Tuesday, August 17, 2010


I’m creating a collection of short stories called “Made in Taiwan,” about my time spent in Southeast Asia. To kick it off: a letter I wrote to my friends at home, during my first few months abroad.

Motorcycle Story

“I’ve had a motorcycle for the past few months. I fear this motorcycle, and, until last week, was petrified to drive it in Taipei traffic. Driving here is sort of like staring Death in the face and then flooring the accelerator so that you smash at top speed into Death’s head. Cruising the wrong side of the road, running red lights, and racing on the sidewalk are essential daily driving activities. “We Taiwanese” consider traffic laws to be a cute little un-enforced formality.

In addition to my fear of the traffic, I also fear the bike itself. It looks like a piece of World War II machinery. It probably is. I appreciate the nice 1940′s-esque contrast it provides to the seizure-inducing billboards that pepper Taipei’s nighttime skyline, but I am still unable to stand the bike properly on it’s kick-stand because it weighs a jillion pounds and is too awkward for me to lift. It also has poorly synchronized manual gear shifts involving a series of several pedals and handles that remind me of Young Frankenstein’s castle or that pipe-organ torture/masturbation machine from Barbarella (except non-sexual). Regardless, I managed to conquer this beast of a machine (and Taipei’s kamikaze traffic) in one foul swoop:

The first time I tried to drive My Scary Motorcycle, I lost my balance and collapsed in the middle of a trafficky street, pinned beneath the behemoth contraption. A liter of gasoline poured all over my legs and into my clogs (yes, I was wearing clogs and trying to operate a motorcycle, shut up.) My “gentle giant” friend, Drew, pulled the bike off of me and picked me up by the scruff of my neck. He slapped me around a bit and dusted me off, then gave me a rousing pep talk, aka, shouted at me.

“This is a MACHINE!!!!!! YOU are the one in charge of it!!!!!!!! It does not have a brain!!!!!!! People much stupider than you successfully operate them every day. Now GET ON AND DRIVE!” He propped up the massive bike and I climbed back on top of it the way small child gets onto a full-grown horse (ie: with a struggle). Then I, drenched in petrol, drove alone through 10 miles of Taipei rush hour traffic (13 lanes wide, mind you) without a hitch.

Note: about 75% of foreigners here drive motorbikes, about 0% of them have licenses- I am now one of that 0%. Driving all over the city is truly the badest-ass of all sensations.

Regarding the high percentage of license-free foreigners–a general (f-ed up) rule here is that the cops often don’t bother you if you’re white. They smile and wave, try to practice English with you, whilst dragging off Taiwanese offenders off to stick bamboo shoots under their fingernails.

Every once in a while, just for fun, the cops raid a nightclub, load all the patrons onto a bus, and take them to the police station. There, they give the late-night-party-people a pee-drug-test– hundreds of people at a time. Foreigners legally do not have to pee for them (although the cops may lie and say you do at the time– I know a guy who was forced to give them his tainted piss. He fled the country, haven’t seen him since.)

Because I am a good girl and spend my weekends studying chinese, I have not experienced the aforementioned Taiwanese phenomenon. I generally focus on the more hilarious aspects of being a “foreign ambassador”

As a foreigner in Asia, people stare at me everywhere I go. Children and adults oggle alike, I usually feel like the star of a freak show. Generally the tallest person with the lightest-colored hair as far as the eye can see, my chinese friends ask to touch my hair daily, and ooh and aaah about how different the texture is. I still get a kick out of it. I will feel so ordinary when I go back home. My chinese language skills are kicking into the next gear. I’ve settled into a real life here, it’s no longer vacation.

Chaos, corrupt cops, deadly traffic, and faux celebrity are now the status quo. Seriously, it’s great. Come visit. I’ll take you for a ride on my hog.”

Shower Time

Because Taiwan is an fault-line ridden deathtrap and I live in a poor neighborhood, we "make" our hot water with propane tanks that live outside. Every morning, I walk out to the front porch and turn the propane tank on, take a shower, and twist it tightly "off" upon leaving for work. This helps things not blow up when earthquakes happen.

This morning, as I was getting ready to hop in the shower, I started the water and forgot to turn on the gas. I popped out the door, twisted the propane knob "on" and turned around just in time to see my front door slam shut in front of me, locked... wearing only a towel. Of Course. My parents will be glad to know this is the most secure place I have lived in the last several years, complete with bars on the windows and two layers of self-locking and dead-bolting doors. I squeezed my arm inside the window and attempted to release the interior door lock, but the bars on the windows made it impossible. The only thing I COULD reach was a large electric violet fuzzy polyester blanket on the couch, which I pulled through the bars and wrapped around me, Julius-Caesar-style. Swaddled in violet, I initiated Operation "Get the Fuck Back Inside, Asshole," and tried to break in to my apartment.

My 87 year old next-door neighbor walked outside to find me grunting and thrusting my arm through the bars, half naked in my purple toga. She immediately assessed what I was attempting (and failing at) and waved me off of the window bars in an almost exacerbated way, tapping her head with her finger, as if to say, "Use your head, girl!" She walked to her front porch (which is right next to mine--we basically share one 'giant' porch) and she offered me a 6 foot long, wide-mouthed bamboo pole. Every Chinese person is required to keep one of these poles on their doorstep at all times, or so it seems, and for once I understood why. I shoved the pole through my window bars, attempting to grab my purse (with keys inside) from the living room couch.

