Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Watson Begins: The First Fortnight

Day 1: The Arrival

I landed at Chiang Kai-Shek Airport in the International Terminal, though I left Beijing from the Domestic Flights Terminal. Once I got my luggage and made it through customs, I headed over to the ATM to get some Taiwanese Dollars. Once I had stood in line for 10 minutes and it was finally my turn I realized I had no idea what the exchange rate was. So when the machine asked me if I wanted to take out 1000 or 100,000 NT, I had no idea. Unwilling to stand in line again, I leaned over and spotted the price of a Big Mac at a nearby McDonalds and deduced that it must be around 30 NT to 1 USD. Whew, crisis averted. But this was really pretty indicative of my preparation for Taiwan!

I hopped a bus to 忠孝復興 which I was told was close to where I actually wanted to go, 忠孝新生. I de-bussed and looked around without a clue as to where I was. I was in the middle of a giant shopping area. Signs like Gucci and Prada were everywhere and I was nailed by several Louis Vuitton bags as I stood awkwardly in the middle of the sidewalk, carrying my backpack and 2 giant instruments, and sweating profusely. The sweat was both heat and panic induced. I suddenly felt very alone.

My instructions to my apartment were from the subway stop so I knew I had to find that. I asked someone, "请问,地铁站在哪儿?“ I was greeted with a blank stare. I tried English, "Excuse me, where is the subway?" This time the eyes concentrated hard on me and there was some nodding. "MRT?" the young lady asked me. This time I stared back. MRT, MRT, I'd heard that befire. "YES!" I suddenly responded, remembering Shao Min and Ava talk about the MRT, Mass Rapid Transit, in Singapore.

Once in the MRT I learned that here it's called, 捷運, jieyun and not ditie. One subway stop over and I was on the map that the language associate at Carleton had provided for me. She is from Taiwan and lived in Taipei for one month after she was done teaching at Carleton. She is now in Australia getting a master's in education. But she was kind enough to arrange for me to take over renting her apartment when she left.

I followed the map to a 7/11 across the street from my apartment. There I used the payphones to call my landlord, Shiny, and told her to go downstairs and let me in. I was a sweaty mess, huffing and puffing from carrying my instruments in the 100-plus-degree weather. While I waited, I made my first friend in Taiwan, Chen Ying, who worked at the 7/11. She came up and asked if I needed help. I told her my problems were psychological and we've been friends ever since. Whenever I go into that 7/11, which is often, we have a long chat.

But I digress. Shiny, who literally translated her Chinese name to get her English name, gave me the four keys needed to access my apartment and led me upstairs. I followed her up five flights to the very top of my building. That's where I use the second key to open the balcony. On the balcony, I have a neighbor on either side of me, a laundry machine, a sink for washing dishes, and a spectacular view of the city. Shiny's brother is one of these neighbors. The other is Sandy, a mortgage broker who works 12-hour days and is only home when she is asleep.

I used the third key to open a giant metal door that looked like it belonged on a refrigerator. I saw from the hole in the wall that I should not let this door swing open. After carefully opening the metal door, I was left with one more key and one much more normal looking door. Inside my apartment I have a queen sized bed, two desks, a tv, a wardrobe, INTERNET! my own toilet, shower, sink and most importantly of all: AIR CONDITIONING. Wahoo!

I found a couple of notes around the room from Zoe, the language associate who previously inhabited the room. These are my favorite: "Here is my shampoo. You can use it, but you will smell like girl." "Can you take this stamp back to my friend at the Taipei University of Technology? If not, just throw it away." "Taiwan people don't drink water from faucet, we'll boil water then drink but it's up to you. It is not expensive to go to see the doctor."

It was Sunday, the one day that Sandy doesn't work, so she offered to take me to IKEA to buy some sheets for my bed and then show me the neighborhood a bit. I found out that you can do everything at 7/11. You can reload your SIM card, buy a bus/subway card, and my favorite: pretend to be considering buying a drink when you have no intention of doing so and are actually just absconding from the heat and enjoying free air conditioning.

