By Tina Tsai
“I’ve signed you up for a Chinese language and cultural program in Taiwan for this summer,” my mom informed me in Taiwanese.
I had just graduated from high school, and college was just a couple months away. Being a total goodie-two-shoes super nerd, I was delighted at the news. A summer of Chinese culture and language? Heck yeah. Immediately I shared the news with friends and quickly found out that others in my heavily Taiwanese American neighborhood were going on the trip. I waved the brochure around enthusiastically. Then someone asked, “So why did you decide to go on the Love Boat?”
I’d heard of the Love Boat. It was a meat-market, hook-up Taiwanese government funded vacation for party animals. In other words, it was hell on earth for a studious bookworm like me.
“I’m not going on the Love Boat. My mom signed me up for a Chinese language and cultural program.”
They looked at the brochure my mom had given me.
“Yeah, and it’s the Love Boat.”
Wide-eyed with disbelief, I marched home and pointed an accusatory finger at my mom.
“Did you sign me up for the LOVE BOAT?!”
She glanced furtively up from the laundry she was ironing.
“Well, some people call it that.” Before I could object, she added, “I already paid.”
I knew exactly what she was up to. When I was a high school freshman, she had asked me whether or not I had a boyfriend, and when I answered that I did not, she asked what was wrong with me. Yup, good ole match-makin’ mom, the same one who forbade me from applying to any all-girls colleges. Bitter at being tricked, I resolved to go on the trip and have the most educational experience possible despite the circumstances. Needless to say, when I set foot on the campus of the Chien Tan Activities Center in Taipei, Taiwan, I quickly earned the nickname of “Mom”. I was quite the party-pooper.
The Love Boat really did live up to its party and hook-up, meat-market reputation. When I was doing my homework and studying for the Chinese language tests the first day, I got a lot of stares from people and exclamations of “You’re actually studying?”
My roommates were nice girls from North California and Japan, but they brought boyfriends back to the room and smoked with friends while I was sleeping. I woke up coughing and wheezing, my asthma acting up.
There was a curfew at night that was broken all the time for clubbing, pubbing, and all sorts of other questionable behavior. I know some people are thinking, no big, these are college kids, right? Not quite. Because I was a year younger than other high school graduates, I was placed in the Baby Love Boat, although I’m not sure about the logic of this since quite a few of our classmates were over 20. I think one girl was 21, and one guy was 25. The rest of the kids there were 16 and under. Minors. Jail bait. Living in a dorm with college students and adults mixed with drugs, sex, and alcohol. An American public school teacher’s worst nightmare. But yeah, this was Taiwan, not America.
Although invited repeatedly to join on clubbing escapades every night by different groups (they were friendlier than I was a desirable clubbing companion), I refused, citing that I would probably tag along at least once so that I wouldn’t miss out on the “experience.” Every single night, kids flocked out of the dorms in taxis and buses and returned long after midnight, some coming back as the sun was rising.
Finally, near the end of the trip, I announced that I was going to go with them to a club to see what the hullabaloo was all about. People gasped and jaws dropped. “Mom” was coming with. I’m sure they were all on their best behavior that night. I threw on a black clubbing outfit (a gift from my mother—boy was she prepared), and we went to one of the fanciest, hip-hop-happening clubs in Taipei where celebrity sightings often occurred (notably the L.A. Boys—like I couldn’t see them in L.A.). I danced a little, coughed at the indoor smoking, refused drinks like a good little American puritan, and wished I had brought a book along. I love music, and I love dance, which makes me a little snobby about both. Club music and dancing…not so impressive. I honestly was surprised at how bored I was. Just not my cup of tea, I guess.
I’d have to say the worst thing my peers did that summer was to flood the entire dorm and classroom building from the inside out with a spontaneous indoor water fight. They ran around screaming and throwing water at each other from cups, pitchers, and water bottles. Water was flowing steadily down the main stairway in a very uninspiring indoor waterfall. I sat on the wet steps fuming at everyone. All I could think of was the integrity of the building, mold and fungal damage, and the poor counselors and staff who would inevitably be the ones to clean up after this mess.
“It’s all in good fun,” one college girl tried to placate me.
