JANUARY TO APRIL 2002: JUI FANG
|GRAM School, Jui Fang|
|The next few months were very quiet. Not quite all work and no play, but there were fewer emails, and mostly these dealt with administrative matters. Michael appeared content with this lifestyle, especially with Michelle as a weekend companion. In the meantime Michael found time for more reading and studying Mandarin.
Michael (email 5 Jan 02): Greetings dearest parents. I don't know if I told you but my friend Jarrad should be dropping off some CDs to you and if you could send them over to me I would be extremely grateful. I've also been trying to get hold of a good Chinese (Mandarin) language book to no avail. If you could find one I would sing a million praises unto you 'til God himself came down to tell me to shut up. Speaking of God, I recently read 2 books entitled "Conversations with God" and I can't find the 3rd book in the series (not that I've been looking that hard) so if you could send that over too, then I will humbly devote the rest of my life to fulfilling your every wish.
Well, not much else has happened, the last few days at work have been great as I haven't had to teach any classes, just hang in the office and help the kids and chat with the office girls. The girls at the kindergarten have kindly shown me a few more of the surrounding sights as well as a strange candlelight Buddhist ceremony that was a bit too sickly sweet for my liking, but still interesting.
I hope to send you some Chrissie stuff soon, but you'll have to be patient! Love, Mike.
Michael's father got the required books and tried to look up Michael's bestowed name of "Chen Long", to no avail. A Chinese speaking work colleague suggested it might mean "Blue Dragon".
|In an email to a friend Michael tells of how his travels have given him a new outlook on life . . .
Michael (email 8 Jan 02): . . . Travelling has taught me many things about myself and one of them is that anyone is capable of doing the most saintly act or the most fucked up despicable act. The truth is that we aren't fucking anything dude. Labels and names don't mean shit. Except if you believe in them and identify with them. We are constantly recreating ourselves every minute of every day. It's only when we identify with what we have done in the past that we say ..... "Oh my god .... look what I've done, I am a ....."
Still, at the same time old habits die hard don't they. When I landed in Taipei I decided to take some of my own advice, finally. India pretty much rocked my world as we both knew it would, and after a couple of months crazy touring in the north with a like minded mate, I decided to search out some ashrams while my mate went on to Rajasthan. Some of the shit I saw opened my eyes to a lot of things dude and it sounds a bit corny to say but we are so fuckin lucky living in Oz with all the shit we could possibly want at our fingertips. But on a deeper level, Aussies are the most well balanced and level headed people because we don't have these fuckin issues about everything that everyone else seems to have. We're not brainwashed into hating anything or anyone and we're not out to get anything or convince anyone of anything. People know this and everyone fuckin loves Aussies and Australia.
Anyway, what I was saying was that in India I decided that yoga was the shit for me and that I wanted to take it as far as I could. I found one place where I can do a course for 6 months that qualifies me as a teacher and gives me a solid grounding in some pretty intense practices. The course costs about 6 grand though so that's why I'm here so I can save the cash. I've decided that life is what you make it dude (to use another corny phrase) so that's why I do yoga every morning and play piano at least an hour a day and try to go swimming at the local pool at least 4 times a week. I would be totally justified in saying Taiwan is pretty much a shithole for most westerners, but since coming here I've never been happier or more confident or more proud of myself because I'm finally doing what I wanna do and being what I wanna be. Where you are and who you're with doesn't mean shit, ol' mate, (those things take care of themselves) when you find out what really makes you happy and you stick to that like shit to a blanket despite your old habits . . .
|Another email to his parents . . .
Michael (email 14 Jan 02 titled "Behold the glory of the white foreign teacher"): Thanks for getting the books. As to my name . . . Chen is my boss's surname, and Chen Long is also the name of Jackie Chan, the famous kung fu actor, so my boss has named me Jackie Chan, much to the amusement of my students! Been reading a lot about Oz lately with our cricketers destroying all comers, and Lleyton Hewitt all set to kick arse, and the bushfires and radioactive leaks, etc.
I'm often surprised at the amount of attention Australia gets. I haven't heard from young Peter since he left for cowland, so tell him to check his hotmail account as this is the only one I can send mail to. Had another great weekend, with locals taking me to some amazing places. I really am treated like a god here, sometimes you have no idea how disgustingly nice these people are to me! Mike.