The neighborhood is really great. The richest man in Taiwan lives the block over in a complex called The Palace. Just a few blocks away, where I got off the bus from the airport, is the shopping center of the entire island. Closer to me, there are lots of coffee shops, food stands, parks, daycare centers, and churches. This is really strange, but seeing the daycare across the street from my apartment gave me a rush, a residual effect from hunting kindergartens in the Mainland last December.

After a dumpling dinner with Sandy, I was ready to hit the hay. Unfortunately, unbearable stomach cramps made this impossible. I laid on my bed moaning in agony for hours. Next came the diarrhea and finally, the vomiting.

A Trip to the Hospital

My second day in Taiwan, I didn't leave my room. I couldn't get off the toilet. By day three in Taiwan I had run out of things to expel from myself so I headed out to walk around a little. After wandering for a bit I went into a 7/11 (there is literally one on every corner in my neighborhood) to buy some juice and instant noodles. I asked the clerk where the "Fangbian mian" was. Blank stare. I tried again in English/Japanese, "Ramen?" Realization dawned on his face. Here it is called "pao mian" or boiled noodle rather than convenient noodle. While browsing the drinks, with intent to purchase, I suddenly, and I imagine, quite dramatically, lost consciousness.

The next thing I remember is being in the hospital with an IV in me that said in English, "BANANA." Why my IV said banana, I still don't understand. I asked while I was still kind of loopy, but it apparently had to do with them thinking that I was drunk. That's all that I could understand of their responses anyway. I'm also not sure how I got to the hospital. I have been too embarrassed to go back to that particular 7/11.

I told the doctor that I had been sick and every time I ate anything, that food would would have a strong desire to leave me very quickly. I was shortly diagnosed with typhoid. Which I got in Beijing from eating something contaminated with feces. But the cure is just 2 shots, so that was simple. I checked out of the hospital after 12 more hours of rest and rehydration via BANANA IV. And when I got the bill and saw that my visit cost only about 30 USD, I realized that Zoe was right, it's not expensive to go see the doctor in Taiwan!

Swedish Chocolates and Cockroach Noodles

Once my tri-hourly need for a toilet had passed, I was free to explore my environs. For three days I just wandered around the city. I enjoyed a novel, GRE math prep, and iced coffees in quirky little coffee shops. I never left a cafe without having a really cool conversation with someone. This was great because I got to work on my Chinese, which has improved both quickly and drastically. I've had language pledges before but never have I been surrounded by native speakers for so long. People are soooo friendly here. I have more amazing conversations than I could ever hope to type up on here or you could ever be expected to endure reading. But just talking to average people and occasionally musicians has been really informative on the music scene.

In the mornings I typically jogged to 大安森林公園 and through the park, scoping out the old people exercising to see if any of them were packing musical instruments. By noon I would be back at my apartment practicing zhongruan and trying to get the single-picked Taiwanese style of strumming down. In the late afternoon I walked around and found a new cafe to enjoy some iced coffee and chill. At night I send out tons of emails to everyone I can find online to see if I can meet with them.

In my recovery time, I did tons of observing in order to adapt to the differences between Taiwan. Lots of words are different here. So when I ask for tomatoes on my sandwich, "Xihongshi" means nothing. Here they say, "Fanqie." The word for potato in the Mainland will bring you peanuts in a Taiwanese restaurant. Lots of people don't really distinguish between s and sh here either. This has resulted in me numerous times mistaking the number 10 for 4. And I have to work hard to get rid of the "rrr" that I relished so much in the Beijing dialect. So now when I say door in Chinese, it sounds like the first syllable of money as opposed to a Midwesterner saying something that begins with m and rhymes with bar (as in what you bring to a potluck).

One day in a cafe, I overheard three students talking to each other. One had a GRE book propped open on the table. They were talking about going to grad schools. Then the one with the GRE book said he wanted to go to Sweden because of their famous chocolates. Mixing up Swiss and Swedish is my pet peeve, so I jumped in with, "你的意思是瑞士的巧克力.瑞典的巧克力不是有名的" You mean Swiss chocolates. Sweden's chocolate ain't famous. They looked at me very shocked and then one of them said, "Which one is next to Germany?" "Switzerland," I replied. And that's how I met my GRE study group.

