San Diego is the only city in which I have felt, upon first visit, instantly at ease and at home. That has changed. Taipei (Táiběi; 台北), Taiwan (Táiwān; 台灣) is perhaps the most extraordinary city I’ve ever visited, and I already dread leaving. Its people are kind, its food exquisite, its culture diverse, and its hospitality impossible to be outdone. In this entry, I will detail some first experiences, which may also be of use to those visiting Taipei for the first time. One might even consider writing out the Chinese words given here, as they will be useful in everyday interactions — I will try to limit each entry to a manageable number of new words or phrases. If this is of no interest to the reader, s/he may simply pass them by.
- NOTE: the Chinese pronunciations used herein are written with pinyin romanization, despite Taiwan’s lack of use; they use zhuyin, or “bopomofo,” instead. Characters are of the Traditional — not mainland China’s Simplified — form, and are correspondingly not simple. It is important to know that each character represents a single spoken syllable, and may either stand for its own word, or be combined with other characters/syllables to form other words. Only context holds the key to a character’s meaning and, like music, only practice and exposure open the spaces in one’s soul that are necessary for comprehension.
Upon waking my first morning in the city, I am overcome in part by ecstasy and in part by dread. I know very little of the spoken language, and can read perhaps 20 characters (that number will balloon to a mere 30 in a few days’ time — here, I am a literary infant). Moreover, I find myself living in a makeshift rooftop apartment (landmarked by an audacious sex shop — I won’t easily lose my quarters). There is no air conditioning or gas. Not that gas is needed; the place is perhaps 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than my current residence in South Carolina, USA, and its humidity is truly extraordinary. I sweat right through my cold shower.
Passport, phrasebook, and United States dollars (US$) in hand, I set out to the nearest bank hoping to exchange money. I get 28 National Taiwan dollars (NT$) per US$, and am pleased at my ability to take direction when the teller asks for my “míngzì” (name; 名字). My first opportunity also arises to use what will become my favorite phrase: “Wǒ tīng bù dǒng” (“I don’t understand aurally”; 我聽不懂). I use my new money at a nearby Dante’s Coffee, chosen for the copious use of pictures on the menu. The coffee that accompanies my scrambled eggs is good, and I take advantage of the free internet (miǎnfèi shàngwǎng; 免費上網). I listen to ABBA (Super Trouper) to muster the strength to move on to the subway (MRT).
The anonymity of being in a huge new city that speaks a different language is overwhelming. Strange urges present themselves: to scream in the street, to undertake vocal exercises in public, to sit flat in the middle of the sidewalk and face the excruciating sun. My journaling practices and spiritual life keep me centered on the journey. I reach the MRT and an English-speaking woman directs me to a place to purchase a card. Students get a discounted MRT rate, so I present my ID and receive the student card.
I decide to make my first stop Taipei City Hall, where the famous Taipei 101 building resides. It is easy to find, and I pass through the Xinyi shopping district on my way. In this city of approximately 2.8 million, I also chance upon my dear friend Jo-Han, returning to work from his lunch break. The world feels small, and I continue exploring the area.
Taipei (Táiběi; 台北)
Taiwan (Táiwān; 台灣)
Name (míngzì; 名字)
I don’t understand [aurally] (Wǒ tīng bù dǒng; 我聽不懂)
Free internet (miǎnfèi shàngwǎng; 免費上網)