Most countries have their majestic views. They’re the sights that populate Google image results and Pinterest collections. I’m thinking Eiffel Towers and Mount Fujis.
In the capital of Taiwan, we could ride the gondola up to the heights of Maokong and gaze at Taipei 101 piercing the skyline of the city, surrounded by a ring of mountains. Or we could stand at the entrance of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Park, with its paved square and manicured lawns leading to the majestic bright-white, blue roofed Memorial Hall.
If you visit Taipei, I’d suggest you try to see both of these grand vistas. But living there for a while, I had some little vistas that impacted me more. For instance, there was the view from my favorite seat in a Starbucks deep in the subway system. Through the glass wall in front of me, I could look down a long corridor, lined with shops. The architecture was nondescript, but what impacted me was the constant crowds of people kaleidoscoping by. I spent a lot of time at that vantage point mulling over big decisions.
And there was an ancient tree on a college campus downtown that caught my attention. It was mostly sideways limbs, gnarled and stretching out in all directions. The limbs were so heavy and low that they had to be held up by short concrete pillars so they wouldn’t touch the ground. I admired that tree. It was old and weary but enduring. It was especially picturesque during a rain shower.
What about you, in your host country? Do you have a little vista that brings you joy or peace or hope or inspiration?
Go to A Life Overseas to finish reading this post, and to add your own little vista.
When you visit a country where the people don’t speak your language, there are several important phrases you should know how to say: things such as “Hello” and “Goodbye,” “How much is this?” “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Can I have ice with my water?” But when you move to that country, the stakes become higher. The important words and phrases become deeper and more necessary and more . . . important. They’re usually not covered in the first five chapters of your language book, and you may not end up learning them until you come face to face with the need for them. At least, that’s the way it was for me.
Are You OK?
The streets in Taiwan give new meaning to the phrase flow of traffic. Outnumbering automobiles two to one, scooters zip in and out to fill in the narrow gaps between cars, and when they all come to a red light, they pile up at the intersection, waiting to spill forward again when the light turns green. Watch that whitewater river for long, and you’ll see quite a few accidents.
One morning while I was walking to language school in Taipei, I came up to one of the city’s crowded intersections and waited to cross. As several lanes slowed for the light, a lady on a scooter was unable to stop and broke through the pack, sliding several feet on her side. She wasn’t hit by anyone, but she was slow getting up. My first thought was to run over to her and see how she was. I didn’t make it, though. First of all, by the time I could cross the street, she was back on her way, though pushing, not riding, her scooter now. And second, I didn’t know what to say.
Yes, I knew the greeting “How are you?” but that’s not the right question for someone who might be hurt. I knew how to say several other things, too, but none of them seemed appropriate. I could imagine the woman’s horror having me, a foreigner, rush up to her in her time of need, letting loose with my vocabulary of “Hello. How are you? I’m an American. What part of Taipei are you from? What’s you’re favorite food? I like pizza.”
It’s one thing to be able to say the equivalent of How are you? Howdy, or What’s up? It’s another to go beyond trite formality, to ask a caring question and expect a heartfelt response.
I was wanting to mail a letter to our friends back in the US, but I had a problem. I had just been to the front counter at the post office and told the postal worker my plans. She pointed over my shoulder and said something about “over there.” I turned around, trying to act as if I knew what she’d said. (I’d only been in Taipei a few weeks, and the only thing I understood clearly was her pointing.)
Behind me, against the wall, was a table with a couple bowls of what looked like wall-paper paste, with a small brush in each one. They were for sealing envelopes, since the envelope flaps in Taiwan—and I assume, most of Asia—don’t have adhesive on them. I’ve been told this is because in the high humidity, the envelopes would glue themselves shut while waiting to be used. That explanation sounds perfectly plausible to me.
Behind the paste were two slots in the table. Each had a sign with a few Chinese characters on it. I went to the table and pretended to sort my mail for a while, pondering what I should do. What did the signs say? “Local Mail”? “Air Mail”? But the only time I’d ever seen slots like those were in the tables at the bank where you can fill out deposit slips—you know, the slots for throwing away your trash. So maybe the signs said, “Place Wastepaper Here,” and “Not for Mail.”
