COMING TO TAIWAN: The S. African perspective

Photo: Trista di Genova
Photo: Trista di Genova
By Marc Feltham / Wild East Comedy / Contributing writer

It was 2001. I had reached the pits of despair and was seriously contemplating suicide. My previous life as a rock star was over, due to some ridiculously stupid life decisions and a penchant for chemical relief. I took a job checking cars at a transportation firm, which barely paid enough to keep me in beer and cigarettes. I had to resort to living with my parents, which was enough to drive anyone insane. I had never owned a computer, nor been on the internet.
I saw an advert in a Sunday tabloid along the lines of “Come and teach English in Taiwan! It doesn’t matter if you’re a dumbfcuk who knows nothing about teaching! All you need is a degree!”
Luckily for me, I had managed to bullsh+t my way through two degrees before the irresponsibility and debauchery took over.
I was terrified. I hadn’t traveled much, apart from in Africa. All I knew about Taiwan was the plastic crap I kept getting yearly in my Christmas stocking that said “Made In Taiwan”. I certainly couldn’t have pointed it out on a map.
So I get a job through a recruiter. It seemed like plain sailing, but I was horribly wrong. The Taiwan office was extremely stringent about paperwork. I spent nearly a month liaising with my prospective employers via telephone (those ones you see in old movies with cables and shit) and telex and fax machines.
Eventually, my deeply vexed agent managed to get me a two-week visa.
But this wasn’t the end of it. I had to prove that I had a sh+tload of money in my bank account, because tourists need a sh+tload of money, apparently. This was before the glorious era of backpacking.
Hence, my parents, who were pretty much also operating on the breadline, had to pump some cash into my account.
Now, I hate flying. Along with high places and being in a confined space with strangers, it’s one of my biggest phobias. I leave the departure area, and my mum is sobbing, because despite being rather difficult, she dearly loves me. There’s a South African bloke sitting behind me whom I later find is also coming to Taiwan to pretend to teach English.
He and I hit it off. His name was Neil. Nice bloke. We have a 24-hour stop in Malaysia and decide to go to the tallest building in the world at that time, the Petronas Twin Towers, for a drink. It’s 5 a.m. in the morning and we exit the Kuala Lumpur airport. The heat and humidity is violent and shocking. Neil points out our destination, far off in the distance, and I’m like “fcuk, yeah, let’s go!” Five hours later, drenched in sweat and stinking like skunks in heat, we trudge up the steps of this landmark and get told in no uncertain terms “All the bars are closed. Now feck off”.
We took a taxi back to the airport and bought a cheap bottle of vodka, from the vile, overpriced, duty-free shop. Drank it in plastic cups with Sprite, while we waited for our flight, in the departure lounge. Terribly skint. Hardly a dollar or ringgit to rub between us.
I eventually arrive in Taipei.
Do you know that scene in Apocalypse Now! where the schoolchildren and teachers are fleeing as the American helicopters approach, about to bombard them with missiles? That’s how I imagined Taiwan to be. Wooden schools on stilts. Rice paddies. Children whose parents couldn’t afford shoes.
I stand around waiting for someone to pick me up. I’m terrified, confused and horribly disoriented. Eventually this disheveled bloke rocks up with my photo on a board. Utterly relieved, I’m like “Hey, that’s me!” He’s “Nah, it doesn’t look like you”. Eventually we get into his car and load my sad baggage. He says “If you teach in Taiwan, you have to say ‘aaaple’, not ‘apple’. People want an American accent.”
I thought he was the driver, so I just laughed. Turns out he was my future boss.

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