18 years ago (ack!) I was eating banana pancakes on a roof in Taiwan. Run by kind, English-speaking Janice, the Green House Café was an unofficial drop-in centre for expats in Tainan, a small city south of cosmopolitan Taipei. Unlike the capital, Tainan’s signs displayed only Chinese characters and Westerners were so rare that strangers would regularly rub my cheek, pet my hair or drive slowly beside me on motorized scooters as I walked down the street. It was hard to purchase motorbikes, cell phones, even tampons. Several times yeast infections drove me to tears. Try miming that. The Green House, serving sandwiches, burgers and other Western cuisine, had a big message board for jobs, apartments and scooters. It was also where you could find out the important gossip – who paid best? Who would report you to police for quitting? Which schools were getting raided? (You were only allowed one official employer, but everyone had lots of illegals ones on the side.)
On the roof of this café, is where I first met the lovely K. A petite, strawberry brunette from sweet Saskatchewan, she attracted lots of helpful advice. I was secretly entranced too. She wasn’t flirtatious. She was quite measured really, but so confident. I concentrated on my slightly weird vegetable sandwich, and wondered at her seeming confidence. She had taught English before in Korea. She had lived in South America. On her OWN. And now she was stating that she’d just arrived a few weeks ago and would be looking for work and a place to stay.
This sounds so dumb now, but I couldn’t believe how bold she seemed. Travelling without a social safety net, not really making excuses for lack of leads or plans. Just saying this is who I am, this is where I’ve been, this is what I want to do. I was really scared of being on my own then. I was also scared of other women. And petrified of making friends. Everyone was more capable, interesting, pretty and cool. Back then, my strategy was to latch on to a boyfriend – for some reason this was a power I had cultivated over independence – and then piggy back on his travel plans, friendships and motorbike.
AnyHOO, before too long, the mysteriously poised K was working at my school, the prestigious HU Ma Ma. It paid better than all the others but was the only one that required teachers to wear ties and skirts, work on Saturday and maintain absolute silence in the classroom. Hu Ba Ba, its pickled patriarch, watched us all for signs of fun through CCTV cameras from his office. As new teacher, K shadowed me for a week. We thought it was so funny that the kids couldn’t tell us apart. Despite my being a foot taller, our freckles and copper hair made us indistinguishable apparently.
Not too long after she started, Hu Ba Ba announced one of his semi-regular, mandatory Teacher Dinners. After work one night, around 10, we all gathered in a fancy restaurant, the senior teachers falling all over each other to pay Hu Ba Ba and Hu Ma Ma compliments. The junior teachers, including me, just tried to keep quiet and avoid notice. The centre of the round table was a whirly-gig or a lazy susan. Hu Ba Ba would pour shots of fancy whiskey and then hurl them around to a target male teacher, who would then look deeply into Hu Ba Ba’s stern eyes before downing his medicine. (Women don’t drink alchohol publicly, especially Hu Ba Ba’s women)
When waitresses poured alcohol into glass pots on the roundabout, something inside started to jump. I screamed. Hu Ba Ba glared at me, and Hu Ma Ma looked disapproving. A senior teacher elbowed me: “it’s shrimp! They kill them on the table so we know they are very fresh.” “Very fresh!” he shouted toward Hu Ba Ba. “Thank you sir!”
Then out came a dish of rubbery white fish stomachs. Everyone try some, shouted Hu Ba Ba. Pretend it is pasta! I took a few of the white elbow-shaped valves that did not look enough like pasta. “It’s pasta!” shouted Hu Ba Ba. I put one in my mouth and began to chew. And chew. And chew. Stomach muscles are very strong. And elastic. And chewy. After several long minutes, I realized I was going to have to swallow it whole.
Then the dish came around again, and K TOOK A SECOND HELPING. She got a special toast from Hu Ba Ba, plus admiring glances from the too-confident, too-loud senior teachers. I couldn’t believe it. Not only was she confident, she could eat anything. No wonder she could travel so freely. I was so squeamish I wouldn’t eat for days, if I couldn’t recognize it.
Word travelled fast around the ex-pats. That reserved-looking Saskie girl ate two helpings of fish stomachs and downed a whiskey with Hu Ba Ba afterwards.
A few weeks later I ran into her at an expat pub and asked her how she how she managed to chew through two helpings of rubbery fish stomachs without gagging.
She blushed. “I really thought it was pasta. I couldn’t understand why everyone was making such a fuss.”
And that was the beginning of my 18 year friendship with K. She lives in England now, with a man she met in Taiwan. And she comes back to Vancouver every two years or so, because that’s where she took her education degree after Taiwan. In fact, her visit is the inspiration for this post.
We all begged and harassed her to stay after graduating. Use your contacts. Get a good job! All your best Taiwan friends are here in Vancouver.
But K never listens to peer pressure. She moved to Leicester with the love of her life, struggled to find solid teaching work for years and lived in a teeny tiny moldy flat. Now, she’s married to her love, is head of a history department and lives in the most beautiful converted loft space I have ever seen. Those Saskie girls. They’re quiet but they are contenders.