Sojourn in Taiwan

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A Ghost Month Dragon

Let's start with a dragon

They have this festival here every year called ghost month, during which the gates of the afterworld are open and the dead hang around interfering with the living. People leave out offerings, and burn 'ghost money' in the streets. It's not safe to be out after dark, and you should keep away from water deep enough to be pulled into and drowned. All very daft really, but it kicks off with a pretty cool parade. Lots of dragons, giants, fireworks, and more than a few young nubiles in revealing costumes.

Here, if you haven't been following my movements - or lack of them - is still Taiwan. I've been here since June '02, more than a year and no sign of imminent departure. The job I came here to start was a bum steer and I struggled with a problematical agent for my first five months. It got better after I bailed out on them, although it was an expensive operation costing me a month's salary and a trip to Hong Kong to get a new visa. Since then life has steadily improved and I'm now pretty settled - a couple of money-for-nothing jobs, decent apartment, cat, cool little motorbike, and sailing most weekends. There's even a rumour I'm going to pay my credit card bills this month. Ye gods, I'm becoming responsible.

It won't last, of course. I'm getting itchy feet, and starting to cast around for a way off this rock. I'll either move on to a new situation in February, or hang on until the summer and have a bit more cash in hand. If I can stand teaching for another couple of years then Japan is an attractive option, and I could buy a boat to live on, love in, and eventually leave on. Alternatively there's a sail training ship that visited here a while back from Japan. I have a standing invite to join them as unpaid crew, which would give me a chance to do something interesting and educational for a while.

I miss Europe, though. It's been six years, and I'd like to go back, but the economic news is not good. Man has to eat, after all. I'll see how I feel when the time comes. I might go and visit my Tai Ji teacher, who is moving to Norway next year. Oh, yes. Did you know I'm learning Tai Ji Quan? This is yer authentic Chinese slow-motion martial art exercise thingy that basically revolves around keeping your balance and stretching everything. There's this magic wiggle thing too, but I'll never get the hang of that. Apparently you have to get waves of energy moving through your body, in opposite directions at once, with the result that your extremities fly out with explosive energy. Great for catapulting would-be assailants through windows, and it apparently improves your sex-life too!! I'll keep practising.

My teacher is an American-born Norwegian who has been here too long. He only knows the Chinese words for all his Tai Ji stuff, and is going to have big problems when he goes 'home' after ten years living among 'the ants'. He's really starting to hate the people and way of life here, and I can't wholly blame him. It's all about money, control, and prestige in this culture. People work like crazy to save money, and don't spend it on anything unless it makes them look good. Employers mostly want to own you, expect you to work all the hours in the world for nothing, and should not be questioned or argued with under any circumstances because it makes them look bad. You are supposed to just do as you are told and be grateful.

And along comes me with my long hair, and my 'hire someone else, I've got a life to live' attitude!

I have pretty sweet deals with my jobs right now and can't really complain. The people I work for are pretty understanding. I work precisely the hours agreed, have three full days a week off, don't have to contend with any little 'extras', and am pretty much left to get on with it. For this they pay me pretty well, in freely convertible currency. The Taiwan $ is actually one of the hardest currencies in the world, after decades of exporting cheap crap to the world. They're losing that position to the other China, the big one, and focus more on hi-tech these days but I think they're struggling. The education system, and overall culture, doesn't value independent thought or creativity so they're just copying the rest of us and trying to do it cheaply. A bit of a tenuous position to be in, if you ask me.

The army spraying disinfectant

Still, they've just completed the world's tallest building - Taipei 101. It's about half a mile from my apartment, in the centre of a city that has plenty of empty office space already, on an island built by seismic activity. Several people were killed during the construction when a quake hit and the cranes fell off the top onto the street. In August we had three quakes measuring 6 or more on the Richter scale, in 36 hours!! They were offshore, and only measured 3 and a bit in Taipei, but all the same...

We're literally living on a rubble pile. And Taipei is apparently built on the sort of soil that can become like quicksand in the right kind of quake. Now there's an image!!

In their spare time the army defend against the long-promised invasion from mainland China, and assist with earthquake and typhoon cleanups. Their most recent job, however, has been to spray disinfectant in the streets during the SARS scare.


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