It’s 5 am when I start the day. Dark. Cold. Quiet. Laying there, eyes closed, I already know that it will be overcast today– like every day before. I think about my day: whether I’ve forgotten to do anything, what I need to do at work today, who I need to contact, if I have enough food. When I cannot prolong huddling under the blankets any longer, I slide into my house slippers and tiptoe to the bathroom where my toothbrush and toothpaste are neatly laid inside my clear glass cup. I prepare to start another day at work.
But today is special for me. I’m heading out to my first civil society organization (CSO) meeting with the National Immigration Agency (NIA). I take my time getting dressed. I layer my face: the usual lotion and sunblock with foundation, mascara, eyeliner and SPF 20 lip balm. I layer my clothes: black tights, red dress, black sweater, and grey blazer. I grab my coral flats as I head out of my room, clicking the lock closed and peek into my landlady’s room next door. She is neatly wrapped in colorful swathes of comforters in floral print. She looks fast asleep but I know she’s alert, listening for when I swing the creaking door open to leave. “I’m sixty one. Old already. It’s hard to fall asleep” she tells me in the evenings when we share bits of our lives and laugh over our fumbles.
By the time I head down the elevator to grab breakfast around the corner, it’s 6 am. Light traffic bristles outside and students walk around in their schools’ PE sweats. I go to an “American” restaurant with the usual offerings: milk and coffee sealed in clear plastic cups, congee in all its variations, crustless breakfast sandwiches with everything from fried chicken patties, corn and mayonnaise to pork floss. I grab two with alfalfa sprouts and exchange my bag of goodies for forty Taiwanese Dollars– about $1.33.
I turn on the lights in the hall outside our office to say “we are open, come in” to anyone who might need our services. I’m still not completely sure what that all entails, but it includes everything from deportation and labor exploitation cases to teaching children how to speak and sing and dance in Vietnamese.
I take a couple hours for myself to check emails and Facebook, chat with friends, and read the news– taking bites in between, sipping hot water.
I punch in at 8:30. I try to figure out the video camera in preparation for documenting our students’ musical act at the Carnival of International Migrants Holiday– I think, “What terrible phrasing, are international migrants like a circus act?” I keep these thoughts to myself. I switch to trying to change language settings on the laptops I was asked to bring from the national office in the US. There is no tech department in an office of two. I handle any tech issues with the professional help of my friends Youtube and her mom, Google.
My coworker/director comes in by nine, taking time to set up her space briefly before we head out. We chat as we walk to the train station, as we clutch the overhanging bars in the train, bodies pressing all around us, until the blinking green light reaches our stop. We walk along the long and muggy underground train passageways into City Hall’s outdoor court. As we surface into fresh cool air, I see the streets are cleaner, building taller and shops nicer than Shulin. When we get to the fourteenth floor people are already networking, eating McDonald’s, drinking coffee. The government worker comes to shake my director’s hand. She seems warm and I smile at her. We are directed to sign in and sit. They give me a red stool. I look around at all the plush black chairs and wonder for a bit but I rationalize that it’s because the room is packed and my name was added to the roster late. I think she sees my face. She moves a chair behind me and asks me if I would prefer to sit in the back. My director tactfully cuts in and tells her I need to stay beside her so that she can translate for me.
One official begins the meeting, another introduces all the people, mostly CSO directors and some educators. After the first half hour, I find it hard to focus on the slab of printed presentation slides in front of me. The presentations are very fast, covering everything from specific government services and funding for immigrants and their CSOs, to changes in airport security checkpoints, to discussing the Carnival. The first interruption is a man. He speaks quickly, decisively about the services. Everyone smiles at each other knowingly. My director leans towards me, whispering into my ear. She tells me he always speaks up. He works as a marriage broker between mainland Chinese and Taiwanese couples and sits at these meetings to advocate for mainlanders. I wonder why he’s here, who else is here and what their motives are. The rest is a muddled rush of presentation slides, bored faces, whispered conversations, cell phones under tables and occasional questions. Towards the end there is an exchange of business cards between folks besides my director. She looks at them for so long I wonder if she had wanted to be part of this. I find them passive aggressive but I don’t know if I’m overreacting or imagining things.
At the end of the meeting, the real work begins. I look on as my director goes to collect contact information. I look over to see the lady who sat next to my director scold her subordinate for forgetting her business cards and not catching a particular government worker before they left. This is a very different woman from the one I saw moments earlier asking questions and interacting with other directors. I smile and look away. My director secures a good location for the carnival, which is as much about enjoying international foods and performances as it is a PR opportunity. She catches a moment to introduce me briefly to the nice government worker I met at the beginning before we head out.
As we step out, the NIA has prepared us a large boxed lunch with a small yogurt drink– the vegetarian options in Taiwan are usually lacto-ovo vegetarian （素） instead of vegan （純素）. We head out to the park downstairs. Halloween decorations are up– mummies on the benches, white “cobwebs” hanging above our heads, plastic pumpkins all around. We eat quickly as the wind threatens us with chills. We discuss the day, the meeting, and walk back to the train station. We buy an Easycard (similar to a SmarTrip card in DC) and– after checking if there’s any urgent business– she turns to me and asks me if I want to go shopping. I try not to look too excited but I’m not very good at hiding my emotions. We haven’t done anything all week but work in the office from morning until night. We shop for three hours in Taipei, in the shops underground in the train station before heading back to the office. We chat so loudly as we wait that people look at us. We try to be good and quiet but laughter bubbles. When we get back, she wraps up work as I prepare dinner for myself. It’s seven and she’s still working. I ask if she’s hungry and we wind up sharing sesame-flavored instant noodle over light conversation about squash and her daughter– not at the same time. At 7:21 we hear a buzz at the door. My landlady and her friend have come to get me. We are all going to a dance session. I drop the bowls in the sink for later.
The four of us wind through the dimly lit streets behind our building. We introduce ourselves to each other. Names and occupations and where we live. We talk about the dance class and whether we have them in the US. I tell them not so many and not so free. The neighbor says, quite proudly, “Taiwan has excellent welfare.” I laugh and think on all of the problems with welfare and healthcare we’ve had in the US. Before my thoughts turn too serious we arrive at the dance studio. It is large, well-lit, and clean. Middle-aged and elder ladies file into the space. They look tame until they start dancing. And then I am utterly lost in a maze of taps and pivots, shuffles and turns. One of the four or five teachers spends time giving my director and I one-on-one direction. The dance class goes through ten different dances by the time the night is through.
It’s a humbling experience on many different levels.
By the time I get back, wash the dishes and close up the office it’s nearly ten. Two hours past my usual jet-lagged bed time. My landlady left the door unlocked, knowing I struggle with the lock. She hands me my pants, hemmed for my petite frame. We talk about the day and I learn more about her kids. I teach her some words in English. “I really like to learn, but I’m so old and stupid. Ah, I can’t!” I tell her she’s really amazing. Chinese is really hard. English is easier and she just needs to give it time. She hustles me to bathe and go to bed. I sneeze once in the bathroom. When I get out she tells me to use warmer water and to blow dry my hair.
I teach her “good night” and “sleep tight.” She tries a few times before giving up and telling me to go to bed already. I tell her I’ll try again tomorrow. She laughs and tells me to go away.
I close my door and sleep to the light hum of the television and the traffic below.