400 Words

At 20, I got on a plane and flew from Vermont to Taipei. I had the name of a cheap hotel and I took a cab there from the airport.

Neon lit the night city with its weird and garish light. Wooden shacks leaned against concrete buildings; people squatted on the narrow streets, eating spears of orange fruit and sipping cups of tea. Dark-haired toddlers were everywhere, wearing jackets so padded that their tiny arms stuck straight out.

When I got out of the cab, everyone stared. This was a long time ago; foreigners were few and far between in Taiwan. Toddlers looked up at me –way up– and screamed.

I felt like screaming, too. My Chinese was bad. I was filled with fear. What had I gotten myself into?

Once in my cinderblock room I realized that I was starving, with only fish-flavored crackers left over from the plane to eat. But I couldn’t force myself out of that room. There was a deep bathtub, like a shoebox turned on end, and I drew my knees up to my chest and stayed in it, more or less continually, for three whole days.

On the fourth day, I emerged. It wasn’t bravery that drew me forth, but starvation. At the front desk three Chinese men milled about, chattering softly in Mandarin. At the sight of me they too froze and stared. The giant white American girl.

Nimen hao,” I said. “Wo feichang feichang e.”
Hi. I’m very, very hungry.

All three leapt into action. They conferred, then one guided me across the street to a small building. He nodded and smiled encouragingly and pointed to a rickety table, then to a menu handwritten on a piece of torn paper taped to the wall. I recognized the characters for potsticker, ordered three dozen and ate them all.

I was alone in what felt like another world. I had none of what I needed to survive: no friends, no family, no place to stay, no college-designed program abroad, not enough money. And I had a fierce and inborn belief that I had and would ever have only myself to rely on, there in Taiwan, or anywhere.

But I was wrong. All it took was one admission –I’m starving– from a scared and hungry girl, and strangers crowded around, wanting to help. The kindness in those men’s eyes has stayed with me always.