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As the sun rose on day two, I had already been up for hours plotting my next move – the one thing jet-lag is useful for.
I had one day left in the hotel, and I didn’t want to extend my stay, as cash was scarce. But before I could make any moves, I needed to procure an all-important name chop, a cellular phone, an apartment, and most importantly, my foreigner ID.
I headed first to Shi-Da, the language school I planned on attending, took my placement test, then made my way to the first neon key sign I could find. I had to get a name chop, after all, as it was as good as a form of ID in this country.
Rewind to my college days when my teacher gave all of us Mandarin students Chinese names. Mine was Ai Shi Ting, meaning graceful and poetic. How she arrived at that name for someone as uncoordinated and crass as I, I can’t be sure, but I thought it was phonetically pretty, and most Chinese speakers complimented it as a nice name.
I enjoyed this name until I told my friend Rick about it. He laughed hysterically before sharing, much to my chagrin, how it sounded in English.
“Really?! Your Chinese name is “I shitting?! That’s hilarious!”
Thanks for ruining it for me, Rick.
Alas, my scholarship was in this name, my Shi-Da papers were in this name, and basically my entire identity in Taiwan was under this name.
It was here to stay, and so it was displayed on my name chop.
Next, I walzted into the nearest cell phone store I could find, where I then stood frozen, unsure of my next move. Having noticed that I was a foreigner, a younger worker who spoke some English came to my aid. I fabricated an address on the form, because I needed a phone to find an apartment, and apparently needed an apartment to have a phone.
The proverbial cart was in front of the horse. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
I then sort-of pushed the needed materials to him and let him complete the rest of the paperwork for me, unclear on exactly what the characters said. within a few minutes I was out the door with my new phone.
Finding that this seemed to work, I employed the “push and shrug” method for all of the rest of the day’s tasks. I was usually met with a look of understanding, given a little nod, and treated mostly with patience.
I couldn’t help but think of how this would go if the situation were flip-flopped. Back home in the States, it was common to get annoyed with people who didn’t speak English well.
Yet in Taipei, even the street signs had English, as if Taipei was planned to help we English speakers out. But there was no such help for anyone back home in the States, and I felt slightly ashamed.
That was short-lived, however, as I had managed to get things done! I had applied for my foreign ID, set up a bank account, taken care of signing up for classes, and even managed to find an apartment in the very location I wanted. Yes, I was walking on sunshine, head held high! I even started to feel a bit self-congratulatory.
That was, until I overheard a mother telling her child to look at the “wai guo ren,” (foreigner) pointing to me, almost in the same way that one might say “Look at the cute dog sweetie!”
It’s almost as though in that moment, I became painfully aware that yes, I was a foreigner. Almost nobody in this country looked remotely like me, and the amount of stares I was getting had been excessive. My goodness, I WAS a foreigner, and it wasn’t until this moment that it really sunk in. It was a gut-check moment. The kind where the palms sweat and the blood rushes to the face.
After a brief panic attack, I finally began to feel a bit humbled. I was a guest in a foreign country, and it was I who needed to acclimate, understand, and appreciate.
This is the whole point of living abroad, isn’t it, Ava?
Yes, it was. Realization of day two: I’m a foreigner.
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