Beside the table was the door. Maybe the postal worker had pointed outside—to some mailboxes I hadn’t seen.
I made my decision, tossing my letter into one of the slots. I didn’t look back. I didn’t want to see the lady at the counter shaking her head at me. Instead, I hurried home and emailed our friends: “Let me know if you get a letter from us. Either I mailed one to you or just threw it away.”
A week later, they wrote back and said it had arrived. Sometimes, in spite of myself, I got things right.
It took me quite a while to get over my nervousness going to the post office. For expats, it can be a pretty scary place—in large part because there’s so much at stake. You’re often sending important documents or valuable parcels (like hand-drawn pictures to Grandma and Grandpa). And once you stick on the postage and drop them in the mailbox, there’s no do over.
Lick at Your Own Risk
Not long ago, here in the safety of the US, I was helping a friend from Asia prepare some papers for mailing. I handed him the envelope, and seeing that there wasn’t any paste available, he tried to peel the backing off the self-stick flap. The trouble was, the flap wasn’t peel-and-seal. When he realized he needed to lick it, he laughed and said he’d heard about people putting poison on the adhesive. I told him that’s never happened, because . . . uh . . . that’s never happened . . . right?
Well, I did some research, and I’m sticking by my assertion, but it seems that my friend is more up on American pop-culture than I am. How about you?
First, there’s this cautionary tale that began circulating by email in 1999:
Whenever you go to an automatic teller machine to make deposits, make sure you don’t lick the deposit envelopes. A customer died after licking an envelope at a teller machine at Yonge & Eglinton. According to the police, Dr. Elliot at the Women’s college hospital found traces of cyanide in the lady’s mouth and digestive system and police traced the fatal poison to the glue on the envelope she deposited that day. They then did an inspection of other envelopes from other teller machines in the area and found six more. The glue is described as colourless and odourless. They suspect some sickco is targeting this particular bank and has been putting the envelopes beside machines at different locations. A spokesperson from the bank said their hands are tied unless they take away the deposit function from all machines. So watch out, and please forward this message to the people you care about . . . Thanks
Completely false, says the urban-legend site Snopes.com. But when has that ever stopped an internet fable from gaining traction?
Snopes also tackled another email that made its debut in 2000. It’s about poor lady number two falling victim to the dangers of envelope glue:
This lady was working in a post office in California, one day she licked the envelopes and postage stamps instead of using a sponge.
That very day the lady cut her tongue on the envelope. A week later, she noticed an abnormal swelling of her tongue. She went to the doctor, and they found nothing wrong. Her tongue was not sore or anything. A couple of days later, her tongue started to swell more, and it began to get really sore, so sore, that she could not eat. She went back to the hospital, and demanded something be done. The doctor, took an x-ray of her tongue, and noticed a lump. He prepared her for minor surgery.
When the doctor cut her tongue open, a live roach crawled out. There were roach eggs on the seal of the envelope. The egg was able to hatch inside of her tongue, because of her saliva. It was warm and moist. . . .
This is a true story. . . . Pass it on.
Actually not true, but extra points for the graphic detail.
The Website TV Tropes reports that over the years, the poison-envelope theme has occurred in several TV crime shows. But the most famous example was part of the comedy Seinfeld, when George’s fiancée died after licking the toxic adhesive on some 200 cheap wedding invitations.
So no wonder my friend didn’t want to lick the envelope. Oh, sure, I could tell him his fears are based on urban legends, ridiculous story lines, and misguided fear. I could tell him that expats are especially susceptible to rumors and fantastic stories. But still . . . there was Mr. Fechheimer, mentioned in the 1895 New York Times:
S. Fechheimer, formerly a merchant of New-York, died here yesterday from blood poisoning as a result of cutting his tongue while licking an envelope. He was a rich man until a few years ago, when the panic came and brought ruin. He was the senior member of the firm of Fechheimer, Rau & Co., New-York shirt manufacturers.
