I always think of my time in Taiwan with a smile on my face. It was our first overseas posting and definitely a very good one. I knew very little about Taiwan before we went. It turned out I wasn’t the only one. Many conversations with friends and acquaintances went like this:
‘Where are you moving to?’
‘Oh, I would love to visit Bangkok!’
‘Er…, that’s Thailand.’
I love the Taiwanese. They are generally very fond of Westerners and go out of their way to help you. Many times I was in shops trying to make myself understood in broken Chinese. But I knew we would work it out together. If the shop assistant couldn’t help, one of the other customers would try. And more than once, very often actually, someone would call a friend whose English was better and I would explain on the phone to this friend what I was looking for. Once clarified, I would hand the phone over to the shop assistant who would then be instructed by the person on the phone. Everybody happy and we would all part with many ‘Xie Xie-s’ and big smiles.
The Taiwanese do eat some things that I wasn’t keen on trying. I would usually ask,
‘Is this meat or vegetable?’
As long as it was a vegetable, I was happy to eat it. If it was part of an animal that the Taiwanese knew most Westerners wouldn’t eat, they would warn me.
‘I don’t think you will like that’.
Except for the street vendors who tried to sell me their chicken feet.
‘Very delicious!’ they would say with a big smile on their face.
I think they knew but were just teasing.
Taiwanese food in general was absolutely wonderful! So much better than the Chinese takeaway back home. Actually, no comparison. Western food wasn’t always great. I didn’t really enjoy corn and minced beef on my pizza so we happily stuck to eating local food without ever being disappointed.
Working in Taiwan was challenging at times. The times I worked in completely Taiwanese environments, I felt lonely and disconnected. Not only because of lack of language skills but also because my ideas of teamwork were very different. When I moved to a more international environment, I soon found my place and was much happier.
In the six years in Taiwan I had three children. First my son and two years later my twin girls. In both pregnancies I had complications and ended up in hospital. This was definitely not a pleasant experience but the nurses and doctors made me feel welcome and comfortable. My obstetrician went beyond his role and responsibilities to make sure I fully understood what was going on and how the babies were doing in the hospital nursery. He also checked on the nurses to make sure I received the best of care. Because of this wonderful and thoughtful care, these challenging times haven’t left any scars.
When I first arrived, I had great trouble understanding the Taiwanese when they were speaking in English. Every foreign English speaker has an accent, as do I, and it is just a matter of time to get used to the sounds and intonations.
The level of English in Taiwan, in general, was not very high, but I got very used to understanding what someone was trying to say. Take this example from a conversation with our landlord.
When I fell pregnant with the girls, we told our landlord, who lived next door to us, that we probably needed to move because we were having two babies and the house wasn’t very big. He came up with the idea of extending the house, which we were very happy with. We loved our house and especially the location.
He did as promised and the building was on the way when my pregnancy complications started. It was clear that the twins were going to arrive early. We asked our landlord when the extension would be finished. He replied with a question:
‘How long ago Wendela burn?’
By then we had lived in Taiwan for more than four years and we knew how to interpret his question:
‘How long ago’ meant ‘When’
‘Wendela burn’ translated as ‘Wendela giving birth.’
‘When is Wendela giving birth?’
It is these memories and many other experiences we had with our friendly hosts that have left me with very fond memories of Taiwan. I have been back a few times and will definitely visit again when I get the chance to feel, smell, taste and experience the friendly atmosphere in the country of our first assignment. Wasn’t I lucky to have had such a positive start to my international life?