“What causes culture shock? It is basically an accumulation of stress caused by a lack of the familiar…. Culture shock can hit the young, the old, the experienced, the naive. It might be a fleeting moment of melancholy, or a brief loneliness, but it can also be a profound and deep depression.” — Culture Shock! Taiwan
So the honeymoon is over. Over. It’s been a fantastic introduction to Taiwan, but as I bid good bye to my heady first few weeks here, I realize with a shock that I am living in Taiwan, not visiting, vacationing, or galavanting. So if I haven’t been in touch, don’t worry, I’m just culture shocked.
It started with not being able to sleep. Then it was Chinese classes starting, and realizing that I would have to study hard if I want to improve my Chinese with any kind of speed. And with 3-hour daily classes, the speed is hen kuai, kuai, 快! Then it was the reality of having a few friends, a nearby dumpling shop, and a pineapple man–who delicately shaves off flying slices of pineapple peel with an enormous cleaver–and since now I had my basic survival needs met, I retreated into the tiny cocoon that was my tenuous comfort zone.
Last week was the hardest one so far: everything seemed too difficult to do, and yet I was trying to do everything right, as best I could– in class, at home, and everywhere in between. I studied, I partied, I walked, biked, bussed, and spoke as much Chinese as I could to as many Taiwanese people as would talk to me along my daily routes. My Chinese class went to a “Moon Cake Museum” in anticipation of the Mid-Autumn Festival this Wednesday. It was great fun.
But still, every night I flopped down into bed feeling beaten down, like my spirit was struggling against an unknown assailant. I spent my days exhausted, not sleeping enough at night and sleeping too much in the afternoons, barely keeping it all together. I would have done anything for a hot American shower, an order of buffalo wings, and a night of watching House or Arrested Development with my Boston roommates. (Oh wait, I still would!)
This week swung back in the opposite direction– it was a week of meeting new people, and of trying fascinating new things instead of taking refuge in a few now-familiar ones. This week my friend from Emerson came to visit from Korea where he is teaching English– and the sudden relief of seeing someone who has known me for longer than 3 weeks was like gulping fresh air after swimming underwater.
We had some great adventures this week with my Taiwanese roommate and his Taiwanese friends– my roommate brought us to a wedding lunch banquet and a Thai massage parlor, and my friend’s Taiwanese friends took us out and brought us to a late night family barbecue to celebrate the week’s Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節).
On Wednesday, the day of 中秋節 itself, my roommate Susan brought me hiking in the mountains north of Taipei with her friends in Yangmingshan National Park. After a day outdoors, we helped her friends prepare another celebratory barbecue that stretched into the night.
Also this week, I visited Eva’s parents to wish them a happy 中秋節, who reminded me of how lucky I am to have an honorary family here, but more importantly, simply people who care about me and my well-being. They sent me home with a bag of moon cakes and you zi (柚子, aka “pomelos” in English), and the knowledge that if culture shock ever gets to hard, I can go see them and feel a little more at home here.
Before I left the States, I read a book called “Culture Shock! Taiwan: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” (quoted above). Now I returning to it, as issues of confusion or losing face or mere worry come up. The book recommends, “Just as one can get used to a hot or cold bath by slowly easing into the water and not shocking the system, so one can slowly ease into a new culture.” Good advice, certainly.
But although I never fancied myself immune, I didn’t expect my culture shock to feel this way. In Paris, my only other immersion stay abroad (3 months during college), I missed peanut butter, ketchup, California weather, and my flip flop bedecked fellow students sauntering among the palm trees on campus.
Here, I miss being fully literate, American brunches, bathtubs, Target, the particular cushiony texture of the mattress I have slept on for the last four years. My friends, talking for hours about everything and nothing. Vodka tonics. Boston. Farmers’ markets when I had all of the words to ask vendors about their produce, and chat about where it was grown and how the season is this year. Collard greens from Redbones. Going for runs around Tufts campus, and circling up Powder House Boulevard on my way home. My family.
I miss all of these things, but remind myself of all there is to gain, of what an amazing opportunity this is. My research here is not just about academic history books– it’s also about forging my identity here. Finding out where I came from. We all have the right (and the burden) of getting to decide who was are in this world– I am here and it’s the right place to be for me, and that’s finally sinking in.
The prologue is over; let the action begin.
Epilogue to this post: The action has already begun this week: yesterday, I went to a lecture about the White Terror period in Taiwan, given by the same author of a book in Mandarin about Liao Wen-Yi that I have in my possession. After the lecture, I met him, he agreed to talk with me more (and hopefully let me interview him). Then, I found out that my father’s cousin would be attending bible study that afternoon in the very same building, so I met my 86-year old Taiwanese aunt Wen Xiang, the first of my Liao family members that I have connected with in Taiwan.
Have I mentioned that things are moving forward at a startlingly fast pace? Kuai, kuai, la!