Friday, June 9, 2017

Blonde in Taipei

Hi friends, it's me again, reporting on my first week in Taiwan :)

Taipei is not a beautiful city. Most of the buildings are dirty concrete blocks that would do Soviet Moscow proud. The roads are either cramped and sidewalk-less, with stores spilling into the street and mopeds trying to murder the civilians, or huge and loud and impossible to walk along because of the diesel fumes. But in the back streets, there are random thick crops of flower-smelling, bird-sounding trees, and a sense of humble, connected life that I haven't really felt in Western cities - people chatting in their garages/tire stores, kids doing homework in the family restaurant after closing, a woman burning ghost money (I think) in the road. People are out being part of the world late at night. Except for the mopeds, it feels very safe to walk around.


(those birds are like duck-sized btw, kinda weird to see them roosting)

I have a small apartment to myself, in a quieter outlying part of the city. It's kitchenless and a little lonely, but clean after some scrubbing and refreshingly cold. The process of getting the AC fixed was kind of amusing - over the course of two days, three or four different people came, stood on my bed, pointed a remote at the ceiling, determined that the thing wasn't working, mumbled something in Chinese, and left to call the next person. Anyway, works now. I'm right outside a big market, a bus stop, two bakeries, and two 7-Elevens (which are everywhere) where I buy two-liter water bottles and try not to think about the amount of plastic I'm consuming. It's a thirty-minute walk to work - and for when it's too hot (which will probably be most days), there's a clean and fast subway and an extensive, cheap bus network. Interestingly, all the buses are run by different companies, and there are a lot of almost identical routes.


(bakery breakfasts)

I get stared at constantly, especially by old people and kids. There's no hostility in this; if anything, people are extra-friendly to me because I'm a foreigner. A lot of strangers have gone out of their way to show me around, despite us having a shared vocabulary of maybe three words) and the old man at the fruit store went and knocked on all the melons to pick out the ripest one for me. For ordering food, pointing and saying xie-xie has been working out all right. Funnest language experience so far was at a blues dance lesson I went to last night - one instructor didn't speak English, but the other one thought I was a fascinating phenomenon and kept hugging me. Luckily, language comprehension isn't totally necessary for a dance lesson. Of the three guys in the class, two thought it was double-high-fives cool to be dancing with such an exotic partner, and one was clearly pretty uncomfortable. This seems about the ratio of attitudes in the general population.

In a way, it's kind of liberating to stick out so much. I know that I'll be forgiven for small etiquette violations (like failing to face away from the aisle when standing on a bus), and I care less about getting my hair or outfit right (yes, Pond, I do in general have aspirations for my hair). However I look, it's going to be way different from everyone else, and presumably people will be paying attention to my sheer whiteness rather than anything else anyway...

Work is good. So far, I've been playing with these cool deep learning models called generative adversarial networks - yesterday I semi-successfully used them to invent new Pokemon. My coworkers are friendly and speak reasonable English, and some of them really want to practice and ask about the U.S. Some of the exchanges have been pretty amusing; they were told in advance that I am A Russian (cough), so my first day there were some semi-serious questions about vodka and street fighting. (Mind you, they [or at least this particular guy] don't consider Taiwanese-Americans to be Taiwanese.) Multiculturalism is definitely much less of a thing here - everyone is surprised that I can use chopsticks, and I think they still that don't believe me that yes, I knew the difference between Taiwan and Thailand before coming here. Standards of appropriate workplace humor are different - a lot of "Haha, Zach's so old", "How come you're so fat if you don't like sugar?" or "What are you looking for? Must be a girlfriend!" This threw me for a bit of a loop my first day - I thought my mentor was hitting on me, which would have made for a hella awkward summer, but I think my standards were just not calibrated for Taiwan. My office has an excellent tradition of afternoon tea, wherein three days a week tofu pudding, milk tea (not called boba here, btw), or hot buns magically appear on your desk.


(TOFU PUDDING HAI JESSE)

The Taiwanese seriously know how to cook (the restaurant owners do, anyway). The flavors aren't always super-strong, but even the subtler things are beautifully seasoned and texturally balanced... the oyster omelette I had at a little night market today almost made me cry. Korean food is very popular, and there's a Japanese and Indian presence. Otherwise it's a lot of little restaurants that sell Taiwanese noodles or dumplings or other delicious things, and $6 would be a pretty expensive meal (generally, it's $3-4). Among younger Taiwanese, it's very common to eat out (or have instant noodles from 7-Eleven, if that's more your jam) for all meals, since it's so inexpensive and most apartments don't have kitchens. My mentor was surprised that I ate my parents' cooking growing up.
(OYSTER OMELETTE IS SO GOOD)

(I think I am doing the thing you're not supposed to with chopsticks here)


I was worried about being lonely, but with friendly coworkers, Facebook language exchange, and Ju and Liz on the other side of the city, I think it'll be OK. And with great food and nature yet to be explored, this is shaping up to be a good summer :)

plz bloj ya'll! <3