Foreigner on Display

I’m going to stew on the second part of my musings about names (focusing more on a broader picture and less on my own personal issues) for a little longer. In the meantime here are some anecdotes.

I was out running, listening to a podcast in which two guys from Taichung just ramble about restaurants and food that they think is delicious. (I include this detail only to make sure that my gentle readers know exactly what kind of person I am: the kind who listens to podcasts about food while I’m exercising.) I had gotten a late start to the day, so the sun was getting high and the shadows were tucking away even though it was only around 8:30. I hopped on and off of the sidewalk as I ran laps of the park, absent-mindedly dodging the vegetable sellers, the mopeds, the exercise groups and the kids getting dropped off at preschool. I realized that the guy in front of me was waving at me with his phone probably a beat or two late, and pulled out my earbuds, feeling a little embarrassed, asking him what was up. He continued waving his phone saying, “I want to take a picture, I want to take a picture.” I had not even finished slowing down from my running pace, and he was already circling me with his phone raised, trying to find the angle where I wasn’t back lit. “What?” A part of my brain was still thinking about food in Taichung, a part of it was wondering whether my face was red or just dripping with sweat, and a part of me was wondering where this picture would end up. “It’s rare to find someone so good at running,” he said, snapping a few shots. At this point, it I decided that he didn’t really want to talk to me, so I started to accelerate, even though I had not even fully stopped. “It’s nothing,” I said, and sped away, putting my earbuds back in.

My morning class ended and I happily bolted out of the classroom, ready for lunch. I had class in an hour and packed lunch, so there was no reason to stray too far. Still, it’d be nice to get some fresh air and walk at least a bit, so I went outside to look for a picnic table or a bench in the shade. I found a table and sat down by the little 成功 pond and dug in. I had only gotten about half way through the bag of sugar snap peas that I washed and packed that morning when I noticed an older man looking at me strangely. I would have looked back down at my phone and continued reading my emails, except that he altered his course from walking by to walking towards me. “You eat lunch?” he said, somewhat cautiously in English. I was still running through possible responses, that is, I was trying to guess what his question actually was, (“why are you eating here?” “why are you eating that for lunch?”), when he spoke again, pointing at my sandwich and the bag of peas, “That your lunch?” Ok. I finished crunching through the pea in my mouth and responded in Chinese, “Yeah. I like to eat simple things for lunch.” “Oh. Aren’t you American? Why are you eating that for lunch?” he said in Chinese. Not really knowing what else to explain, I started to repeat myself, “Lunchtime, I usually eat simple things.” “Oh your Chinese – very good!” he said, using English again. I looked back at my sandwich, really wanting to eat it, but not quite sure where this conversation was going. “But you are American? Yes?” in English. “Yes”, I responded in English. I ate another pea. “But Americans don’t eat lunch!” he said in Chinese. “We heard that Americans don’t each lunch. They just eat a lot for breakfast, and then at lunch drink Coke and eat a biscuit.” I started laughing, but let him continue. “Also, they don’t take a nap at lunch. Why are you eating lunch?” I thought he was protesting that my lunch was too small before (it was too small, the sandwich was actually only one piece of bread folded over and it hardly contained anything – classic Taiwanese sandwich style), but really he was amazed that I was eating at all. “Americans don’t eat lunch” is a fallacy that I’m not willing to let stand, so I started trying to explain the reality of American lunchtime practices. We continued talking for the next 20 minutes, sporadically switching between English and Chinese, and then quickly ate my sandwich before I headed off to class, still sort of hungry.

I went to the bank today, but after showing up, I realized that I forgot to bring my bankbook, which I needed for the transaction that I was trying to complete. Feeling foolish, I turned around and biked home, figuring that I could just make the 10 minute trip again. On the way I passed a group of men sitting on squat stools under a tattered umbrella in a parking lot. They were right near the roadside, possibly playing cards but I think they also might have just been sitting and not doing much of anything. One man right next to the road, yet angled so he could see the oncoming traffic noticed me, and his eyes widened. He stared at me for as long as his head and shoulders could turn, not saying anything, just wide-eyed staring. I didn’t think much of it, except for thinking “I’m not even wearing a skirt today”. At home, I picked up my bankbook, drank some water, and biked back to the bank. On my second time biking home, I decided to put on my face mask (I finally gave in and bought a pretty thick mask, clearly intended originally for workshops or construction or the like. It seems moderately effective against street pollution because when I’m wearing it I basically can’t smell the exhaust over my own hot and damp breath. But this also means that I start to get light-headed if I pedal at my usual pace – so I only break it out during rush hour when it’s best to go slowly anyway.) I wasn’t thinking much of my double trip until I passed the men in the parking lot, and the same man noticed me. This time, instead of his eyes simply widening to stare at me, they popped open with recognition. It looked like his eyes were about to bug out of his head as he turned to watch me pass. Clearly he had not seen me on the other side of the street, and was probably wondering if he had gone insane. I continued laughing to myself for the next several minutes, which was not pleasant in the heat of the face mask, but I couldn’t hold it in.

