Friday, March 13, 2009

Taiwan lifestyle: Taiwan is not the best place to save money

Taiwan wasn’t the best place to come to if you wanted to save money. It was not that work wasn’t available, it is just the temptations of women, cheap beer and mountains were too great.

This contradiction was at its worst in the summer: it was the best time to earn money if you were teaching and it was also the best time not to be working. Feeling guilty about not having saved any money I signed myself up for packed summer of teaching determined to be a good boy.

The summer holidays were of course the best time for earning teaching dollars because the government schools closed and the private ones would have to take up the slack.

For an idea of the length of a school year in Taiwan think a Premiership Football season, significant progress in the Cup competitions domestic and European, plus a couple of summer tours with a world cup in between.

In order to fill my schedule I volunteered for the morning class that nobody wanted. It was not for the faint hearted: Monday through Friday from 9-12 for 3 months, a bunch of blurry eyed, angry kids who hadn’t sleep enough (they never go to bed in Taiwan before 12 o’clock on a normal school day and this was a holiday) were dragged through the door by their grandparents.

(A side note: grandparents didn’t get to see their grandchildren when it suited them, they were obliged to take care of them full-time. When they were babies they would take care of them from Monday to Friday only returning them to the parents at the weekend. Then when they were old enough to go to kindergarten, their duties became ferrying them from school to school.)

Things were made worse still because the schools forgot all their rules about assigning based on age and ability because they were oversubscribed and they could.

The children were rarely openly defiant instead, they compromised, opting only to stop moving or talking when the teacher was addressing them directly. Once I had turned my attention to the kids sitting next to them they carried on.

About three weeks into my two months of forty-five hours a week, I was beginning to lose it.

On this particular day the sky was clear and my friends were determined to make me suffer.

I got a call from Eric at around twelve, midday - just three hours into my nine for the day.

“Hey, man. What are you doing for lunch?” he asked. “You want to go up to Yangmingshan? It is a great day.”

“I have half an hour, today. Same as yesterday when you called,” I said. “Stop taking the piss.”

“Sorry, man. Today is a different day. Maybe you saw the weather and phoned in sick….Anyway, Yangmingshan is past you so I’ll meet you for lunch. Nothing else to do…”

Fucking bastard, I thought. I knew it was a fantastic day, and there was nothing better than applying your sun cream and driving around the mountains, breathing the fresh air, feeling the cool breeze on your skin instead of the constant sauna that was the city.

“Hey, man. Let’s eat somewhere cheap?” said Eric as he arrived. “I spotted a dumpling house just around the corner.”

“Whatever,” I said although I was thinking about going to a coffee shop where they had comfortable chairs not stools. The bill in the coffee shop would only be about 150NT each, but Eric was thinking more on the lines of 40NT.

We walked up the alley. It was the hottest time. The sun reflected off the humidity in the air and the cars and apartments either side were given a slightly surreal look; as if viewed through steam. The women coming out of the kindergarten and nearby shops and offices were carrying parasols, or wearing jackets to protect themselves from the sun. There was a little park at the end of the road and I stared longingly at the bench. I felt the sweat drip down my back. This weather just cried out for a trip to a swimming pool. I was English, and that only made it harder: these Californians and Southern Europeans had sun at home; they didn’t understand the English need to spend every minute under the sun.

We arrived at the shop and took up positions on a couple of stools at the corner of a table filled with locals quickly wolfing down their cheap boiled dumplings.

“You coming out Friday night,” I asked.

“Sorry, a little short of cash,” he answered.

“You never have any money,”

“Yeah, man, but this is special – I have been eating fucking dumplings for a week. And, I don’t mean dumpling-shop poor, but packets of frozen dumplings from the Welcome supermarket.”

For 60 NT, from a street vendor, you could buy enough dumplings to fill up a Samoan, so if you needed to buy from the supermarket…

“Anyway, didn’t I give you a student? Four hours a week, 900 an hour.”

“That didn’t work out!” Eric had turned sheepish.

“And why is that?”

“She used me. I was seduced. She kept wearing those little shorts - you know the ones.”

“The type you wear when it is 38 degrees and extremely humid, and you are relaxing at home.”

Eric knew he had been a complete idiot: he needed the money more than the girl, but her four hours a week of expensive English lessons had become many more for nothing.

“That is the last time, matey boy - I will lose face over that…Anyway, where are you going,” I said to torture myself.

“I heard there is a free hot spring somewhere in the park. If not I will sit by the river with a couple of cans of Taiwan beer and study.”

Eric continued, “You?” he asked with a smirk.

“I have another seven hours left to teach.”

“Harsh, man. You have to learn to take it easy. Live a little.”

“Hmm, we have been through that one,” I said. “I am saving money.” I paused for a second. “Right, I have to prepare for the afternoon’s class. You get the fuck off and stop torturing me.”

I walked back to the school dreading walking through the doors into that mass of artificial light, and concrete. God I was missing my old lifestyle that Eric and Pierre were still enjoying. It was a fantastic quality of life: great food for cheap, minimal transport costs, and, most importantly, some girl, who because she wanted to practice her English or wrongly believed you wanted to make her life like a bed of roses, was prepared to sleep with you.

As the two hour class for the afternoon was fruit, we managed to draw fruit, pretend to eat fruit, sing about fruit, guess the fruit from colors and shapes. I forget actually what else we did to pass the time…

At three o’clock I got on my bike and headed into the city center for a private student – on the way trying not to look at the scantily clad betel nut girls. The day was getting tougher.

Suddenly my phone rang and my three-thirty was canceling. I sat by the side of the road and considered my options. Actually being left with two hours to kill was a pain: going home was an option, but it would take half an hour to get home and then half an hour to my other student. I could sit on my bed with the aircon on, but it hardly felt worth it for one hour, and it would mean I would take a shower and change clothes and then the last thing you wanted to do was get back out in that traffic. I decided to hang around outside instead. Sit in a coffee shop and eat my dinner slowly.

I taught my next student in the Seattle Coffee Shop on Chong Hsiao so I decided to head to Sogo to have something to eat in the basement.

I knew I was going to have the combo meat set from that Japanese chain store, Yoshinoya, but still I did a circuit of all food outlets. The four walls of the basement were lined with small food outlets, each no more than about six feet across. The soup with the Japanese noodles was excellent but the meat was never enough, the Taiwanese oyster pancake looked good but I still hadn’t learned to say it in Chinese and I couldn’t be bothered to try; the Cantonese duck was great but a little greasy, as were all of the stir-fried dishes. MacDonalds and Kentucky I had already had several times this week. Finally, I arrived at the Yoshinoya and pointed at the big plastic specimen meal under the glass counter - A big bowl of rice with strips of chicken, beef and pork on the top covered in sweet soy.

“Do you want the set?” asked the assistant.

“Yes,” I replied. The set included ice lemon tea, a portion of steamed egg with shrimp inside, and a little saucer of Japanese pickled ginger and radish.

I took my tray and looked for a seat. That was the problem coming here - there were hundreds of seats in the center of the floor but most were occupied.

“Sorry,” I said and squeezed my knees under the table next to a mother with a couple of kids.

“No problem,” the mother replied, and then I watched them watching me use chopsticks.

It wasn't a smart move coming here. It was seven o’clock so all around were shop girls finishing their shift upstairs and office girls having dinner before spending the rest of the evening wandering around upstairs looking at clothes.

It was summer so the Taiwanese girl was being displayed in her full glory. What did I mean by that? – Taiwanese girls were petite which meant when they were wearing their big coats in winter their body shape was hidden; now, in their low-rider jeans, short skirts, flat scandals and sports vests their lean shoulders, flat stomach and slim legs were apparent and intoxicating.

Since I started teaching forty-five hours a week, I had stopped chasing in favor of fuck partners and girlfriends of convenience, usually young students - students had time on their hands and you could call up in the afternoon if you had a cancellation, or late in the evening if you had a cancelled morning class the next day. Office girls weren't a good option: they worked so hard, they always wanted to meet on Friday or Saturday nights when i wanted to go to the bar.

I treated the student girls nicely: they got free English lessons, and I would genuinely help them to fill out that application for studying abroad, or answer questions for their TOEFL. If everything went well, I would stay with said girl until she left for Canada or America, and even answer her emails for a couple of months until she found another boyfriend.

A bunch of girls in black dresses and high heels sat down at the table to my left, and by their white complexions and heavy mascara I assumed they were just having some breakfast before going to work.

Twenty minutes later these girls finished their food and got up. I decided to leave as well. They went left, the same direction as me, so I continued behind them across Dunhwa South Road; they then soon took the left into Minchuan Department Store and started queuing at the elevator. I had been to the MTV on the seventh floor many times, so even though I didn’t follow them and see what floor number they pressed, I had confidence they were going to the KTV on the eighth floor. I hissed, feeling the want consume my body, before walking to the coffee shop to meet my student.

“Have you done your homework?” I asked.

“Yesterday, my work very busy - go to see client.”

“Yesterday, you were very busy because you went to see a client, yes? Past tense of go is went, past tense of is…” hold on he didn’t even use the be verb, I thought but anyway, “past tense of is, is ‘was.’” Besides he had had one week to do his homework so what did it have to do with yesterday?

“Yes, yesterday, because I go see client, I very busy.”

“I think we need to do some grammar practice, concentrate on making our sentences more accurate. I give you a verb and you give me a past tense sentence.”

“I know past tense. I want study conversation.”

“This is conversation -” I said.

One of the problems of trying to keep a busy schedule was this kind of student. I had an empty slot on a Tuesday night and had taken an adult student against my better judgment. I didn’t like to teach adults because: classes were slow, they didn’t learn as fast as kids, and, most importantly, when they kept making the same mistake or didn’t do their homework, you just had to smile sweetly, because they were adults after all. To be fair adults could be broken down further: housewives, students and women in general came to learn. This type of student was the worse kind: male, forties, businessman; they were always late, never did their homework, and invariably wanted to study conversation. This was the great buzzword that got adult Taiwanese flocking into schools by the thousands handing over their hard earned cash: ‘You studied writing and grammar in schools so all you need is a chance to practice. We will get you a foreign teacher for conversation,’ went the sales pitch. Unfortunately, they had only learnt how to write ok grammar. Their terrible bad habits when they spoke could only be ironed out by relearning the rules and oral practice, something they were convinced was unnecessary.

“So what does your company do?”

“My company sell car brake.”

“Your company sells car brakes. Who do you sell to? Where are your clients from?”

“Many client! Yesterday, they come from Japanese.”

“You have many clients. Yesterday’s clients were from Japan. Japan is the country, Japanese is the person.”

“Okay…uh...yesterday, we go…” It was going to be a long evening, as usual.

After class I made up my mind to give the student to Eric, who enjoyed teaching adult conversation classes; no preparation, sitting and watching the clock teaching.

Class was over at ten o’clock, and I ambled back to Sogo to find my motorbike, looking around longingly. I knew I should go to bed, as I was three weeks into a forty-five hour week schedule, but I was pushing myself hard, and the offset to that was to seek more powerful kicks to take your mind off the day job. I understood why brokers were coked up all the time.

The choice was to get really drunk, get in a fight or pick up a girl. Getting laid was clearly the most constructive of these. I thought about who to call. Who would come around immediately?

That would be the best thing to do, I thought as he drove past a brothel on Linsen South Road, on the way back to the hostel. I didn’t have a lot of time, and I was looking for a cheap kick, just pay my 3,000NT and get things done. I circled back to go past the place slowly, stopping outside. It had a smoked glass door so I had to wait for someone to walk past and step on the mat to open it. Sat downstairs were four middle aged women with the usual bad tight perm, casually watching TV. I searched for a young one, but nothing under thirty.
I ain’t paying for that I decided…Fuck.

I had just revved my motorbike to get back into the traffic when a taxi abruptly stopped directly in front of me…Hmm…Two minutes later the taxi was still there…I beeped my horn…I beeped my horn louder…The taxi still didn’t move…I looked at the taxi driver and beeped again even louder…Still no response…Hmm, there is of course that option, I thought. I have been cut off by taxis and cars for more than a year, and I haven’t punched any out because I would be in a constant fight, still, on reflection, it wouldn’t hurt to take out my frustration on one of them.

I took another look at the guy and he was a middle-aged man, and his audacity – and stupidity – because he must be able to see how big I was made me angrier. I turned off my scooter, dismounted, and make his way around the boot of the car, the adrenalin was starting to build up…Nah, I decided, and walked back around to my motorbike peddling it backwards. There were too many variables out of my control: the police could arrive, and I could spend the night in a cell. I wanted something I could start and finish in the next hour. Get to sleep by twelve.

“Hey, Pierre,” I said bumping into him coming out of the hotel where we lived. “Where are you going?”

“Bit of business to solve,” said Pierre.

“Alright, mate,” said John. “Hey, got any women who are no questions asked type, will be around in twenty minutes. You know I am a busy man.”

“Why don’t you go to that whorehouse down the road? That is what I always do.”

“Those old skanks? I don’t know whether they want to suck me off or straighten my collar. I thought about going in but it just felt like I was intruding on one of me mother’s Tupperware parties.”

“Very nice! They know what they are doing…How to provide ze service.”

“Your right,” I said.

This old, therefore, provides a service bollocks is bullshit. Yes, when I was 14 and clueless, I wanted my mate’s mother to broaden her legs and my horizons; I thought ink she was gonna take me on a magical ecstasy tour – but then I grew up, and realized there is such a thing as a bad fuck, but they are mostly the same, with location, fitness of said bird, and atmosphere being more important. I haven’t really experienced anything new from the box of tricks in a while.

Pierre stopped and turned around. “I have something for you. Just go home. Take a shower and I will sort it out…Don’t worry, it is not a whore…well, not one that charges anyway.”

Twenty minutes later I was sat on his bed waiting. I had just gone downstairs to buy some condoms, a bottle of water and some beer – and had turned the TV to MTV (something neutral; prevent the neighbors from hearing through the wall). Life was good again. Today had been a bad day: it had rained the last few days so the pollution had been cleared away. Tomorrow it would start to build up again, and in a couple of days the sky would be cloudy again and I would be thinking about how it was best I was in work. At the end of the week he would be half way through my marathon summer schedule. I congratulated myself for not punching anyone. I was going to get laid; make an excuse to get rid of her and then be asleep by twelve, ready and refreshed for tomorrow’s ten hour day.

“Very pretty,” I said opening the door. “What is your name?”

“Claudette,” she replied.

Most girls had an English name so it was fun and exciting to get a French groupie - I guessed she could also speak the language of love.

“Pierre said you would like to meet a Taiwanese girl. You are lonely in Taiwan, and you would like to talk.”

I smiled, “That is right.”

One hour later: “Yes, a good start. I know you foreigners like to fuck - satisfy a woman. Come on. Drink some water and then make love to me again.”

Hmm, not me, I thought, once is enough to get my frustration out.

I should tell her she had been watching too many movies, but then I always believed you shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds. I felt strangely responsible to not let down our stereotype.

I reached for the bottle of water and pointed at my soft dick to suggest she do something …Oh well, I wasn’t going to get any sleep.

...Fuck it is light. I have to get up in one hour. And I can’t even sleep that because that bottle of water was finished hours ago and I am parched…desperate for some more.

I headed for the shower, and scrubbed my body in slow-motion, enjoying cleaning myself as if he had just played football for four hours in driving rain and mud.

That fucking bastard Pierre…Then I looked down…Well, at least you are going to be out of action for a while.

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