Later I was having dinner in a noodle shop. I had a mouth full of grey noodles when a cockroach the size of a chicken egg scuttled in. The waitress, who proudly told me, "Today is my first day!" screamed and looked at the chef, an older-than-the-hills woman who looked like she was hiding prison tattoos under her long sleeves. The chef stepped on the monster-bug and its green and yellow guts sprayed a 6 inches across the floor. Then the chef picked up the bug with her bare hands and threw its smitten remains into the garbage. She then turned back to making noodles with those same hands. It took a massive effort to swallow the noodles that were still in my mouth. I looked around. The walls and ceiling were covered with spatter patterns matching the one on the floor. I haven't been back to that particular noodle shop yet.

Seeing Fireworks

After my first week, I realized that I LOVE living in Taipei. It feels much more like Japan than China. Everyone is polite and says, "不好意思" Sorry for the inconvenience before talking. Little things make me smile to myself all the time. I bought some really good coffee bread from a stand and the wrapper told me, "Thank for Patronize!" The subway warns me in pleasant English, "When you alight, please mind the gap." This always causes me to burst out laughing on the subway and I'm pretty sure it freaks out my fellow commuters. One day on my walk home, I stopped to admire fireworks in the distance.

It must have been some holiday because earlier that day, I had seen food products set out on tables as offerings and people were burning yellow ghost money in trash cans all over town. Not knowing why the fireworks were being shot off for some reason made me enjoy them more. While I was watching them an old man came up to me and said, "Hello. Go to sleep earlier. Healthier!" I checked my watch. It was 10:15. Little things like this have been making me so happy.


If you ask anyone in Taipei if they can speak English, they will invariably respond with, "A little." This is completely uninformative. Sometimes it is a true statement. Often it is a blatant lie and they are totally fluent in English or, conversely, they don't actually speak any English at all, except the words, "a little."

One day, I walked in to a 7/11 and was greeted in English, "Gewd Eebuhneeng!" I smiled back. Then when I had made my purchase, the clerk asked me, "Do you want a bag?" Usually I would have complemented her English, but for some reason I was sick of this racism. You assume all white people can speak English!? I was mock-offended. And I was especially offended because she was right. I replied in Chinese with, "How embarrassing. I am German and do not speak English." Then I wondered if I too was being racist, assuming that this Asian woman could understand me, so I asked, "Can you speak Chinese?"

Contacting the Professionals

On my second Monday I joined a gym and found the 國家音樂廳, National Concert Hall, right across from it (shown in the photo below). I went in to the ticket office and bought a dozen tickets for about 100 USD. They are all to traditional music except for an intriguing concert called, "Let's Go Traveling With Mandolin" by the Taipei Mandolin Ensemble. I found them on Facebook and messaged them explaining who I was and that I had a mandocello. I thought maybe they would be curious enough to let me meet with them if I offered up a chance to play such a rare instrument. They messaged me back within minutes and told me to be at their rehearsal on Saturday at 7PM. Wahooo!

I also got an email back from the lead erhu player in the Taipei Chinese Orchestra. She told me her English is very lazy, but if I can type her a message in Chinese, then we can probably communicate fine. So meeting number two on my schedule!

The Keymaker

On Tuesday as I was leaving, I realized that had I locked myself out of my room, so I went downstairs to find my landlady, Shiny. She told me that she didn't have a spare to my outer door (the metal one) and that I should just try climbing through the window. I explained that actually I realized I didn't have the key before I closed that one. She told me I was very lucky because she had the key to only the inner door. She emphasized that I was in fact extremely (非常非常的)lucky because she is not usually home in the afternoon but her child was sick. I thanked her for the key but she wouldn't release it from her hand. I tugged it a couple of times chuckling. She said that first I had to promise to go to the Keymaker with my key that she doesn't have a copy of and copy it and take the new copy to her. I promised, slightly troubled by the shadow that had passed over her face when she wouldn't let go of the key.

I walked around until I saw a big picture of a key on a shop. Inside, there was a grandmother and five three-year-olds. They were all eating grapes and watching cartoons. When the old lady saw me she jumped up, wiping purple juice on her oil-stained skirt. I asked her for a copy of my key. I watched impressed as her old hands moved deftly, cutting the new key. She made it in 20 seconds while balancing an attention-seeking toddler on one knee, her thousand-lined face furrowing with concentration.