Why was I so upset? What did it matter to me that everyone was breaking rules, destroying property, and whoring themselves away to their impulses? Thinking back on it now, I realize that it was my pride that was being hurt. I knew the Taiwanese looked down on us overseas kids, thinking we’re these moronic sluts with no future, who don’t belong here or anywhere. We were counterfeit Asians to them, monsters without a home, not fully Chinese/Taiwanese nor fully whatever country it was that we hailed from. It was hard enough not being treated as an American in America, but I didn’t want to put up with it from a country of people that didn’t even raise me.
I remember one night we had ordered some Asian flavored Dominos pizzas and a few girls joined me for a study session in the other dorm building where the college students stayed. A group of Taiwanese boys there for some other youth program, came up to us and tried to strike up a conversation in Chinese.
“You are from America? I heard all American kids do is eat hamburgers and watch TV all day.”
Wrong thing to say, buddy. I went on nuclear meltdown and proceeded to ream into him. Angrily, I explained to him that to get into a good college in America wasn’t as easy as taking one measly little test. We had to take tests and be successful in clubs, sports, community service, leadership positions…the list went on and on. Clearly, though, it was hard to make this argument to him when we both knew that as I spoke, Love Boat kids were out partying and making fools of themselves all over Taiwan.
To be fair, the Love Boat wasn’t all bad.
Being in Taiwan and having access to all the street side food vendors and night market shopping fun is always a plus. My favorite was of course the Shilin Night Market which was right by our campus in Taipei, famous for delicious fried oyster pancakes and stinky tofu.
Aside from actually learning some Chinese, I was thrilled that one of the elective courses was kung fu. After being denied the ability to take martial arts as a kid for both financial and gender biased reasons, I signed up right away and quickly learned how to do a decent drop stance and a short five-animal-styles form a la Kung Fu Panda.
I discovered something called MTV or movie television. Basically, it’s a place that has small rooms set up like karaoke rooms, but instead of singing, people rent movies to watch on big screens. It’s sort of like rent your own private mini-movie theater. It was on my first trip to an MTV that I watched my first Jet Li movie, Fist of Legend. After that, I went to MTV every chance I got to watch whatever kung fu movie I could dig out of their collection
On the tour of Taiwan at the end of the program, I was introduced to the beautiful Chitou Forest. Filled with elegant firs and cypress trees as well as towering bamboo, this breathtaking area is like a hidden ninja forest come to life. At night, I sat outside on the porch of the youth hostel cabin and gazed out at the night view, mesmerized by how ethereal the forest was. Plus, there’s just something about that fresh mountain air that makes the food there taste extra heavenly. I had the best, fluffiest white mantou bread there and the most delectable breakfast of fried egg pancake I’d ever had in my life. I was so inspired by Chitou Forest that I wrote it into my first novel.
My mom always likes to quote that Chinese proverb, “A journey is worth a thousand books.” At the Love Boat, I had a chance to meet and interact with Taiwanese heritage teens from all over the world, making the value of the “journey” to Taiwan exponential. The majority of the kids were from America, but there were plenty from Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Korea, Madagascar, etc. It was also interesting to interact with API from different American states, too, and those late night talks about life, philosophy, and politics at the student lounge exposed me to a lot of new ideas, music, and lifestyles. One of my best friends that summer was a girl from Alaska, and we had a lot of good times drinking cans of Mr. Brown Blue Mountain Coffee, eating fresh baked bread, surviving crazy Taiwanese taxi drivers, and laughing at Ultraman jokes.
Overall, the trip was an incredibly valuable part of my life experience. Sure, it wasn’t the studious bookworm haven that my mom had mislead me to look forward to, but I think my parents knew what they were doing when they shipped me, their mildly agoraphobic and antisocial daughter, off on a trip full of opportunities for decadence and sin.
Sometime in the past, a fish decided to crawl out of water and breathe air, and next came a frog that was too big for its well. We all have to venture out of our comfort zone sometime, right?
Bio: Tina Tsai, Ph.D. is a writer, teacher, and founder of The Literacy Guild LLC. She and her students write and publish their work. Her debut teen kung fu romance novel The Legend of Phoenix Mountain is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.