Saturday, June 25, 2005

A light jaunt in traffic

"Green?" Pointing down the street, he said "Umm...Green?"
"Ah, uh, yeah, yeah," ending the conversation was the priority. There were at least seven green signs. His finger pointed abstractly, to say the least. However, this, like the previous six conversations, needed a conclusion.
Perhaps I am neurotic, but I can't stand making some poor individual trying to overcome my language barrier because he was willing to help. Thus, these random samples of Engrish conversations were multiplying fast.
I was trying to buy a cellphone card in Taiwan, armed with only the phrase "thank you" and a somewhat shaky "how are you?" Neither were especially useful, however, I used both at even the most inopportune times.
This may not sound like much of an adventure, but that attitude does not give Tainan enough credit. One day made it clear, Tainan is always an adventure. The sidewalk often became the street, which was in a constant state of bedlam. The only traffic laws of any consequences were the laws of physics. Assuming a hole in traffic is equal size x, and the car/bike is size y, as long as x>y, go for it! In fact, sometimes when y>x, still go for it - just do it really fast.
If I am not on the street's constant near-accident state, then I am on the sidewalk. I quickly developed a habit of talking a careful and large step every ten or so. The sidewalk has a nasty tendency to drop for a foot or two for no apparent reason. Thus, I always have to pay attention, rather than walking while scribbling notes into a notebook. Instead of stopping note and photo taking, which would have been a better idea, I simply created a rhythm with the sidewalk. Ten steps, big jump. Ten steps, big drop. Twelve steps, walk around a car directly into the street because I have no other option, put book away and prey to a newly found savior.
Everything I do is a little harder because it is so hot and damp that my paper has started melting. I throw receipts into my pocket and they quickly become one receipt, or a puddle of receipt. If I put the notebook into my armpit, it imprints my shirt's texture into the page.
I have found that I may be overdressed for my job. That said, I can't picture an outfit entirely suitable for my work that is not sold at an army surplus store. No, that is exaggeration and I know that, though maybe a Navy surplus store.
My new school is quite charming. The people are smart. The staff people are smart. The kids are kids. For the most part, its clear that my work is a bastion of efficiency. That said, some things really get jammed up. Daniel, the senior instructor, told me to go to a specific staff member to get an apartment. She of course asked if Daniel and I had started looking.
Ultimately, that and about three other jobs are for me to figure out. I have realized quickly that they will help me, but they won't hand hold me, and that is probably how I would want it. One job is to buy an English/Chinese map. However, I am starting to think I might give up on this. At first, my brilliance said "But you are in China, all the signs are in Chinese, and the Romanji is really hit or miss, shouldn't you get a Chinese map?"
And the answer that I discovered very soon, was, "No." Trying to scan a full sized city map in Chinese, looking for a specific thing, is not easy. The map on the back of my hotel's business card still throws me. One other job is to buy a bowl, and another is to find an apartment. However, right now I want a map and a SIM card for my phone.
The problem with the SIM cards is that each place forwarded me to another place. However, I don't understand what they are saying when they tell me where to go. Thus, their responses have two properties, one, I usually don't know exactly where they are directing me, and two, I don't know why they are directing me somewhere else.
Though charades and confusion, I believe that I have a special type of SIM card for my phone. I keep staring at the really cool phones and can't help but think "F it" and go with that. That said, this is supposed to be a jaunt away from materialism, not directly at it.
Following the green signs was somewhat embarrassing, after stopping at a pet store, a restaurant, and a convenience store, I was confident I was not sure where he meant. To add insult, I am not exactly sure which was the pet store, and which was the restaurant. The line seems blurred here. Often times a place is clearly an exotic pet shop. The fish are at prices that make them clearly for sale, and are so obviously rare I can't picture someone eating them. Yet there are suspicious tables around and what seems to be menus. They also have very large Plincos in there, I wonder if one can eat them?
I was searching for hours before I realized that I was emphatically lost. In many ways, that is good. I do this when I come to a new city, I dive into downtown until I have no idea where I am. I then walk around for hours, slowly figuring it out. Eventually, inevitably, I find my way home. Typically I learn landmarks on the way.
This might be a good time to clarify something, Tainan is a city. It was supposed to be smaller than Denver based on population statistics, bluntly, my ass. I have seen more people today than live in Denver. In Denver, if I walked around as much as I already had, I would come to a clearing of some sort. Some place that was not quite city. I did not encounter this. It was non stop city. Everything was cramped on everything. There were big buildings, and small buildings. It was not Hong Kong, but it did have as many neon signs as possible.
One phone store told me to go to what I took to be, according to the address he wrote down "Gibberish gibberish 559 gibberish." Although I was glad to discover they had a sensical address system, unlike Japan for instance, I was not sure how far me at "Gibberish gibberish 316 gibberish" was from GG 559 G.
