. They didn’t scan my boarding pass. No one looked at my passport. I just looked into a robot’s eyes and it said I could get on. The future is crazy.
Sit on tarmac for nearly two hours while they redistribute baggage weight? Fun and not concerning at all! (Other than that, flight was good. Had a whole row to myself and slept most of the time other than watching Idiocracy, which I did not realize was a documentary.)
Okay, here’s where the real fun starts. Get off the plane and wait in line while you fill out what appears to be the same online form that you filled out before you left. A worker checks your second~quarantine declaration certificate~ and sends you on to wait in another line so you can show it to a different worker.
The second worker notices you didn’t type your middle name so you get out of line and fill out the form again because if you don’t write your middle name you might have Covid. Get back in line and wait to show them your correctly filled out ~quarantine declaration certificate~ for what you can only assume will be the final time. But you will be wrong.
Walk past giant signs with some pictures and some Chinese that I’m pretty sure say bringing foreign beef jerky into Taiwan is punishable by death.
Go to baggage claim and walk your bag past the cutest little beagle that will literally end your life if he smells any goddamn beef jerky in there.
Go through customs to declare that you do not have any beef jerky with you. (Around this time, your mind will start asking you “Are we sure we didn’t accidentally pack any beef jerky in there somewhere?”) At customs a robot will take your picture and your fingerprints.
At this point, you might think, “Phew, made it through.” You will be wrong. Go to a worker and get a cup.
Go outside to a pop-up dressing room stall and spit as much as you can in that cup, even if you barely have any saliva because you have been standing in line with no water for an hour. Give your cup to a worker. Get a jazzy sticker on your arm that says “don’t touch me,” probably.
Go back inside and stand in line to wait for a taxi. Show them your ~quarantine declaration certificate~. I told you we weren’t done with that! (Pro tip: The day before your flight, get your ~quarantine declaration certificate~ printed onto a t-shirt. Just make sure you fill it out correctly.)
After you pay for your taxi, prepare yourself for a Summerfest mister level of disinfectant spray. (Holy shit, did this just give anyone else a great idea?!) Do not wear suede. They will spray you until you are almost saturated, including the bottoms of your shoes. If you are a plucky little coronavirus stowaway thinking the groove on a bottom of a shoe was a great place to hide, you have just been proven wrong and you are dead now. I even saw him lift up a woman’s backpack and spray in between the back and the pack. Even compound words are no match for this Seaworld splash zone amount of disinfectant!
Be careful as you walk away. The floor is very slippery.
Finally, get in your taxi.
Arrive at your quarantine hotel which has plastic tunnels everywhere reminding you of the scene at the end of E.T.
After about 26 total hours of travel, you have arrived in your room, where you will spend the next 15 days trying not to go crazy.
So how do you become one of the safest countries in the world? A powerful, yet caring and effective government, an abundance of surveillance, and an obedient population. Why have over 600,000 people died in the US? An ineffective, divided, and unevolved government, a psychotic and narcissistic cult leader, a culture of mistrust and misinformation, and a population that thinks being forced to wear a mask in the name of safety infringes on their “rights.” There are tradeoffs.
It’s been interesting to spend basically half of a generational pandemic on one side of the response spectrum and half on the other. I’ve spent most of my time in the States being dumbfounded and saddened by the general stupidity of humankind. Just wear a goddamn mask. It’s not that hard. On the other hand, I’ve spent the majority of my time in Taiwan being very grateful to be here and be able to go out and do things. But at times it’s been admittedly difficult to trust the process. I know it’s in the name of the greater good, but it’s hard not to be frustrated when you have to teach online and spend your own money to sit in a hotel room for 15 days when there are fewer than 20 cases in the country, they know everyone’s name, and they track your movements wherever you go. At some point it feels like overkill. The process of getting from Burlington to Taichung this week felt like the Soup Nazi was appointed Minister of Health. (Just rewatched that clip. It holds up.)
