Boston Paul’s 20 Year Taiwanniversary & How it Happened

It is indeed my Twenty Year Taiwanniversary!

Has it been that long? Twenty years? Time flies indeed… not like a bird, but more like a supersonic jet.

The last few days, as I realized that my Taiwanniversary was approaching, I began to reflect on how many people I’ve met over the years and all the things I have done.

I have learned so much.

It’s been an adventurous, fun, experience living in Taiwan – AKA Formosa – these last twenty years.

I’ve lived in Taiwan just under half my life… and what a whirlwind!

I’ve seen people come and go and come back again.

I’ve seen people, learn about themselves get confidence then spread their wings and fly.

I’ve seen the Island go from a handful of foreigners to a force to be reckoned with.

I was here for the very first presidential elections.

I’ve seen political turmoil. I was here when China shot missiles right off the shores of our Island Paradise to intimidate the government… and not just once either.

I witnessed Peaceful Protests by the Taiwan People in the Wild Strawberries & The Sun Flower Movements (and with great risk I played music for the Wild Strawberry Movement while the KMT police took my picture).

I’ve experienced Earthquakes Galore including the Big One in 1999, that not only shook the Island, but my very soul.

The list goes on and on… I might even write a book about it one day.

Today – January Seventh – marks exactly twenty years that I have officially lived in Taiwan.

For the Occasion, I decided to write about how I actually got here, the crossroads I encountered during my pre-Taiwan days and why I finally chose to make Formosa – Beautiful Island –  my home.

Taiwan: the place I hang my many Hats.

I have always had an interest in Asian culture and it started at a very young age. Perhaps my interest in various Asian cultures caught hold as early as six years old when I was taking martial art classes with my father then going to our favorite Chinese restaurant (owned by a couple of brothers from Hong Kong) where I quickly mastered chop sticks.
Perhaps this interest in Asian culture was perpetuated by my Uncle Ed when he married a Korean woman in the 1970s. She spent a lot of time with me when they visited as her English was not so good and she preferred hanging out with us kids who wouldn’t judge her.
Perhaps it was because I watched a lot of Bruce Lee (and other martial art) movies.

It seems that it was just a matter of time when I would find myself in a country where I felt at home.

I thought that matter of time would be in 1992. I took a month off during the summer and visited Japan. I had met a few Japanese friends at University who had moved back to Japan and invited me to visit. I was already trying to learn Japanese (on top of Chinese) and thought this would be a good chance to hone my skills.

I was also a big fan of sushi.

I was working full time around this time and going to school at The University of Massachusetts in Boston. I had been out of the military a couple of years and decided I would like to go to another country without aiming an M16 at anyone.

Japan was beautiful. I traveled all over. Kyoto was probably my favorite. I didn’t want to leave.

At the time, I was dating a Sociology major who also happened to be Taiwanese. We met in 1990 and her name was Chin-lan. We had taken a couple of Chinese literature classes together and got to know one of our teachers who was born in Beijing but had fled to Taiwan with her family as a little girl when the KMT lost the civil war to the Communists. Her name was Ms. Mao. She was an awesome professor and we became friends.

I took quite a few classes with Professor Mao and learned a lot from her. I decided to give up learning Japanese and focus on Chinese – as Chinese came much more naturally to me. This would help complete my core getting me a minor in East Asian studies.

I kept eating sushi though.

At the end of 1992, I had an opportunity to work as a police officer in Chinatown. The pay would be good and the job would be exciting. Of course the one main requirement was that I had to speak and understand Mandarin Chinese. The few polite words I had managed to learn from my then girlfriend, her friends and Chinese classes a couple of times a week would not suffice.

I spent a lot of time in Chinatown as I bought things I needed for a martial arts school I had opened … and I loved the culture. I spent so much time in the various restaurants and shops there, that many of the shop owners knew my name and would politely giggle when I blurted out a few sentences in Chinese. “Very good Mandarin!” they would say. I knew they were just being polite, but I liked the encouragement. I thought working in Chinatown would be perfect and took my Chinese courses that much more seriously.

As 1993 rolled around, I was still taking Chinese classes at Uni a couple times a week. One day, Professor Mao told me that if I really wanted to learn Chinese I should immerse myself. She suggested I take a summer semester at Donghai University in Taiwan. It so happened that Donghai and UMass were ‘sister schools’ so getting into their program should not be a problem.

That sounded good to me.

I enrolled in the summer program. I arrived in Taiwan for the first time in June 1993. I spent the summer with Taiwanese roommates at the dorm at Donghai.

I took classes with students from all over the world and who were far more advanced in the language than I was. They ended up making a special class just for me. I joked that I was in the special needs class and needed to take a short bus to school. In fact, it turned out not be a joke at all. Everyone there would laugh at the jokes teacher made in class. I would smile and nod my head and try to decipher what was being said.

I felt like a big stupid doofy head.

But, where some may have quit (and some did), I became that much more determined.

I met a guy named Mike Brennan from St. Louis. He was an artist, a bit on the quiet side and his Chinese was really, really good. He made things easier for me and helped me with my homework. We became friends.

I left Taiwan at the beginning of September, just in time to start taking classes again at UMass. I was asked by my employers if my Chinese was good enough to start working in Chinatown.

It wasn’t. I kept up my Chinese studies for another year.

