It was seven years ago this week that I arrived in Taipei with a Lonely Planet Mandarin phrasebook, a suitcase and a laptop.
The only people I “knew” in town were my former landlord’s parents, whom I’d met several times during their visits to San Francisco. They were super nice people, but the language barrier prevented us from communicating without an interpreter; I had their phone number just in case of emergency. Otherwise, I didn’t know anybody, and my entire knowledge of Taipei and the country of Taiwan had come from the pages of a travel guide.
Of all the mistakes I made before arrival, not learning more than ni hao in Mandarin was probably the most consequential. However, Lonely Planet Taiwan said that English was widely spoken in Taipei, and I read that as: Foreigners can get by without ever speaking a word of Chinese. The book was basically right. Of course, I was essentially wrong. And now, with an expensive amount of hindsight, the first thing I should have done was ditch the phrasebook and take some Mandarin lessons. And I didn’t and wouldn’t ever do that. But I would write a book about the experience, The Lazy Bastard Guide to Mandarin (2012).
Those first few months in Taipei were chaotic and exciting and I don’t remember a time that I ever felt so “alive.” Nourished by adrenaline, I had little need for food. Everything was important in the moment, but then again, it wasn’t.
No matter what happened, I knew that even though it was the last thing I wanted to do, if shit didn’t pan out in Taipei, I could always go back to S.F. My old job and my old apartment were waiting for me. So as I made my way through the trials of finding a gig and a place to crash, I conducted myself with a certain amount of indifference, particularly in the face of frustration and confusion.
If I had to describe my self and my situation in one word, that word would be “lucky.”
I’m not Casino Lucky, I’m Dodged a Bullet Lucky. It all starts with the conditions of my birth and doesn’t ever stop. At least half of being where I am today is the result of fortunate circumstances that no one including myself ever saw coming. In the grand scheme of things, my time in Taiwan is split down the middle: half balls, half luck. Unfortunately, luck doesn’t factor into the culture shock of moving half way across the world “on a wing and a prayer.”
The language barrier was only one part of the overall culture shock. Dealing with people now took on a whole new meaning and procedure. Above all, getting acclimated to a new place means getting used to how they do things. I may have been slightly naïve to under-estimate how difficult it would be. Eventually, the culture shock began to fade, the adrenaline slowly started to wane, and I felt my feet on the ground. That didn’t necessarily mean that I liked being in Taipei; it could have been any city in any country.
At some point, I had cobbled together enough phrasebook Mandarin to make a couple of things happen without assistance, particularly in taxi cabs and restaurants. The rest of life was either conducted in gestures or in English. But that didn’t stop me from going to places where English wasn’t an option. At the same time, I made some friends and had sort of a social life; at least, it was ten times more social than I’d ever been in S.F., where other than band practice and the occasional show, all I did was basically stay home, get loaded, and write songs.
Taipei and Taiwan are almost different places altogether. You don’t always see the real Taiwan until you get out of Taipei. Generally speaking, city people are nice and they tolerate foreigners to a generous degree. Out in the mountains and seaside communities, people are quite friendly and welcoming. But the money is in Taipei, and ultimately, that’s what I’m here for. It wasn’t always that way; in the beginning it was simply about adventure. My goal was to have no goal, and I was doing a really good job of reaching my goal.
My story in a nutshell is that I came to Taiwan on a 60-day visitor visa and I never left. Of course, I’ve left and leave Taiwan all the time. I have 33 pages of entry and exit stamps in my passport(s). But I’ve always returned, and back in the early years before I was married and had a kid, returning to Taiwan was almost always a happy occasion full of relief, gratitude and humility. This is definitely true for trips to mainland China. Taiwan was home. If you live somewhere for seven years and still don’t call it “home” then something is wrong with the picture.
Nowadays, Makati is home and Taipei is away, though a very familiar and safe place to be for extended periods of time. It is a home of sorts.
Clearly, I have done the required amount of adjusting in order to fit in a certain parameter of Taiwanese society, though I will never truly belong, and that’s fine. I’m rather comfortable with my infinite outsider status. However, certain changes brought about by adaptation have made me a different person, perhaps permanently, and that’s to be expected in such a situation.
One thing I’ve noticed is that I have lost all apprehension of law enforcement, not that I ever had that much of it to begin with. Other than one unfortunate time I decided to leave S.F. city limits, every interaction with the police was literally amicable during my decade in the Bay Area.
I had some scraps back home in the suburbs of Chicago, but I was just a punk kid who kinda chuckled at court dates for speeding tickets. They threw me in the drunk tank a couple of times, too. Eventually, I grew up and learned my lessons. You want to live a happy life? Stay away from the cops. I mean, it wasn’t like I was ever doing anything terribly wrong, other than being in possession of a controlled substance. Sure, I had to break a few other laws in order to acquire those drugs, too, but really, it was illegal, not wrong.
In my business, you learn how people put statistics together to frame their conclusions, and learn to spot their strategies. The outcome of any survey is dictated not by raw data, but by the factors in which you choose to apply the data. Thus, Taipei is the safest major city I’ve ever visited in Asia, and according to several sources, Taiwan is the second safest country in Asia behind Japan. Taiwan’s bottom-barrel crime rates are most notable in the violent and vice-related crimes category. From that perspective, specifically gun violence, I would agree. Mugging, burglary, and robbery are almost unheard of. At least, I never hear about them and I can’t imagine these types of crime being more than an occasional anomaly.
