It wasn’t until I heard the flight attendant have a rather vivid conversation in Chinese with the guy sitting next to me on the plane about something that involved the seatbelt, when I realized exactly where I was. I looked up over the seat in front of me, only to have this realization sink even deeper into my gut. I was on a stopover in Abu Dhabi, traveling from Greece to Taiwan, amidst a sea of Asian people. For the first time in my life I had no idea what I was doing.
It all started about a year earlier, when I was in Strasbourg as an exchange student, where I met this girl from Taiwan. I had never considered Taiwan as a travel destination before, let alone a study destination. But when she told me about the scholarship, I couldn’t resist the temptation. It was the perfect opportunity: I was finally going to travel to Asia, study Chinese and get paid for it! Who in their right mind would say no to that? Everyone else apparently. Greek families have a habit of overprotecting their children and going out of their way to keep them close. For the rest of the world it’s not acceptable for a guy to be 35 years old and live alone in the apartment right next to his parents. For a Greek family that’s common sense. So when I told my family about me going to Taiwan to study for 9 months, it was only normal that they would all think I was mad to even consider going to a country on the other side of the world, where I didn’t speak the language and which wasn’t even recognized as an independent country by my own. But since in my mind none of the above constituted a decent argument, I applied for the scholarship. And, as with all life-altering/karmic things, I got it without much effort. And that is how I got myself on that plane. Well, the very short version.
But now I was beginning to feel the reality of my decision. It wasn’t exactly fear that I felt, only a bit of unrest, like something inside me knew how changed I was going to return. But the excitement of it all coupled with the stubborn need to prove I was doing the right thing for me, helped me dismiss any unsettling thoughts and return to reading my backpacker’s guide to Taiwan.
A few hours later I was pushing my cart to the airport exit where my Taiwanese friend’s family was waiting for me. I had never met them before, but they were more than happy to pick me up and drop me to my apartment – which they had kindly helped me find and rent. I didn’t know them and already I was grateful to them. I saw their smiling faces and recognized them from the pictures. My friend’s sister, Yi-Nan, and her best friend were waiting for me. My first thought was that I must have looked terrible. I was wearing a pair of old shorts and a white tank top that had a huge oil stain, which I had gotten during the last flight but hadn’t managed to clean off. My curly hair was a mess and, let’s face it, 24 hours of traveling doesn’t do any good to your body odor either. But I really don’t give much thought into how I look, especially when I am this tired, so by the time I got near them the only thought in my mind was to try to remember their names. Yes, I am not good in remembering Chinese names. Never was, never will be. Nobody is perfect.
The two girls spoke very good English, which proved to be very useful, for although we were at the airport of Kaohsiung – the second largest city of Taiwan, not many people spoke English. I exchanged some Taiwanese Dollars and we made our way to the parking lot where my friend’s mother was waiting in the car. She didn’t speak English, but tried to start a conversation with her daughter’s help. She told me she thought we should stop by a store for me to buy some basic things for the first night. As we were driving and talking, I looked outside the window and tried to make out the scenery through the night. It was already dark, although it was only 6pm on a September. To me, being used to the long days of my country and with the tiredness catching up, it felt like it was 10pm.
Kaohsiung at night looked really lively and colorful. The roads were filled with cars and motorbikes and no matter where we turned all the streets – along with my already tired eyes – were overwhelmed by numerous little colorful stores and their neon signs. Soon we stopped outside the store we had been looking for. We were greeted by the owner, a tall and thin man who was a friend of the family, as they explained to me later. His store was very simple. The only spot that looked like it carried his personal decorative intervention was the area around the desk where he kept the cashier. On the desk I saw several little jade statues of Buddha. In an indent on the wall behind the desk was a very large piece of raw amethyst and around it hang dozens of semi-precious stone necklaces. I wanted to ask him so many questions about the stones and what they meant, about the amethyst and what it did in the energy of the room, but I wasn’t sure if my questions fell under the category “religion” and whether asking about religion was insulting or not, so I remained silent. The time would come when I would find what I was looking for.
As I was going through his wares, he went out and returned with a bag of drinks. He offered me a huge plastic cup of fresh brewed ice-cold green tea. Following the girls’ lead, I used the straw to open a hole on the plastic cover of the cup. I took the first sip and felt the sugar hit my palate. “Wow! This is very sweet!” I exclaimed and the girls laughed. “In south Taiwan people love sugar. They add it everywhere!” she said with a smile. She looked too skinny for me to fully grasp the meaning of what she was saying, but I would soon understand. The sugar helped wake me up so I kept drinking. I chose a pillow and a set of sheets, paid – with the help of my friends to make sense of the banknotes, thanked the man and we left.
Tainan was a forty-minute drive from Kaohsiung. It was noticeably smaller, although the traffic was as bad. The building we were looking for was only two blocks away from National Cheng Kung University, where I was going to study, and one block away from the National Cheng Kung University Hospital. I don’t think you can get a safer neighborhood than that. My apartment was right above Yi-Nan’s. It was more like a room with a bathroom. I met the landlord who – naturally – didn’t speak any English and signed the contract with Yi-Nan’s help. He was a really sweet guy, very calm and polite. In the end I offered him my hand to shake. He took it but his hesitation showed me it wasn’t something he did often. I wasn’t sure whether it was disrespectful because he was older than me or simply unusual, but I made a mental note to find out. He left and so did Yi-Nan after asking me for the 47th time if I needed anything else.
I took a deep breath and allowed myself to indulge in the first silence I had in more than 24 hours. I was finally there, in my little room with a bathroom that had no window. I looked at the bucket and mop that waited for me in the corner and smiled. Let’s begin.