I am awakened at 7:15 a.m. by the sound of my Taiwanese roommate blending a concoction of fruits and vegetables into a vitamin-chocked slurry for her seven-year-old son. If there’s one thing all Taiwanese seem to be good at, it’s blocking out noise. The building next door is being torn down and rebuilt? No problem. The octogenarian downstairs is watching Korean soap operas at full volume? Didn’t hear a thing. It’s all a part of living in the poster child for population density known as Taipei. To them, it just rolls right off their backs. As for me, let’s just say after five years here, I’m still getting used to it.
I throw on my ultra-casual work attire, which consists of camouflage cargo shorts, a band t-shirt, and skate shoes. I work as an editor at a publishing company that mercifully, given the ungodly heat wave Taiwan experiences during the summer months, does not enforce any sort of a dress code. As long as those ESL magazines are ready to go by the monthly deadline, it’s all good. Then it’s out the door for my 30-minute walk to work.
I walk down Heping East Road—Heping being Mandarin for peace—toward my office. On the way, I pass by the large pane glass windows of a bank, in which the employees are being led through morning warm-up exercises; the routine involves shaking their extremities like members of some obscure religious faction possessed by a holy spirit omnipotent in all ways but those involving rhythm or dignity. Presumably this is done to improve circulation during the long day of being seated behind a desk ahead. I know the feeling well.
At least once a week, someone saddles up to me at a crosswalk while I’m waiting with the crowd for the traffic lights to change and surreptitiously tries to get a closer look at the tattoos on my arms. Tattoos are gaining wider acceptance here, but they are still closely associated with gangster culture. Most of the time, I pretend not to notice, but if our eyes happen to meet, they usually give me a thumbs up and say something like “Hen ku”—very cool.
If they can speak English, as many people in Taipei can to varying degrees of effectiveness, I tell them I had most of them done right here in Taiwan, which seems to surprise them. I don’t go into details about getting the sleeve on my right arm done in a former gangster’s apartment. That’s a story for another day.
Just before I reach my office, I stop at a breakfast stand that sells pre-made Taiwanese morning staples. The proprietor, an impish, gray-haired man in his fifties, sees me coming from half a block away, and has my usual order ready by the time I’m standing under the umbrella shielding his selection from the already harsh morning sun. Pagan dan bien ja chisu, which is basically a Taiwanese tortilla with egg, bacon, and cheese wrapped inside, and a large nai cha, or milk tea, for NT$45 (US$1.50.) As any long term expat in Taiwan will tell you, if you want to save money, eat what the locals eat.
I reach my office, a former cram school, known locally as a buxiban, that has been converted into the headquarters for a publishing company, complete with a recording studio in the basement for the educational radio programs we produce, and a green screen TV studio where the public access-style television programs we make are filmed.
I eat my breakfast at my desk, and slowly begin to make my way through the stack of documents on my desk that need editing. There are also articles to write and, once or twice a week, radio programs to co-host.
At lunch, most of the Taiwanese staff naps at their desks, their heads resting on thin, inconspicuous pillows they’ve brought from home. The lunch break doesn’t count toward the eight-hour work day in Taiwan, so working a nine-to-five becomes working a nine-to-six. I usually come in around 8:30, so come 5:30, when for some reason the punch clock chimes a rendition of “Rock-a -bye Baby,” I shoot out of my seat, anxious to be free of the blinding glow of the monitor and the spine-contorting, supposedly ergonomic chair that have spent the last eight hours burning my retinas and atrophying every muscle in my body respectively. It’s time to burn off a little steam.
From there it’s off to catch a bus and then what must be one of the cleanest public transportation networks in the world, the Taipei MRT. My destination is a boxing gym that backs onto Taipei’s Songshan Domestic Airport. Surrounded by auto repair shops on either side – the operating of which seem to have the prerequisite that you must own at least one mean looking yet friendly sleek, black mutt – the gym is small, and it reeks of the years of sweat that have soaked into the floorboards and evaporated into the particle board ceiling tiles.
After a warm-up of jump rope and shadow boxing, one of the coaches leads me through a lung-punishing session of high intensity pad work in the ring, and the monotony of working a desk job is burned away in a flurry of desperate hooks, jabs, and upper cuts. If I’m feeling particularly sure of myself that day, I might partake in a sparring session. Invariably, I go home with swelling under the eyes and a smile on my face.
From the gym it’s a five-minute walk to the Wenshan line of the MRT, which will take me four stops to the station near my humble, illegally constructed rooftop apartment. All buildings in Taipei over four stories tall require an elevator by law. But as is so often the case in Taiwan, people find a way around such trifles. In this case, they build a four story building, and then add an additional structure on top later on, and just such a fifth-floor eyesore happens to be my home, giving me ample balcony space for summer barbecues with my Taiwanese and expatriate friends.
Before I get home, I stop for some dumplings, NT$5 ($0.17) each, or a bowl of beef noodles, Taiwan’s national dish, for a whopping NT$100 ($3.32). Then, perhaps a stop off at a convenience store, of which Taiwan seems to have more per capita than anywhere else on earth, for a cold can of Taiwan Beer, which commands 90 percent of the domestic market. Taking advantage of Taiwan’s lack of laws against drinking in public, I crack it open on the way home, enjoying this simple, yet highly enjoyable freedom that still hasn’t gotten old even after half a decade in this island nation.
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