Beyond the obvious effects of this pandemic (illness, death, unemployment, deterioration of mental health, postponement of plans, etc.) I fear that the trauma it has caused to individuals will go unrecognized by most and then, as trauma does, rear its ugly head in often surprising and unrelated ways. So far, one of the biggest impacts this whole thing has had on me personally is that I now don’t believe anything until it happens. Remember when we thought it was unfathomable that stores could ever shut down for two weeks? Remember when we thought that getting vaccinated meant we beat covid for good? I approach all plans now with a “yeah, sure, we’ll see,” rather than a “sounds perfect, can’t wait!” Perhaps it’s healthy to temper expectations. But it’s also sad to not be able to get excited about anything anymore.
The moment I got excited about coming back to Taiwan was not when I resigned my contract. It wasn’t when I got my class list for next year, or checked in for my flight. It was when I got this stupid red “OK” stamp on my boarding pass. During all of my packing, planning, and preparation leading up to my flight I was girding my emotions for something to go wrong. I was about 20% sure that I was not going to get my test results back in time, or that I was going to test positive, or that a typo on my ~quarantine declaration certificate~ would result in a lifetime excommunication. I was even stressed up until the moment before he checked mine when it seemed for a second like the lady before me wasn’t going to be let on the plane because she got her PCR test five days before the flight instead of three. Luckily, the rule is that your test has to be within three business days, so the man eventually relented. Thank god Covid agreed to not work on weekends.
It wasn’t until he checked my papers, took my boarding pass, and gave it back with this super official, high tech, government approved RED STAMP, that I actually believed I was coming back. In that moment, I let out a little giggle. My heart started racing and I clenched all of my muscles to prevent myself from doing something noticeably outlandish in public. The most momentous “OK” of the year.
As Darwin (my friend, not the scientist) likes to say, in conclusion, I made it. I’m back for another year and I’m excited. It’s going to be a year of opportunities and growth. A year of continuing to seek peace and happiness and hopefully continuing to find both. A year of reminding myself and those around me, it’s okay to be “OK.”
Editor’s note: This post was just about ready to go live when I found out that all schools in Taiwan are closing for two weeks and I was blessed with the rare distinction of getting to prepare for distance learning in back-to-back years in two different countries!! What a thrill this is about to be. More on this later in a post probably called “How the turntables…” For now, back to your regularly scheduled rambling.
My high school tennis coach once told me during a match, “Every once in a while, hit your serve as hard as you can, just to let ’em know you got it.” He continued, “It doesn’t even matter if it goes in or not. Just knowing in the back of their mind that you could blast one at them at any moment will make them take a step back. The fear of the big one will make all your other serves more effective.”
Thank you, Coach Kreutz. I have carried this advice with me to this day, both on and off the court. I recently shared it with some of the boys I coached. And when I play, I still try to crank a couple of serves early on in a match, just to let my opponent know what I’m capable of. After I spin a couple in, if I notice them starting to creep up and take advantage of the slower, more consistent serves, I’ll flatten one out as a reminder, just so they don’t get too comfortable.
But more importantly than tennis, I believe this is good advice to live by. Made famous by Teddy Roosevelt, of course, to “speak softly and carry a big stick” was how he characterized his approach to foreign diplomacy. Lead with kindness and justness, attempt to negotiate peacefully, but be prepared with a strong military should things ever go south. Unfortunately, the world today would benefit greatly if more people practiced the first two components of this philosophy. It seems everyone from world leaders down to insecure influencers does a lot of barking these days, which, without intervention from a more rational party (the existence of which seems to be rapidly deteriorating), inevitably leads to biting. I guess big stick energy is quite the opposite of the current rampant spread of the aforementioned little dick energy.
I’m the first to admit that my attempts to be a good person, friend, and teacher fall short of perfection, but I do try to live by this ideology as much as I can. When I was younger, I used to be a more arrogant and obnoxious competitor, assuming that everyone would benefit from verbal reminders of how great I was. Now, when playing sports or games, I try to mostly keep quiet, win and lose graciously, and let my play do the talking. A goal, a spike, or a victory is always more powerful than talking trash, whining to teammates, or complaining about the refs.