In addition to never feeling threatened by the populace, the sight of a Taipei police officer registers thusly: Oh. It’s a cop on a scooter. Shrug. Go on with my bad self. When I see a cop in the street and he’s giving me a look-see, there’s no paintball of panic in my chest cavity. My pulse rate doesn’t spike out of the measurable spectrum. What I am afraid of is getting run over by some jackass in a Lexus blowing through a red light, because in terms of pedestrian safety, Taipei can be a dangerous place. Unless you understand how everything works. You don’t cross any street without looking both ways twice.
Above all, I’m grateful to the people of Taiwan who have allowed me to live and work with a minimum of hoops to jump through. I’ve met a lot of truly awesome people in Taiwan, who have enriched my life immeasurably. They have welcomed me into their homes, and almost without exception have treated me with decency and respect. In return, I’ve filled a specific need in society, however slight; but I’ve given something back, and acknowledged my gratitude. While there are many things about Taiwanese culture and society that I will never be able to reconcile, and vice versa, I think we’ve been happy to let each other co-exist in peace.
A lot of people couldn’t find Taiwan on a map. It’s a tiny island approximately the size of Belgium (or the state of Maryland) with a population of 23 million people, making it the 13th most densely populated country on the planet. And depending upon your sources, Taipei is either the 7th most densely populated city in the world, or at roughly 15,000 residents per square mile, it’s not even in the top 50. Either way, it sure feels crowded and it amazes me that so many people are able to get on so peacefully. You really have to be looking for trouble in Taiwan.
Yesterday at noon, a letter arrived in the office addressed to me from the good people at the National Immigration Agency (NIA). Three weeks earlier, I had applied for my permanent residency, equivalent to a Green Card in the U.S. There was never really any doubt that I would be approved, since I had all my ducks in a row, but you never know how things might shake out behind the scenes. It’s good to never think something is a slam dunk until it is in fact, a slam dunk.
Anyway, the puzzling aspect of the letter’s arrival immediately struck a twinge of fear in my heart. During the application process, the clerk specifically said that it would be 6-8 weeks before I would be notified of my status – unless there was a problem and they needed additional paperwork to make it happen. But then, she said, they would most likely call me, or my employer directly. The whole process was supposed to be 8 weeks, we’re on Week 3. So it certainly didn’t ease my anxiety that the letter was entirely in Chinese, too. This didn’t look good at first glance.
There’s a dude in the office who more or less acts as an agent for these types of situations, although I’m the only foreigner in the company. In past years, when my ARC (Alien Resident Certificate – the Blue Card) needed to be renewed, this dude did all the in-between work, mainly because the ARC is tied to employment. That’s not important. What is important is that he speaks excellent English and he’s familiar with the folks down at NIA. So I put the letter in front of him and said, “What does this say?”
“Does it mean my Green Card is approved or not?”
He re-read the letter and said, “I think so.”
“Can you translate the letter to me in real-time? What exactly does it say?”
Dude shifted his position and said, “OK, I’ll read it.”
The letter said that according to law number 666, my application for permanent residency has been approved. And that’s all it said, basically. Dude was perplexed.
“It says you’ve been approved, but it doesn’t say when. It should have the date when you’re supposed to visit the NIA and pick it up. But it doesn’t. That’s strange.”
The words “you’ve been approved” felt good to hear, but I still wasn’t completely satisfied. “So…what does this mean?”
Dude said, “I’ll call them after lunch.”
Those were two of the longest hours of my life in Taiwan.
Just before 2:00 p.m., Dude came in my office and said, “Sir, you’re all set. You can pick up your Green Card on April XX.”
“That was fast.”
What the Taiwan version of a Green Card means to me is two-fold. First, it means residency and work permits are not required to be sponsored by my employer (or anybody else, for that matter). This also means I can work for whomever and wherever I choose. Next, it means that I never have to leave Taiwan unless I want to. They can’t kick me out for overstaying a visa, or letting my prior residency certificate lapse, or moonlighting as a freelance writer, or really, anything that I might have done (but didn’t do) wrong prior to having a Green Card.
Other than putting in the time and jumping through a couple of minor bureaucratic hoops, getting my Green Card was simple, thanks to the NIA’s expedience and accommodation. They make it really fucking easy for us. Anyway, it feels good to finally get the card. It’s like Taiwan has said, “Hey, you’re cool. You can stay.” And that’s nice, because you should always be where you are wanted; or at the very least, tolerated.
Taiwan now joins the lists of places that were once and will always be a “home.” No matter how irritated or frustrated I may get by some of the ticky-tack shit that happens on a daily basis, Taiwan is truly an easy place to be as a foreigner. They may call us waiguoren (outside people; foreigner) and laowai (old ghost), but these terms are echoes of the past. Considering the history of the island, we are all of us waiguoren and laowai, even if you were born here and speak mellifluous Mandarin. Taiwan is not China. I’ve been to China. It’s not Taiwan.