As 1994 popped its head up in the dead of winter, I realized I only had a couple of semesters to go before I graduated. I could then focus on my career and hopefully get that job in Chinatown. Mike wrote me a letter (this was before Email really kicked in) and said he was thinking of another summer semester in Taiwan.

I thought, why not?

I enrolled in the ‘94 summer semester at Donghai and spent another three months in Taiwan. I felt much more relaxed than the first time I came. I had a little bit more Chinese under my belt. I felt more comfortable speaking –  and my listening had improved… as long as it was easy, polite conversational bits of conversation, I could handle it.

I also didn’t need to be in the Special Needs class anymore.

It was great to see and hang out with Mike again. He and I lifted weights and practiced gongfu together. Went out on the town (not that there was much of a town back then, but the tea houses were nice and the girls were pretty!), we studied together.

We sat on the library steps at the university often and drank a beer or two and talked about life, love, art and music.

One particular warm Taiwan night, we had moved from the library steps to a patch of grass in front of the library. We lay down, a bit buzzed from our drinks and continued chatting as we took in the starry night.

“What are your plans when you graduate, Paul?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I guess focus on my career. Keep learning Chinese and see how far that gets me up the ladder,” I replied.

“Is that what you see yourself doing? Being a policeman working in Chinatown?”

“I guess so. I have my girlfriend, we have a good life. I’m making lots of money…. why do you ask?”

Mike thought about this for a moment and said, “I just don’t see you being a cop… to be honest.”

“Oh,” I replied.

We were quiet for a few moments. We both got up and brushed the grass of our pants and shirts.

We had to be up at 7:30 in the morning for classes… so we shook hands and said goodnight.

I didn’t go to sleep right away. My mind was filled with uncertain thoughts of the future.

Could I live in another country? Could I be away from my family and friends?
Would Chin-lan come with me if I moved to Taiwan? Could I make a living here?

The next day I went to class and told my teachers about the possibility of coming back again next year and staying for a year or two. They seemed to think it was a good idea, though they asked if I wouldn’t miss my family and friends in the states.

For the rest of the summer semester I mulled it over.

Perhaps I could stay a year, maybe two… get the language down, then the world would indeed be my oyster!

I went back to Boston and tried to pick up where I left off before the summer. I trudged through my last semester at UMass and got my degrees. I worked, but not with the same gusto I had before. I didn’t care about climbing the ladder anymore… at least not the one I found myself on.

The night I decided to move to Taiwan would have been sometime in October ’94.

I took Chin-lan out to dinner and told her my plan.

It did not go well.

“One or Two years?! What the hell have we been doing then? You are basically telling me you’re breaking up with me, right?” she spat.

“No… I’m not!” I paused… “why don’t you come with me?”

“I don’t want to live in Taiwan! I’ve been living in America since the 6th grade! This is my home now.”

“Well, we can keep in touch. Visit each other. I just want to do something different… do you know what I mean?”

“No! I don’t know what you mean… we have everything we need here. We both have good jobs. We’re making money… we have a house, cars… why would you want to leave all this?”

“If I speak Chinese, I can work in Chinatown… you know. The reason I went to Taiwan in the first place.  This move opens up a lot of possibilities for me – for us – as a couple… don’t you see?”

She didn’t see.

We got into bed that night. No kissing. No cuddling. I don’t think either one of us slept. I stared at the shadows on the ceiling.

November came and went. Chin-lan and I grew further apart… then it was Christmas and we went to see my family.

Little did I know that it would be the last Christmas Dinner I would share with the whole family.

By this time, most people in my family knew that I was going to live in Taiwan for a while. I told everyone I would probably spend a year or two until my Chinese was fluent then come back and be a cop in Chinatown or perhaps even get a job in government since with my military training, degrees and Chinese skills, I could probably secure a pretty good career.

We had a good family gathering. Chin-lan and I agreed that we would try a long distance relationship and that two years would go by in a jiffy. This Christmas Dinner was also a Good-bye I’m Going Away Dinner.

I told my supervisors I would take a leave of absence and that I would come back fluent in Mandarin.

Then I packed up my stuff. Put a bunch of stuff in storage and said goodbye to my house and most of my friends.

On January 7, 1995, my family and a few friends saw me off at Logan Airport in Boston.

I arrived in Taiwan on Saturday morning January 7th and chuckled to myself how I could leave my country 24 hours previously and show up in another country on the same day.

That one or two years turned into five years.

The ten years…. then fifteen.

And now it’s been twenty.

The long distance relationship with Chin-lan didn’t work out. They almost never do, do they?

The leave of absence I took became a resignation.

I don’t have any regrets about this life changing move, though I do miss some of my friends and family.

Learning that some of my family – and friends – have passed away while I’ve been living in the Far East hurts indeed.
But I still believe that I made the right choice living here.

I have done a lot in Taiwan in these twenty years. Perhaps more than some do in a lifetime… but that’s another story…

…a story I’ll write – perhaps – when I’ve reached my thirty year Taiwanniversary.

Cheers Taiwan!

Cheers Friends from all over the world I’ve met over the years here in Taiwan!

And last – but certainly not least – much Love to my wife Sandra and my son Raiden – for making my life here in Taiwan that much more awesome.


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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. HT BP!

    Just using that social media greeting card story you posted to make a joke. 🙂

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