In my relationships with both women and friends, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve raised my voice or acted irrationally in a moment of anger. In a similar but different vein, when I was younger, I used to know no boundaries when it came to getting a girl’s attention or impressing a fellow dude-bro. Now, I realize that such peacocking is a product of insecurity and a need for validation. These days, I am much more content to just say, this is who I am, this is what I want, this is what I can offer – take it or leave it, I’m good either way.
Getting to the primary inspiration for this post, the most prominent area of my life in which my #bigstickenergy is deployed is in my teaching. Far and away the most frequent comment I receive from people who have been in my classroom is how calm I am and how peaceful the room is in general. This is not luck. I work hard to achieve this. I’ve learned over the years (11 in the classroom, wow!) that yelling almost never achieves positive results. And while every class surely has a couple of big personalities, a calm environment is one that works well for all students, both academically and developmentally. I have worked with children with all kinds of disabilities, trauma, and difficult behaviors. I’ve never met one that didn’t benefit from a calm, respectful relationship with a teacher who is steady, trustworthy, and predictable. In fact, I’ve had friends visit my class and ask if I was okay, perceiving my low energy to be a sign that something was off. Outside the classroom I guess I’m a bit more energetic and bubbly. My teaching persona, however, has a much more focused and deliberate nature, which I now understand can be a bit shocking for a first-timer to experience.
There are many different types of effective teachers and I have great respect for all of them. Many teachers dance and roll and play around all day in attempt to engage their students in the learning. That’s wonderful. That is not me. I wonder if that type of teaching is sustainable over a long career. For me, avoiding burnout is a big factor in how I conduct myself day to day and year to year, and conserving energy is an important part of that gameplan. Please don’t take this to mean that my class is boring or that my kids sit in rows and work silently all day. That is far from the case. We play games, sing songs, watch funny videos, and do arts and crafts all the time. My kids know that I love them and we have a good time. But I believe that my primary job is to create structures within which the kids can have their own fun. I’ve always kept in mind a line by Ron Clark that reads something to the effect of “A lot of young teachers think they need to be the students’ friend. I tell my students ‘I’m not here to be your friend. I’ve got enough friends. I’m here to be your teacher.'”
Which brings me to the second tenet of my teaching persona. I’ve covered the “speak softly” part. But what about the “big stick”? Well. Eeeeeevery once in awhile. I mean like, maybe 3-6 times per year, I bring out the big serve. If someone is doing something really foolish after repeated reminders, if someone isn’t showing improvements in behaviors after lots of practice, or, most especially of all, if someone is bullying, I give them a taste of something to be scared of. Sometimes, I will put on my best glare and tell them that they’ve made me angry, or that what they’re doing is not acceptable. Other times, it can be as simple as shouting “HEY” super loudly and then continuing in a normal voice. Whatever the situation, it’s letting them know they’ve crossed a line. I will usually even say directly, “I don’t get angry very often, and I don’t like to yell, but this is not okay.” I then make sure to get everyone else back on track. Later, I’ll check in with that kid, praise them if they’ve fixed what they needed to, and make sure they know I love them. I don’t believe much in punishments, as they are rarely related to the behavior. A stern conversation about boundaries and feelings is usually far more impactful. I believe that experiencing those moments of anger just once or twice teaches my students where I draw the line and makes them think twice about their choices moving forward. The best part is, even the students not on the receiving end have witnessed what’s possible and will hopefully keep this in mind when making decisions and developing habits. Kids don’t like to disappoint adults. With these boundaries in place, we can all settle in to our calm, peaceful rhythm.
At this point, I’m wondering if I should even post this on the internet. Why did I feel the need to write about it? Nobody asked me to write about my approach to classroom management, and even if they did, I’m certainly no expert (although I am well over my 10,000 hours) :). I don’t know. But here we are anyway. I guess I feel like lately I’ve been inundated with people, both in my immediate circle and in the world, who do a lot talking, grandstanding, and parading about with very little to back it up. At the root of it, as always, is insecurity. And possibly sometimes incompetence. And while I have plenty of insecurities and imperfections of my own, I’m trying hard to be better than that. Not better than others, just better than I was yesterday. Do my big mouth and lack of filter still get me into trouble sometimes? Yes. At least once a day I say something that makes Lindsay want to murder me. But we’re all working on ourselves. We’re all trying our best.
