While I’m more or less getting used to the conversion between the New Taiwanese Dollar and the U.S. dollar, I do have my moments. One moment was this morning.
Generally, the standard conversion rate is 1 USD to every 32 New Taiwanese Dollar. Therefore, something that should cost one dollar—a bottle of water, a bowl of noodles, something from a fruit stand or a small trinket from a souvenir shop—would run about 30 NTD. From this scale, the numbers increase exponentially: 5 dollars is 60 NTD, 10 dollars is about 320 NTD, 20 dollars is about 640 NTD, 100 dollars is about 3000 NTD. Over the course of past few days, I haven’t made too many mistakes—I’ve used coins where I needed to, bills where I needed to, and I’ve been trying to be extremely diligent with my receipts (my fap-yaos) for the Bureau, and I’ve been keeping track of everything I buy and how much it costs. For those of you who know me and who are aware that I have never kept a balanced checkbook in my life would know that this is quite the accomplishment.
Until about an hour ago. We are, at the moment, in the small fishing village of Jin Shan on the northeast coast of Taiwan and Matt is doing research for an article (he’s actually catching some waves on his surfboard, which actually does qualify as valid research in this amazing field). As I have no idea how to surf and I can’t speak Chinese so I can’t take a class and I can’t interview anybody, I’m sitting in a coffee shop next door, taking pictures with his awesomely sleek D90 and wishing I knew how to operate more than the auto function, when I realize I’m thirsty and I could really use one of those delicious apple-flavored sodas—the Apple Sidra—that’s so popular here. I see a juice and hotdog stand in the distance, so I leave my bags with my server, a very kind Taiwanese boy who smiles and nods and tries to talk to me every time he comes over and leaves in utter exasperation because all I’m doing is smiling and nodding, too.
The shop is about a half-mile away, right outside the surf shop. Tanned, buff, well-sculpted Taiwanese bodies are milling around everywhere, polishing their boards, smoking cigarettes, chatting with friends, strolling up and down the beach in their bare feet, munching on ketchup-drenched hotdogs (people like their ketchup here, I’ve discovered), and generally looking like surfers usually do: good-looking, confident, and impressive—like each and every one of them owns these waves. In a last-ditch attempt to try and fit in with this exceptionally attractive group of beach bums, I kick off my pink flats and sling my traveler’s bag over my shoulder and stroll up to the kiosk, ready to impress with my new-fangled nonverbal Chinese skills.
I see a cooler sitting in the back of a truck behind a leathery-looking Taiwanese lady who is also selling hotdogs, so I waltz over to her and point to a bottle of water on the table. She smiles, stands up, leaning on her chair for support, and pulls out the cooler. She wipes her beaded forehead with a dirty towel and holds up three fingers. Two surfers line up behind me, shirtless and swaggering, and I feel hurried, so I pull out three hundred dollars and hand it to her in a crumpled ball.
Unbenownst to me at that particular moment, I have just paid this woman at a soda and hotdog stand over ten dollars for a bottle of soda. However, instead of just taking my mistake and shoving it into her metal box, though, she starts laughing hysterically, her grin toothless and mischievous, her laugh hysterical and yet not quite spiteful. She thinks this is simply hilarious. She turns to her friends, all of whom are sitting behind her and fanning themselves with fans, papers, and towels, and starts rattling off the story in Chinese, banging her hand on her thigh and laughing like a hyena, pointing at me and shaking the money in her hand. The rest of the onlookers start laughing, and I quickly decide that I want to melt into a puddle in the sand, but I don’t want her—or the attractive surfers behind me—to know that, so I do what any awkward person in any awkward situation does: I start laughing too.
Now we’re all laughing—me, the surfers, the woman, the woman’s friends, and some kids who are playing with a kite behind her who have just noticed the scene. We’re now all in on this horribly embarrassing joke. This is exactly what I hoped would not happen when I finally struck out on my own to make a purchase by myself, and here I am.
I start to slink away, still grinning madly as if I think this is the funniest thing that’s ever happened, and the woman stops laughing long enough to grab my shoulder and point out a coin on the table. She thrusts the money back into my hand, which is now no longer just a crumpled ball but now a crumpled, sweaty ball, and looks at my purse. I take the cue.
Thirty-cents later, I’m on my way again, hurrying back on my tiptoes (pavement’s hot outside!) to hide inside the coffee shop next door until the joke has run its course. (I think I’ll stay here awhile). As I sit down and twist off the cap of my Apple Sidra, I think about what just happened. What surprises me most of all—and delights me in a way I’ve come to be delighted by everything the Taiwanese do—is that she returned the money to me. She didn’t want to take my money, like so many people in places I’ve traveled by myself would want to do. She simply got a good laugh, and that was enough for her.
I think I love it here. Laugh, and laugh well. Lesson learned.