people make the place
Updated: Jun 14, 2021
it's been two weeks since i started teaching english at 北安 (beian junior high). i'll give myself some more time before writing a full-blown reflection on my work as a fulbright english teaching assistant here because I have too many thoughts at present to assemble them in any coherent or meaningful way.
for now, i will simply claim that these past two weeks have been some of the most transformative of my life. that teaching is the best job i have ever held in my life. that i have already teared up four separate times seeing my students have that lightbulb moment in class—where their eyes really do light up and they sit a little taller and talk a little louder. that i walk to school with a literal spring to my step despite the physical exhaustion that comes from creating and teaching six different lesson plans to 250+ students a week. that teaching might just be my calling, maybe, whatever that means, unless i’m being my overly dramatic and emotional right now, which—if you’ve read my book—you’ll know is actually a signature trait of mine.
but anyway, general reflections on teaching and the fulbright program as a whole political and cultural entity to come.
tonight, i will simply be writing about a few of the people i have met here who have already made an impact on my life—good and bad.
two fun facts:
1) i have known the people i write about below for at most a month. one of them, i have only known for two days. 2) interestingly enough, none of the people i am writing about are associated with fulbright.
(to protect identities, i will be using initials or general descriptions)
here in taipei there is a chinese singaporean girl whose rich parents are divorced and distant.
here is a girl who has been providing for herself and her younger brother since she was twelve, whose mother was even more of a "tiger parent" than amy chua was—i.e. the kind of mother who put needles on every piano key and told her children that “until i see blood on each of the keys, you need to keep practicing,” who whipped them with their violin bows so violently that every so often the bow would shatter into hundreds of rosined horse hair strings.
here is a girl whose family had so many “connections” in china that the world-famous lang lang was her sibling's private piano teacher but for what—all he did was feed into her parents’ desperate and violent attempts to live fantasy lives through their children—whose father talks to her now only to ask for money, all of which he of course blows away within the week at who-knows-which casino, who still always gives him money each time he asks because "family is family and family is everything."
here is a girl who works at a bar and flirts with older men almost every night until 2am to pay the bills for everyone in that fucking family, who just last month got rejected from my own alma mater, nyu stern, because college is a fucking crapshoot that favors the privileged (fuck you, stern, you'll never know what you missed).
here is a girl whose laugh comes out as an endless giggle—rapid and forceful and loud as if demanding to be acknowledged.
here is a girl who complains so little it scares me, who sleeps on the floor in her one-bedroom apartment because she gave her brother the mattress.
here is a girl who is beautiful, cynical, independent, overworked, and unwavering in the rat race for things like fortune and luck because she never had any in the first place, who is alive and blooming like cherry blossoms in winter—the definition of resilience in spite of the cold.
here in taipei there is a boy who looks like what millennials and gen-zers would call a "fuckboy"; think tattoos and muscles and talk of gyming and vaping and sex; think that kind of smug rugged look where the mouth slightly open and the top teeth are slightly visible and the eyes are half open in that mirror-selfie kind of way that screams vapidity and self-assuredness.
but does a fuckboy suggest jigsaw puzzles and hiking at sunset for first dates, does a fuckboy invite friends from all over the city just to play pictionary and avalon and other board games at 9pm on a tuesday night.
does a fuckboy always arrive on time no matter what the occasion is—and is in fact usually the earliest at every group meetup because punctuality is his way of showing respect, and he makes a point to be respectful of other people's time because time really is more precious than money?
and does a fuckboy offer to drive new friends to coastal towns in taiwan to show them around, does a fuckboy help the people around him make joyous morning and evening memories of a lifetime, does a fuckboy offer to buy that singaporean girl a mattress because she told him she doesn’t have the spare money for one right now, and all he wants to do is prove to her that she deserves what she never really got growing up: love?
here in taipei there is a boy who is half-taiwanese and half-british but was born in america, who carries three passports with him and along with a big heart and an open mind, who after six years of homeschooling and an unconventional upbringing at best has groomed in himself a world of flexible creativity that he now expresses through woodworking, photography, fashion, and culinary endeavors, who used to dance competitively in latin and ballroom styles only to quit once he found that competition did not bring him closer to his partner but rather farther and farther still.