So please be careful. And the next time you have to mail a letter, you might want to use a sponge.
When we first moved to Taipei, we lived across the street from a park. One day, I was approached by three college-age students who asked me in English, “Do you know Jesus?”
“Yes,” I said.
“OK,” they replied. “But do you really know him?” This was a logical question, because while English has the one word for knowing someone, Chinese has two. The first would be the one in “I know who he is,” while the second means “I know him personally.”
I had the perfect response. Not only was I a Christian, but I was a missionary . . . and I’d been studying Chinese, too. So, I told them, somewhat smugly, in their language, “Yes, I know him. I’m a . . . bicycle.”
I wish I could say that the Chinese words for missionary and bicycle sound just alike, but they don’t. The first is chuan jiao shi, and the second is jiao ta che. I think I must have learned them on the same day, because they are forever confused in my mind. The young people in the park laughed with me and let me correct myself. “Chinese is hard,” they said. I didn’t argue.
Over the years, that encounter became a symbol to me for the good and bad times in Taiwan: Some days I was a missionary. Some days I was just a bicycle.
[T]he reason why I have Yeshua, my de-familiarized Christ, saying, “Far more can be mended than you know,” which I think is actually true to the New Testament, is that I want mending. Not flying free, not transformation, but humble, ordinary, everyday, get-you-back-on-your-feet mending, to be at the center of the Christian story.
When the book was being translated into Dutch, the translator sent me an email: “This word mend, I’ve looked it up in the dictionary, and it seems to be the same word you use for repairing bicycles. You must mean something else.”
I wrote back, “No. No. No. I want the bicycle-repair word.” What I absolutely want is to suggest that before it’s anything else, redemption is God mending the bicycle of our souls; God bringing out the puncture repair kit, re-inflating the tires, taking off the rust, making us roadworthy once more. Not so that we can take flight into ecstasy, but so that we can do the next needful mile of our lives.
We all need that kind of mending from God. I guess being a bicycle isn’t so far from being a Christian—and a missionary—after all.
Here’s another article from my son Peter. It’s about his time at the Summer Peace Institute in San José, Costa Rica, and also about his post-graduation plans. Peter spent nearly half his life overseas before graduating from high school, so another trip to another culture should have been a piece of cake, right? And heading back to Asia with the Peace Corps shouldn’t be a problem, either. Here, Peter shares about how it can be hard to cross cultures alone, even for a TCK.
In 1999, my family and I left Joplin, Mo., for the other side of the world—Taipei, Taiwan. Before that, I’d never been outside the Midwest, let alone the United States.
If you are not familiar with Taiwan, it is a small tobacco-leaf-shaped island off the southeast coast of China, having about one-fifth the land area of Missouri with four times the population.
When we took our first trip to Taiwan, my parents were in the process of considering whether they wanted to become missionaries there. We spent two weeks traveling around the island, sightseeing and meeting Taiwanese friends who had once been international students at Pittsburg State University and at my father’s alma mater, the University of Missouri.
Two years later, my family and I left Joplin again for Taiwan. This time, I stayed for eight years.
After I graduated high school, I returned to Joplin to attend MSSU. I have enjoyed my time at this university more than any other time in my life, but now I am near the end. I will graduate this December with two bachelor’s degrees and, like many of you, still have no idea what I want to do next.
Well, I should not say, “No idea.”
Ever since returning from Taiwan, I have been fascinated by the world outside Joplin, outside Missouri, outside the US. I had tasted another culture—Taiwanese food is delicious, by the way—and I was ready to experience more.
When I heard about the Peace Corps, it sounded like a perfect fit. Started in 1958, the Peace Corps is a US government-run volunteer program that sends American citizens out into the world to learn about other cultures and serve the people of developing countries. Volunteers spend two year stints anywhere from Zambia to China to Peru to Jordan.
About six months ago, I submitted an application for the Peace Corps. Even before that, I had watched as two friends, fellow MSSU students and past McCaleb winners Luke and Caitlan Smith, were sent off by the Peace Corps to Rwanda.