My bike is prettier than your bike. (At least I think so, anyway.)
My bike is prettier than your bike. (At least I think so, anyway.)

Names – Part one

I don’t think I have ever been good at saying my name. Somehow it always ends up getting just a little bit tangled on the tip of my tongue. The “r” and the “m” get smooshed together and the “h” is just dangling there and suddenly the rest of the syllables are pushing to get out but the beginning’s already all a mess and whoever I am introducing myself to inevitably makes a confused face.  When I say it the second time, it’s usually smoother, but I also often add “like the word” afterwards to clarify. That and a quick smile seem to get the point across, and my momentary stumbling point is past.

 

My problem lies not in my ability to articulate words – not anymore at least. I did have some problems pronouncing r’s when I was younger, and also I grew up near Boston so I have occasionally forgotten to pronounce them at times – but these are not part of the issue at hand. It’s in that flash as I think of my name and I’m about to say it that I suddenly doubt it. The doubt isn’t fully formed – it’s not like I’m thinking something like “wait, my name is actually Mary!”  It’s just a little suspicion that somehow I’ve chosen the wrong set of syllables, and those aren’t the right sequence of sounds to represent me.

 

I’ve had trouble introducing my name for as long as I can remember. At times I’ve gone through phases where it hardly seems to be a big deal, but at other times it seems like I have to go through three tries with each new person before they actually hear what I’m trying to say. Sometimes I can’t get it across correctly and I just stop trying, leaving the person addressing me by whatever strange sounds they heard.

 

Perhaps there’s some deep psychoanalysis to follow this tick to its deepest root, but it probably just boils down to the fact that I’ve always had a little bit of a complicated relationship with my name.

 

First, let me say that I think it is a great name. It has a great meaning, it is not too common, yet it’s also not too strange, not difficult to spell (okay there is sometimes an e that people try to sneak in there).  It’s just different and creative without pushing a boundary of unnecessarily innovative. When I was in elementary school, I wasn’t a particularly big fan of it being so different (and long!) but I got over than probably by the age of 8. I wouldn’t trade it for any other name nowadays.

 

Recently, I realized that people I’m close with hardly ever call me by my full name. There are a few exceptions; however, generally speaking, sooner or later all of my friends seem to end up calling me by a nickname. (This is also excluding the common stage after learning my name in which people refer to me as “Melody”. I would say that about 30% of people go through this stage.) The nicknames my friends have given me are impressively varied, considering how many of them are plays on my name itself and yet are distinct permutations. I have never introduced myself with a nickname – although I do readily sign letters with them and claim them as my own. Still, is the prevalence of nicknames in my life why I sometimes doubt that I’ve remembered the right set of syllables to refer to myself with? Maybe, or maybe it means nothing after all. At this point, I am happy simply to have friends, and I am happy to have them address me as they please.

 

Something happened when I was 18 that further changed my dynamic with my name. The previous discussion has been about my name as I knew it before I was 18… for the most part. There was another hidden piece that I hadn’t given up on disliking, and continued to hang around as an appendix to my name that I tried not to find horribly awkward: my middle name. My middle name is Shou-Ann. I distinctly remember one instance when I couldn’t remember how to spell it in second grade and wrote it as “Sow-Ann”, which later filled me with burning shame to know that I called myself a pig (I think I looked the word up in the dictionary after the incident). I learned how to spell it, and tried not to make a big deal about how alien and meaningless it was, despite that it was a snippet integral to retrieving my identity on official paperwork. I went through a phase where I casually touted it more as “Ann” – which still felt uncomfortable – but mostly I would just say, “My middle name is Shou-Ann. It’s Chinese,” and hope whoever asked was satisfied with that because I didn’t have more that I wanted to say about it.

