Hartley Pool (who’s a native of Hartlepool, UK) is a pseudonym for John Anderson, a former language teacher in Taiwan now living in Kuala Lumpur. Stranger in Taiwan is his comic novel about a fictional language-teacher’s experiences here.
The narrator is Hartley, 31, a British teacher with previous teaching experience in Romania, Hungary, Spain and Singapore who meets a Taiwanese girl, Anita, in the UK, and flies to Taiwan to be with her.
He looks for teaching work but is initially judged to be over-qualified. After suffering from salmonella poisoning from eating shrimps, he lands a job at a junior high school. He buys Anita a Louis Vuitton handbag costing NT$60,000 in Taipei 101, twice the price, he ruminates, of the PlayStation 3 he’d hoped to buy for himself.
Several features of Taiwanese life are invoked — working on Christmas Day, 7-Elevens staying open throughout typhoons (they’re “the cockroaches of the retail world,” able to survive any disaster, he writes), night markets crowded with people looking for unmentionable animal parts as food, socializing at Taipei’s Brass Monkey, and so on.
There are several trips out of Taipei — to Hong Kong to renew his visa, to Miaoli to savor Hakka specialties, to Guilin, China, for a short vacation, then to Yulin, Kenting, and finally Miaoli again.
In the second half of the book he gets a teaching job with the British Council. Episodes follow describing being driven by Anita for the first time after she’s passed her test, cycling (one of the more entertaining episodes), riding the Maokong Gondola, and buying an apartment — a particularly nice and inexplicably cheap one on the fourth floor, facing a cemetery, is declined, reluctantly on his part but emphatically on Anita’s.
Then Anita’s aunt from the US comes to stay for three weeks, with Anita’s mother there too for much of the time. Hartley has a tooth extracted by a reluctant dentist just as the Year of the Dog turns into the Year of the Pig, an event that locates the story in early 2007.
The author’s fellow language teachers might find elements of his account that resonate with their own experiences and hence enjoy it more than I did. Anderson is a well-established stand-up comic and the novel reads like a comedy routine with laugh points regularly dispersed throughout.
The dialogue is sprinkled with mild obscenities, though there are no actual sex descriptions, merely an on-going joke about pedophiles which is hard to understand and consequently to come to terms with.
Both typhoons and earthquakes are treated with comic unconcern.
It’s unwarranted to criticize a book for not being something it never sets out to be, so it’s perhaps unfair to say that there are swathes of Taiwan life untouched by this tale. Few Taiwanese other than Hartley’s girlfriend appear, and none of those that do are presented in depth. The grandeur of the country’s landscapes doesn’t figure significantly, nor any of its cultural life. Neither politics nor public affairs make an appearance. Again, these were never on the agenda to begin with, but something of their nature could have been expected if Taiwan’s essential character was being depicted.
This, then, is a collection of fictional peeps from the window by a rather unadventurous Briton. Because the writer wants his narrative to be funny, they’re usually negative. But Hartley Pool isn’t entirely negative. Air Macau, some noodles at Yulin and a son-et-lumiere show in Guilin are all treated to generous praise.
By and large, though, this is a novel marked by a farcical breeziness, and you feel you ought to be hearing the author reading it aloud to get its full flavor. It’s not really a novel as such, but it’s no worse for that.
Stranger in Taiwan is available from Amazon both as a paperback and as a Kindle download, and is on sale in the UK, though apparently not yet in bookshops in Taiwan.