By Jim Klar
No matter how actively you choose to assimilate, arriving in Taiwan is the start of a journey from cultural and physical chaos towards a new equilibrium, a new “you.” Whether you merely rub elbows with the culture as you go about your daily life, or jump headfirst into the deep end, the following is a loving, yet slightly sardonic, guide to three stages of “going native.”
WET BEHIND THE EARS AND EVERYWHERE ELSE
STAGE 1: Even after taking three showers a day and dashing from one air-conditioned area to another, you are soaked in sweat. And you’re scratching parts of your body that you never itched back home.
STAGE 2: You’ve become the arch nemesis of body dampness, highly skilled at banishing it through careful attention to personal tidiness and the deft use of talcum powder. You change clothes frequently, and your seasonal wardrobe evolves on a parallel path.
STAGE 3: Sixty-degrees Fahrenheit feels like the North Pole, but you stay comfy in your puffy jacket and winter flip-flops.
DIRTY DIAPER DINING
STAGE 1: The first time it’s served near you in a restaurant, your kid remarks “Somebody needs a diaper change.” You vow that stinky tofu smells like nothing you would ever let anywhere near your mouth.
STAGE 2: You finally get drunk enough to try it and….hey, it’s not bad. It actually does taste kind of “rich & creamy.”
STAGE 3: You argue with your Taiwanese friends about which night market stalls serve the tastiest and stenchiest. You follow up with appropriate pilgrimages, and compare notes.
WHAT’S BUGGING YOU?
STAGE 1: Large, aggressive insects and arachnids seem bent on your torture and destruction. They hide in your shoes, they lurk in the shadows, they leap from the dark. You are afraid.
STAGE 2: Only spiders about the size of an NBA player’s outstretched hand give you the shivers now. You have learned to leave them be in the hope that they will hunt and devour those giant flying cockroaches.
STAGE 3: Venomous centipedes have really thick skin, you muse after the third bash with a rolled-up magazine at an inch-inch long specimen. As it returns to crawling towards your bare feet, you swat it a fourth time, yawn and go back to watching TV.
A BEEHIVE AND A BASEBALL BAT
STAGE 1: Stoplight scooter traffic in Taipei reminds you of the second grade, when you dared Billy Jones to swat a beehive with a baseball bat. You’re sure that venturing into the street on foot will end in a deadly or horribly disfiguring accident.
STAGE 2: You realize scooters are a fast, efficient form of urban transport in Taipei, but you ride one like a grandma with groceries. As young men weave dangerously past, you yell, “See you at the wheelchair basketball tournament!”
STAGE 3: Travelling at 60 km/h you are passed by a scooter laden with two adults, two children, and a week’s worth of groceries. You wonder why they left their dog at home, because you can see exactly where it would fit
IF LOOKS COULD KILL
STAGE 1: As a sweaty, dehydrated mess, riddled with salt stains, you gaze at any other foreigner like they’re a life- raft and you’re being circled by sharks. Even if you have no immediate distress with which they can help, just a nod of recognition from them can lift your culture-shocked soul. You notice some look the other way and walk more quickly.
STAGE 2: You find the walking-train- wreck-newbies a little embarrassing, so you look away, walk more quickly, and hope they don’t notice you. They can really throw a flaming monkey wrench into your cool new “I’m now comfortable living here” persona.
STAGE 3: When you see an obvious new arrival looking befuddled, you walk up to them with a big, stupid smile on your face and offer to help.
JUST LIKE HURRICANES, ONLY DIFFERENT
STAGE 1: Your first typhoon rivals prom night in suspense and tension. You study the storm route predictions and prepare for rain-soaked, windswept Armageddon. Then it veers off towards the Philippines or Japan, barely grazing Taiwan, and you’re disappointed.
STAGE 2: You under-prepare for a big one and find yourself without water or power for days. After six hours of Jenga by candlelight with your family, you check into a hotel to wait it out.
STAGE 3: Not only do you prepare properly but you look forward to typhoons, because it means you might get a day off work.
YOU’RE IN LOVE, YOU’RE ALL SHOOK UP
STAGE 1: Growing up in a non- earthquake-prone part of the world, you base your concept of physical reality on certain immutable facts: gravity makes things fall, light is warm, dark is cold, and the ground does not move. So at the slightest seismic shiver, terror grips your spine.
STAGE 2: You become accustomed to small to medium tremors, and enjoy researching their epicenters and data online. It’s fun, like being an armchair storm-chaser.
STAGE 3: You leverage the unavoidable arrival of the next big earthquake as a good reason to have another drink, put things off, miss deadlines, not wash your car, etc. Why bother when we could all suddenly perish in the Big One?
Remember when you announced your decision to move, and friends thought you said Thailand? And how they exclaimed you’re so “brave” (when what they meant was “crazy”) to move halfway around the world? Well, thanks to living here, you’re a different person today than you were yesterday, and you’ll be a new one tomorrow. This evolution is catalyzed when the culture surrounding you is different from the one in which you were born. Because, as a human being, you’re prone to social harmony and adaptation like the rest of us.
But the question remains – how far will you slide?
Jim Klar is an American expat who has been living in Taipei for the last four years. His passions include Buddhist
meditation, cycling, martial arts, blues harmonica, studying Chinese and being a good father and husband. He sings and plays throughout the local music scene and can often be spotted on his bicycle high in the peaks of Yangmingshan National Park.