Sit back and enjoy the latest episode of Ana embarrassing herself in foreign countries (and loving it)!
To start off, the title of this blog post is not a type. Well, it is… but… you see, I found this shirt in a nearby store with “pooket full of sunshine” written over the right breast pocket and an embroidered smiley-face sun peeking out. Thought it was cute. 🙂
Also, just a reminder that my English ability is going to be deteriorating exponentially over the next few weeks…
So culture classes started this past week and I was placed into Mahjong. Originally, I had signed up for modern Taiwanese movies and TV shows, hoping to get a peaceful break from the formidable amount of homework we have by watching some flicks. But no; not enough students realized that that was the smartest choice, so the class didn’t run. Instead, I was given the choice between Chinese checkers and Mahjong and I chose Mahjong.
I have played Mahjong once before with Yuan Yuan (my Chinese host mother/sister and the hero of my last blog series) when she visited my family over Thanksgiving. My family has this ancient Mahjong set, but none of us know how to play, so Yuan Yuan graciously instructed us (in English)… but I didn’t entirely understand until this culture class.
The Mahjong class takes place in a cramped classroom found by walking along a narrow balcony that wraps around our school building. Half the room is full of chairs and desks all stacked on top of one another while the other half has 3 flimsy tables, each with 4 little stumps around the sides. One of my 300 level teachers (my favorite teacher) instructs the class, so she gave a description, history, and quick lesson on how to play the game. Four other teachers walked around to help us play. We played a few quick, small-scale games to help us identify the pieces, and eventually we worked up to a full game.
About 20 minutes into the full game, no one in any of the 3 simultaneously running games had won. But then I pulled a lucky piece, and I looked down at my set, and realized I had won (maybe). I didn’t want to yell out that I had won, because it was pretty likely at that point that I still didn’t understand how to play and I did not in fact win.
So instead of yelling, I just said “um” a little loudly, and my teacher came running over to my seat. She peered over one shoulder while the other teachers came scurrying over as well. With five teachers leering over my seat and my pieces, the program photographer (who just happened to sit in on our class that day) came running over and prepared for a picture by shoving his camera right up to my face, ready to snap a photo at any moment.
Suddenly the room erupted as the teachers applauded my winning set, the photographer snapped photos, and I sat there looking at my tiles with a confused and startled expression (wearing another shirt that I recently bought in Taiwan that says “start somewher” (and no, that’s also not a typo)).
So somewhere in the university’s 2019 yearbook, there will be a picture of a confused foreigner (me) in a “start somewher” shirt, looking absolutely overwhelmed while staring at a winning Mahjong set. I have made my mark.
Later that day we went to a cafe to do our homework. I was sitting next to my friend who’s in the 400 level. I came across a grammar structure that I didn’t understand, so I figured I’d ask him and see if he could correct my sentence.
I’m going to try to explain this simply: the grammar structure is “难得” (pronounced nan de) and it means “rarely” (in a sense). The phrase I was trying to write was “this is a rare opportunity”. I didn’t know if I had to write “nande jihui” (ji hui means “opportunity”) or if the correct phrasing was “nande de jihui” (the extra de links the two words grammatically).
So I asked my friend and he didn’t know. But before I could say anything, he grabbed my paper and ran up to the front counter of the cafe to ask the man working there. I watched them from a distance as they laughed and studied my paper. Eventually my friend came back to his seat and confirmed that the correct structure was “nande de jihui”.
About 15 minutes later, the same man working the front counter brought us 2 baskets of French fries and little bowls of ketchup (for free), saying this was a “nande de jihui” for him to welcome Americans to his cafe. He smiled warmly at me and went back to his counter.
You see, Taiwanese society is incredible. Everyone is so trusting and kind. Whenever it rains (which is does like every hour or so), people will leave all their wet belongings and umbrellas outside of a restaurant before going inside to eat. No one worries about anything being stolen. (Disclaimer: you should still exercise normal levels of precaution while travelling).
During our orientation, our RD gave us a little speech to calm our nerves (unsuccessfully) before starting the program and activating the language pledge. I have searched for a while for the exact saying she quoted, but I haven’t found it yet. I’m hoping that one of my readers may know it. The saying loosely says that when two people are meant to meet, the universe will conspire to bring them across the world to meet each other. When two people are not meant to meet, the universe will conspire to prevent them from meeting, even if they pass by each other on the street.
I can’t help but think that this has been absolutely true about my experiences here.
For instance, the lovely man who works the night shift in our dormitory lobby. My first night in Taiwan I walked down to the lobby to fill my water bottle, and as I passed by his little office, he jumped up and asked me who I was. I said my Chinese name, and he quickly identified me on a list of names (no doubt a list of all the American students on the program). He gave me a warm smile, said goodnight, and awkwardly watched me leave the lobby. He has said hello to me every day since then, using my Chinese name. He knows my friend group, he remembers where I’m from, he brought out his only fan for me and my friends late one night when we were sweating over our homework at a table in the lobby, he’s helped me on homework, he’s offered us food, we’ve discussed politics, and he has invited all of my friends and I to go explore Tainan together (since he is very familiar with the area). He’s the awkwardest, nicest security guard I have ever met.
The weeks are long and hard and swift, but the weekends are amazing. Most weekends start with hearing the faint sound of a dorm doorbell down the hall. But this is no ordinary doorbell. The first time I heard it, I dropped my pencil onto my unfinished homework, paused my music, stood up from my desk, and thought “who the hell is playing the bagpipes at 9pm on a Thursday?”
