June 19, 2012

A Cramp Abroad, Part I: Far Eastbound and Slightly Downward

Music writer Kevin Craig Begins His Blog in Taiwan

**A Cramp Abroad**

*Dispatches From An American in The Far East Trying Desperately Not to Spread His Americanism*

**Part I: Far Eastbound and Slightly Downward**

Three months ago, I accepted a position as an SAT and Academic English instructor for The Princeton Review office in Taiwan. I’d been teaching for TPR in the states for three years, and when the opportunity to work in the Republic of China arose, I jumped right on it.

Departure date: May 31, 2012.

Length of stay: two months.

The last time a Craig man visited this region of the world, it was, in my dad’s words, “to get shot at.” At age 19, the owner of the loins from whence I came traveled to Vietnam so he could fight in some kind of war. Apparently, a lot of people were pissed off about something. I’m 23, John Craig is 64, and I’m glad to say that the debacle in which my dad was involved has been resolved. Having been reared primarily in the rural southeastern United States, however, I’m always fearful of guns gettin’ to blazin’. One must be alert at all times.

I’d never had to use a passport, so I figured this trip would be a shock to my already fragile system. I was correct.

I flew out of Atlanta at 6:15 a.m., my mostly leg-comprised 6’2” frame jammed into the tiny seat of an American Airlines plane with sealed ashtrays. I arrived at LaGuardia a couple of hours later and waited for a shuttle to take me to JFK. It was the first time I’d ever even heard of an “airport change” on a flight itinerary. I guess that’s what I get for flying halfway across the world on a freelance writer/part-time teacher/yogurista/musician’s budget.

I hopped on the shuttle and started to JFK. I detected an accent from my driver and asked where he was from. Without missing a beat, he replied, “where crazy man Jim Jones killed all those people.”

Oh. Guyana.

My feelings on American Airlines are presumably known, and most other US airline companies seem to be equally unpleasant. This is probably because pilots and flight attendants get paid far less dough than they deserve. Plus, US progress is slowing with every passing moment. Still, flying is fun and spectacular, no matter how uncomfortable the seats are or how little the staff seems to give a shit. I once took a Delta flight to Los Angeles and thought it was the most amazing flight experience imaginable—until I flew on China Airlines, that is.

Coach. Legroom. Television screens in front of every seat. Free films. Free shows. Free games. Free booze. Free, excellent food. China is winning.

I watched a few movies on the 19 hour flight, but I only remember two. Movie review time:

*Hugo*: extremely enjoyable. I don’t know why I hadn’t seen it yet—I love Scorsese and kids’ movies (I’m either young at heart or an idiot), but I think I was saving it for a date with a girl; I was sitting next to a lady at the time, so I’ll count it as such. The film was cute, sweet, visually pleasing and generally fascinating. See it if you haven’t. Or see it if you have. I have no personal investment in your viewings.

*Chronicle*: pretty decent. However, it is a “found footage” film about teenagers obtaining superpowers. So… see it if you like that sort of thing. I do. It’s an okay film with a floppy premise and some bad acting, writing and directing. Again, I like that sort of thing.

The lady I was sitting next to for that long, long flight was Taiwanese, and I tried, to no avail, to ask her how to get around in Taipei. She was nice and spoke fluent English, but for some reason, she refused to impart any helpful information to me (they mostly speak Mandarin in Taiwan).

“How do I say ‘excuse me?’,” I asked.

“Just say ‘sorry’,” she replied.

“’Thank you?’”

“Don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine”

“But I just want to be able to get around—“

“Just speak English.”

Okay. Fingers crossed. I Probably should have learned some stuff before I came to another country looking for some action.

I downloaded a Chinese app for my intelligent phone, and it mostly had phrases like, “Where is the bathroom?” and “Where can I get a beer?” Not helpful. Why can’t I just learn how to pronounce the word for “bathroom” or “beer” and say it with a confused look on my face? Turns out, there’s no app for that.

We made a brief stop in Osaka, Japan. At the airport, I used the most incredible toilet I have ever encountered. It looked like this:

I used every function on this toilet. It was my first dance with a bidet—a “low basin for washing genitals,” as the Microsoft Word dictionary defines it. It did its job and greatly heightened my excitement level.

I arrived in Taiwan, late-night, June 1, Taipei time, 12 hours in the future now. I exchanged my $800 US cash for over $20,000 NTD (New Taiwanese Dollars), got my luggage and walked toward the pickup zone. I had 20 grand, cash, in my wallet. That was a first.

A man brandishing a sign sporting my name was waiting for me at the pickup zone. Another first.

The driver didn’t speak English, so the conversation during the 45 minute car ride to my June studio apartment was quite sparse. It was past midnight when I arrived, and I’m staying in New Taipei City (a less bustling part of the capital) so the only thing to do was eat some strange meat obtained from a street vendor. I have no idea what I ate, but it tasted weird. Not in a bad way. Just in a weird way.

So here I am—alone, confused and slightly afraid. No idea what I’ve gotten myself into, no clue what to do next. This place seems lovely, and I don’t want to infect anyone with my western bull-plop, but I feel that’s inevitable. I already feel homesick, but I’ll get over it soon. Mainly, I miss my beloved.

Athens, I hardly knew ye. But I’ll know ye soon again.