To know that you are powerful, but to not feel the need to display that power unless absolutely necessary… To know that you are impressive, but to not give in to the desire to brag about your accomplishments… To know that you’ve got things under control, but to not attempt to be controlling…. These, in my opinion, are the ultimate displays of strength, humility, wisdom, and inner peace.
Over 34 years, living in 10+ cities, and traveling a bit, I’ve met a fair amount of people. I think people, in general, are fascinating. I like observing and analyzing people, and I can usually find the good in them, or at the very least, figure out what they are trying to do. Most people are fine, some of them are great, some of them are weird. And then there are a few that stand out. You know the people I’m talking about – the ones with that glow, that energy, that… special something. I am calling these people sunshine people.
Sunshine people are not just nice, or funny, or generous. Lots of people are those things. Sunshine people are rare. I’ve known only a handful of them over the course of my life. I was with one last weekend, which is what inspired me to write this post. It’s not an exclusive list, but careful reflection on the criteria below has my count at 13. There are undoubtedly more I could squeeze in, and perhaps others who I have forgotten over the years, but this isn’t the Dean’s list, where anyone who puts in some effort gets in. This is an elite club, reserved for only the best of the best, so for now, let’s go with 13. I’m not going to name them, but I will share some of the general demographics. Of the 13 sunshine people I know, there are 8 women and 5 men. Many, but not all, I have considered one of my best friends at some point in life. Most are around my age, but they range from 24-65. Ten of them I have known for years, and three of them for mere months. I provide these stats to illustrate that this isn’t just a list of my best friends. It is a collection of people I’ve come across on my journey who are just… the best people. If you’re lucky, you get to have a few sunshine people in your life for a long time. But it’s possible that you might just share a single moment with one of them. If that’s the case, it’s likely that you will remember that moment for a long time.
In thinking about my 13, I’ve come up with a list of attributes that I believe all sunshine people share. This is not an exhaustive list, nor was it developed through thorough research. It’s simply a brief rundown of the salient characteristics that come to mind when I think of these people. I’m hoping that these descriptors will make it easy for you to identify the sunshine people you know and, perhaps, maybe even take some steps to become a little brighter yourself.
Above all, sunshine people are natural leaders. They can take charge of a moment, influence a group, and captivate an audience of any size. They need not be in any formal position of leadership. In fact, most of the time spent with these people is social, so there are no “roles,” but their natural leadership tendencies almost always shine through. They have a good sense of the people and the world around them and they make confident decisions. These people often put together social clubs, sports teams, or game nights. They might be the people who take the lead on picking a restaurant or planning a trip. Whether at work or out with friends, informal leadership always emerges. If a sunshine person is around, more often than not, they will be the ones stepping into that role.
Sunshine people are connectors. They are usually the hub of a group (probably many). They know lots of people and they love bringing people together. All of the people on my list have introduced me to someone from a different part of their life. They don’t just throw a party and invite people haphazardly. They understand social dynamics and are intentional about creating meaningful experiences and cultivating friendships between others. This of course comes in addition to their own personal connections. They seemingly always have time and energy for at least one more new friend. If it weren’t for my sunshine people, I wouldn’t have met half of the people or gone on half of the adventures I have in my life. I am thinking of the myriad opportunities that were opened up to me in Madison, Denver, Minneapolis, and Taiwan because of my sunshine people and I am very grateful to them.
Sunshine people make crazy good eye contact. This one is oddly specific, and I couldn’t decide if it deserved its own paragraph or not, but I think it’s important enough. It’s not just like, socially polite eye contact. When you are talking, sunshine people look at you in a way that makes you believe that what you are saying is the only thing in the world they care about at that moment. Without fail, their eyes, smile, and body language all have a natural beauty and grace. They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul but for sunshine people, they are open doors, inviting you to walk right in. They are good listeners and consistently show genuine empathy and true understanding. Aided by a look, a smile, a touch on the arm, a laugh, or a nod, they make you feel comfortable opening up to them. They make you feel really good about yourself and build you up rather than bring you down (a sadly uncommon characteristic).
