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Tangled by Mandarin on a ‘Love Boat’ tour of Taiwan

I arrived in Taiwan, exhausted, as the monsoons were ending.

It was July. I had graduated from the University of Georgia in May, and realized that there actually wasn’t much demand for a guy with a bachelor’s degree in genetics from a mediocre state school. I’d landed a not-at-all-coveted job as a lab technician in UGA’s genetics department, and was traveling as much and as far as I could go to escape the inevitable start of the job. In June, my girlfriend and I went on a road trip to California to see the maiden flight of SpaceShipOne.

The Mojave desert was beautiful. Or, maybe it just seemed that way to me because I was so excited to see SSO fly — and so were the 50,000 other people there. It was described later as ‘Woodstock for space geeks’, which sounds about right to me. The trip to Mojave with Isabel was, by turns, exciting and infuriating; a long story in itself. And, afterward, my brother James and I had gone on a short trip to Florida to visit an old friend. In short, by the time I flew to Taiwan, I was exhausted.

The circumstances of my trip to Taiwan were unusual. The Taiwanese government sponsors a program for the children of Taiwanese expatriates to travel around the country by bus for about $500, room and board included. This was actually a pretty good deal, and my parents were proud of me for graduating (and also felt sorry for me because my job prospects were such a joke), so they agreed to send me to Taiwan as a graduation present. I thought this would be an interesting cultural experience, and a good way to immerse myself in Mandarin Chinese, so I jumped at the opportunity to go. One feature of this partially-subsidized-month-on-a-bus is that it was available only to children of (overwhelmingly American) expatriates. So, I was really signing up for a month with a large group of late-teens-and-early-twenties American-born Chinese who were primarily interested in getting drunk and partying.

Just a few of the total group

Anyway, the fact that I was perpetually in the company of hundreds of party animals who literally had nothing better to do than get wasted all the time made sure that this trip was indeed interesting, although for somewhat different reasons than I anticipated.

In Taipei, I spent the first couple days recovering from jet lag, dozing off at 4pm and staying up until 4am, wandering the deserted, rainy streets of the city. It was peaceful for the most part. There were some shifty-looking characters wandering around (what do you expect, at 4am?), but no one bothered me during my wanderings. I suppose the fact that I was (literally) head-and-shoulders taller than just about everyone there may have had something to do with that. The only incident I recall was, very late one night, a shambling, middle-aged wreck of a man straight-up propositioned me for sex. Extremely creeped out, I turned him down and hastily made my way back to the hotel.

After that, I climbed onto a bus…and pretty much stayed there for the next month. We went all around Taiwan, visiting temples, cities (Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung), and natural landmarks.

The official name of the program was ‘Expatriate Youth Summer Formosa Study Tour to Taiwan’. The unofficial name, by which the tour was referred to by everyone, was the ‘Love Boat’. The reason for this moniker, I’m told, is that many Taiwanese met their spouses through the tour. Since they have such fond memories of the tour, they then send their kids on the same tour when they’re old enough. Many of my fellow bus-riders fell into this category. To me, it would be a bit odd to try and meet someone during the same event that your parents met. No one else agreed with this sentiment, as evidenced by the fact that they, as the French say, fucked like bunnies the entire trip. Which, to me, made the moniker even more appropriate…’Love Boat’ indeed!

This was possibly the worst circumstance in which I could have found myself in a committed relationship. Surrounded by attractive and very available women, and I was making international calls back to my girlfriend to tell her how much I missed her. The Love Boat girls cooed over how loyal I was. That’s always a bad sign. (I could just be bitter because the relationship ended up imploding within the year…but that’s a sad tale for another time.)

About half the Americans on the trip were fluent in Mandarin. Sadly, I was not one of these, and I didn’t realize what a detriment this was until I arrived in Taiwan, and realized that I basically couldn’t do anything without someone else’s help. All that tripe you hear about English being the ‘international language of business, so just about everyone can speak it’ is…well, tripe. Most Taiwanese can speak a few words of English, and that’s about it. I’m a guy who generally prefers to go off and do his own thing, which was impossible, given my lack of fluency in the local language. (Another hindrance was the fact that I was obligated to sit on a bus with 50 people all the time.)

If or when I do return to Taiwan, I want to have a good grasp of Mandarin Chinese beforehand. My feeling is that with a solid grasp of both Mandarin and English, you can get around pretty much all of east and southeast Asia…and Australia, which I’ve always wanted to visit.

