“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese
Traveling around Taiwan has given me a new perspective. As I go from city to city, district to district, I learn new things about the country’s culture and about myself. Living here has revealed to me new strengths and weaknesses that I never knew I had and wide gaps between cultures.
Through the Taiwanese way of life, which is very different from that of the American’s, I’ve learned so much. There are some parts to this lifestyle that I really love, and others I don’t think are so great. I think that if Cesare Pavese was here with me the first month, we would have been like two peas in a pod. When I read his quote I completely understood how he felt traveling. The first two weeks I felt so lost, lonely, and out of place. Everything is a little fast paced here. Scooters driving on the sidewalk and people screaming in Mandarin make Taipei completely foreign to me, because I was born and raised on the south side suburbs of Chicago. Even my home university is in a suburban-like town. So when facing down a pushy cab driver or getting swindled by a swift-talking street vendor I can get a little intimidated. Of course I had more basics than Pavese may have had. I had a bed in a nice dorm, a cellphone, and most important money to feed myself. Locals tried their best to make me feel as welcome as possible, but it doesn’t change the fact that I am also living in a city abroad and not in the same type of community in which I am most comfortable. To feed the fire, I’m one of the only 6’’, blond haired, blue eyed men walking the streets and some children are not afraid to point and scream foreigner in Mandarin. It’s the first time in my entire life that I felt like a total outsider. So at times I didn’t know what to do, where to go, or with whom to talk about the way I was feeling.
Fortunately I slowly, but surely made new friends and started to learn more about the city around me. My Taiwanese buddies took me to the local street markets, where you can really learn a lot about Taiwanese social structure, language, food, and lifestyle in general. I found that there are warm-hearted, helpful people everywhere. All I have to do is try my best to communicate and they will do what they can for me.
My mom always told me not to talk to strangers as a kid, but now I rambunctiously try to introduce myself more often. That way I meet not only new Taiwanese, but a lot of other foreigners like myself from all over the world. Together with my new friends, I’ve explored the Taiwanese culture. I think most people would be shocked by the differences I’ve found between Taiwan and the United States, many of which are rooted in the continental culture of Asia. I guess here in Taiwan and other parts of Asia they even count on their fingers differently. A skill we learn before kindergarten in the United States. It blew my mind when my friend ordered three small bags of some fried sweet potatoes at a night market for himself, our friend, and me. He showed the three fingers to show how many bags he wanted. What he didn’t know is that if one holds his thumb, index, and middle finger up to symbolize three it actually means eight here in Taiwan! It took me a month just to get used to using their specific way of counting on fingers! Situations like that are confusing, but so far they have really aided me in growing as a person.
I know now Pavese is right, traveling can be lonely. But when you make friends and start to understand the culture, you start to make a new home. I hope that the more time I spend here the more I learn and get cozier with the idea of stepping out of my comfort zone. As the Taiwan slogan goes, Taiwan will touch your heart, and it seriously has. I can’t wait to travel around the country some more and really become acquainted with Taiwan.