As I lie awake here in my new bed in my new home in Taiwan in the wee hours of the night while the city sleeps, I can’t help but think back to our last two days here and the roller coaster of feelings I’ve been riding.
First, the issues of being a hidden immigrant and being mistaken for a local have already presented themselves, and, I suspect, will be present for a long time. From the moment we landed in Hong Kong to yesterday, when we were out and about, there were stares – at me, whenever I opened my mouth and English instead of Mandarin came out; at me and then my husband as people realized we were together; and at my son (then back to me and my husband). My husband and my son haven’t noticed the stares – and the attention my husband receives as a Caucasian man is, on the whole, positive – but having dealt with the unwanted attention of being “different” all my life, I’m unfortunately, quite uncomfortably, aware.
Then there are the times when we are out and about. I’ve already lost count of the number of times people have rattled off in Mandarin, expecting me to understand, even with my husband and son right there. Some people try to speak slower or in English, but others look at me as if I’m dim or an alien with three heads. Oh well. Been there, done that, I suppose!
There’s some hilarity that comes with my current circumstances, too, of course. Yesterday, we decided to venture out in a taxi on our own – a trip to IKEA to get some supplies for the kitchen and for our bedrooms. As we got into the taxi called for us by our building concierge, the taxi driver asked where we were going. When I said “Ikea,” pronounced “Eye-kee-ah,” he stared. Then he said, “Oh, Ee-kee-ah!” So the word is pronounced the same way as it is in Thailand! Good to know! Then panick set in as the driver asked me if it is on such-and-such street, as I realized we had forgotten to bring the list of addresses to various places for taxi drivers given to us by my husband’s school. I told him I didn’t know, so we just took a chance and let the driver do his thing. Luckily, we arrived there without incident.
At IKEA, all the labels on the products were in Chinese. You should’ve seen us as I painstakingly read the labels to figure out what something might be, utilizing my own knowledge of Mandarin and my Mandarin dictionary app, with my husband looking on helplessly and my son running around touching everything and narrating everything he was doing while everyone stared as they walked by.
The way home was even more absurd. I had no idea how to say the name of our street in Mandarin, as I had never seen it written in Chinese. It took at least five minutes to explain where we were going, with me trying to pronounce the names of our street and surrounding streets based on the romanization of the names and without knowing the actual Mandarin characters. Once we got in, the driver got chatty. He asked where we were from, and when I told him the United States, he said in Mandarin, “Oh, Obama. But now Trump. No more Obama.” Then he made a play on words with Trump’s name, though I couldn’t understand what it meant. From his amused chuckles, though, I’m sure he was making fun of Trump.
Then the driver observed that he’s noticed many Taiwanese girls marrying foreigners these days. When I pointed out that I’m an American who grew up in the United States, he ignored me and told me his theory: many people are afraid “China is coming,” so they are marrying foreigners to get away. Sure, whatever you say.
He also turned the radio to a western station, kept pointing at the radio and looking at my husband, and asking, “He understands, right?” When I pointed out at one point that a particular song was in Spanish and not English, he exclaimed, “You can tell the difference? You are ferocious [that’s the best translation I can think of for the expression he used]!” That cracked me up!
Overall, though, it’s been a positive experience so far. Having had previous experience living abroad helps tremendously, as is having knowledge of the language and tremendously helpful new work colleagues and friends who have provided information on the area and are always available to answer questions.
When we walked out of the airport two days ago, my son and I both observed that it smelled a little like Thailand, which is good in that it felt familiar and like home, and put me at ease a little. On the way to our new home, the landscape, buildings, and plants and flowers were all similar to those in Thailand. It was comforting. I was happy.
In addition, the roads are clean and the driving orderly. The taxis here even have seat belts in them, unlike the ones in Thailand. We have access to more here than we did in Thailand. Our apartment here is at the top of a fifteen-story building and overlooks water with a gorgeous view. I think we’re going to like it here.