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Saturday, September 19, 2020

Maiden voyage to Taiwan, the old Formosa

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Encouraged by my cosmopolitan father, who as interpreter, translator and language teacher spoke four languages fluently, in October 1985 I started to study Sinology, Japanology and Political Science at the OAS, the East Asian Institute, part of the Free University of Berlin, and where you also could learn Korean. Due to my old man´s disability, and because it was suggested in the pertinent study regulations, after finishing basic studies, I obtained a non-returnable one-year governmental grant to study Mandarin in Taiwan. The People’s Republic, known as Red China during the Cold War, was never an option for me, but that’s a different story!

That meant that for the first time in my life I would have to board a plane. From West Berlin, then still a capitalist island in the communist Red Sea, to Amsterdam I had to take a prop airliner! After a very long flight with Singapore Airlines I arrived in the city state for a one-day stopover, which was included in the ticket price. I truly enjoyed their legendary service, including nice food and drinks. The female flight attendants, dressed in their typical colorful uniforms, were all incredibly beautiful. Though to my despair, at destination it was so hot that I didn’t want to disembark. It felt like walking into an enormous greenhouse! Therefore, I spent most of the little time I had there in August 1988 in my air-conditioned luxury hotel room, which in retrospect appeared rather childish to me.

Anyway, I made it to the island that my father still often called by its former Portuguese name “Formosa”. A fellow student, and one of the few friends that I had made after entering the academic world, who had spent a year there already, picked me up at Taipei airport, which is actually located much closer to the nearby city of Taoyuan. In the late 1980s, the capital of Taiwan was still surrounded by a lot of polluting factories, and the sky more grey than blue. My first impression of the city was pretty bad! Although I was very grateful for not having to stay at a hostel first, as my buddy had rented a room for me in a suburb, his offbeat sense of humor didn’t help me to deal with the cultural shock I was experiencing.

The tiny Taiwanese landlady was quite nice, but not the smartest. On the contrary, her South Korean husband turned out to be quite annoying. As soon as she went to visit her relatives in the south, I was kindly invited to watch some German porn movies. Theoretically, 30 years later those are still illegal in Taiwan. I also remember that he and his fellow Korean drinking mates, all of them diehard machos, once stared at my blond German girlfriend as if she was just another porn star…

He was in fact the first person from that country that I had to deal with more closely, and one of the reasons why I developed a strong aversion against Koreans in general, which lasted for many years. Except a young Korean student, who was also learning Chinese at the Mandarin Training Center, by the way in those days a really excellent language school, all the other men and to a certain extent also the women from the land of the morning calm disgruntled me. These included roommates, neighbors and classmates. It wasn’t until my second visit to South Korea about 25 years later, that I made peace with its culture and people.

I had brought with me a German-made Junghans alarm clock, for which out of a sense of patriotism I had spent a little fortune in Berlin. Well, after being in use for only 13 months, it broke down exactly on the day my classes started. Of course I was late for tuition, and I still remember the expression on the faces of my classmates, when I started stuttering while trying to explain why. I didn’t know the Chinese word for that kind of clock. Our female teacher smiled and said 鬧鐘. That’s a term that I never forgot. Interestingly, we were all Germans, including one from the OAS. “Hey, what you doing here? Well, I could ask you the same question!” One of the three ladies in my class became my girlfriend after two and a half months, and we stayed together until our return to Europe in September 1989. Regarding our separation back home, her (already estranged) friend and roommate in Taipei told me much later something like “The Moor has done his duty, the Moor can go.” Anyway, as that Swabian hottie had been my first sweetie, I think I never fully got over the traumatic experience of her leaving me.

Probably the most bizarre common experience we had dates from the first time we went out for dinner alone. We ended up kissing and petting in a park with a small children’s playground. Suddenly, late at night, we heard an English voice saying “Look, it’s a gay couple”. We both looked at each other, and before we could react, the same voice gave the all-clear. Out of nowhere three tipsy young Americans appeared, explained that they had to do what they had to do, undressed, went down naked the kids slide in front of us, dressed again, thanked us and left, not before telling us that we could meet them later for a drink at the nowadays long defunct pub Catch 22. I don’t think we ever saw them again, but I guess that she also has vivid memories of our first night together-even though we waited three days to have sex-in the morning and skipping class for that!

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