When she was done, she looked at me. Like really stared at me hard and asked if I was superstitious. I told her I was. She nodded as if this all made a lot of sense. She gave me another key; it was small and brass. She told me to keep it on me and it'll protect me. I asked her how much it was. She looked exasperated. "送給你!“ I'm gifting it to you! All in all, it was the strangest afternoon I'd had yet in Taipei. Very spooky actually.

The Methodist

On Wednesday I met Irene at MOS Burger. I had just gotten my food but there was nowhere to sit. Irene, a 50-something woman dressed up too nicely for MOS Burger, said I could sit with her. We struck up a conversation and she invited me to her church to listen to the music there and meet people my own age. I asked what kind it was. The answer: Methodist. Now most people think Christ is Christ, but probably in Lancaster, Wisconsin alone, there is a weird rift between the Congregational Church and the Methodist Church. I remember my mom distinctly saying, "Andrew, you can become a Catholic or even a Muslim, just promise me you won't become a Methodist."

Nonetheless, I triumphed over the prejudices of my childhood and braved the Methodist Church. It turned out to be right next to my apartment. I met Timothy who just had finished the GRE and promised to bring me his study books on Sunday. I also found out that anyone could come in and play the piano which made me EXTREMELY happy because I had been missing the piano a lot. I told Irene I'd see her on Sunday.

Rain + Musicians = Easy Target

On Friday I met some Taiwanese Tennesseans in Starbucks. They were missionary kids and had spent half of their lives in Taiwan and half in America. We chatted a lot about the differences in culture between their two native lands. Just then I noticed someone carrying a zhongruan case walk by. Then erhu, then pipa! What was happening?

I ran outside and discovered a Chinese ensemble setting up in the park right outside the Starbucks. I ran home to get my camera. When I returned it was pouring rain and all of the musicians had retreated under a tarp. Was this a bad thing? NO! They were trapped and easy targets. I interviewed them and found out that they were part of a community group that brought "Music to the Neighborhood." They said that they had a competition on the 28th in the park where I go jogging and that they'd be happy to talk me then, but right now, they were getting wet! I thanked them for their time and marked the concert on my calendar.

I Go Traveling With Mandocello

Finally, on Saturday I got to go meet the Taipei Mandolin Ensemble. I dragged my mandocello all the way across town and followed the sound of mandolins to the third floor of a residential building. Afterward, I recounted my experience to my friend from Middlebury, Becky who is currently teaching English in Taiwan. When she saw me approach the cafe with a stupid grin plastered across my face, she decided to record the conversation, guessing correctly that it would be hilarious and very embarrassing for me. I have transcribed it for you below:

Becky: Wow! What happened? Sit down, order something.
Andrew: Oh. My. God."
Becky: Stop with the dazed look and explain!
Andrew: Okay, so I went in and there were like 10 mandolins. . . oooh! and they are Italian style and look more like they're from the Renaissance than like, you know, like, the ukulele clones we use in America. They have these giant rounded backs.
Waitress: 不好意思。[Inaudible]
Becky: Yeah, oh you have to order something here that costs at least 80 dollars.
Waitress: 你想要甚麼?
Andrew: 火雞三明治,一杯冰咖啡。
Waitress: 加糖,牛奶呢?
Andrew: 只要糖。
Waitress: 好。
Andrew: Right, so I go in and they are finishing up a mini traditional music recital. The head of the ensemble also teaches Chinese instruments and plays the liuqin!
Becky: What's the liuqin?
Andrew: It's basically the Chinese mandolin. And this 10 year-old boy plays Yunnan Huiyi, Reminiscences of Yunnan, and that's my absolute favorite zhongruan piece.

[I then showed Becky this clip that I secretly filmed.]