By the time I left for Costa Rica, I was several months into the Peace Corps application process.
During the UPEACE-Berkeley program, I got to talk with two people who have experience with the Peace Corps: Dr. Jerry Sanders, a former Peace Corps volunteer [and co-founder of World Policy Journal and director of the Summer Peace Institute], and Manuel Davila, a former employee of the Honduran Peace Corps office. I asked them about their thoughts on the Peace Corps.
Sanders volunteered in Colombia in the 1970s and became disenchanted with the Peace Corps halfway through his two years there.
“I wasn’t any more satisfied with [the Peace Corps’s] policies—so-called development policies—than I was with the war in Vietnam,” he said.
Sanders felt the policies prevented efficiency. He encouraged me to go into the Peace Corps with a willingness to criticize the system.
Davila said the volunteers he met had great experiences, and he became friends with some of them. He told me the Peace Corps takes very good care of its volunteers.
I thought my time in Costa Rica would make me more excited for the Peace Corps. Instead, it made me realize how hard the Peace Corps would be. Though I had lived and traveled internationally, I had always done it with family or friends.
By the end of my first day in Costa Rica, I had already faced several difficulties.
My luggage was held up in Houston, Texas, so I lacked a change of clothes, toiletries, and even cleaning solution for my contacts. I was overwhelmed by 30 students whom I had never met before and who already seemed to know each other. I could not keep up the lectures on topics I had never studied. I could not speak Spanish. I did not know my way around town and got myself lost wandering home from the bus stop.
As I familiarized myself with my host town, learned a few Spanish phrases and befriended—and was befriended by—the other students, I felt more and more comfortable in Costa Rica.
Some of my favorite moments of the trip were whitewater rafting down the Pecuare River, learning how to say “God bless you” in Spanish, taking walks around my host town, visiting the Caribbean coast, trying new Costa Rican dishes, having intellectual and non-intellectual discussions with fellow students and watching soccer on television with my host family.
Nevertheless, being away from my family, my church community and my other close friends in Joplin was difficult throughout the trip.
While I truly enjoyed my time in Costa Rica, it did open my eyes to the realities of living overseas by myself.
In a Facebook message about the Peace Corps, Luke Smith writes, “The hardest part for me though has just been being away from my family. Diet and living conditions are a cake walk compared to not being able to see the people you love.”
Two weeks into this semester, I received a Peace Corps invitation to volunteer in Indonesia as a secondary English teacher, with a March starting date. I was given seven days to make my decision.
About an hour later, I decided to decline it. It feels like the coward’s move. But right now, I am not ready for the Peace Corps, and that is okay.
Now I am trying to figure out what is next. I will still graduate in December, and I still have no jobs waiting for me. Though I am not yet ready to live in Indonesia for two years, I am ready to explore more of the US, especially her big cities.
I do not plan to give up my aspirations of international studies. I know if I do move somewhere like Chicago or Philadelphia, I will meet people from other countries and cultural backgrounds, and that is exciting.
Maybe I will pursue a master’s degree in international relations. I am still very interested in cross-cultural issues. I follow global current events in my free time, and I try to pick up bits and pieces of other languages.
My thirst for cultural diversity will never be quenched. The Peace Corps may still be in my future, but I am not looking that far ahead. I am looking at what is next, one decision at a time.
While living in Taipei, we got many opportunities to try new and (to us) strange foods, especially at the night markets. I was game for tasting most things at least once. But sometimes it took me a little while to work up my nerve—like when I waited a few years before trying “stinky tofu.” (Ends up it’s not as bad as it sounds, or smells.)
For a long time, I’d seen mounds of small black spiral shells sold as a snack at night markets, and I wondered what they tasted like. Actually, I also wondered how you’d eat them. I figured a snail, or some sort of other creature, was cooked inside, so maybe you sucked the meat out, or maybe the shell was cooked to the point where it was soft and you were supposed to eat the whole thing. I didn’t know, but I saw the locals walking around with plastic bags full of them, so I assumed they tasted good.
