The Incidental Tourist

The Month of Living Expatriately: Epilogue – Stranger in a Strange Land

After only a month of living in a completely foreign culture, a place where English is an afterthought (though fairly widely spoken among a good portion of the population) and 30+ hours of travel back “Home” to the United States, I found that the biggest challenge so far is re-acclimating myself to life in my home country.

Of course I now have to repeat the Jet Lag Tango, once more shifting my biological clock backwards 12 hours.  They say it takes a day for each time zone crossed, so in theory I should take at least 12 days to get back to normal.  I spent the first day almost passed out but pushing through to force myself to get back on a sleep schedule that matches Eastern Time in North America.  It’s been just shy of a week and I’m still lagged.  I still feel constantly exhausted, my eyes want to just close and I want to sleep, but it’s certainly getting better.

It probably doesn’t help that I got some sort of viral infection on the way home, leaving me drained, dehydrated, and generally feeling ill.  But I can still work.  Sometimes that’s one of the downsides to working from home. When I’m sick, I still try to work.  In a traditional office, I’d take a sick day and not drive in to work.  But since “the office” is just across the hall from the bedroom, it’s a lot harder for me, mentally, to take that sick day, but I digress.

One of the truly odd moments I had came the day after I returned.  I headed into town for lunch and decided to get some food from Taco Bell because it’s cheap, unhealthy, and something I had not had in quite a while.  So I walked into the Taco Bell, and stood there, slack jawed trying to read the menu.  I couldn’t read it!  I looked at the words, at the letters, and none of them made sense to me at all.  That was quite disconcerting, as you can probably imagine.

My guess is that mentally, I had trained my mind to filter out writing. Since pretty much all restaurant menus in Taipei are in Chinese and I can’t read Chinese, I got used to ordering by pointing to pictures of what I wanted and just ignoring anything that was written on the menu.  So here I was, standing in Taco Bell with a menu completely in English, and my mind was still filtering out written words.  It took a few minutes, but I was able to switch that off and order lunch without looking like a bigger fool than I normally do.

Another thing I had to get used to again was driving.  I live in a pretty rural area and driving a car is a necessity, not an option.  The nearest store of any type (a gas station) to my home is 10 or 12 miles away.  So if I need anything, it’s at least a 10 – 15 minute drive to get to the closest.  If I need to go “into the city”, I’m looking at 1 – 1.5 hours each way.  I had spent a month in a city where I could walk to work every day, walk to stores and restaurants, ride a bicycle around the general area, take the MRT (subway) to more distant parts of the city and pretty much get around without the need of my own vehicle at all.  Now I was back in a place where I had to drive everywhere, and I hadn’t driven in a month.

It’s like the old saying about riding a bicycle though.  You never really forget.  I can still drive, and drive well, but it did take a bit to get used to the actual act of driving.  The same went for riding my motorcycle.  I had no real problems getting back on and riding, but I had to get used to the gears once more, and the quirks of my particular bike.

Another thing I had to get used to again is the price of everything.  Things are, in some cases, far more pricey than in Taiwan.  Mostly this applies to food, but some other things as well.  For example, I could eat lunch in Taiwan for about $2.00 if I went moderately cheap.  In the US, a similarly cheap lunch would cost about $5.00 and not as tasty, not as filling and not as healthy.  For a similar quality meal that is filling and made from fresh items that aren’t previously canned or pumped full of chemicals, $10 – $15.

Probably the biggest thing to get used to is just the inherent rudeness of the average American when compared to the average Taiwanese. For example, escalators.  In Taiwan, everyone queues on the right of the escalator, leaving the left side open for those who are walking up and down as opposed to just standing and riding.  In the US, forget it.  You’re stuck behind them and they refuse to move over for you.

Taiwanese are very polite people also.  There’s a huge difference in customer service in stores and restaurants in Taiwan vs the average in the US.  Sure there are plenty of places with stellar customer service, but in Taiwan, even the lowest street stall vendor is as polite as their counterpart in a mid-level US store.  In low-end US stores, you’re lucky if they even care enough to speak to you beyond taking your money.  And I live in the more polite area of the US where strangers are likely to look at you and say “Hello” or “How are you doing?”.  In other places, cities, up north, etc, people are as likely to spit on you as ignore you.  I always miss the incredible politeness of Taiwanese society as well as just the general kindness you feel in pretty much any place in Taipei.

Getting back to restaurants, I miss the quality of the food.  Even the worst meal in Taipei is better than many average meals in the US.  Taiwanese food generally isn’t laden with preservatives.  The vegetables are generally fresh. The meat isn’t pumped full of hormones and preservatives and chlorine or other chemicals.  Things are made with real sugar, not high-fructose corn syrup.  The presence of the “All you can eat” buffet is quite limited in Taiwan, where in the US, they account for probably 20% of restaurant choices, and probably explain a significant portion of the obesity problem in the US.

So here I sit, a stranger in a strange land.  For a short while, having to re-acclimate myself into the culture I grew up in.  A land of escalating taxes, crumbling economy, useless politicians and a strong us or them mentality that is eagerly exploited and fostered by our elected leaders.  A land of bad food, expensive restaurants and high prices on things that should cost less.  A land of impolite, fat people (sweeping generalization, I know) who all expect the world to bend around them rather than stepping to the side politely to let you pass.  But it’s my land, and I love it.  It’s founded on principles I believe in. For all it’s flaws, it’s still a beacon of hope to many around the globe, and it’s still the place I call home.

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