Fear and Loathing in Taiwan
By CYNTHIA CHENG
Blast San Francisco Bureau
Every summer, Taiwan hosts about 1,000 students of Chinese ancestry from all over the world so they can study Mandarin and expose themselves to the Chinese culture.
My dad has several friends whose kids went and they all came back telling me what an awesome time they had. An awesome time scratching out Chinese characters in the stickiness and humidity of a foreign country? Puh-lease! Most people don't participate in this particular program to study.
|"Nicknamed the 'Love Boat,' the Overseas Chinese Youth Language Training and Study Tour to the Republic of China is another excuse for us spoiled Chinese kids to have fun with our parents' hard-earned money."
Nicknamed the "Love Boat," the Overseas Chinese Youth Language Training and Study Tour to the Republic of China is another excuse for us spoiled Chinese kids to have fun with our parents' hard-earned money.
After hearing about the clubs and parties, I applied and was accepted to attend the study tour. Knowing not a word of Mandarin, I was going to summer school in Taiwan.
The only academic class we took was the morning Chinese language class. On alternate days we had folk and cultural art classes. I took classes on Chinese zither, kitemaking and my personal favorite -- magic. Other classes offered included Chinese cooking and dancing, kung fu, stick fighting and sword fighting.
We went on a field trip almost every afternoon. We visited national museums, amusement parks and military bases. We were given the VIP treatment at all the sites we visited. A cop car followed us everywhere we went. At night, we attended kung fu demonstrations, acrobatic shows and folk dancing. The sponsors of this program spoiled us rotten.
When I told my Asian American Studies professor about the trip, he said the Taiwanese were using us overseas students as agents to promote their political and economic agenda. If that were the case, it worked for me! I came back from the trip a militant, proud, pro-Taiwanese individual, even though my family's actually from Hong Kong.
"They should've nicknamed this the Sex Boat," a counselor said at the opening reception. One of my roommates said she'd overheard one guy bragging on the elevator about how he'd gotten a blow job the night before. This was only the second day of classes. I saw newly formed couples holding hands after the first week.
|"The next morning, my roommate and her male friend kept flashing me these wide guilty smiles. They'd done the nasty while I was in the next bed."
One night one of my roommates from Canada brought over a male friend. While all the other roommates were out having a life, I wanted to go to bed early. I announced I was going to sleep and a few minutes after my head hit the pillow, I started hearing sucking noises and soft moaning close by. I must have been really tired because I went to sleep anyway.
The next morning, my roommate and her male friend kept flashing me these wide guilty smiles. They'd done the nasty while I was in the next bed.
What bothered me was hearing stories about how so many people cheated on their lovers from back home. Once I overheard a girl saying she'd just cheated on her boyfriend of three years. Her excuse was that things "just happened." I was hanging out with this guy who I thought was pretty cool until he told me that although he didn't plan to cheat on his girlfriend, he wouldn't pass over a chance to hook up with someone on the trip. Later on, I caught him cuddling with some girl. Having lost all respect for this guy, I dogged him the rest of the trip.
At night, my traveling companions and I left the campus and ventured into the food stands and night markets, where authentic Chinese food, trendy clothing and shoes and cute 'lil things were sold at really low prices.
The core of the nightlife was at the clubs, where they played a mix of Taiwanese, American and European music. To my surprise, the lighting and technology at some of these clubs were pretty advanced. They sold drinks to everyone. I saw some girls dancing in small circles in the Taiwanese clubs, but a considerable number of men danced together as well. Many of the guys weren't just dancing next to each other -- they freaked each other. I still remember this group of about six finely dressed Taiwanese gentlemen taking turns freaking each other from the front and behind. I tried not to stare.
I can never talk about Taiwan without mentioning the bathrooms. 'Twas the first time I ever saw a stoop toilet in my life. A stoop or squat toilet is a toilet that is similar to a pit in the ground and the only way you can relieve yourself in it is to stoop. When you're done, you pull a string on the ceiling, so that it will flush.
|"For some reason, the sitting toilet was always occupied and so eventually, I had to resort to using the stoop toilet. I wanted to cry the first time because it felt so unclassy."