A small cloud now appeared on the horizon . . .
Michael (email 17 Jan 02, titled "My sore bum"): Hey guys, I've been a bit sick lately with some sort of gut infection. I've almost completely recovered but I'm still waiting for the last tests to come back, which they should on Tuesday. The whole debacle has set me back a bit of cash though, so I'd be grateful if you could contact the insurance company for me and find out what I need to send back to claim on it. I'll have to send all the paperwork to you, I presume. Don't worry, I'm fine and I haven't even had to take a day off work yet. Nothing else to say, really, except that could you possibly send over Pete's "Doug Anthony All Stars" CD with the other stuff you are sending me? Hope you guys are well and Gabs is still spritely.
Michael (email 22 Jan 02): I got the final test results today for my little gut infection (last Thursday they very rudely inserted a large camera where the sun don't shine). 'Colitis' was the name of the beast and he cometh from bad food apparently. Well, I'm all better now and have been given the all clear from the doc. Love you guys and thanks again.
Whether this episode had any connection with Michael's final illness nine months later will never be known. His next email, meanwhile, showed no loss of enjoyment of the good things in life . . .
Michael (email 6 Feb 02, titled "Blue cheeseburgers"): Hey guys, had a fantastic birthday spent with me girlie at a posh hot spring hotel in the mountains just south of Taipei. Unbelievable scenery reminded me a lot of the Himalayas. The hot springs were just the ticket . . . I've become a bit of a hot springs junkie I'm afraid, and me and Michelle usually go once a week. Love, Mike.
Michelle also recalls this occasion . . .
Michelle (email 8 Nov 03): . . . On his birthday we went to Wulai where with hundreds of cherry blossoms trees and great hot springs to celebrate for Michael. It wasn't a holiday. So not many people were there. We took a long walk and found a tunnel that seemed to had already ruined for a long time. We went through the tunnel and another one which is behind it. And we seemed like being in Arcadia when we came out from the tunnels. Fresh air, singing birds and insects, falls ... what an amazing adventure we were having. Michael said "Look this! it's enough, I would die."
Michelle has supplied a reference to a web site for Wulai.
Michael's school also put on a birthday party for him. His students wrote birthday cards for him which he sent home in a parcel for his family. The English expression on these cards is quaint, but appealing. The parcel contained late Christmas presents: a Chinese style silk jacket for his mother and a wooden Ganesh carving for his father. He also enclosed photos and this letter . . .
Michael (letter, undated): Hello my lovelies. As I write this I'm sitting in the office on a wet and cold Monday. It's rained hard the last couple of days and the river has risen over a metre as a result. I can see it from both my apartment balcony and from the office window, although it's not much to behold; a grey muddy torrent that is banked on either side by steep sloping concrete walls. My boss has just given me a smile . . . she can't speak or read English so she thinks I'm preparing for a class. Not that she really cares what I do in the office. Shannen is reading the paper and Linda is doing her nails. Molly is on the phone to her boyfriend. The emphasis round here is to please the parents and basically to keep the kids occupied while the parents are still at work. That's because it's a "Bushiban" or "cram school" in English. So called because the poor little blighters are crammed full of info while they're here! Despite this the place is actually quite fun to work in and the kids relatively well behaved. Usually, just the threat of sending one of the kids outside is enough to keep them in line. If they get sent outside they get abused by the office girls . . . Chinese is a language just made for abusing people, it sounds naturally harsh anyway and Chinese women, I'm convinced, are born with an inbuilt ability to abuse people! They're lovely to me though. Everyone is. It borders on the obscene sometimes. For instance, one of my private students mother took me to a lovely dinner the other night to celebrate her daughter's birthday. It was a lovely night where we feasted high on a mountain top overlooking our village in a first class restaurant. She then took us on a tour of a most beautiful mountain town. On the way back we had to catch a taxi and even though there were 6 of us she made sure that I sat up front while they all squeezed in the back. This is typical of the way I'm treated here! Mondays are great. I'm in the office for only 3 hours and I only have to teach for half an hour. In the morning I spend 2 hours teaching in the kindergarten which is pure joy. The little cuties soak up everything I teach them like sponges and it almost scares me how much they've learned. This is in stark contrast to my bushiban classes I see only for 1/2 or 1 hour during that fortnight so I have about 20 different classes with over 300 kids! I have astutely concluded that my role here is for fine-tuning and mostly for display purposes. Parents have been known to complain if I'm gone for even one day and I think this is why my boss prefers me behind the desk in the main office where all can behold the glory of the foreign teacher. This suits me just fine. I'm learning the universal laws of office politics; how to flirt with the office girls, how to fuck up the photocopying machine, how to really exploit the language barrier, and (most importantly) how to look busy when there is absolutely fuck-all to do! I'm exaggerating a wee bit though. I spend a fair bit of time preparing for lessons and also helping and teaching the other teachers as well as playing games with the kids. The girls who work here are great, they have taught me a fair amount of Chinese and a lot about Chinese culture, as has Michelle, a local girl I've been seeing for the last month or so. I met her at the restaurant that I eat in every day. It's a self-serve vegetarian restaurant that serves the best food I have tasted in this country. Her mother works there. She has taken me to some amazing local sites, Buddhist temples and the like as well as mountains and each weekend we usually spend an hour or 2 at the local hot springs that flow naturally from the mountains just north of Taipei. It's not serious, but we have lots of fun and I have found her to be a wonderfully kind, giving and generous girl who quietly goes about her life without harming a soul.