Sunshine people share a hatred of dull moments. When you meet one of these people for the first time, they will ask you about your life. They will work to find a connection between the two of you. With that connection, they will ensure the conversation is engaging for both sides. If you are sitting in a room with nothing to do, a sunshine person will ask the group a question to get everyone involved, suggest playing a game, or offer to get everyone a drink. As mentioned, they are the ones likely to plan an adventure, a park day, a weekend getaway, or some other random reason to get together. They will be sure to invite the right people and host a well-executed event. It’s a great fortune to have one or more of these people in your life. Because of them, you will do more, see more, and have more fun than you would if all of the social planning was left in your hands.
Closing out the list for now is that sunshine people walk their talk. They don’t take a break from an unhealthy lifestyle to post inspirational quotes on social media. They don’t smile to your face and talk shit behind your back. The sun does not have an “off” switch. These people truly are who they are. They are as nice to the server as they are to their date. In a group, they will engage just as much with a newcomer as they will with an old friend. A former boss once told me “character is who you are when no one is watching.” I will venture to say that sunshine people don’t take many shortcuts at work or do anything sneaky to try to take advantage of others. They are legitimately just good. That’s not to say they’re perfect, of course. They can be crabby, tired, sad, and angry just like anyone else. But when they are, they are unlikely to take it out on others or let their own issues get in the way of treating others with respect.
Who are the people who have come to mind while reading through these traits? Do you agree with my list? Have I missed anything? My hopes for this post are two-fold. One is to acknowledge, thank, and honor my people. The other is to encourage you to identify your own sunshine people. First of all, tell them. Thank them. Remind them how wonderful and powerful they are. Secondly, reflect. How can you be more like them? What’s a small thing you could do to shine a little brighter each day?
To my sunshine people, I need you to know how powerful you are. You have the ability to influence many, many people over the course of your life and indeed you do, every single day. Thank you for letting me be a part of your world. Thank you for inspiring me to be more like you. Thank you for connecting me to others. Thank you for giving me opportunities, taking me on adventures, and creating lasting memories. Thank you for living a life that is continually making the world a better place. Don’t underestimate the influence you have over others. Don’t underestimate the impact that you’ve had on me.
If you ever move to Taiwan I guarantee the thing you’ll hear the most before you come is how nice everyone is. In all of my interviews and with everyone I talked to who had been here, it was all they kept saying. “Everyone here is sooooo nice!” At some point it honestly started to get old. I believed them, but I also thought it was partly a sales tactic. Turns out, people here are really fucking nice. Like, culturally, across the board just kind-hearted, good-souled people everywhere you turn. It’s not just that people smile and make you feel welcome. People here will consistently go out of their way to help someone else or take time out of their day to make sure another person gets what they need. And it’s not just because we are white, either. It’s true that we experience some privilege and excitement because we are somewhat of a novelty and a lot of people here wanna be friends with Americans to practice their English (A country that isn’t xenophobic? Imagine that!) But even though I can’t understand them, I often see little interactions in stores or on the street of local people helping each other out. In the past couple of weeks in particular, there has been a string of several moments that typify what people are really like here. I want to share those with you here.
On a Thursday night, my friend Ashley (aka Teacher Ashley With The Shiny Hair, aka Trashley, aka The Young Phenom) and I were going to rent city bikes to go to dinner. The YouBike system here is really slick. Just tap your card, take the bike, and go. There are stations all over the place and they are free under 30 minutes, and like a dollar per hour after that! I had a card, but Ashley did not, so we went and bought one at the Family Mart. But when we went back to the bikes, it was saying we had to register the card. We were trying on the app, but it was all in Chinese so it was proving difficult. After a few minutes of struggling, a woman just about to take a bike of her own says “Do you guys need help?” Clearly we did.