So afterwards I flip and tell him that that was the best version of Yunnan Huiyi I'd ever heard in person. And then they all flip cuz I knew the name of the piece. By the way, none of them could or I guess I should say were willing to speak any English. It's so weird. It seems like musicians here are the only people that won't speak English with me. But anyway, it turns out that the girl playing the mandola next to me is majoring in zhongruan at a conservatory.
Becky: What's a mandola?
Andrew: Huh, oh, it's the viola version of a mandolin, except here instead of being tuned CGDA, an octave higher than a cello and the same tuning as a viola, they're tuned GDAE, an octave lower than a violin, so I guess these are really octave mandolins. Anywho, the girl and I have the exact same b-day, same year too. I told her I play zhongruan so they made me play a solo for them. Then they said I had to do a solo with my mando and I was like SHIT! I usually just play chords so I just played Country Roads and sang along and then this one lady sang along in Japanese and it turns out that she is from Japan, so then I said like a really basic greeting and told her in Japanese that I studied Japanese for one year. Then everyone is just basically in love with me. They're like who are you? You speak Chinese and Japanese, play zhongruan and mandocello and sing. And I was just like, ha, don't ask me to play anything else cuz I just did everything I can. That was the full extent of my talents. Then she told me that if I give her English lessons, she could teach me to play Yunnan Huiyi!
Becky: Wait, the Japanese lady?
Andrew: Sorry, no. The same-b-day girl.
Becky: Oh, gotchya.
Andrew: Oh and then b-day girl helped me majorly with that damn Taiwanese picking style and I think I've almost got it. So the first half hour was all traditional stuff and making me perform, then the ensemble began rehearsing and they had sheet music for me! Some of it even had mandocello written on it. Like, how is that even possible? I doubt there is another mandocello on this island. Well, they say I can play along with them and after the rehearsal, which was awesome, they asked if I wanted to join them on stage for the concert!
Becky: (squeal)
Andrew: And I was like, WHAT?! REALLY?! YES! So now I'm gonna play with them at the National Concert Hall! Ahhh! I'm soooo excited.
Becky: Omg, that is fabulous. Do you have lots of rehearsals? What are you playing?
Andrew: We're playing some Italian stuff, Danny Boy, a song from a Japanese cartoon, and a Taiwanese folk song. Umm. . . yeah, there is another rehearsal tomorrow and then about 2 a week until the concert on September 25th.
Becky: How did you do this? How is this possible? You are a ridiculous person!
Andrew: (giggles) Yeah, I know. I think I'm in shock right now. And like, the girl said that on Monday I can go join the Chinese Orchestra that she plays with cuz it's informal and has old people in it. So this morning, I wasn't in any group and hadn't really met any musicians and now I am in two ensembles and getting free lessons.
Becky: Will you buy me a lottery ticket?
Andrew: No but I guess you can have my ticket to the mandolin concert, cuz I don't need it anymore.

My calendar is now full of meetings and rehearsals. People are so shocked that I'm interested in Chinese music and happy to tell me about their experiences with music. The blog entries for weeks 3 and 4 are coming up! Lack of updates just means I'm busy which is way better than being bored! Every week becomes busier than the last as I establish more connections and become more and more familiar with Taipei.

Also, I started a youtube account to post videos from the Freeman trip and the Watson which I will be updating as my internet connection permits. It takes about a day to upload a video! http://www.youtube.com/user/chinesetroubadour


  1. How interesting to read about your adventures in Taipei. Your willingness to meet and greet and your keen observations with people have reaped great benefits. I can't wait to hear how the concerts turn out.
    Your positive attitude even when you were deathly ill is amazing. The doctor is cheap is a great line and don't use my shampoo, you will smell like a girl. All of these details make this so warm and personal.

  2. Thank you for making your blog so interesting!
    The photos add great credibility to your stories.
    This reads like an adventure novel :)

  3. This is such a fucking great blog man. Love the humility and sense of humour. Will definitely keep reading.

  4. Hey! This is Nathan from FB. I mean, I know Nathaniel essentially is Nathan, but yeah.

    That part about the cockroach... eeek. sanitation standards are something else over there!

    I'll definitely subscribe to your youtube account.


  5. It sounds like you're having a blast in Taiwan! It's weird how so many terms are different (potatoes = peanuts?) over there. Don't sweat the loss of the Beijing 'er'; I'm sure you'll end up with a Taiwanese accent (which I hope I get to hear sometime because I find it highly amusing). :)