 

When I was 18, I took my first Chinese class. With some language classes, students get names in the target language. Chinese classes are particularly adamant about this because names need to be transliterated in Chinese characters. Suddenly the dangling appendix of my name had a purpose. I metamorphically removed it from where I put it in the shadows, dusted it off and examined it in the light. I really learned the characters for it; I really learned how to pronounce it. And suddenly, I was using it. All the time. Soon it wasn’t anything uncomfortable but like just another one of my nicknames – a familiar series of syllables that catches my attention.

 

My Chinese name is more than a nickname to me now – it’s just part of my name. Not a stunted tailbone portion, but a fully-fledged-in-its-own-right piece of my name. The transition first happen when I studied abroad in Beijing under a language pledge where we could only speak Chinese. People referred to me solely with this name, and I regularly told people that it was my name all the time with no big pomp and circumstance. Well, that’s not entirely true either – while both the characters of my name are simple characters, it’s not a particularly common name, and especially not for girls. And quite possibly there’s still some hint of an accent when I say it. So I often end up clarifying the characters. But then again, it’s nothing more worse than when I stumble as I introduce myself in English.

 

to be continued…

[Blog-a-thon is turning out to be a pretty big challenge. Trying to keep things interesting!]

Morning (this time with feeling)

In the morning, breezes by the coast seem their freshest, and also just the right amount of playful to highlight some of my favorite parts of biking in Taiwan.

 

A bridge where there are often fishermen gathered in the morning.
A bridge where there are often fishermen gathered in the morning.

Of course, if one is looking for adventure, the best time to fight the coastal winds is at night; oftentimes they are so strong that I struggle to hold my bike underneath me, and my speed going one direction is quite literally twice that going the other direction. No question about it, the time to make one’s heart race is night-time, when the darker stretches of empty coastal highway edge toward creepy. Perhaps the road is only illuminated by the gaudy flash of the nearest beetlenut stand, or establishments with names like “夜貓子” (night owl) or “something flower” where the “flower” is clearly not referring to anything botanical. I thank the winds at my back when I blast through the dark past these places, only to then find myself hunched down and cursing how slowly I crawl back the opposite direction.

 

But first thing in the morning, the winds at the coast tend to be calmer, and it’s the perfect time to take in the little fragments that make up life in nowhere-particular, Taiwan. The empty road promises simplicity and serenity in the cool morning light: instead of only the glare of distant flashing lights, the scenery is a tapestry of vegetable patches, aquaculture, strips of sea-coast, and single-building factories. Instead of just drying out my mouth with the force of the air, the winds whip around in scent-laden eddies that make it obvious what the nearby human activities are simply by smell: the pungent and unmistakable smell of drying fish, the thick smell of manure, and others that are more mysterious or subtle. A field has recently be replowed and the smell of raw earth? A paintjob on that corrugated steel building? A butchershop and the smell of surfaces that have touched a thousand pieces of raw meat? A new kind of pesticide applied to this field?

 

And instead of only hearing the roaring of wind rushing past, mornings are filled with a variety of noises. I’ve stumbled across celebrations for local gods more often than I thought possible while out biking in the morning. The clanging and wailing instruments, the firecrackers promise a lively crowd, but usually everyone milling about looks half awake and only partially committed to the event. Often the voices are just the strings of schoolkids on bikes trundling down the road in matching uniforms. I tend to pass them in laughing and chattering clumps at first, but if I loop back just a few minutes later, only a few stragglers peddling voraciously to get to class in time remain.

 

Gradually, the road traffic also picks up as time passes in the morning. Usually, the breezes begin to quell, but the quiet and calm rapidly slips away with them. People start to commute to work, each with a roar and a puff of moped exhaust. And just like that, the fresh dawn gives way to the hot, crowded air of just another workday. Whereas the dark and challenge of the winds seem to stretch on for an endless night, the window of daybreak calm is preciously short.

 

My bike out by a patch of beach along the coast in the morning.
My bike out by a patch of beach along the coast in the morning.

Two notes: look forward to a burst of frequent updates. I’m going to try for a post every day for the next week. Maybe quality/length will be comparably decreased.  Also, I changed a few things about the site, so for anyone actually reads this in a browser and not just in email updates, feel free to let me know if you have any opinions.