here is a boy who just recently separated from a romantic partner he met a few months ago in taiwan because she went back to finish college in the states, and long distance has a way of exposing differences in values that are too hard to bridge through infatuation alone, who is now going through his first heartbreak now—with all its waves of numbness and pain and grief and anger that make it hard to think and even to breath at times—who in my eyes will no doubt come out stronger, wiser, more empathetic, and more capable of love in his lifetime to come
because broken hearts are the only kind that let light in.
here in taipei there is a girl who makes me want a daughter, who is about my age and talks in a mature manner and acts even more like an adult than i do sometimes but also is terrifyingly cute and petite and huggable and and exudes that precious kind of bubbly, youthful energy that is harder and harder to find the older one gets, who makes me want to raise a child or two of my own one day, if only to show them that the world will always be fucked up in a million ways but that there will always be joy to be found in a million and one places, just like this girl seems to be showing me.
Night Market Man
here in taipei there is a man who made me uncomfortable at the night market i live in, who offered to give me sweatpants for a discount because my smile was sweet, who offered to give them to me free if I told him he was handsome and went on trips with him and bought him food and drinks, who told me to call him tony ge ge, or older brother tony, which made me only smile and laugh and giggle more because i’m an idiot and didn’t immediately run away in that situation, who made me feel like i was the manipulative person for trying to bargain with him in the first place, who told me my legs were long and beautiful and that i'd “look even better in the purple sweatshirt that made my boobs look good,” who ended up getting me to actually buy a pair of fucking sweatpants because i felt like that was my only safe way out, who called out after me even as i was leaving to tell me not to forget about him, to come visit him every day after work and maybe bring him some jasmine milk tea, who still makes me so angry at myself for putting up with garbage like that instead of getting the fuck out of there as soon as things start getting weird.
here in taipei there is a girl who is an american-born taiwanese, who grew up in america and in high school applied for and got into her dream school (ucla) only to be convinced by her father at the last second to leave america to return to taiwan for university. (her father, an immigrant who faced severe discrimination when he first immigrated there, is to this day deathly terrified of america and americans and told his daughter to trust him, to believe that taiwan was an infinitely safer place to be for the rest of her life, because "of course safety is the most important thing" (is it?).)
here in taipei this girl is now in her fourth year of a six-year medical school program, and a day ago when were were sitting in a 7-eleven sharing some kimbap, she asked if i was the kind of person to ever have regrets—to which i said no, but to which she replied she is, one such regret being that she came to taiwan to appease her father rather than her own curiosities, and what if she went to ucla anyway to live her life. what if?
but of course, this girl also mentioned she was simultaneously grateful to be in taiwan, that it is only because she has lived her for the past five years that she has become the person she is, that she has seen so much and met such interesting people and *insert other cliché stories about growth and truth and finding oneself through travel.*
so perhaps what she feels is not really regret for decisions she makes but simply that all-too-human desire to exist in two+ places at once, to experience parallel universes, to attempt every possibility there is—when in reality, life is meaningful because we have to make choices, we have to decide on rejecting 99% of all other possibilities in favor of the one.
and her life is full of meaning, of course. the way she talked about it made that clear to me.
Local Train Conductor
here in taipei there is a train conductor who saw me, a stranger sitting by herself on a 5-hour local train from chiayi to taipei on one arbitrary february night, hunched over in sleep, coming back home early from a beautiful but exhausting 3-day biking and camping trip that left me covered in baseball-sized bruises and dirt-filled scratches. (i am one shitty biker—ask anyone who’s biked with me before—but of course i'm also the kind of proud bitch who thinks she can handle biking for hours at a time across highways, along rice paddies, and through random cities in her glorified attempts at self-improvement. well, at least i thought i could handle it, until the moment i fell into a ditch, at which point i knew jesus was telling me to go home.)
but so anyway, two hours into the train ride, this conductor called me into his office at the front of the train, not to yell at me for failing to secure my bike properly or to question me for traveling alone, but to hand me a bag of crisp jujubes and plump tangerines and caramel candy and seaweed sesame crackers in a 7-eleven bag because he thought i might be hungry—what with it being dinner time and all, and what with the fact i definitely looked like horrible and crusty and just all-around not so great.
and after handing me his own bag of food, this conductor tipped his hat at me and slowly walked back into his office while other passengers stared.
and this conductor must have gotten off the train while i was asleep, perhaps at a stop along the way, because when i woke up and found i had finally arrived at songshan station in taipei, it was 11pm and cold and rainy outside, and the conductor was nowhere to be found, and i biked home wishing I could have thanked him once more for his kindness.