It’s easy to forget how overwhelming the first days of your new life in Asia can be; the crushing language barrier makes simple things like ordering a meal an ordeal; learning to navigate the public transportation system happens one mistake at a time; and that “easy to find” job can prove elusive. Holed up in a shabby hostel, you count your rapidly shrinking finances and ask yourself, “God, what have I done?”
The disorientation and stress of immersion is perfectly captured in Ken Berglund’s An American Teacher in Taiwan. The book describes his 4.5 years on the island from 2004 to 2008, giving greatest coverage to the intense early period. Chapters are arranged in two streams, alternating between the chronological story and short articles of various facets about life in Taiwan.
With admirable honesty – indeed, if you had to choose one word to describe the book, it would be “honest” – Berglund describes why he moved to Taiwan:
I had a life that was going nowhere. I had just gotten divorced from my first wife, Amber, and I was working for a health insurance company called SCAN (or as the employees called it, SCAM). Working for SCAN was a truly soul-draining experience.
A friend with Taiwan experience kept telling Berglund that he should teach English there. The author studied a rather worthless distance teaching course (which gave him a certificate though not a single hour’s experience of real teaching) and he managed to convince a friend, David, “whose life was actually a lot worse” than his, to go with him. Berglund arrived in Taipei without a job lined up and just two thousand dollars. He and David stayed at the Happy Family Hostel (“a piece of shit”). Lying in his bottom bunk bed he recalls staring up at the wood board under the top bed; messages were scrawled on it, one of which stood out: “It has come to this.”
The first two days in Taipei were especially difficult. On the first day they were looking for an American-style restaurant and ended up in a place called “BBQ Party,” (perhaps not the best choice seeing as David is a vegetarian, but they were footsore and hungry). Not only were they surprised that they had to grill the food by themselves, but also by the huge quantity of food they had mistakenly ordered. Enormous plate after enormous plate of meat, seafood, and vegetables were brought out to the bewildered newbies. Completely vanquished, still more plates of food came, and they had to wave them away:
At this point I tell David “You know, this is the kind of place that Amber