At this moment, a flood of neighbors began their 7am commute to work. They ALL stopped to register a critique of my technique, and an opinion on how best to get my purse onto the bamboo pole. I stood on the front porch and surrendered as my elderly Chinese neighbors (who do not have to go to work) tried their hand at grabbing my purse through the bars, like a twisted arcade game. There are times, in Taiwan, when a minor obstacle or dispute becomes grounds for public discourse; people take sides in others' disagreements over the cost of batteries, market vegetables, or whether one person swindled another for a live chicken. How to unlock my apartment was now "one of those times". As more old people joined the fray, my purple fur toga and semi-nudity became increasingly awkward. Old neighbor lady realized this, grabbed me by the hand, and led me into her apartment while the retired sector continued with operation break-in.

It was dark inside her place, it smelled of incense and "old"-- the first time I'd been inside any Chinese apartment. She and her husband have obviously lived there for years and years. I feel a level of intimacy with the old next-door couple, since we share a porch on which her husband sits for hours every day, silently keeping watch over the neighborhood. He vaguely nods at me every day when I leave for work, and passively looks through me when I come home at night. He also hocks loogies every morning at approximately 6am, my daily alarm clock. It was both nice and gross to see their inner sanctum-- nice because it had the familiar feel of eternal Grandparentyhood, gross for the same reason. Their apartment is smaller than mine,; everything in it is old. A shrine-like alter stands in the living room, the first thing seen upon entering. There to honor their family's ancestors and appease any potential angry spirits in the neighborhood, it has all the traditional accoutrement: red lights glowing upon ancient Buddhist deities, an offering of a small bowl of fruit, garnished with burning incense.

Behind the altar, a doorway opened into to her closet. She led me into the tiny room exploding with Grandma clothes. I am about 5'6", I would put her at 5', tops. She pulled several selections for me to try-- though her dresses were modestly long and wide, the size ratio difference in our bodies is tremendous. We decided upon one the largest thing she owned and she helped pull it over my head with a struggle. The dress was incredibly small and I clutched hard to purple toga, hoping not to flash Husband. I caught a glimpse of the two of us in the mirror, as I straightened the dress around me. We weirdly matched, like 2 vastly different ethnic & age-grouped versions of otherwise identical raggedy ann dolls. We chit-chatted in rudimentary Chinese, as we checked ourselves out. I learned she is from Mainland China and came over as a baby with Chiang Kai-Shek's revolutionaries, over half a century ago. She speaks Chinese, not Taiwanese, which means I can communicate with her in what is now very basic Mandarin.

We popped back outside as several other neighbors tried their hands at the "pole" game. All gave up. I eventually reclaimed the pole and, building upon their efforts, got hold of the long floppy shoulder-strap of my purse and lifted it up. Cheers. I raised the far end of the pole, and the bag slid down into my hands. Success. I emptied out the purse and found no keys. What? I noticed them sitting on the couch-side table inside my apartment, well out of reach of bamboo pole. Fuck. Neighbor Grandma and I walked back to her porch in our matching dresses and she pointed at a tiny sticker on her door, with a bunch of numbers and Chinese characters. I did not understand a word she said, smiling and nodding and trying not to cry from frustration. Eventually she picked up the phone and her "key turning" gestures made sense-- she was calling a locksmith. He arrived in 20min, unlocked my door in a matter of seconds, and I slinked inside with relief. I put on my real clothes, returned her dress, and awkwardly gave her a hug. She smiled, hugged me back, and said I should come over for Chinese new year's dinner and meet her son. I said yes.

I have made my first Chinese friend.

SEPTEMBER 12, 2001

Host unlimited photos at for FREE!
On the morning of September 12th, my New Zealander friend was walking to work. An old chinese man flagged him down and made the hand/arm gestures of a plane flying, followed by a massive explosion. He then pointed at my friend and laughed.

Being abroad is an extremely bizarre way to experience war--especially when you are from the United States. You are uncloistered from the American propaganda machine. There are no flags in your front yard. There is no FOX news. There is no patriotism. There is no enemy...

There is only international CNN, which ex-pats would watch as though it were a baseball game. My Australian friends would say, "Let's watch the war."

And we did.

Thoughts on Leaving Taiwan

When you live abroad, you live in limbo. For some reason, even the highest degree of acheivement as an ex-pat doesn't really count. It's not the "real world". To make it really count, you have to go home and do it for real.

I decided to leave Taipei because I knew so well how much I loved it... how easy life was there. If I did not challenge myself I would wake up a 35 year old doing EXACTLY the same thing and wonder where my life went.

After almost 2 years of hilarious bliss, I could not bear the thought of leaving Taiwan. I loved it so much, I cried when I imagined not living there. Taiwan was the first place where I woke every morning loving exactly where I was and what I was doing. I learned to speak Mandarin fluently. I was making music every day in the best studios. I was talking in psychotic childrens' voices and getting paid a LOT of money to do it. My picture was on billboards and magazines throughout southeast asia. I was on Taiwanese television. I had a wonderful, supportive, brilliant, creative family of loving friends. I had done pretty much everything I'd wanted to do. I was a tremendous success. It had gotten too easy.

Going straight back to America just sounded depressing. How do you leave a life of exotic mayhem and daily celebrated chaos for red-white-and-blue flags and streets where people actually stop when the light turns red? How do you go back to a country where a war has started, that you've never experienced?

How do you go back to the most hated nation in the world?

Armed with the knowledge that I could always return to this secret little gem of the orient to visit (or live, if necessary) I went out to see if there was any place else in the world that I loved just as much. Or better.

I decided to take the long way home. I decided to circumnavigate the globe.

Host unlimited photos at for FREE!

No comments: