Acclimating to Taiwan
by Ross Aftel
Since I have only been in Taiwan for one year, I can say that I am by no means a local. However, I have gone to great lengths to try to become a member of its many communities. In this small, impromptu essay, I want to share about how trying to become a contributing member of different communities has led me to have an invaluable social life, as well as developed a greater empathetic and respectful relationship with my social network inside Taiwan.
When I was offered a job with Teach Taiwan, I was only given a very short time to review and accept the offer. Of the many things I felt I needed to consider, navigating life as an immigrant was a major priority to me. Despite the involved work-life a public school teacher has, there are opportunities to meet people and see things. I needed to consider how I could develop a meaningful social life and engage with others. Having been fortunate enough to travel to many countries as a musician and scholar, I have seen that many immigrant communities tend to stick together (Taiwan is certainly no exception: one of their most popular youtuber groups “lifeinTaiwan” is centered around a “family” of 4 white, male, English-speaking immigrants). Being in Taiwan, I understand the desire to be around people that have similar cultural and social backgrounds, and being around people who also can comfortably speak English. This is obviously an easier means of having a social life, but this for me was a problem in that it would not help me improve my Chinese and Minnan skills. I also would not be immersed into the many cultures of Taiwan if I just find other Americans to spend time with. I decided to do the more difficult approach which would be to only engage with local communities in Taiwan.
Fortunately, I knew a couple people in Taiwan before I came to the country, and these friendships were invaluable to my acclimation to my new home. I also found that by developing new relationships with people, my leisure time was naturally filled up with interesting and meaningful activities. For example, before coming to Taiwan, I had learned mahjong many years ago. My friends (and coworkers) found out that I wanted to play mahjong, and I was warmly welcomed to mahjong games, thus also offering me a chance to meet new people. Also because of the language barrier, I have to try to speak Chinese in order to communicate with some of the people I play with.
Another part of my social life that has blossomed here is my relationship with some of the many arts communities here in Taiwan. I should explain that before coming to Taiwan, I had just finished 2 advanced degrees in musicology and music performance, focusing on Chinese aesthetics. Because of my background, I have spent a lot of time in Taiwan meeting with visual artists, musicians, thespians, and music academics. In this aspect of my social life, I believe I have had highly unique experiences here. I want to share some of these relationships and activities with you now.
Thanks to one of my coworkers, I was introduced to the musicology community in Taiwan. My research was selected to be presented at the National Taiwan musicology conference at the National Taipei University. From there, I met many new colleagues and friends who were all in the world of academia. This led me to getting invitations to speak at National Taiwan Normal University, and connecting with the National Taiwan University of Arts and the National Taichung University of Education. Needless to say, I have amassed a small network of friends in academia, allowing me to stay connected with the world that I was a part of before coming to Taiwan.
Perhaps spending time with academics does not sound like a fun or conventional way of using one’s “leisure time”, but it has opened up a lot of doors for me (it also has been incredibly fun!). For example, after one of my guest university talks, a well-known musician and DJ in Taipei approached me about playing music with her. This was very significant because aside from being an electronic musician, she is also involved in 北管 (Beiguan), (Beiguan), and asked me to participate. Beiguan and Nanguan are art forms that have deep cultural significance in Taiwan. Although these art forms originated in China, they were widely popular and woven into the social fabric of nearly every neighborhood and community in Taiwan. Beiguan and Nanguan are types of music narrative performances that happened at temples throughout Taiwan. However, by 1990, these art forms saw a substantial drop-off in practice, and aside from knowing they existed, most people under the age of 40 are largely unfamiliar with these types of music performance. Interestingly, there are organizations and young people in Taiwan who are trying to rediscover Taiwanese identities, and Beiguan and Nanguan groups have emerged. As an immigrant, being invited to participate in Beiguan is a special opportunity. It is an incredibly difficult music to learn, the lyrics are rarely (if ever) in modern Chinese, and even many of the teachers use Minnan to communicate the music with the musicians.
In the same vein as Beiguan, another amazing way I spend my leisure time in Taiwan is with one of the only remaining traditional gong makers in Taiwan. His name is Master Wu and he lives on the side of a secluded mountain, deep in the heart of Wulai (Southern Taipei). I say that this is in the same vein as Beiguan because every Beiguan and every temple in Taiwan traditionally would have a large gong to play, and Master Wu has been making these special gongs for over 40 years! Although I live in Taichung (quite far from Wulai), lately I try to spend most of my weekends in Wulai with Master Wu. Spending my time learning about what he does, his stories, and the traditional art forms in Taiwan has given me invaluable insight and appreciation for some of the culture in Taiwan. As someone who teaches English, music, and art in public schools in Taichung, I can attest that a lot of Taiwanese culture is absent from their textbooks. In a short time, because of my burgeoning relationship with Taiwanese cultures, I have already begun consulting on some cultural topics in teaching. My friendships with local artists and craftspeople like Master Wu have allowed me to feel more connected to the community, and these relationships provide me with unique experiences to learn things that even many Taiwanese people rarely take the opportunity to be involved with.
Another way I have spent some of my leisure time is playing music. I gave a concert in Taichung at a wonderful cafe, and the opportunity allowed me to meet many local artists who came to see me perform. I also became friends with the owner of the cafe and discovered that this place hosts numerous social gatherings and activities that are geared towards meeting new people and socializing not only with locals but with foreigners as well. I find that while many local people (particularly outside of Taiwan) are nervous to speak to foreigners, they still want to meet foreigners and will always attempt to be hospitable towards us. This is a really touching and empathetic side to Taiwan and it is not a practice that is necessarily held globally.
Lastly, I want to talk about the friends that I have made in my own neighborhood. These friendships, while not very close friendships, are perhaps the ones that I cherish the most. These people are workers at local restaurants. For example, I have a daily chat with the two workers at the fried chicken stall down the street from my house. We often exchange desserts with each other as well. There is a language barrier between us, but the joy the three of us have when I come by is something I look forward to everyday (once we find a fourth person, we plan on meeting for mahjong!). There is also a traditional Taiwanese food restaurant a few meters away from the chicken stand. Whenever I walk past, the owner stops me to chat. He even invited me to Changhua to spend Lunar New Years with his family! Further down the road is a very quiet Japanese izakaya. The two people who run the restaurant do not speak any English, but I sometimes come by and visit with them and their puppy, “Miso”. When buying a thermos at the nearby camping store, I befriended one of the sales staff who is now my Chinese teacher!
Perhaps I am not close friends with these people, but meeting and getting to know people in my own neighborhood has been a special experience for me. In the many places in the US that I had lived, I was never so familiar with the people in my own neighborhood. Building these relationships has given me a feeling of community and support, which is something that most immigrants I believe try to look for and develop when moving to a new place. While moving to a new country in an ever-complicated and dynamic world can be a stressful and terrifying experience, I believe that making the move to Taiwan and trying to meet local people and engage in local activities has made my leisure time and social life more fruitful than before coming here.