The woman who didn’t meow

And other short stories from my first six weeks in Taiwan…

The outside of a generic elevator, with doors closed.
An elevator, in which I terrorized my elderly neighbors. Photo: Zhen-Kang.

Today is the one-month anniversary of moving into my Kaohsiung apartment, and the six-week anniversary of my arrival in Taiwan.

Moving here as someone who speaks extremely-limited Mandarin, and who cannot read Chinese, has been fun. (I mean this sincerely.)

My brain works overtime to communicate, and to analyze my environment so I can emulate normal local behavior. Every day is an exhausting and extremely enjoyable challenge. I sleep well.

Many things are different here. From the superficial—like driving on the right—to behaviors that, for me, have quickly become automatic: bowing my head, walking into oncoming traffic, riding on the back of scooters, and buying toilet paper in concertinaed rectangles instead of on a roll.

And while some things are starting to feel familiar—like musical garbage trucks and architecture that makes sense here but would be bizarre in New Zealand—I’m still obviously an outsider. I make little mistakes every day.

Below, I present eight short stories about cultural misunderstandings and inconsequential mistakes, from my first six weeks in Taiwan:

Trapped in the roof garden

As I moved into my building, I made a FaceTime call to family back home. I showed them my apartment, then took them up to the roof garden above the 15th floor. It features a tree and flowerbeds, clothes lines for drying sheets, and views in all directions.

I waved my hand in front of the wall-mounted sensor to open the doors, and walked outside for a look. The 360º nighttime view probably didn’t show up on FaceTime, but I tried.

A couple of minutes later, when I wanted to go inside, I found the motorized doors were locked. I waved my key card across various panels but the doors remained firmly closed. I repeatedly pressed a prominent red button, but nothing happened.

I tried climbing up a narrow staircase that led to the mechanism above the elevator—I forget what I hoped to achieve by climbing up instead of down—and, unsurprisingly, it didn’t help.

I was trapped in the roof garden, live-streaming my incompetence to family back home.

Eventually, a security guard appeared to let me in. I assume he’d seen me on CCTV or, more likely, had been repeatedly interrupted by an alarm connected to the prominent red button.

He kindly showed me all the buttons not to press (including the prominent red one), and how to use my key card like a normal person: it has to align with the wireless logo at the extreme bottom edge of the sensor panel.

He then took me to the basement garbage room and showed me more buttons I shouldn’t touch. Basically everything, including light switches.

I was very appreciative, and obviously would’ve pressed them otherwise.

The next day, the building manager—who I suspect politely rues having an illiterate foreigner in the building—flagged me down as I arrived home. In a mix of Chinese and English, she gave me a tour of the lobby, pointing out more things I shouldn’t touch. Basically everything, including light switches.

A tennis racket at reception

During my tour of the lobby, the building manager didn’t explain the presence of a plastic tennis racket on the counter. I assumed a kid left it behind, and they’d someday return to claim it.

A few weeks later, the tennis racket was—incongruously—still there. I assumed the kid had moved on to other toys.

Then, a few days ago while researching how to deal with a wave of (four) mosquito sightings in my apartment, I discovered it’s not a tennis racket at all: it’s an electrified mosquito swatter.

Electricity flows through the ‘strings’, frying whatever bug it touches.

Having failed to catch mosquitoes with a paper towel, I can see how this would be helpful. And why there isn’t a kid missing a tennis racket.

The destructive power of non-alkaline batteries

For the past 10 years, I’ve used an instant camera to take photos of friends and family who visit my house. I want to uphold this tradition in Taiwan, so I brought my Fujifilm Instax camera with me.

I had to remove the AA batteries for travel, so bought new Panasonic batteries when I got here. I put them in and turned the camera on. And the motor ground to a halt as it flashed an error.

Searching online, I discovered I’d made the mistake of using very old-school, non-alkaline AA batteries; a potentially-destructive move. I had no idea very old-school, non-alkaline batteries existed, nor that they damage modern electronics.

Luckily, after replacing them, my camera came back to life.