At Ocean University, the campus we stayed at, each bathroom had six stoops and only one sitting toilet. For some reason, the sitting toilet was always occupied and so eventually, I had to resort to using the stoop toilet. I wanted to cry the first time because it felt so unclassy. One time I slipped while reaching for the string to flush and my foot dove directly into the toilet. I had on slippers that day and of course I hadn't pulled the string yet.
What was worse was that they didn't have any toilet paper dispensers, so when we first moved into the dorms, one roll of toilet paper was distributed to each student. So whenever people walk down the hall with a roll of toilet paper, you knew what they're about to do.
A week before the trip ended, we had to stay indoors for one night because of a typhoon warning. Big deal, we thought. A typhoon was just a bad storm, right? It had been raining and windy all day, so we weren't surprised when the rain and wind increased that night. Still, we weren't worried. Then people's room windows started breaking. The winds were so intense that when windows broke, the glass shot into the room like bullets.
|"The winds were so intense that when windows broke, the glass shot into the room like bullets."
Everyone heard about the guy whose arm was cut so badly that people could see his bone. By this time, the electricity was cut off so my friends and I decided to grab our flashlights and gather in the halls. We heard glass breaking every other minute. Where were the counselors? I figured they were busy rushing injured people off to hospitals and cleaning up the mess. We were on our own.
The sixth-floor hallway we hung at was adjacent to the lounge. We avoided the lounge because one of the walls was actually a window. The window gave a nice view of the ocean nearby, but being near the ocean was the worst place to be during a typhoon. We already heard about the windows in other floor lounges breaking and were thankful that our lounge window had held up so far.
For a few minutes, my group sat in silence, listening to the pounding storm and high-pitched screams of the 100 mph wind. And then our lounge window finally broke.
|"I was sweaty, sick and hungry and felt as if I were in a refugee camp."
The broken glass darted down our hallway. Something sharp brushed against my lap. To get out of the firing range, about 20 people and I trampled to the farthest end of the hall and found ourselves in a bathroom. The bathroom -- of all places -- would be our haven the next 15 minutes as some brave guys went off to get help.
The brave guys came back with long sheets, threw them into the bathroom and ordered us to cover our bodies with the sheets as we went back down the hall and down four flights of stairs to the second floor. Be fast, but watch out for broken glass, they shouted above the commotion.
Somehow that night, I and 15 others found ourselves crammed in a room with only four beds. I slept -- or tried to sleep -- on a bed hard as concrete, with no pillow, blanket or mattress. I was lucky I got a bed. Others slept on chairs, tables and the floor. I was sweaty, sick and hungry and felt as if I were in a refugee camp. Somehow, we made it to morning and a community aid truck, similar to our Red Cross, brought us sandwiches. Later in the afternoon, news came counting the deaths of locals.
I'd gotten sick midway through the trip. Everyone was catching viruses, so I knew I was going to be ill sooner or later. I was bedridden one week and spent the rest of the trip recovering. Lying in a sweat-stained bed with a high fever, I did some serious soul searching. I also spent time writing and reading three books I had brought along: "Flowers in the Attic," "Like Water for Chocolate" and the Bible. I wrote in my journal and sent letters back home. I'd often stand on one particular balcony, stare into a nearby monastery, the ocean beyond it and daydream.
The last day of the study tour was a downer. What got to me was knowing I'd never see some of these people again. Everyone promised to e-mail, call or write, but most of us returned to our own lives when we got home. I know I did. Fortunately, I still keep in touch with several friends I met on the Love Boat. Unfortunately, most of them are scattered all over the world and the chances of us running into each other in the near future are slim.
But because we live in different time zones, some of us always have someone we can call late into the night when we have trouble sleeping.