Now that I’m in my second year of living in Taiwan the newness and shininess of living here has worn off with a vengeance. I realized one day as I was plodding along that life was starting to feel a bit dreary, commonplace, and…well, normal. I was going through the same motions as I did back in the States. I got up, went to work, went out with friends, came home, and repeated.
Where did all the awesome go? The exhilaration of not knowing what was around the next corner, of knowing that each day could lead to an exciting new discovery or new experience?
Such feelings cannot stay with us forever. If they did we wouldn’t need any changes in life and life would be full of surprising humor and titillating stories. Still…I couldn’t help feeling disappointed that suddenly my life revolved around dinners, movies, hanging out with friends, and work. Same old, same old. Did I move clear across the planet for this?
However, last week, as I was walking to work, I realized my eyes have been closed to the true meaning of living abroad. It took only one little experience to open my eyes to the wonder of the place in which I’m living. The magic is happening all around me as it has for the last two years, and I’m disappointed with myself for feeling that life has become so dull and ordinary when I’m surrounded by more than I’ve ever had before.
In Taiwan an “alley” isn’t an alley as we picture it in the States. They’re tiny side streets that are too small to fit a car. Off every major thoroughfare and street, alleys abound. Alleys are where local eateries are often found, good parking spaces, and where most entrances to homes are located. Although they’re often too small to accommodate cars, scooters roar down these bad boys with no fear or hesitation.
I was walking to work as I do every day rain or shine. The ground was damp beneath my feet and clouds loomed over my head. I cut through the metro park that covers the underground metro mall between Zhongshan and Shuanglian at an angle, and headed into a tiny alley to avoid the crowds that inevitably amass near every metro station. I must confess that I often try different routes to work to spice up my day. Every time I do, I imagine I might find a new shop or restaurant that will revolutionize my life. What I usually find are trash, puddles, and a mangy stray dog or two.
On this particular occasion I saw a little girl on my right peeking out of the entrance of her building at me. She was wearing her school-girl uniform and a pink raincoat. Strapped to her back was a little pink backpack, no doubt with a Dora the Explorer or Hello Kitty design stenciled in. She gawked at me and I smiled at her wondering what she was doing when I noticed her mother on my other side readying the “car” to drive her to school. Except that it wasn’t a car because most people here don’t have one. No. Instead, she was digging around in the storage compartment underneath the seat of her scooter looking for a rain cover for the seat, probably.
I had to smile. Such a normal little thing, and yet, because I live in Taipei still so different. Unlike the States, where the kid would be peeking into the garage, lollygagging in the yard, or more likely, shoving his face with snacks while he sat playing ps in the back seat while mom fumbled around in her purse for the keys, here it’s a scooter. It is so profoundly the way of life here that kids hopping on the back of a scooter to grab a ride is the every day. As is watching a family of three, sometimes four, plus a dog puttering around on one tiny scooter. Safe? Oh sure. And completely commonplace. The amount of newborn babies I’ve seen cradled in the arms of their mothers, puttering around behind their husbands on the back of a scooter is ridiculous. The last time I saw this, the couple nearly got into a car accident. Safe? Obviously not. Regardless of safety, it is integral to the everyday, here. This observation opened my eyes. The newness and shininess of living in a new country and city may have worn off, but how could I have forgotten all the little things that are so different about Taipei?
Like the night I went out with a friend of mine to play pool and grab dinner. Aside from one other woman and a little girl hanging out with her dad and his friends, I was the only other woman in the entire place, and the only foreigner around. Women, apparently, don’t play pool here. Ever. How could I forget to mention that the pool hall was on the sixth floor of some rickety old building? Housed in the same building as a club, a number of diners, stores, and god only knows what else. Probably a hostess bar or two. Had not my friend taken me there I never would have suspected it existed.
When we headed out for dinner later to a little pizza place, hidden away in yet another towering building downtown, somewhere on the second floor, I noticed that the check in counter at the restaurant had a little button to call an attendant over. It was labeled “Sing-Call”. Because what would Taipei be without a bit of Chinglish? Every table had a little call button that had to be pressed when we wanted service. Ingenious.
I could give you a list numbering into the hundreds of all the little things that are different. Like how many restaurants close between three and five and it’s damn hard to find food at that hour. Even restaurant workers have to take a break you know.
In addition to those little differences are the glaring oddities. I couldn’t believe my eyes the first time I saw a couple with a stroller walking in Da’an Park. I thought it odd they were out so late with a baby (it was nine or ten at night) when I realized they were pushing their little dog around. In a stroller clearly made for a dog.
How about the number of times I’ve seen a pet cat on a leash? The poor miserable thing invariably being hugged by its loving owner, glaring over their shoulder at me. I laughed the first time I saw that. Now I’ve seen it so many times I barely register it. I don’t remember who I was with anymore the last time I saw this. I just remember them exclaiming “Oh look! A cat!!” And I realized I couldn’t even be bothered to react. Eh. Who cares? Just another mangy old cat on a leash. Nothing exciting happening here.
It makes me realize I need to write these little things down more before I stop noticing them at all. In the first year of living abroad, we’re all focused on the big differences, such as the food, the styles, the homes, the language, and everything else that pops out in a glaringly obvious sort of way, but it’s the little things that stick out more and more, as time goes on.
I think I need a fresh pair of eyes to remind me of the crazy place I’m living in.
Who wants to come to Taipei?