I never signed up for this.
Okay, to be honest, I did sign up to be an educator at the Taipei Zoo as part of the Taiwan Tech Trek 2009 program. But I never signed up for the rest of it. I never expected to meet the people I did, to be immersed so deeply into the Taiwanese lifestyle and to have my heart broken.
First off, working at the zoo was everything I had imagined it to be. I had written in my application that I applied because I wanted to experience a different type of work style. Having spent six years studying Computer Science and Psychology, one can easily go insane while sitting in a cubicle for eight hours a day. That being said, I was just as surprised as everyone when TTT had accepted me as their newest educator at the Taipei Zoo.
Well, first came surprise. Then came panic. I was a recently graduated Master’s student in Computer Science and Psychology. What did I know about animals? What did I know about interacting with people and educating them? Worse yet, I was heading to a country to live for about two months without really being able to read Chinese. I could speak moderately well and even understand a little bit of Taiwanese, but reading Chinese? That was like if I wanted to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Still, taking things on as they came was something I always prided myself on, and so, bravely marching towards what was inevitably my doom, I fly across the world to Taipei, Taiwan and participated in the Taiwan Tech Trek 2009 program.
Eight weeks and then the program is over. As I sit in my bedroom at home in the United States, I can’t help but feel a sense of loss. I sift through the things I had brought back from Taiwan and with each thing I pick up, with each photograph I look at; I can hear the sound of my heart breaking even more.
I can see a keychain, on one side, a picture of a cartoon monkey’s face. Flipping it over, I read the inscription. “For Matt, 2009, Taipei Zoo, Shawn”
Four of these were made, each one given to an educator intern by our supervisor Shawn towards the end of our internship.
The first day at the zoo, he asked the four of us interns, “Want to go feed some elephants?”
I was hooked in immediately. The zoo was a refreshing experience. From the jobs that were handed to us, learning about animals, learning about conservation, learning about the daily chores of each employee at the zoo, it was all eye-opening. Learning that things happened not only where the public could see it, but also behind the scenes caused me to have newfound respect for the zookeepers and all the others that dedicated their time to the zoo.
I could tell you about all the tourist things that I did in Taipei. But that wasn’t what made this summer special.
For a real look at Taiwanese life, I found a partner-in-crime in that of one of the other interns, a fellow educator at the zoo. What we did, the places we saw is what made this summer in Taipei unlike any other summer I’d spent in Taiwan.
Together, she and I explored beyond the influence of the other interns, not caught up in the partying that the interns often find themselves trapped in.
The two of us explored Taipei through many different points of view.
I can tell you how the elderly spend their evenings. I can show you the spots just hidden near鼎泰豐in a garden park where our elders gather to exercise, to dance to the music of the 1950s.
I can tell you how couples sit on the benches of parks, how they let the warm summer air drift all around them, cooling them while they shyly hold each others hands, watching people walk by, walk all around them.
I can tell you how long one needs to wait in line for breakfast at the place at the corner of Heping East Rd and Wenzhou St. I can tell you the line is always long, no matter what time of day, no matter the weather. I can tell you not to go on Sundays, for that is the one day they are closed. I can tell you that they’ve refused the news reporters coming to report on them, saying that they do not need the extra business.
I can tell you that no one ever goes to五分埔 on Mondays because that is the day they only sell wholesale, and that any other day would be a good day to go shopping. I can also tell you that if you do decide to go and your companion is a woman, be sure to allocate at least a good hour for just a single city block.
I can tell you that in the evenings, locals gather to exercise around the國立國父紀念館. I can tell you that you can easily blend in, two foreign-born Taiwanese young adults lost in the sea of people that walk, run, stroll around this cultural icon. I can tell you that in the glow of Taipei 101 in the distance, old men still fly their kites, still let them soar as high as they can get them. Whether this was a competition of sorts or just a way of flying free in the sky, even they do not know.
I can tell you which bus drivers are friendly and which ones really do not care whether or not you get onto the bus. I can tell you how unreliable the Muzha MRT line is, how long an average ride from the Technology Building to the Taipei Zoo will take.
I can tell you where the teenagers and young adults go with each other on dates. I can show you the theaters of Miramar Entertainment Park. I can tell you the Ferris Wheel makes a full turn in seventeen minutes. Seventeen minutes in which it is only you and the other people in your gondola and the view of Taipei in the distance.
I can show you the shopping in Ximen, the places where you can grab good deals, the places where you can get ripped off just for speaking one word of English.
I can tell you where the cheap shirts can be bought in malls, then I can take you to the night markets and show you where you can buy them for half that price.
I can tell you which bars are the ones where locals go to, where they vacate them before the clock even strikes midnight, the places where one can go to have talks, to wonder how we ended up where we were, to question where we were headed in our future.
I can tell you about the wonders and marvels of convenience stores. Having a late night craving? No problem, head to the nearest corner and pick something up. More than likely, you’ll run into at least five others wanting something, regardless of what time of night.
I can tell you there are more treasures hidden in alleyways and side streets than anyone could ever possibly know. Whether it’s a famous poet’s house (near Wenzhou St.) or Japanese-style housing (Lishui St.) there are wondrous places to visit, so long as you know to look for them.
I can tell you that having experiences like this with another person changes you. It creates a bond that will remain with the two of you forever, regardless of what has happened or what will happen.
I can tell you the best place to fall in love. Whether it is with the city, the lifestyle, or another person, I can tell you the place where you can give your heart up. I can tell you how easy it is to get caught up in the surroundings, whether you are standing on the banks of the river in Bitan with the lights on the bridges shining brightly or in Danshui, riding bikes. I can tell you how easy it is to get caught in the beauty of all things Taipei, the beauty of the people you meet in your lifetime.
And now, as I sit here finishing up this personal reflection of my time spent in Taipei, I can tell you that my heart is breaking. I am missing Taipei and Taiwan. I am missing my internship at the zoo. I am missing the people I’ve become friends with, people I’ve gotten close with.
To say that Taiwan Tech Trek has been an impact on my life is the understatement of my life. Without this program, I would never have learned so much, yearned so much and experienced so much.
I may not have signed up for all of this, but I’m thankful I did.