I apologize to anyone who plays bagpipes, but I really hate the sound of them. I know they’re a part of a rich and beautiful culture but dear lord they just sound like an orchestra of squealing car brakes. Bagpipes can only really play that one song that for some reason is vital to any sort of graduation ceremony. And they even sound bad playing that one song, which was made for the bagpipe. Now, imagine an auto-tuned, shrill bagpipe playing a sped-up version of “home sweet home”… that’s the sound of our doorm room doorbells. (I’m serious, I looked up the song to make sure).
Suddenly, the sound was louder, and coming from somewhere in my room. I undid the lock on my door and threw it agape, only to find three of my friends standing right in front of me with the goofiest smiles on their faces.
“干嘛?!” I screamed over the endless (yet horribly cathcy) tune. = what the hell?
The horrible, nasally high pitched bagpipes continued to roar from somewhere in my room. My friend reached around the doorframe and tapped the “end call” button on a wall phone that I didn’t realize was there before. The doorbell stopped. “We’re going to watch a movie, come on” he said, and we all walked back down the hall, hitting the doorbells outside of our friends’ rooms and running away before they could open the door to see who was there.
My group of friends (normally 6/7 of us Americans plus a few language partners every now and then) decided to trek it to the beach. We looked up a few nearby beaches in Tainan and settled on one that seemed more touristy (based on the photos). We split into 2 cabs and I ended up in one with 2 of my 300 level classmates and an incredibly kind taxi driver. He knew a lot about the US and his English was pretty great (even though we told him we weren’t allowed to speak English, so we ended up in a very odd conversation where he spoke English to us and we spoke Chinese back). At the end of the 20 minute drive, he gave us a discount on the ride (but we tipped him a lot) and gave each of us his business card, telling us to call him if we or a friend ever needed a ride anywhere. His English name is Michael.
So we arrived at the beach, and after spending about a half hour trying to locate our friends in the other taxi, we finally turned towards the coastline. Um… let’s just say it was an interesting sight. Huge ships sat on the horizon line. Trash and oyster shells and branches were strewn across the sand. Tall waves toppled over one another. Large rocks peeked over retreating rapids and then disappeared again as another wave came crashing down. Apparently there was a “no swimming” sign, but I didn’t see it (don’t worry, my friend is a certified lifeguard… and besides I’m telling the tale, so I’m still alive :)). We were all a bit skeptical, but decided to go for it anyway. So, even under the cloudy sky and in the murky water, we splashed around and practiced different techniques for staying above the sweeping waves.
There’s a Chinese proverb that says that when you’re together with the right friends, drinking water tastes sweet.
Despite sunburns, occasional torrential downpours, sand being annoying (as sand inevitably is), wet and salty clothes, abandoned coastguard buildings without toilet paper, and my friend’s prescription glasses getting swallowed by the ocean, all was pretty great.
We then made our way over to Chi Kan Lou, grabbed some food, got my friend some contacts so that she could see again, and decided to trek it to Tainan’s “most beloved” night market.
Of course, we had to take shelter in a family mart when another torrential downpour (this time featuring thunder and lightning) decided to show up. But we were persistent, and we successfully arrived to the market just as the rain subsided.
I love night markets. The first dish you get is the most exciting, because that’s the first set of chopsticks you’re presented with. Now, these are just ordinary wooden chopsticks that you get with a normal Chinese takeout meal in the US. But in a night market, you hang on to the same pair of chopsticks all night. You go from noodles to fried meats to steamed vegetables to sesame cakes with the same pair of trusty-dusty chopsticks (because why be wasteful?). At night markets, you eat pretty much everything under the sun, from spicy, oyster pancakes to sweet, red bean cookies with cream. We talked with the locals working the stands, were shoved to and fro by an excited stream of people filling the alleys, dodged puddles of mud and muck, joined forces to take advantage of a sale on brightly colored pants, laughed at the incredibly random English words written on clothing, wiped the sweat from our faces and bodies with flimsy little sheets of tissue, and sidestepped the kids crowding around carnival games. You can buy stuffed animals and phone chargers, laptop stickers and socks, live shrimp and handcrafted jewelry, bedsheets and shaved ice with cheese. It’s great.
It’s also exhausting.
So once we were finished, we all regathered and made our way to the edge of the abandoned lot that had been completely taken over by night market festivities.
And who did we see?
He came running up to us with a grin completely dominating his round face. He remembered our names, asked about our beach trip, learned the names of the rest of our friends, handed out more business cards, and drove us back to our part of the city (giving us another discount).
After all of us taking long showers to scrub the salt water, sand, sweat, and dirt built up from the last 12 hours, we all gather together again for some late night Uno, trashy Chinese reality TV dating shows, and planning our next free weekend together.
The night ended with me applying aloe and snail milk to my sunburns (that’s the best I could find in the nearby 7-11, and I swear to god it made my sunburn disappear over night (except the first few hours of having it on were quite uncomfortable because I kept finding little deposits of snail mucus all over my body)).
Today was less eventful, mainly because we have to do preparation work for this week of classes and presentations (pray for me and my upcoming oral exam on Syrian refugee camps!), but we did sit down for all-you-can-eat hot pot for about two hours and then napped. Success.
Week #2 has come and gone, and it was actually enjoyable, thanks to my friends and the people of Taiwan. You just gotta look for the little pookets of sunshine.
I hope all of my American readers had great 4th of July weekends.
Host family stay next weekend! Whoop whoop!