I would like to address this week's column to the Biggerses -- David, Jennifer and Makayla -- of Rock Hill, South Carolina. According to an edition last week of the Rock Hill Herald, this lovely family is about to drop everything (and I mean everything) to come to Taiwan to be missionaries.
Says the Herald: "Rock Hill Police Lt. David Biggers is resigning soon ... He's becoming a Christian missionary. But it is not for a few months, and it is not just him. Biggers and his wife are selling their house and everything in it -- the cars, everything -- and moving themselves and their 8-year-old daughter to Taiwan.
They may never come home."
Dear God ... they make it sound like the poor Biggerses are headed to Fallujah. And why are their cars inside their house? Aren't there garages in Rock Hill?
But it gets worse: "The Biggerses will live in a 600-square-foot apartment on the fifth floor of a 36-story high rise in bustling Taipei, population 7 million."
"No elevator," Biggers said. "It sounds like a big sacrifice, but all that is material possessions. It is nothing compared to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ."
Hmm ... dying in agonizing pain with nails through your extremities. Eating stinky tofu while dodging puddles of betel nut spittle. Yeah, not really a close one.
And where in Taipei is this 36-story building with no elevator?
Then, the shocker: "They came home to prepare, but now comes the hard part. Taiwan is not mainland China."
Oh shit, really?
"It is an island that China does not recognize. It can be a politically volatile place."
No recognition; lots of volatility -- Afghanistan is starting to sound good by comparison:
"Definitely not a vacation," Jennifer Biggers said.
"God will provide and take care of us. Somebody asked me if it was safe to go, and I said, `Sure, if you remove the 90 missiles pointed at us by China.'"
Dear Biggerses, I have bad news: It's far worse than you think -- and not just 'cos you missed a digit in counting the missiles the Chicoms will have pointed at you.
You'll be moving to a country with -- shock -- affordable healthcare (but you can relax, we're not Commies). Where most of the citizenry carries no loaded weapons whatsoever (Taichung excepted). Where religious nutjobs are only a negligible part of the population, with scant influence over government policy. And, sadly, Taiwan doesn't break out in paroxysms of fear and invade a country every time white powder falls out of an envelope.
Yes, Biggerses, it's going to be difficult to adjust.
But to help you make the transition, I herewith present (in condensed form) Johnny Neihu's Survival Guide for American Missionaries Trapped in Taiwan, assembled with thoughtful input from some Yank friends -- at least, the ones who are out of rehab.
1. The Mormons
Don't know if you realize it, but they're already here. Lots of them. Even on Penghu. In other words, you're going to have a lot of catching up to do -- and some stiff competition. In your favor, most people I know recoil in terror at the very sight of a white-shirted, bicycle-riding Mormon duo, and will risk being crushed by a wave of scooters and careening blue trucks just to avoid them.
2. The War on Terror
What's that? Is it available on Wii yet?
3. Political differences
Just kidding, because even us Taiwanese know about Bush's War on Terror. But here's the thing: In the US, a politician who in any way voted against funding for that war (or its spin-off sitcom, the War in Iraq) would be labeled a stinking traitor, have his head shaven in public and be sent into humiliating exile in some godforsaken, fearful backwater. Like Canada.
Here in Taiwan, entire political parties -- they're called "blue," but don't confuse that with the good old "red, white and blue" -- have built a career out of blocking defense spending. Yes, that's right, despite the 900+ missiles pointed at the vicinity of your 36-story, no-elevator building, some Taiwanese don't think military spending is a biggie.
Weird, huh? But don't bring this subject up with your Taipei taxi driver. Trust me.
4. Skin color
Another touchy subject, I know. But important to tackle head-on. Here's the good thing: You'll be sitting pretty, because in Taiwan the lighter your skin, the more respect and admiration you receive (it's like the US, but without the guilt). Hence the legions of Taipei women clutching umbrellas as they weave through scooter exhaust on a hot, cloudless day.
Of course, there's a downside. For God's sake, don't let young Makayla frolic outside getting a deep tan. Someone is likely to mistake her for a Filipina and stick her in a Jhongli (中壢) sweatshop, where she'll work 12-hour shifts dipping silicon wafers into bubbling vats of acid, live six-to-a-shoebox with a strict curfew and pull wages unfit for a chimp (hmm, if affordable childcare is an issue you may want to revisit this one -- it could be sold to Makayla as a "character-building" exercise).
5. Not Your Rock Hill 7-Eleven
Our convenience stores may seem like the spitting image of their US counterparts. But take a closer look. Hard liquor on demand, 24 hours a day, every day, including the Sabbath. And see the brown blobs in gooey liquid near the counter? They're not alien pods or burbling Satan-spawn. They're eggs soaking in tea (I'll explain later, along with Whisby).
6. Weird cults
No, I'm not talking about the Mormons. Just as you will seek to convert those you meet in Taiwan, so some Taiwanese may seek to convert you. Their messages may sound strange, warped; born of an unfathomable logic.
For example, last year some people in Taipei put on red clothes, took to the streets and chanted the same odd phrase over and over, almost ritualistically -- all the while giving the "thumbs down" sign. On encountering a non-Taiwanese, these poor souls -- some of whom still wander the streets -- develop aggressive sympathy-seeking behavior. That's especially true of their leader, who may identify himself to you as Nelson Mandela (sick, but true).
If this happens, simply treat your interlocutor as you would a Smoky Mountains black bear: "Do not play dead, act aggressively, defend yourself with whatever means are available. You want to appear dominant and frighten [the cult member]. Jump up and down, shout and wave your arms. Throw rocks. It may help to raise your jacket or backpack to make yourself look bigger. Do not run, as this may trigger the [cult member's] predatory instincts" (thanks to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources for these potentially life-saving instructions).
If all fails and you find yourself in a red-clad cult, take heart: In Taiwan, such groups do not partake in baby-eating. You have to go to China for that.
Heard or read something particularly objectionable about Taiwan? Johnny wants to know: firstname.lastname@example.org is the place to reach me, with "Dear Johnny" in the subject line.