I’ve passed the six month mark here in Taiwan. I’m sure my first half year in China didn’t go that fast. But life is crazy busy and fulfilling, and I’ve been bouncing from work to class to hangouts and the time just flew. I can’t even begin to consider all I’ve learned over the last years, and I’m not ready to stop yet. Here’s to the next six months.
A word about Taiwanese toilets. Amazing. That’s the word. Nothing but. Let me use that other Chinese capital city for the sake of comparison. You could follow your nose to a bathroom with a slip-n-slide floor in almost any Beijing metro station, but all you got was a dirty hole in the floor. The immaculate MRT restrooms in Taipei have toilet paper, soap, lines, western toilets, and this electronic sign hanging outside the door showing which stalls are occupied. Public restrooms in department stores, train stations, restaurants and elsewhere are similarly well-appointed. And fine, this is a world capital and Taiwan’s biggest city, but even in more rural areas the bathroom situation is light years ahead of China’s biggest cities. A couple weeks ago we traveled down south, a journey that necessitated using train and train station and hotel and tourist site bathrooms. Not a single one made me run for the bushes (why yes, I have peed beside the Great Wall of China). I’m willing to say that Taiwanese bathrooms are the best I’ve come across in Asia, though certain parts of Hong Kong are on par. Oh, and Japan is a definite exception. I am yet unable to flush TP here, after all, something Japan alone among Asian nations seems to have mastered… but then again, Taiwan cuts down on its water usage, so who’s the real winner here? I’m sure Taiwan’s bathrooms may seem primitive to some (the squatty is ubiquitous here too), but after those China years Taiwanese toilets are, simply put, amazing.
Several weeks ago I took my bike to a mechanic shop, as I’d been struggling to unscrew the gas cap. Every time I rolled into the scooter lane at a gas station it took three attendants and a screwdriver to pry the thing off. I needed to change my engine oil, anyway, so I took Old Fuzz in for some routine maintenance, and had the gas cap replaced entirely, as well as waterproofed. The next time I cruised into my local gas station I noticed the attendant who always got stuck fighting with my bike sizing me up. He asked whether he should go get a screwdriver and then made a huge show of relief when I showed him my brand new lid. I think he was so exultant he gave me an extra liter for free!
I continue to learn more about the superstitions and beliefs held by many Taiwanese. Several weeks ago I was riding around in a school bus with some students and a Chinese teacher. Coming down the opposite side of the road was a funeral procession with a hearse and a stream of flatbed floats laden with flowers and mourners and musicians. Not an uncommon sight in Taiwan by any means, but the Chinese teacher snapped at the children to turn their heads, forbidding them to look up until we were well away from the convoy. Since the children were seemingly used to such incidents, I asked the Chinese teacher why they had to look away. She didn’t give much of an answer, other than “It’s bad,” so I was left to source out ideas on my own which obviously meant turning to Taiwanese friends. One of them told me that Taiwanese think staring at someone who has died presages great misfortune, along with the probability of that person’s spirit entering your own body. Akai said that his mother always told him never to even look at roadkill, and especially to never pity a dead thing, lest it come around to haunt you.
From that conversation I also learned about the Taiwanese practice of “picking the bones.” Sounds repugnant, right, but I believe a better translation is “taking the bones.” If a body has been buried, after eight or ten years the family will go to retrieve it, wash the bones, and then rebury them in an urn or cremate them. I suppose “picking” is somewhat appropriate, though, since relatives must sift through the dirt for every little piece of bone, burn any clothing that hasn’t disintegrated, and then carefully clean the bones (I believe the practice in modern times entails hiring someone to do the dirty work for you, and there’s more than likely a coffin involved too, but the family members still have to be present at the gravesite for the entire ritual). I thought the whole thing was weird, because in so many cultures disturbing someone’s grave is totally taboo. In Taiwan, though, reburial is the greatest mark of ancestor veneration. I suppose it all ties into the belief that there is a continued existence after death and that it is the family’s responsibility to provide for the deceased one’s well-being and happiness in the afterlife as a show of respect. And it’s probably a good practice. Taiwan is a small, densely populated island. It wouldn’t hurt to have a few empty lots for the newly deceased until their turn in the reburial rotation comes along.
Had an absolute brainwave the other day while thinking about renaming some of my students. Instead of Yoyo, far too common a moniker, why not call my little student Yolo? I’m not much for the term YOLO or, as I tend to consider it, “Carpe Diem” for stupid people. That being said, little Yoyo isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, and, well, you do only live once. That thought came on the heels of my and Chloe’s realization that we need to join M&Ms Anonymous, though, so perhaps it’s better left alone. What can I say? It was a rough day.
I’ve not been paying the slightest attention to the Olympics, mostly because the games just aren’t in the news here. Something about only three athletes from Taiwan, oh, excuse me, Chinese Taipei, participating. While I was flipping through the channels the other night instead of doing my Chinese homework, a broadcast from Sochi came on CNN, and I was reminded of my trip to Russia, the time I got my feet wet traveling solo. Who am I kidding? It was more like diving headfirst into the deep end. Russia isn’t exactly tourist friendly, and I was on my own in Moscow for a whole week before I met up with Olga and snuck under barbed wire and through guard posts to get to her hometown that happens to be closed to foreigners. Without a doubt one of the best trips I’ve ever taken and it opened up a whole new way of travel for me.
Over the years I’ve found that I really enjoy traveling alone; I love being free to do whatever I want at my own pace, meeting new people, and taking on the world. I’m about to take off on another solo journey this week, to Malaysia and Indonesia. I have a college friend in Jakarta, and I’ll be meeting up with a girl in KL who I first met in HK. Small world, isn’t it? Talk to you when I’m back.