One evening I finally gave in to my curiosity and confidently walked over to the lady selling the black shells. It’s the custom for vendors at the markets to provide a small bowl of samples for potential customers to try. This lady was no exception, as she had a paper bowl holding a few shells sitting on the front of the table. I grabbed one of the samples, put it in my mouth, and sucked on it as I walked away. While the shells looked spicy piled up on display—with a few peppers mixed in—I tasted nothing. Flavorless. And I was disappointed to find no meat inside.
The next night, I was at the same market, and I wanted to try one more time. So I grabbed another sample from the shell lady. Again, no matter how much I worked it around in my mouth, no meat, no flavor, just a shell. Come on. Why do people buy those things? I walked back to my family and told them how I’d wasted my time and was glad I hadn’t wasted my money.
That’s when my son looked back at the table . . . and said, “Dad, that’s not the bowl for samples. That’s where people put the shell after they’ve tried one and need to throw it away.”
Last week’s post on adoption got me rethinking some of my family’s experiences. Here’s a story we put in a newsletter three years ago. One of our sons is Taiwanese and had been in our Taipei home for a couple years, long enough to become a part of the culture within our walls.
Our youngest son has recently started preschool in the mornings. The main goal is to help him understand and speak more Chinese. After his first day, the teacher told my wife that he was hugging the other children—and they didn’t know how to respond. The teacher said that she explained to them, “It’s OK, he’s a foreigner. They hug a lot at his house.”
As he learns more about himself and the world around him, we have more opportunities to talk with him about “who he is.” While we were out one day last month, he saw a sign showing Chinese chess pieces. He asked why they had letters on them. I told him that they weren’t letters, they were Chinese characters. Seeing an opportunity, I asked him, “Are you Chinese?”
You already know that McDonald’s is the global king of fast-food success, but do you know which US chains are next in line outside of America’s borders?
Well, the answer depends on how you define success. If overall non-US sales is important to you, then number two is KFC, followed by Burger King (according to figures from 2011).
But if you’re more of a How-many-international-restaurants-do-they-have? kind of person, then Subway comes after the Golden Arches and KFC.
Or maybe you care about who’s expanding the most. In that measurement, McDonald’s isn’t in the top five. The three American companies that opened the most non-US units—from 2009 to 2010—are Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts, and KFC.
All this information comes from QSR‘s “Global 30,” a sortable list ranking the top American “quick-service” restaurants outside the US.
Below are the ten American chains with the most restaurants outside the US. That’s the list I’m most interested in, since that gauges your chance of running into one of them overseas. Most are in Taiwan, so I’m adding embellishments from my experiences during my time in Taipei. We had more than our fair share of American fast-food outlets in the capital city, but there were still some gaps. I mean, how can a city of 6 million be Taco Bell-less?
McDonald’s – 18,710 units When we first arrived, we didn’t have the vocabulary to order individual items, so we just ordered meals by number. This meant a soda for even our smallest child, and we had four children. One day I walked up three flights of stairs (most McDonald’s in Taiwan are vertical) balancing 6 Cokes on a tray. I was pretty proud that I’d made it and pretended to stumble when I got to our table . . . and spilled the whole tray. . . . On another day we went to our local McD’s to find out that they’d run out of hamburger. I didn’t know that was possible.
KFC – 11,798 The extra crispy chicken at Taiwan’s KFCs is spicy hot, which we grew to like more than its American counterpart. And because the Taiwanese like dark meat better than white meat, when we ordered a bucket of chicken, we could substitute white for dark at no extra cost. One negative is that their KFCs don’t have slaw. I love KFC’s slaw.
Subway – 10,109 You could almost replace your vegetable-vocabulary unit in language learning with several trips to Subway. If you want the right toppings on your sandwich, you simply have to learn the words. Pointing at “that green thing” won’t do. Building a sandwich at Subway is like a chapter test. . . . By the way, a Subway near us in Taipei also ran out of meat. For a few days it was a salad shop.