The conquests of Taiwan are most evident in its cities: the long straight roads of Taipei, meticulously planned and organized into a great bustling, buzzing metropolis of glass and steel, reminded me instantly of the photographs I’d seen of Japanese cities. I later discovered that Taipei was constructed by the Japanese during their rule of Taiwan, in the interwar period. The other Taiwanese cities feel more strongly Chinese…Taichung and Kaohsiung, with their cluttered, haphazard streets, vague reek of danger, and teeming cacaphony of rushing, shouting, frenetic people.

The masses of people are the most enduring images I have in my mind: a great crowd of buyers and sellers in the night markets, moving randomly or purposefully from a small department store to a street vendor in a wheeled cart, cooking sweet pork sausage or spiced squid-on-a-stick, simply-clothed merchants shouting their wares out to the crowd, a small sea of clothes and jewelry and sweet, delicious food, all cheap, the genuine indistinguishable from the false, haggling and haggling and the endless neon signs glowing in bright blue and yellow and orange overhead, emblazoning the great skyscrapers and old, squat warehouses and offices and everything in between, rimming the great street of the market, an ocean of light and frantic sound to drown in… Taiwan was to me, as I suspect many Asian and European countries probably would be, quite a claustrophobic place. Or perhaps my most enduring image is rather of myself, a blank island, adrift in a strange sea of thin and dour people who look at me with curious, suspicious eyes and speak in a tongue I do not understand, talking to one another occasionally of the ‘waiguoren.’ I understand that small bit of their language: ‘foreigner.’ It is a word that carries a great negative connotation that the English equivalent does not.

I found I wasn’t alone in my feeling of claustrophobia, and gradually, several of us ‘misfits’ with misgivings about the whole buses-and-planned-activities-all-day scheme began to hang out. It had a juvenile subversive feel to it; the same feeling of ‘sticking it to the man’ that a 7th grader gets when he cuts class. You’re not really sticking it to the man, sure…but you do get to bail on something you didn’t want to do, which is at least a mildly liberating feeling.

Mu-Tsai and Jon were two of the closest friends I made on the tour. Mostly, we hung out, drank a lot, and played poker or Big 2.

Jon was the only one of the ‘misfits’ I really kept in touch with after Love Boat. He was living in Houston at the time, and me in Atlanta, so we didn’t see much of each other, but we kept in touch over the net, and eventually we both ended up in California. (Although he was in LA, and I was in the Bay Area…)

Taiwan, the place, was beautiful. The sheer amount of vegetation there was a bit overwhelming: I’m far more fond of sparser, drier places, but this had its own subtropical appeal that I liked a lot. The humidity I liked less well. Being in Taiwan makes you feel like you’re trying to breathe soup. I wouldn’t ever be able to live there.

I realized maybe halfway through the tour that Taiwan, for all its native culture and natural beauty, pretends to be China. I should say, I got that impression from many of the cultural sites we visited. I was examining a display of the different sorts of architecture and agriculture employed by the different regions of China with great interest (with great interest primarily because it was one of the few displays a person utterly illiterate in Mandarin could actually understand), and it suddenly hit me: this ain’t China, this here’s Taiwan.

Most — I think the majority — of the inhabitants of Taiwan actually immigrated from China some 400 years ago, so it’s not surprising that they’ve imported a fair chunk of the Chinese culture. But I wonder how much of it — as well as the ‘Taiwan is an integral part of China’ rhetoric we were subjected to in one of the tiresome lectures we attended — is a result of the decades-long military rule by the Kuomintang? I recall that pre-Nixon and Kissinger, the U.S. pretended for a long time that Taiwan actually was China; I’m curious how much of that attitude was reflected (or emanated, perhaps) by the conquerors of Taiwan.

Traveling around Taiwan really just made me wish that I was visiting China. Taiwan is interesting in its own way, but the way it presents itself is something of a ‘China lite.’ Touring a place pretending to be China is deeply unsatisfying; it makes you want to visit the real China. Knowing Mandarin would be doubly critical for this, obviously; I have a deep and possibly absurd interest to travel around and see the Chinese countryside. At least from the image I have in my mind, there would be few places more beautiful. In any case, that’s where my family’s true roots lie; they were uprooted to Taiwan, but were in truth from the mainland.

One of the most interesting experiences I had in Taiwan occurred after the study tour I arrived with ended, and I stayed with my aunt at her place about halfway between Taipei and Taichung: I was, oddly enough, for the first time that month, completely immersed in Mandarin Chinese.

Now, my Mandarin was terrible. Beyond terrible, really: I could barely communicate, and I expect I sounded rather like a two year old. An exceptionally dimwitted two year old. But the interesting thing was that, being immersed in it, I soaked up the sound and the idiosyncrasies of the language. Say I felt the language’s spirit, although its grammar still quite deftly eluded me. Like picking up a regional English dialect after spending too much time in a place, only much more so.

Much more by this author on his very excellent blog.

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