WENSHAN DISTRICT, TAIPEI — As a non-native (Mandarin Chinese) speaker, living in Taiwan can be a bit isolating at times. So much of city is still inaccessible to me: billboards, restaurant ads, street signs, and the general hum of a metropolitan area quickly filtered out of my senses. I can’t make much sense of the noise, so I reluctantly ignore it … which causes an envelope of silence around me. It’s a heavy envelope at times, that can feel like a very real (and very unwanted) barrier between myself and the people around me.
Yet, a mundane morning stroll around the neighborhood reminds me that I belong here. You see, Taiwan is often thought of as one of the more welcoming and friendly countries, and my morning strolls remind of this.
Today starts a bit more sluggish than most, as cold nights lead to cold mornings, and I’d rather not roll out from under the covers. A quick chat with the ladies back home, and I hit the street with a focus: breakfast, tea, return to work. It’s a routine that I’ve done almost daily for a month now, and it works pretty well.
The Lunar New Year behind us, folks are settling back into their own routines. Shops and restaurants are opening back up and the streets are a little more busy today. More people mean more conversations, and that familiar feeling fires up — I can’t follow the noise, so the envelope begins to fold a bit.
But today? Very different. As I walk around, a few familiar faces nod and smile towards me. I muster “你好” here and there, in a way that communicates my lack of confidence … followed with a shaky “早上好.” There is a lot to learn, still.
My stumbling through Chinese? That’s pretty much par for the course. What made today different were the people in the neighborhood, and their replies. At Xiao Maomi, the four ladies who prepare breakfast spotted me down the street, and each of them smiled and nodded. Before I’d stepped foot in the restaurant, they already had 冰紅茶 read for me (an iced black tea), and they threw some bacon and eggs on the grill — I don’t have to order food here any more, because they know that I’m here for their famous bacon and eggs.
A few crystal-clear English “Hello!”s later, and I was full. As I got up to pay my tab, the older woman in front of me smile through her face mask, and gave me a hearty “Yo!” and a wave. I gave a few “再見!” back (Goodbye), and wander back to my apartment.
On the way? More familiar faces. The family who runs the spicy noodles stand sees me across the street (They’re my other competing breakfast favorite; I always feel a tad guilty when I don’t visit them). They shout “Hello!” from across the street, and I wave back — the drink cup in my hand sheepishly communicating my breakfast infidelity. One of the ladies has her Shiba Inu with her, and she walks across the street. I’m missing my dogs terribly, so and I stop and wait for her. She nods and greets me in Chinese, and I lean down to pet the dog. He’s … a bit shy, but reluctantly remembers my scent and lets me scritch his scruff.
One more task? I need some fresh food, and I pop by for an apple. The older man who runs the stand is just setting out a fresh box, and he sees me from across the way. He’s already got an apple in his hand, and NT$25 and an 👌 later, I’m back to work.
The sun is out today, and it’s starting to feel like home. Tomorrow will mark a de facto end to the Lunar New Year holiday and a renewed focus on 2020 and our research and scholarship. It’s a good feeling to head into the work as part of the neighborhood.
Hearing “Hello!” matters. More than I ever thought.