Pizza Hut – 5,890 We had a Pizza Hut around the corner from our last apartment in Taiwan. Loved their pepperoni pizza. Not so crazy about toppings with peas or corn . . . or squid . . . or tuna.
Starbucks – 5,727 Most of what I have to say about Starbucks I’ve already said here. The chain has made a big enough impact on the tea-drinking island of Taiwan that several coffee shops have sprung up with circular green logos and/or copycat names (ecoffee, for example). My favorite was the shop that had a sign that said, in a small font, something like, “We’re Not,” over the very large, “STARBUCKS.”
Burger King – 4,998 For a while, my absolute favorite sandwich was a bacon cheeseburger from the Burger King in Keelung next to the train station, eaten on the train as I and a teammate rode back to Taipei after our evening Bible studies with students at the National Taiwan Oceanic University. My second favorite sandwich near the station was a da chang bao xiao chang, or “big sausage wrapped around a small sausage” (the outer “sausage” was made from sticky rice).
Domino’s – 4,422 After serving for two years as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan, Scott Oelkers returned to Minnesota and double majored in Chinese and economics. Following his graduation, he got a job as a buyer for Domino’s Pizza International and worked his way up to vice president. He sold franchise rights in Taiwan to a private equity firm, and the firm asked him to run the business for them. He did, and in the process became a minor celebrity in Taiwan with his humorous TV commercials. Now Oelkers is president and CEO of Domino’s in Japan. He’s still making commercials, like the one below that just came out last month. Betsy Isaacson of the Huffington Post calls it “the most awkward ad in the universe.” I guess one man’s awkward is another man’s profitable.
Dunkin’ Donuts – 3,005 When the first Mister Donut opened in Taipei in 2004, the lines were so long that there was a sign a ways back on the sidewalk that read, “240 minutes from this point.” Dunkin’ Donuts came not long after, and we were glad to see one open in our neighborhood. We held our team meetings there for a while because we usually had the upstairs mostly to ourselves. Not a good sign. It closed.
Dairy Queen – 802 There’s no DQ in Taiwan that I know of (and we usually heard about those kind of things). I do see from an article in Taiwan Today that one was slated for opening in 1986 “located near Church’s Texas Fried Chicken and Lotteria in Taipei.” Someone else with a longer history in Taiwan would have to say whether it ever opened its doors.
Papa John’s – 755 We’re getting farther down on the list, and neither is there a Papa John’s in Taiwan. But that doesn’t mean there’s not room for another pizza franchise, or room for some other kind of fast-food chain. The question is, which one should it be? . . .
For those of you living outside the US, are there any restaurants that you long for? For you American expats, what tastes do you miss, and what do you think would go over well among the locals?
Wendy’s? It comes in at number 11. Taipei used to have at least one. I’ve heard stories from my former coworkers, and a Taipei Wendy’s is even the setting for a short scene in Ang Lee’s 1994 movie, Eat Drink Man Woman.
Or how about Long John Silver’s? It didn’t make the Global 30. One came to Taipei for a short time. We ate there a couple times just to try it out. As I recall, it didn’t last more than a year.
Oh, yeah. There’s Taco Bell (#19). Why can’t you find more Taco Bell’s overseas? I can’t count how many times I heard American expats say that when they get back home the first thing they want to do is eat at a Taco Bell.
I asked a good Taiwanese friend—who had studied at a US university—if he thought Taco Bell would do well in Taiwan. He wasn’t sure that it would, as Mexican flavors don’t always fit the Asian palate. Then I asked him about Arby’s (#21). It seems to me that roast-beef sandwiches could fit in in a lot of cultures, and I like them a lot, too. He said, no, that he didn’t think that there would be enough room for parking. That seemed strange since most fast-food restaurants in Taiwan don’t have any dedicated parking at all. When I questioned that, he said that Arby’s are just too big for Taiwanese. I was confused. Were we talking about the same thing? They’re too big, he said again. Who in Taipei would have room to park an RV?
Hmmmm. Maybe our miscommunication has birthed an idea. How about setting up a fleet of mobile Arby’s in RVs around the globe. I wonder. . . .