Abigail (as we would later find out) took Ashley’s phone and helped her register on the app. Despite her effort, it was still not working for some reason, so she went with us back into the Family Mart to ask the clerk. They had a bit of a conversation in Chinese until she figured out what the problem was. (We were on the wrong app or typed something in wrong or it needed time to process… I never actually learned what the issue was.) Eventually, we got it squared away and went back out to the bikes. She waited with us to make sure it worked, and we thanked her profusely for taking the time to help us.
The whole process took about 10 minutes, during which she apologized several times for how long it was taking. I kept saying, “Are you kidding? We’re sorry that you got dragged into this saga!” At one point around minute 8 I asked, “What are you up to tonight?” and she responded, “I am late for English class.” Ashley erupted, “We’re making you late?! Oh my god, I’m so sorry!” To which Abigail stated plainly, “Oh it’s okay, this is pretty much the same thing.” We got to talking a bit more and it turns out that she lives in my building… on my floor… directly across the hall! I haven’t seen her since, but I’m hopeful for the potential friendship.
The following Sunday, the other Ashley (aka Brown-Haired Teacher Ashley, aka Flash) and I went on a beautiful hike up a rocky river bed to some natural hot springs. For some non-skillful foreshadowing, let me say that this entire two-hour hike is on top of small, medium, and large rocks, you cross the river a dozen or so times, and it is very important to have good footwear, or at the very least, footwear. The hot springs come up through several little pools along the side of the river, so when we arrived, we found our own little spot and got in to relax. The sun was shining, the sky was clear, the air and water temperatures were both perfect, and I was feeling good! The only thing missing was a beer.
A few minutes later, I asked Ashley, “Is that your sandal floating down the river?” She jumped up and ran down a few feet to grab it. Close call. Unfortunately, when she got back, she realized that her other sandal had already floated away unnoticed. Crap. She looked among the rocks, hoping it got caught on one, but no such luck. She walked down the river a ways past all the other hot springs pools looking for the sandal and asking everyone if they had seen it. Still no luck. I was staying very calm, but I knew was going to be a problem and was kind of freaking out a bit inside. We sat there for a few minutes discussing how to engineer a makeshift shoe out of a chip bag and an extra t-shirt, but before we had any prototypes in the works, a man came out of nowhere with the missing sandal! She said he wasn’t one of the people that she had asked earlier, so I’m guessing he found it, asked around, and people pointed him in our direction. We were saved from a long, painful, dangerous hobble back to our scooters.
While we were riding high from our relief and gratitude towards this stranger, another man came over from another pool and offered me a beer! Totally random act of kindness. It was the best luke-warm, shaken-up-from-being-in-a-backpack-for-three-hours Heineken I’ve ever had. A wonderful day narrowly saved from the jaws of peril by the selfless efforts of a stranger.
The last story for now is about the service industry. On a Friday night, John and Lindsay and both Ashleys(!) and I went out for some drinks and were given a round of free shots at two different places! It’s not like we were spending a ton of money or getting the party started or having a long conversation with the bartender or anything. We were just sitting there quietly and given them as basically gifts of appreciation. The very next day, John and Scott and Sarah and Lu– I mean Rainbow Panties, Taupe on a Rope, Fiesty Forest Pig, Size Queen and I (This Long) were out at another bar after the Hash run (Hash appreciation blog coming soon) and we were given another free round of shots and a basket of truffle fries! Particularly at the more upscale types of cocktail bars, I feel like this level of generosity would be pretty rare in the US.
Lastly, on Wednesday we were out at the one good brewery in town for St. Patrick’s Day – a holiday celebrated in Taiwan by approximately 10 of us teachers and maybe like 5 other people. (Sidenote: I’m realizing that in addition to illustrating the kindness of the Taiwanese, these stories are also painting a pretty colorful picture of me just drinking a bunch. I’m fine, I swear.) I bought a hat because I really like their branding… and their beer. When I got home, I put it on and realized that it didn’t fit quite right and wasn’t really my style. I knew that they had another option, so when John and I were there again on Saturday (boy, you’re really not buying that I’m not an alcoholic, are you?) I brought it back to try to exchange it for the other style of hat. Instead of accepting my exchange, the server just gave me the second hat for free and insisted that I keep the first one as well. I couldn’t believe it. An extra bit of free advertising sure, but essentially another act of pure generosity.