Well, it's Tuesday now. Last night I went to Taipei to see my friend Jimmy and to take care of some visa stuff. The guesthouse where he lives (and where I lived for the first 2 1/2 weeks in Taiwan) is a bit of a nuthouse and full of some of the weirdest individuals I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. It seems that the Americans who come here are mostly alcoholics drying out or middle-aged men with emotional or relationship problems. Not so for the other expats I have met here, just the Americans.
Well, it's time to go, so I might leave it here. I love and miss you both.
The next few emails dealt only with family and administrative matters, mainly concerned with both of his grandfathers having heart surgery, with a parcel sent to Michael which went missing, and with the logistics of transferring his pay to his Australian account.
|In an email to a friend Michael again talks about his day to day activities . . .
Michael (email 7 Mar 02): . . . Well.....been here about 4 months now. Doesn't seem like its been that long, then again some days I feel like I been here for years. Still doing me yoga most mornings and I try to get to the local pool 3 times a week to swim laps (lookin sexy in the old speedos and bathing cap...lock up ya daughters) but haven't been playing the piano like I was when I first got here. Ive been lucky I gotta admit. I pretty much grabbed the first job i was offered here and it turned out to be el primo cruisyoso. My main job is in the arvos teaching at an after school cram school for kids....I've come to the conclusion that I'm there pretty much "for display purposes only" and I think my boss likes to keep me where all can behold the glory of the white foreign teacher rather than have me teaching (god forbid!) where only the students would benefit. The lessons I do teach are fuckin great as I always play games and just have fun with the little tykes and generally act like a dickhead. I teach pretty much whatever I want and no one seems to care. I do though, funnily enough. Most of the time there, I just work on my Chinese, harass the office girls, read the paper for an hour or 2 and lately I've even started on "War and Peace", (great book, I highly recommend it). My boss loves me, I love her and the co-workers are cool. Sometimes i have to check to see if my balls are still attached......fuckin Hello Kitty is everywhere dude. I also teach at a kindergarten (owned by the same boss) for 4 hours a week and I love that fuckin job man I really do, the little psychos have learned so much already. They'll be debating the finer points of Shakespearean tragedy by the time I get outta here if they keep going at this rate. I've even started teaching yoga to the kids and teachers at the kindergarten every morning! (Have you ever seen a 2 year old doing Salute to the Sun? Fuckin hilarious.) My apartment is on the top floor of the same building and I've got it free of rent for however long I work here. Been saving a shitload of cash...should have about 12 thou when I leave in 3 months!
I've been seeing this chick who's mother owns a vegetarian restaurant below where I work. It's not serious but we have fun and she's got the biggest heart of anyone I've met here. On Chinese New Years I got drunk with my boss and her husband.
Also had some great drunken nights in Taipei with a mate, Jimmy who I'll tell you about later.
P.S. Get hold of a book called "Conversations with God" (book 1) but don't read the first 15 pages, theyre shit. I think you'll like it....seriously, get the fuckin book.