Foreigner

Sometimes, being “a foreigner” in Taiwan is tiring. I have avoided this topic because I feel that there is nothing particularly fresh that I can bring to the descriptions of my experiences in this regard. Yet recently I’ve wondered why exactly it was that I decided to come back to Taiwan, and face all the little side effects of living abroad. Especially in moving to Tainan this year, a much less modern and bustling international hub than Taipei, my experience as “a foreigner” is dialed up to an even stronger level.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons why it is interesting to be “a foreigner” in Taiwan. It can be fun that people strike up conversations with me because of their curiosity. It can be fun to try to check the preconceptions that people have, and possibly try to broaden their perspectives. It can be convenient that people recognize me immediately and remember my name (and often most things about the interaction that we had before). Sometimes, people just want to be extra nice to me – maybe because they want to ensure that I have a good impression of Taiwan and Taiwanese people, maybe because there’s a inferiority complex, maybe it’s simply because they want to see how I’ll react, maybe because they’re uncomfortable, or all the above and some other reasons that I can’t even guess. It can be fun to be the tallest person in the room of adults – something that never happens when I’m in the US.

But also I’ve felt worn out when I am trying to go about my business, yet I am also constantly on display as “a foreigner”. It can be irritating to have people stare at me all the time (as I type this, I am watching people stare at me in the window reflection as they walk by behind me; but it’s easy enough to see people staring me just by looking at people’s faces directly, such as everyone walking in front of the window, many of whom also give me very long glances). Automatically receiving obviously differential treatment is unnerving; there is no reason people need to address me in English and assume I’m incompetent. It can be frustrating to hear people talk about me as I pass by – muttering things about “老外” – as if there are general statements that can be made about me simply because I’m “a foreigner”. Knowing that people will take my actions and use them to represent an entire category of people, “Americans” or “foreigners” or something of the like, can make me consider every action with great strategic importance. And sometimes I just want to be able to take off this mantle, and put it aside to have people see me first as an individual and not as a collection of labels.

Yet no matter where I live, I am going to bear the weight of a collection of labels and biases. Living abroad also gives me even more opportunities to learn: I am amused by and can reflect a great deal on things that are very simple aspects of every day life. And instead of the Taiwanese people that I meet who are trying to build an understanding about America from me and the handful of other Americans in they’ve encountered, every day I can build my understanding of Taiwan from not only every person I meet, but also through every one of my senses at all hours of the day.

7-Eleven

The past week I was mostly busy with two things: working and hanging out with my parents. I could tell some stories on both fronts, but just going to keep this as a quickie update. Today’s topic shall be 7-Eleven.

I would like to speak generally for every American who has ever come to Taiwan and say that we all have a crush on the Taiwanese manifestation of the concept of “convenience store”. Most often, I think Americans fixate on 7-Eleven. Somehow, the kind of sketchy corner convenience store that evokes the stale odor coffee and security camera footage of muggings came to Taiwan and transformed to a bright, clean, family friendly establishment. And most amazingly, it is convenient. When you’re in Taiwan, 7-Eleven has got your back. Thirsty? Hungry? Forgot to buy toothpaste? Toilet paper? Shirts? Scarves? Want to buy tickets to concerts? Trains? Buses? Pay your bills? All of these needs can be taken care of at the closest 7. And the closest 7 is probably (at most) a few blocks away. Of course, 7-Eleven isn’t even the only convenience store, there are in fact several chains (Family Mart and Hi-Mart are the other big names) that together create convenience store density that is undeniably convenient.

I can’t even begin to describe the variety of interesting gimmicks and promotions that they are always running. Buying a certain amount earns you stickers, which can be exchanged for prizes. Sometimes buying two bottles of a certain tea will get you an immediate prize. Buy a cereal drink and get a tea egg for just one NT. What exciting new deal could you discover while stopping by for a fresh coffee?

Still, my knowledge and usage of 7-Eleven has just begun to scratch the surface. I used the IBON machine for the first time today, which seems is the portal to 7-Eleven’s magical world of ticket-purchasing.

I decided that it’s finally time for me to get it out of my system*, so I registered for a marathon.

First, I would like to point out just a few of the flow charts involved with the registration process. When in doubt, make a flowchart. Don’t forget to use system so complicated that a flow chart is required to explain it.

This is just describing how to fill out the online registration form.
And this one is describing how to go to 7-Eleven and pay the registration fee.

And then here I am, at the nearby 7 to pay my entrance fee.

Want some ice cream to go with your marathon registration?

If you need something to do on December 16th, you can come do 42km with me. Or just stop by to watch.

 

*I’ve been muttering about this for the past 2 years or so. I’m actually not even in the best shape that I’ve ever been these days – keep skipping runs to eat. I figure this will be good motivation to get back on track a little. I doubt that I will make a great time, but I’ll make sure to finish.