PRAA - Taiwan 2010
Matthew Venker '12
My first three days of work with PRAA culminated this afternoon when I was invited to attend a guest lecture with a woman studying the psychological effects of living with HIV/AIDS. With no prior warning, at about 2 PM, everyone in the office started packing up their stuff. I was hoping for an early day, so that I might have a chance to get out and see more sight of the city, since I've been too tired too all week; instead I got invited to a two hour class entirely in Chinese. Still, from the 60% or so that I was able to gather, it was well worth the headache it left me with. Plus, everyone agreed that my Chinese name was 'very special.' Thanks Dai Laoshi!
After work I was invited to go out celebrating one of my coworker's friend's birthday at a Korean restaurant. (I've eaten with people from work 5 times now, and only once did we eat Chinese food globalization challenging norms and standards of authenticity at its finest, I suppose ). Casual conversation with new people, mostly about food and America two of the only things I'm always comfortable talking about here proved a great remedy for hit my confidence in Chinese took after the lecture this afternoon.
And, having finished my third day at work, I realized that I'm halfway done with the first week of the only job I've held outside of food service. As it turns out, I might never go back to Subway.
This weekend, I went to Longshan Temple with Lydia, another St. Olaf-er on an internship in Taipei. I've wanted to go since this past semester, when I had just found out about the possibility of coming to Taipei. I had bought a book of essays by the Taiwanese author Long Yingtai the previous January in Beijing (and since I had bought it in the mainland, it was in simplified characters so good!). The essay was about taking her child there and teaching him the character long, which means dragon, and is their family name, as well as the first character in the temples name. Other than that, the temple wasn't really mentioned much; I'm not usually much of a temple person (I've had my fill of them, believe me) but for some reason after reading that, I just really wanted to go.
The crowd in the temple was unbelievable. I'm used to temples in the mainland, where the only people there really old women, monks, and other tourists looking for that taste of Eastern Spirituality. Longshan had people of all ages and sorts the old ladies, of course, as well as teenaged punks with spiked hair and tattoos, young groups of high schoolers, and mothers teaching their kids, just like Long Yingtai. Everyone offered food traditional offerings like fruits and flowers scattered among bags of Cheetos and Oreos when they entered, burned incense, and whispered prayers.
It proved quite the contrast with the temple experiences I've had in the mainland. The effects of the anti-religious movements in the early PRC era have lingered around even after religious institutions were reopened, making temples more like the 'museums of culture' Zizek calls for than sites of worship for the general populace. Whether you think of it as enlightenment along socialist- materialist lines or repression of cultural tradition, the 60 short years of separation between the PRC and the ROC have made quite the difference in how religious attitudes are expressed. In the mainland, I don't think I've ever seen a monk or nun outside of a temple; today, one laughed at me when I stepped in dog poop on my way home.
Today at work? I was given a mission. It was quite a nice change: I got to leave work for two and a half hours, gallivanting around the city doing something that made me feel important, instead of sitting in the office, hoping to be called into one of those deadly meetings (usually about 3 or 4 hours long, all in Chinese) that will happen maybe two or three times a week just for a break in the monotony. Plus, I got to say that I had a mission, which just sounds cool.
I had to go to Neihu, the northeastern most part of the city, to visit the Indonesian Trade and Exchange office to pick up a passport for one of our clients. She was a migrant worker in Taiwan I believe in the rural countryside and when she was diagnosed with HIV, the Indonesian government revoked her passport. Only now, after around five years, was she getting it back; if my mission was a success, she could finally go home (which is perhaps an overstatement of my role; I think I mean to say since the five years of work by my boss were successful, I can pick up her passport and if I fail [which I didn't] she can't go home). Going to the Indonesian Trade office in Taipei was pretty weird I was the only non-Indonesian, non-Taiwanese there; all the signs were either in Bahasa Indonesian or Taiwan's traditional characters, which I read about as well as Indonesian; and I worried about the legality of me picking up someone else's passport from an official government bureau but it went quite smoothly. No one questioned my ability to say 'I'm here to pick up a passport,' or to look at Indonesian signs?as if I was reading them. First mission Great Success!
Apparently my enthusiasm for the job showed, too: on the train to Neihu, an aspiring fashion designer sitting next to me asked me to model for his profile. But it could've also been that I'm one of the few people he's met that meet the minimum height requirement of 180+ cm tall.
A friend from work invited me to his house in the city of ZhuDong, XinZhu province for the weekend. He was telling me about his softball games one day, and as soon as I asked a question about his team he invited me to come play a game with them. I didn't really know what to say I enjoyed the idea of meeting new people, practicing Chinese in a fun, relaxed environment, and the idea of seeing a different part of Taiwan, but I also hate softball and baseball so I froze until he (attempted to) repeat the question in English. I've come to learn that people in Taiwan have a remarkable English vocabulary, even if they can't really speak English at all, so often times when I find myself not knowing how to answer a question ('is seeing a new part of Taiwan worth waking up at 6:30 on a Sunday to play softball?;' 'do I want to interview sex workers? Why did my boss just tell this person that I am?'; 'should I tell this person that Uyghur lamb kebabs are better in Beijing?') people who can't really speak English will instantly just throw out a few words that might get me on track 'Softball!;' 'Sex Workers;' 'Differential Equasions!'
I decided to go, and luckily there was no room on the team for me to play so I woke up at 6:30 in the morning to take pictures of people playing softball instead. It turned out to be the best weekend to go to ZhuDong, though; it was my friend's grandfather's 80th birthday, so we went out to a Hakka restaurant (Hakka or KeJia is kind of like an ethnic subgroup within the main Han ethnic category of China/ Taiwan; my friend's grandfather is fully Hakka). Impressing the family with my willingness to eat such dishes as black chicken, chicken intestines, and anything slightly spicy, I earned myself several rounds of toasts from various uncles and cousins, who apparently found the fact that a foreigner might know something of the Hakka people as much of a reason to celebrate as the 80th year of the patriarch's life. All the little kids in the family were still just as mystified by me as they are elsewhere in Taiwan though.
And, despite the early wake up on Sunday, I still managed to make this weekend a relaxing and peaceful break in ZhuDong. It gave me a chance to see in real life the some of the mentalities that pervade issues regarding HIV in Taiwan as well. Whenever I'm not translating or updating databases at work, I'm usually reading through newspaper archives, stumbling on articles about how certain criminalizing dispositions towards HIV/AIDS makes legislation so hard to change, and increases the burden on those living with the disease who face firings, evictions from hospitals, unsupportive families, etc. Working at an organization trying to change this, however, I never actually hear anything negative about HIV patients. While driving to a park with my friend and his aunt this Saturday, I listened in to her asking him about his job:
"So you're doing work with the AIDS again, then? You must really like this sort of thing."
"I like it. I guess. But it's more that I think it's important work to do. No onelikes to listen to stories of people dying or getting laid off all day"
"I suppose. Tell me, what's the earliest a person can get HIV?"
"It can pass from a mother to her child in the womb."
"Wow that's really the saddest form of HIV, isn't it?"
"I wouldn't say that they're really all equally upsetting."
"NO, NO, NO! I don't think it's at all right that a poor, young baby can get such a terrible disease just because its mother led a sinful life!"