It was not only Jimmy with whom Michael shared "great drunken nights". Another friend, Franklin Moore, an American, was also a regular companion. Here, he contributes his amusing account of a night from which Michael emerged on the losing side . . .
|Franklin (email 22 Sep 03): . . . Michael, as you probably know, was not exactly at home in the club scene. However I was, and one evening we met up for an evening of pool and beer. We met in a dreadful establishment that was run by a seedy American. Michael had chosen the place because they had advertised an all-you-can-drink special online. Earlier I had teased him about being a lightweight. He assured me that he could hold his own. Well, two beers later he was losing at pool and bumming cigarettes off of me (I had never seen him smoke). Then my friend Meredith joined us and Michael suddenly lost his ability to speak. She suggested we move on to a dance club. I seconded and the three of us piled into a taxi. Soon after arriving at the club, I headed straight for the bar because I felt that I had been cheated at the previous place. Michael surprised me by ordering whiskey and soda. At least I think it was whiskey. He was clearly overwhelmed by the bright lights and I distinctly remember him standing near the stage, not dancing, but with the biggest grin on his face. I handed him another drink – something green, I think – and he took it without argument. Perhaps I should have exercised a little restraint because within minutes he disappeared into the toilet. Several hours later he was nowhere to be found. Around three in the morning I began receiving calls on my mobile. It was Michael, who had somehow found some secret passage out of the club. Inexplicably he had tried to go home, gotten lost and ended up wandering the empty streets of Taipei. He was calling from a payphone, using up all his change and reducing my phone’s battery to zero. On our last exchange I was finally able to pinpoint where he was. I went off with some people I had met at the club while Michael presumably waited for the subway to resume operating. At sunrise we met up again. He had completely forgotten all the phone calls and accused me of being the one who had gotten lost. When I tried to explain the events of the evening, he kept saying, "No, You!!"
We laughed for hours. All in all, it was a very memorable night.
Michael was a good sport. I miss him.
|Michael's father, meanwhile, had been looking up Jui Fang on the Internet and got the false impression that it was a large industrial city, similar to Wollongong in Australia.
Michael (email 11 Mar 02): Jui Fang is probably too small to get much of a mention anywhere but it's definitely not anything resembling Wollongong! The nearest major town, Keelung, is a busy major seaport (fuckin ugly too) and vaguely resembles Wollongong except Wollongong is far nicer! The photos I sent you probably don't paint too nice a picture of Jui Fang (that's just from my apartment overlooking the main road that skirts it) but I only have to walk for 2 minutes and I'm in lush rainforested hills dotted with little Buddhist temples and nobody around. Very mellowing! In Taiwan there doesn't seem to be any sort of suburbia, and in the north there's no rural landscape, you go straight from congested little villages, all quite ugly, straight into beautiful tropical forest simply by crossing a hill. There's a beautiful tourist town near me called Jo Fan that's probably the closest place to me that would get any sort of mention on the Net.
"Jo Fan" is the phonetic pronunciation for Chiufen, a picturesque village set high in the hills. Michael's parents took a tour to this place in December 2002. Because it was pouring with rain they got to see little more than the Chishan Street market, which stretched for several hundred metres between close packed houses. Chiufen caters more for Chinese than western tourists. In the meantime, another parcel was sent off for Michael which included books he had requested.
Michael (email 1 Apr 02): Thankyou so much for all the stuff you guys sent me, I got the package today. It's come just at the right time, I'm just finishing War and Peace. 2 big jars of vegemite should last me at least 2 lifetimes, maybe 3.
Dearest mother, I haven't forgotten that it's your birthday on Sunday, and hopefully the postman should be delivering that 12 foot jade buddha statue any time soon. Thank you once again, my dears, you really have brightened my day. Love, Mike.
Michael 's next email on 22 April requested his parents send a letter and bank draft to the ICYER ashram in Pondicherry to enrol in the teacher training course commencing in October. This was done. Now, with Peter and Krissy heading eastwards from India, his thoughts turned to a possible family get together on his way back to India . . .
Michael (email 25 Apr 02): Hey . . . why don't you meet up with me and Petey in China . . . we can eat some dog and practice our Falun Gong,
. . . and then, a couple of days later . . .
Michael (email 27 Apr 02): Cambodia (Phnom Penh), 10th June. Be there or be square.
Michael's parents thought long and hard about whether to take up this opportunity . . .
May 2002 Jui Fang to Phnom Penh
Photos Michael's photographs of Taiwan