I don’t know how other exchange kids feel about travelling around in their respective countries. For me, I am quite the experiential tripper; I don’t assess the awesomeness of a trip by the food, the place, or the people I go (or meet). For me, I see every trip as an experience. The experience of going there. The experience of being there. The experience of living there.
Being back in Kaohsiung made even surer of this fact of myself. I went to stay with a friend of mine, and his house is probably as local, as taiwanese, as unpretentious, as authentic, as a homestay can get. I didn’t get to be treated with foreigner-niceties, but honestly, I couldn’t be bothered with that, not anymore. I can be a tourist anytime I want, but this is the only time I can actually live in here.
He, like millions of local Taiwanese, own motorbikes. In Kaohsiung, where places are quite spaced out and far inbetween, a motorbike is more of a necessity than anything. A bike costs roughly between 2.5k~5kSGD. And by 5k you are really looking at the very atas, very high end of vehicle. Most use them because they are cheap, easy to park (parking is free for motorcycles in Taiwan), and very convenient.
I guess its easy to see why I like Kaohsiung city so much. I rode pillion for the first time there, and so far all the times I’ve been on a motorbike, is in Taiwan. And beside Hsinchu (thanks to my buddy), the only time I’ve ridden on a bike, is in Kaohsiung. There’s the bus, there’s the MRT, but honestly, nothing feels as awesome and slightly frightening as being on a bike, zooming around the city. You smell the air, you look at all the buildings, people, fellow Taiwanese motorbikers (young college students, uncles and aunties, a mother with two kids, the younger one in front of the mummy). The salesman, the post office worker, the army serviceman, the expectant mother.
There you have it. At every traffic junction, Taiwan is waiting for that next change of light with you. That’s probably the best view in Taiwan, of Taiwan.
Going to my Kaohsiung friend’s house was another eye opener. He drove into a garage that’s probably an extension of his house. Loads of scrap metal bars and another van lay parked. He opened the door, and I went in to be greeted by his dad. I walked a little more inside (it’s a small but long 3 story apartment).
It’s not like the bungalow or semi-Ds you see in Singapore. Even though there’s quite a lot of rooms and there’s a garage, it’s not the kind you will go, “whoa, so rich sia”. It’s more of a quiet acknowledgement that, honestly, it’s considered better off of countryside Taiwanese already. Walls looked a little old, doors creaked when opened and I was honestly afraid of breaking them if I opened them too harshly. Everything that stood out of the ordinary were distinctively Taiwanese.
The toilet had a pail of colored water that smelt funny next to it. It was the washing machine’s water that they planned to recycle to wash the toiletbowl.
The bathroom consisted of a bathtub with two separate handles that can turn out cold and warm water. Except that the handles EACH directly poured out the boiling hot and freaking cold water separately. My first reaction was, “Ehh, how to bathe?” My friend told me to use the water pan.
I quickly reverted to my army days (Ex Wallaby) instincts, where I was in Australia outfield, and I used a pail of mixed water (so it’s finally warm to my liking), and poured it all over myself. The next morning I got a little smarter, so I put a stopper in the tub and filled it with water first, and then scooped the water onto myself. I took around 20minutes. My friend’s sister thought I fainted in the bathroom cos I was taking so damn long.
Later on I found out that Taiwanese, the older generation of Taiwanese, only know how to bath in that style. A shower head will do no good for them since he won’t know how to use it.
Many Taiwanese lifestyles are steeped in tradition. Many of them seem weird and unnecessary by today’s standards, but their culture is so enduring. That’s why toilet paper is still thrown into bins, decades after government’s attempt to ‘educate’ the people not to, since the waterways have long been improved allow for disposal of waste paper directly via flushing.
I cannot call that place rural, because there are what we will consider amenties everwhere. Just imagine Toa Payoh town, exploded widely such that every thing is a 5min walk or drive away. But even as villages go, they still have a 7-eleven, sufficent eateries (I believe most if not all will cook at home), every house has a washing machine, an aircon even. They have things. The only discernible difference between the surburbs and the cities is that the things are much older in the suburbs. But they are not in need. We think they may need some retiling, some reroofing works, a new cabinet, but they don’t see a need for it themselves.
They are sufficient, not because of they have money; they are sufficient because they desire less.
After spending a day in suburb Taiwan, I was surprised to find myself greeted by a spanking new condo called Sunny Espana (陽光西班牙). It’s so modern, I guess it was completed like last year. The main doors all have a pin number lock and a card key; they have a lobby with 3 counter staff, you’ll think it’s a hotel but it’s not. The toilets come retrofitted with a Japanese-style toilet (you know, 128381290830 buttons to press for seat warming, bidet, auto-opening seat etc).
My friend’s auntie was heading to (gasp) Singapore for holiday, and so we could spend the 2nd night at his aunty’s place. It’s a little rekindle of Wallaby, from the outback to like mega high-class of house.
I had to opportunity to chat even with his aunty and her friend (both were heading to Singapore for holiday). His aunty is a beautician. She took a loan from the bank to pay for the apartment, which I believe is around 200k SGD. I know, know, but it is not a small sum by Taiwanese standards though.
Taiwanese language is the indelible lock of their culture.
His aunty and her friend, and my friend talked in almost entirely Taiwanese. Why I say it’s not Hokkien, is because it’s really not, to be specific. Words are different, the mannerisms are also different. There’s no language like it. In a way, its like Singlish as well. You can say it’s broken English, it’s bad Chinese, but hey, it has its own grammar and style.
That is the tricky part. I think that will be the horizon of understanding as far as a foreigner can go. After which the only way is to UNDERSTAND and SPEAK the language. Because all the Taiwanese jokes are there. The minds of the people are spilled out in (to me), indiscernible vocabulary and expressions). And even more is in the stratosphere of the language, the feel and the ㄍㄧㄣ (Gin (feeling+++)), not to be mistaken as ㄍㄧㄥ, meaning tense). ㄍㄧㄣ is the tone, the style, the feel. And more. That word is technically untranslatable. I don’t claim to fully understand that word.
There we have it, the language. The language WILL be the extent, the limit, the horizon to which I can understand the Taiwanese people, because that is a lock, a pin number, a secret code that encrypts the innermost cultures of the people. Even a construction worker, a janitor will have an entire wealth of cultural fortune on their backs; yet we can never steal it from them without the keys of the Taiwanese languages.
This brings me to even more appreciate Singlish. Do people not understand Singlish? Let’s be happy they didn’t! Because if they did, we will have lost our culture. I believe cultures are exclusive, the most distinctive they are, the most exclusive. They will better the ties between people who understand and ostracize those who don’t.
Of course, that fact is universal. But what I’m saying here is that I am conceding that there will be a VAST universe of things Taiwanese, that I will NEVER be able to understand. Knowing this is tremendously helpful in setting my sights right. It means I don’t have to beat myself over my inability to see why they laugh at unlaughable things, why they help a train warden clean the spilled floor under another stranger’s seat with their own tissue papers, why they fight over intangible ideologies and yet remain the most peaceful populace in the world.
So many whys. Knowing that you will probably not get all the answers is a very satisfying one already. As I look back, indeed, time flew. More than a month have passed since I arrived here. It’s still too early to look back, but I felt like I’ve understood all I sought to understand already.
There’s still 4 months left. What shall I see? How shall I feel? What adventures await next? (LOL machiam pokemon sia. AHHAHAHAHA)