East Meets Westerner Part I, Friday, August 12, 2011

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Even though it is already early evening, a gust of steamy air engulfs me as I step off the China Airlines plane at Taipei's Taoyuan Airport. Even after experiencing this same suffocating level of humidity at Hong Kong's Airport just hours before, it is still a shock to my system following the mild winter weather I've left behind in South Africa.

The airport terminal, although air conditioned, still offers little respite and I suddenly feel like a hot, sticky mess. However, I suspect that this may have as much to do with my uncontrollable nerves as it does with the heat. I can't believe that this is finally it; that we are here at last and that my adventure as a mature-in-age-yet-childlike-in-attitude-and-personality as a HomeStay participant is about to begin. I never in a million years thought that I would ever have the opportunity to experience what it is like to be a foreign exchange student of sorts, especially not as an old foagie in my mid-thirties!

Not having learned her lesson before, my editor kindly waits for me so that we can go through immigration together. For some reason, I never received the customs form to fill out on the flight over from Hong Kong (perhaps I didn't stick out like a sore thumb quite enough among all the Asian passengers?), so I have to complete it at the desk. Once again, Ms. Editor patiently waits for me while I deal with yet another immigration official. Luckily everything goes without a hitch this time and we walk into the arrival hall together.

A group of sign-wielding, beaming SayTaiwan volunteers are there to welcome us and to make us feel like total celebrities. Smiling and introducing themselves in broken English, they usher us towards a meet and greet area off to the side of the terminal. It is here that we at last meet Taiwanese Southern African and our overworked SayTaiwan coordinator, Alice. After having communicated by Facebook for the past two and a half months, it is wonderful to meet her in person at last. Accomplished and amazingly multilingual, she is so much younger than I had expected her to be, but every bit as beautiful and kind as I had imagined her.

Guided by more volunteers, we are given a goodie bag containing a Motorola cellphone loaded with 300 New Taiwan Dollar (NTD) in credit; a smart card to be loaded with money for use on Taiwan's public transit systems; and an ID badge. The latter is large and laminated and contains our full names in the front along with the fact that we're "International Guests" and the name, address and telephone number of our host families at the back in Chinese characters. I find this oddly comforting. We are instructed to wear it around our necks, and we obediently slip it over our heads. Ms. Editor runs over to get my number and promises to remain in touch, before she is off to meet her host family who has come to meet her at the airport.

After signing a release form to indicate that I've indeed received the Motorola, I quickly unzip my big suitcase to give Alice her present: the biggest box of Weetbix cereal sold in South African grocery stores. Shortly after befriending her on Facebook and learning that she is originally from my neighbouring country Namibia, I asked her if she had requests for any goodies from home that I could bring for her. "Weetbix!" was her first and almost immediate reply. She accepts it gratefully and tells me that she's not held a box of it in about three years.

"My" kind Taiwanese volunteer then leads me to the bus stop outside and kindly waits with me for the bus to arrive that would transport my luggage and I to the high speed rail station from where I will board train that would take me to Taichung City to begin my HomeStay adventure with the Hung family.

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is a South African girl living in South Africa. That doesn't sound very original, we know, but you might find it remotely interesting when you learn that she has only recently returned to South Africa for the first time after a nine year, one month and two week (non-stop!) stint in the United States where she accidentally became an outlawed alien (also known, especially in immigration circles, as an 'illegal immigrant.' We prefer the term 'outlawed alien' ourselves). During her reversed exile from her homeland, she kept herself occupied by winning this website (but only after shamelessly bribing the judges) and thus being unleashed on the web where she slowly, leisurely became the World's Laziest Blogger; by being a nanny and by attending sci-fi conventions in search of other aliens. In the US, she also made her sailing debut, her international acting debut, tried and failed to learn the piano, and never learned to cook. She is hopelessly addicted to coffee, dogs (especially Labrador Retrievers), how-to books (with a particular fondness for her copy of the Time/Life A - Z Medical Encyclopedia), and she tends to grossly overuse parentheses (we're not kidding) during her attempts at writing, which you may - if you really have masochistic tendencies - subject yourself to by reading the words to the right of this column. If you REALLY and truly STILL want to know more, you can read her C.V. here.
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