That said, it did not stop me, as it was clear he wanted me to go a certain direction. About thirty minutes later, I can attest, the numbers go up very, very slowly. After a solid thirty minute walk, the numbers went from GG 3xx G all the way to GG 499 G. And then of course to GG 1xx G.
At that point I realized that the 500s were on the other side of the street, and I had passed them some ways back. Eventually getting to the store, they actually pulled out a SIM card. But then said so much confusion it was not even worth zoning out. I believe they were trying to express that I had a really weird type of phone, or something.
I always thought it silly that people naturally yell and over articulate points to someone who does not speak their language. Ultimately believing that if the two of them really try, they can get this across. Other people will say nothing, or bad English, and then suddenly launch into a Chinese diatribe. This is no Japan, or Thailand for that matter. This is no Taipei, they just don't know English. In other areas, I can trust that most know some, some know much, and a few just know English. Here, the most fluent are the least fluent elsewhere, and it can get real ugly. At this point, I had not run into a single white person in some two or three hours.
Which definitely makes me stand out. People often double-take. I am in such a near drunk state that I have a very warm smile. Each time I see someone I end up smiling and doing a little bow. Even the most cold looking people end up cracking and doing the same. Girls do double takes. Children stare. Men try to size up. All of the looks have a certain amount of respect, which is nice, but they almost always look. Those who do not, try to do it with a certain amount of defiance. Some people will walk by, looking directly to their left for no apparent reason, having realized that I might pass on the right.
It is starting to weird me out that I am used to sprinting for my life after only a few hours. There are no little walking guys or firm red hands. You have to play it by ear with the lights, it is not a pedestrian town. Sadly, I think a scooter, which seems like a terrifying proposition, is the best way to go. At least with a scooter you are supposed to be in the street. Furthermore, I am getting sick of old women zipping by me and young women foreigners noting "Oh yeah, it can be scary at first, but its a breeze." The Hemingway in me is starting to make fun of me, something must be done.
The biggest problem is that I am not sure what I am pursuing. I was supposed to be able to get a SIM card at 7-11, now I am browbeaten from missed turns. I walked so far after that address that I have no idea where I have gone.
The biggest problem as far as getting back, everything is the same. I look down a street, a thousand little neon signs of varying colors, but that could be any street. All streets seem to have a similar configuration. I am starting to note the shapes of 7-11s to tell them apart from other 7-11s.
There are big buildings in the background that I am trying to use spatially. This was actually my primary navigation system in Bangkok. I tried putting the big buildings into the spot they were when I left. In doing so, I would find a path that helped me. After some time trying to do this in Tainan, I realized that even the big buildings looked remarkably a like. Furthermore, I was so lost, I very well could have walked to the other side of the buildings and was now trying to place myself on the inverted version of my location, reflected by the building.
As night fell, I found myself sprinting across traffic more hastily. It seemed like I should get home before the night fell. Not a fear of the dark, I think I have just watched too many movies and it seemed like an appropriate thing to do. I realized that I naturally used park cars as barricades from the river of machine-armed life that menaced cross walks. I have realized that cars, although ultimately free to do anything physically possible, obey at least some traffic rules, scooters will often cruise through red lights, or make blind turns. I think if I ever did that, my mother, no matter where she was, would drop dead instantly.
After night fell, my urgency dropped, since my one time based goal no longer mattered. I stopped at a restaurant that lavished different types of meat on you. It was less than $3 for a plate of boiled everything, I believe that the best part was chicken skin. Not as an opinion on what I believe was the best, but believing that it was, in fact, the skin of a chicken.
I basically tried to follow my instincts: "Ah, the trapezoidal 7-11, that was on my left hand side at one point, so lets put it on the right hand side." I am confident that at one point I was just walking in a spiral around my building. Eventually I started extensively using my hotel's business card and asking anyone who might even vaguely know English.
Through pointing, I eventually saw the only sign I both recognized, and knew that I had only seen once that day - McDonald's. As a beacon from heaven. I followed the golden arches. I knew that my hotel was a block away from it, but I was not sure in what direction. In summery, that took another hour.
I walked between 15 and 20 miles. Now I have the weekend to prepare for my first class. On Monday, I go straight to the front lines. I have met all of the wonderful teachers. I got lots of instruction from the teacher I am going to substitute. I met the kids. Now lets just hope they don't kill me. They may not be armed with machines, but if the traffic here any indication, I have reason to be scarred.

No comments: