My Stars, Is It Hot Over Here!


The time has come to return to a theme that I’m sure you all thought I had exhausted last fall. That is, of course, the “my stars is it hot out here” refrain. And I mean it: my stars is it ever hot over here.

My new hero is my landlady, who has set me up for sleeping in the spare bedroom, which is air conditioned, and encourages me to turn on the air whenever I need it, and leave it on as long as I like, which I think we all can agree is pretty usual behavior for a landlady who pays the electric bill herself and makes no additional claims on me no matter how much power we use. Because of the total lack of fresh air in the spare room, I sleep with the air on and the door open, which means that it never really gets all that frigid, but is endurable. Additionally, I have officially forgone sheets for the summer in favor of a thin woven bamboo mat that sits on top of the mattress. It takes a little getting used to (I generally have little bamboo patterns pressed into the skin on my arms and legs when I get up in the morning) but it is actually much cooler, so I go with it. Actually, I learned today that we are still in the “small summer” season, and that the REAL heat starts with “big summer,” AKA next week. Goody.

In other news, I am continuing an ongoing battle to get my visa expiration date to match my plane ticket. After much time and effort, and two extended trips to the foreign affairs police bureau, they are off by two days. I am told that I can try again to extend my visa in August – these two days being a decision monumental enough, apparently, to warrant careful consideration.

My passport has become a testament to the R.O.C. bureaucracy – remember, we taught them everything we know about excessive paperwork and hassling foreigners, which means that they’ve learned from the best. Just to recap, my first visitor visa was obtained by mail before I left the US. That was extended twice, once in Taipei county and once in Taipei city. Then, I converted that visa to a resident visa, a month long process that involved several bureaus and the pursuit of an alien resident card. Immediately following that, I went to Tokyo for a China tourist visa (which of course cannot be obtained in Taiwan). Then I applied by mail for a Hong Kong student visa, which I sent back two weeks after it arrived because of the SARS crisis and my cancelled plans. In the meantime, the Taiwan resident visa needed to be extended once.

Some little time later, I discovered that transferring schools cancelled my resident visa, so I went to Seoul for a new visitor visa. This visa I have already extended twice – once until August 8, and again until August 9 – and must now go a third time to get it extended to August 11.

Sound crazy? Don’t worry, it is. This makes a total of 5 visas – all, ironically, for travel/residence in parts of “China” – and 6 extensions, which means I must have set some sort of record for greatest amount of consular paperwork completed just to stay in the same place for 12 months. I’m very proud.

In language news, I’ve had a few opportunities recently to calibrate my language ability, now that my year in Taiwan is almost up. They are as follows:

(+) The Fury of a Woman Scorned. About two weeks ago I had plans to meet up with my friend Kailang for “language exchange.” Because I am not studying his native Korean, this essentially amounts to me helping out with his English. In general, I don’t mind this, as Kailang is pleasant and funny and I enjoy having an occasional excuse to forgo the dissertation research and spend the afternoon drinking coffee.

Last week, however, was a little bit different. I showed up at his school promptly at three o’clock with Yuwen (Taiwanese friend I had had lunch with) in tow. Kailang appeared and said he was running with a friend to get his haircut, that it wouldn’t take long, and that he’d be right back. Then he just left – he never gave me an opportunity to protest, suggest that this does not qualify as an emergency “something just came up” type situation, or decide whether or not I wanted to wait. (He later tried to suggest to me that “the haircut wasn’t intentional,” but as I do not believe that his hair made the decision spontaneously and apart from the rest of his body and then dragged him along protesting, I quickly dismissed this excuse as unacceptable.)

Frustrated, Yuwen and I found an empty classroom and set to work on the homework. My homework that night was rather involved, so it was nearly two hours later that I finally closed my books, noticed the time, and announced my intention to leave, Kailang or no Kailang. It was, of course, that exact moment that he returned. He saw we were miffed, pulled us into the coffee shop, asked exactly one one-minute question pertaining to English usage (“What is a ‘handing-over ceremony’?” which, to a guy who pronounces the letter “s” as a two-syllable word, cannot be immediately vital to promoting his overall grasp of the language), and then announced that he had something to do that evening and needed to leave.

I’m not sure if this is a culture thing – although I dare say this is remarkably bad behavior no matter where you are – but he didn’t seem to understand what he had done to earn the wrath and ire that reigned down on him upon our next meeting. On that occasion, just moments after I saw him I started in, running down the litany of reasons Why I Was Furious. This was a rare opportunity to be truly Righteously Angry, and I was unwilling to let it slide by unnoticed. Because I do not trust his English, and because mad people talk fast, I scolded him thoroughly – a good 20 minutes worth – in Chinese, without ever pausing to think or, to be frank, for air. As I carried on, he started to get mad at me: I suspect that being scolded at length in public by an American girl would qualify as a potential loss of face for a Korean guy, but at that particular moment I didn’t care about his face, I cared about his hair, and why it had taken two hours to cut.

(-) The Vocabulary Gap. One problem with learning a foreign language is that you do not know exactly which words it will be helpful to know until you get into a situation where you’d like to use them. More often than not, this is a situation in which you must explain something complicated using words you have never before had cause to see, hear, or learn, but do not have your dictionary on hand because it is heavy and who wants to carry heavy books around in this heat?

For example (and let’s face it, you knew I had one), yesterday I spent a satisfying morning in class debating international responses to the problem of nuclear proliferation with my teacher. The words were flowing, and I left feeling pretty good about my ability to communicate in Chinese. After lunch, I went over to the Academia Sinica for an afternoon of copying dissertation relevant materials. After about a half an hour, the copy machine notified me – in English – that it refused to go on unless someone replaced the toner cartridge. My first instinct, as you might imagine, was to go tell the people at the front desk about the problem, that it might be instantly set to right and my afternoon of copying could continue with only a minor interruption. It was then, however, that I realized that I do not know the Chinese words for toner, cartridge, or copier, all of which might be considered rather useful in this situation.

First I used the standard “non-native speaker” trick to try to describe the problem without using these three words – rather like playing the game “Taboo.” What I came up with was roughly, “Third-floor on duplicate things machine no black colored inside object.” This, oddly enough, was not clear enough to properly alert the circulation desk girls to the nature of the problem. In the end I ended up repeating my explanation combined with a series of pantomimes that bore a closer resemblance to a modern interpretive dance than a serious effort at interpersonal communication, but I’m happy to report that they caught on before I had to try to diagram the inner workings of the modern Xerox. I also now know the word for “toner,” which is bound to be useful since there seems to be some sort of copier conspiracy afoot lately in which they all run completely dry of the black stuff as soon as I make my approach.

(+/-) Partial Concentration Listening Comprehension. The other day I was playing with the baby my landlady watches during the week, and listening for a least the millionth time to her favorite diatribe on parents today not taking care of their children and how a house is not really a home until it contains children, preferably in multiples. I was getting along just fine half listening – sort of like skimming a book, but with your ears – coming in every few words or phrases to keep track of what part of the lecture she was working on. She started in on how modern women do not appropriately pass the month after childbirth in bed eating especially well, as they ought according to “ancient Chinese tradition,” but go right back to work, etc. etc. I was feeling pretty good about my ability to follow it all with imperfect concentration until I heard her refer quite distinctly to “chicken meat wine.” I’m not sure what happened here, if the subject changed, if there was context that I had missed, if I should have mentally inserted a comma, but I returned to my own room to do my homework feeling a little dejected, sensing that I am not yet ready for less than full attention after all.

Copyright 2004 by Meredith Oyen


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