So my interviewers were right: people really are nice here. It’s more than just general good-heartedness; it’s a cultural pillar. It’s a collective-minded society. People look out for each other. There is very little crime here. People don’t lock their bikes or scooter helmets. I accidentally leave my keys in my scooter at least once a month, but I never worry about anybody taking it. In fact, sometimes people will even take them out of the ignition and put them in the little compartment on the front so they are more hidden. We don’t lock our door. The girls I work with say they don’t worry about walking places alone at night. Some of this, of course, could be aided by the fact that there are cameras at every single intersection and on most buildings and the government is watching you at all times. So, you know, some pros and some cons. But people here are willing to sacrifice a bit of privacy for the benefit of a society that works. People here generally trust those in power. In exchange, they receive access to things like jobs, healthcare, and safety. What a concept! It’s societal Karma. Wonder if the west will ever adopt these ideals.
It’s been a minute. Been busy. No time or need for apologies or explanations, let’s just get to it. We’re on Chinese New Year break! The Taiwanese work hard and get very little time off. There are far fewer government holidays here than in the states, and as a private school, even when the public schools get a day off, it may or may not mean that we do too. We got one day for Christmas, one day for New Years, and other than that, I have worked about 4 straight months with no other breaks. All of this is to say that I’ve been slowly running out of battery and am more than ready for a week to recharge.
CNY is a bit of a strange holiday. According to Lindsay, it’s more like Christmas or Thanksgiving than calendar New Year. Everyone hangs with their families and lots of businesses are closed. A lot of people, especially foreigners, travel during this time. For me, however, plans were being booked in the middle of the slog at school, so I decided that some down time would serve me better than travel. But if you know me at all, you can probably guess that down time does not mean doing nothing.
The title of this post comes from the book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami. In this memoir capturing his thoughts and experiences as a runner, he tells of an ultramarathon during which there were plenty of times he would stop, rest, stretch, eat, and change clothes, but no matter how tired his legs were, or how much his body would want to slow down, he refused to walk, saying “I came here to run.” At the end of the book, he leaves us with a wish that his headstone might someday read “Haruki Murakami: At least he never walked.”
I have been thinking about this philosophy a lot lately, and I think I am going to borrow it for myself. I am always telling people “I can’t sit still,” as if it’s a bad thing. I consistently fill my weeks with sports, hikes, dinners, game nights, dates, runs, and adventures. I hate ambiguous free time. I hate feeling like I’m wasting time. This reminds me of another quote from Annie Dillard that reads “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” For me, this is a great reminder that life doesn’t happen in the future, it’s happening right now. And so I constantly ask myself, “Do I want to spend my life walking or running? Do I want to look back and have watched all of the seasons of Love Island, or should I go out and actually try to find love on this island?” (Boom.)
We were playing a game the other night and I got asked the question “What is one thing that makes you so happy you don’t think you could live without?” I thought for a bit and responded, “adventure.” Above all, I think my biggest fear is dying having lived a boring life. I have very little respect for boring people. In my weaker moments, I still worry that I ended up in Taiwan at 34 because I did something wrong. But in my stronger moments, I remind myself that maybe there is no “right,” and that for better or for worse, this is the path that I’m on so I might as well run. To rest is okay and, of course, vital if one hopes to remain strong for the entirety of the race. That’s what I’m attempting to do with this week off. But to be lazy, complacent, and boring? Those are not traits with which I ever want to be associated. So yes to that race, yes to hiking, yes to soccer, yes to climbing, yes to a Tinder date, yes to another beer, yes to sprinting up this hill with someone much younger and faster than me to the point that I almost throw up because I refuse to walk.