People often ask about the crazy moments that happen while traveling that are awesome examples of culture shock, or just something that doesn’t tend to happen in the security of your own turf. I started replaying this story in my mind recently and needed to write it down.
So I lived in Taiwan for three years, teaching English. I moved there by myself, I didn’t know the language, didn’t know anything, I just thought, “Hey, I think I’ll move to Taiwan by myself and teach English. It’ll be an adventure!” This is the way 24-year-old Erica thought.
When I got to Taiwan, I lived in a small township called Shengang Township in Changhua county, central Taiwan. And of course, I didn’t know a word of the languages here. Now, one thing you should know about the languages spoken by these people is that they are not just phonetic, they are also tonal. This means several words can have the same phonetic spelling but have several different meanings, based on different intonations used in these languages. For example, the word “ma” will mean everything from “mother,” to “horse,” to “scold,” to the implication of a question when used at the end of a sentence. You can see how this would be quite unmotivating to study the language given you have to train your ear to distinguish between types of sounds you have never had to distinguish before.
So there I was living in Taiwan and for governmental reasons, I could get my own working phone until I had residency which takes about a whole month after arriving. This makes it even harder to do a lot of things that are already hard to do without knowing the language. You are disconnected from everyone around you in language, and you have no access to information you do understand. And you can’t call the one friend/coworker you have that could help you out in a pinch. You have to have ovaries to get on a bus and go anywhere outside of your town. And not just little ovaries, big sagging ovaries.
So I’d been in Taiwan for a couple of weeks, and was getting pretty restless playing on the safe side all the time, not going far enough to get lost. So one Saturday night I reached the point of total restlessness and stumbled upon a “foreigners crowd” event out in a nearby city. I had reached the end of my restlessness rope, and I was determined to put on my brave face and find this bar, and makes some new friends!
I studied hard about how I was going to make it to the address, and after taking a bus, a train, and a taxi to get to this bar in the “nearby” city, I finally arrived! I made it to this place that I went to by myself in the middle of Taiwan, where I was about to go talk to new people who I don’t know at all and have a great time! Every introverts’ dream come true!
So, while feeling very aware of my solitude in arriving and total lack of confidence that comes with finding your bearings in a place, I made a stab at talking to some people, and just as I came there to do. It’s always hard to do this, but I did meet some new people and had some nice conversations. There was a live band at one of the places we went to, and the evening turned out to be alright! I faced the challenge that totally overwhelmed me, didn’t get totally lost in the process! When I decided it was time to go home I was feelings pretty much like “Mission accomplished!”
My new friends helped me out and to find a taxi. One girl was Taiwanese who helped me communicate with the cab driver. I told her my address, and she translated for the driver. I was on my way home after my first successful night out in Taiwan!
I was riding along in the cab, happy to be going home, feeling like creating a new life in this new place was going to turn out ok after all. That’s when the cab driver slowed down and, I assume, through context, started asking me if any of these buildings we were at was where I lived. I had been in Taiwan long enough to know these buildings were NOT my new home. Oh crap.
The cab driver took out his GPS and we looked at the map. It might as well have been hieroglyphics. There were no phonetic spellings of the Chinese words, all just Chinese characters. I didn’t have a phone to call and ask one of the 2 people I know at this point who speak both languages to help. You can bet your boots that I would have woken them up at 1 am! I was lost in a cab in the middle of the night in Taiwan!
That’s when a miracle happened. Or just my own brain being something that actually functions. The driver zoomed out a little of the image of the map! I had looked at google maps of where I live several times at this point, noticed I recognized the shape of the coast near my town. I pointed to that area and told the driver, “This is where I live, Shengang.” Then I saw the look of realization on the man’s face. He said “Ni zai SHENGANG, bu shi, SHENGANG!” Which basically means, “You live in SHENGANG, NOT SHENGANG?” I kid you not, this is what he said. As it turned out, I lived a town in Taiwan, where about an hour away, there was a whole other town with the same phonetic pronunciation, but different tones. Bewildered by the same-sounding names I sheepishly nodded, feeling a wave of relief that I was now on my actual way home.
After this turning point, the cab driver made a phone to someone, I don’t know who, to explain the situation. That’s when he furthermore repeated into the phone the words, “Ta zai SHENGANG, bu shi, SHENGANG!” Of course, of all the towns in Taiwan, I had to live in one of the two share identical phonetic pronunciations. In my three years there, I never again heard of other places that shared a phonetic pronunciation.
By the time I got home, the cab fare was pretty high. I didn’t even care, I was ready to fork over the money and indulge in the comfort of being home after being lost in Taiwan in the middle of the night. The cab driver was a very nice and patient man. He gave me about a 50% discount because he felt sorry for this poor, young, wàiguó rén.
I ran back into my home of only 2 weeks, feeling so happy to be home I could cry. In this new place that for two weeks had been so hard to feel like home, in this moment I couldn’t stop thinking to myself, I am so happy to be home, I am so happy to be home!