So far life in the foreign service is very similar to life back in the U.S.. We do all the same things we used to do. Only now each task or event is more… complicated. We’ve done quiet a few things recently that, on the surface, seem routine but doing them is new and challenging.
Take getting the kids to school. The three youngest kids have to be at the neighborhood bus stop by 7:00 a.m. to catch the bus. Their bus is a huge tour bus that barely fits down our streets. Before our family moved in, the school used a small bus just bigger than your standard 15 passenger van. We forced them to bring in the heavy transport. Our oldest gets up even earlier to catch the public bus. She ventures out while it’s still dark with a neighbor friend to ride public transportation in a city of nearly 8 million people. She tells me it is perfectly safe and the bus is full of old people heading to the park to do Tai Chi but I still worry. Luckily she only has to change buses one time on the way to school.
If we drive to school, as parents often do, we have two choices. Route A takes us on a two lane highway down the front of the mountain. Then we have to double back through busy city streets to the school grounds. It takes about 45 minutes during the day. Or, more often, we take route B. This route takes half the time but the road goes off the backside of the mountain on a one and half lane road with switchbacks and, my favorite, The Choke Point. The Choke Point is a stretch of road about 200 meters long that should only fits one car. It just so happens it’s also the steepest part of the road. Two cars can pass each other but it’s a very slow and stressful event. Our brakes will need much more frequent service I can tell already.
Driving in general is an adventure in Taiwan. By and large the driving here is familiar. You drive on the right side of the road and follow most of the same rules you are used to. But picture trying to drive where you can’t read any of the signs. A lot of the signs do have English translations but it seems like all of the important stuff is left out.
Filling up with gas is an adventure as well. Here you do not fill up your own gas. An attendant does it for you. This requires you to speak to the attendant. This requires you to speak Chinese. As soon as the Chinese starts the adventure begins.
Something as basic as eating is more challenging. I can’t identify half the food I’ve eaten here. I rarely venture out on my own for lunch at work. No one one at the restaurants speak enough English to keep me from eating duck entrails, which I hear are quite tasty. Dumplings are really popular here and they are cheap. Chinese dumplings are like big boiled ravioli except with more interesting and mysterious filling. Most of the time the dumplings taste fine but every once in a while you bite into something that makes you question the cook’s intentions. There are terrorists out there you know.
Even Date Night can be different. One Friday night we went out with some neighbors. For dinner we went to the very American restaurant, Chili’s. I’ve never really been much of Chili’s fan, but the ribs tasted really good after weeks of noodles and dumplings. After dinner our new friends suggested we get a foot massage rather than see a movie. I had read about foot massages in Taiwan and learned it is a big part of the local culture. You can find massage spas all over the city. Erin was immediately excited but I was more apprehensive since I had read up on the subject. You see foot massages in Taiwan are viewed as an important part in maintaining good health. The Taiwanese do not get a massage because “it feels good.” It’s more like shoving broccoli down your throat; you do it because it’s good for you. The masseuse/torturer grinds, slaps, squeezes, punches and pushes way, way too hard on all parts of your feet. Even your delicate little toes are not safe. We paid for a 40 minute massage and I’ve got to say it was the longest 40 minutes of my life. My masseuse was this cute little Chinese lady from the mainland who I out-weighed by at least 120 lbs., but she was killing me! My friend told her several times to go easy on me, but either his Chinese isn’t that good or he told her to squeeze harder and lied to me. I was wiggling around in my chair like a fish I was in so much pain. My masseuse just laughed at me and kept telling me to relax. Relax? You have got to me kidding me. I stuck it out because if you are in Rome you do as the Romans, so if you are in Taiwan you pay someone to torture you.
This video can give you a taste: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-x_YS6sfpE&feature=related