Talking to someone one meter away, via intercom

A few strangers visited me during the early days in my apartment: cleaners hired by my landlord, IKEA delivery staff, and four technicians to install broadband (three doing the installing and one delivering their bubble tea).

Ahead of one of these visits, I heard my wall-mounted intercom ring for the first time. I excitedly hit the phone icon to answer the call.

I could see my visitor on screen, and proceeded to buzz them in.

But they didn’t move, and I couldn’t understand what they said in Chinese. So I repeatedly pressed the unlock icon and tried speaking variants of you go my house and welcome.

After 30 seconds of failed communication, I decided to go downstairs to let them in. At which point I opened my apartment door and saw them standing immediately outside.

The building manager had brought them upstairs, and they’d called me from a video doorbell I hadn’t known existed, right outside my door.

The school inside a closet

Last year, I enrolled in online one-on-one Chinese classes before moving to Taiwan. There was a 30% bulk-purchase discount, so I guesstimated how many hours I’d need before I got here.

I guesstimated badly, and even now—six weeks in—I still have 20 hours’ worth of prepaid lessons in my account. So I’ve continued to learn online.

But last week I decided to also join an on-campus class. Even without the 30% discount, it’s still one-quarter the price of the on-on-one lessons.

Last Wednesday, I arrived at the office building that houses my language school, and walked up to the second floor. I could see the school’s logo on the wall, and a noticeboard covered in relevant messages, but I couldn’t find the door. I circled the second-floor lobby, looked either side of the bathrooms and elevators, and just couldn’t see it.

I assumed all their previous students had found the door. (No one else was circling the lobby.)

Then, about two minutes later and not excepting a positive outcome but completely out of other ideas, I cautiously opened what I thought was obviously a janitor’s closet—only to find reception on the other side.

It’s hard to explain, but the door was definitively in the style of a janitor’s closet. The kind I’m used to seeing in shopping malls or university buildings in New Zealand. And which, I’ve now learned, is also the style of completely normal office doors here in Taiwan.

The rubber bands that definitely weren’t a side dish

One day last week, I ate lunch at a super-cheap, Michelin-approved restaurant around the corner from my building. I ordered glutinous peanut rice, miso soup, and black tea—for a total of around NZ$2.35.

After I paid, one of the aunties hurriedly placed the rice dish on the counter in front of me, along with a second bowl I glanced at and assumed was a side dish of red onion or purple cabbage (or similar). I’ve eaten at other places where unexpected and free side dishes are provided with a meal.

I carried the bowls to my table. And then, just as I looked down and realized the second bowl was full of pink rubber bands, the auntie came and snatched it away, replacing it with my miso soup.

On my way out, I saw the rubber bands are used to tie plastic bags of takeout food.

I wanted to apologize to the auntie for seemingly planning to eat her rubber bands.

She laughed, and in English said, “no problem!”

Terrorizing elderly neighbors in an elevator

Face masks are compulsory in all indoor settings in Taiwan. And while optional outside, at least 95% of people wear them outside too.

Not wanting to be perceived as a foreign COVID-breathing menace, I also wear my mask at all times.

One day, I was waiting to ride my building’s elevator down to the ground floor. The doors opened and, unusually, the elevator had six elderly people inside.

I stepped inside and they suddenly protested—not quite shouting, but all six of them were clearly and loudly saying something was wrong. They waved their arms at me and backed away.

I was confused for a second, but then noticed they were heading to a higher floor (whereas I wanted to go down). While I thought they’d over-reacted to a minor mistake, after stepping out I still bowed my head to acknowledge the inconvenience. Then the doors closed and they continued on their way.

When the elevator came back down, it was empty.

I stepped inside and saw my reflection on the mirrored walls:

I wasn’t wearing a mask.

The woman who didn’t meow

One night, while walking home from 7-Eleven, I saw a dark cat silhouetted on the pavement ahead.

As I got closer, a lady stepped from the shadows, holding a bowl of food in her outstretched arms.

She looked directly at me and said “meow!”

Which was creepy and weird.

I bowed my head and quickly walked on.

Seconds later, mentally replaying the moment, I realized what’d just happened.

She’d actually been saying a friendly hello:

“Ni hao!”