Life in the Mystic East, Part the Second

During my first year in Taiwan, I had several curious adventures….

For a long time, I had no radio in my apartment, so I was unable to get much in the way of news. And so it was, one morning early in my career at Gram English, that I tried to go to work during an island-wide emergency.

The morning was grey, lowering and windy. It wasn’t raining just yet, but spittle fell from the sky. I took an umbrella, just in case, and set off; it was an easy stroll straight down Zhongyang Road. I had thought to stop at one of my favorite breakfast nooks to grab a snack on the way in. I was disappointed to find it closed as I passed by. Never mind; there were plenty of little hole-in-the-wall places I could go to. I pressed on.

The rain began to fall harder by now, and the wind was getting stronger, coming in powerful gusts. I gradually noticed that there was no one else on the street. I wondered if I might be too early. And then I noticed that the next shop I had wanted to try was also closed. In fact, nothing seemed to be open at all. I thought it odd, but brushed the thought away, and continued on into work. And then I noticed that, not only was there no pedestrian traffic, but that there were no cars or busses, or scooters on the street.

The rain was falling hard, and the wind nearly constant as I got to the school. The door was locked. I waited for what I thought was a reasonable amount of time, before deciding to return home. As I walked, the rain was hitting my sideways, and the wind had turned my umbrella inside out. The city felt deserted, and I was glad to get back to the warmth of my apartment. Just as I got to the door, the heavens opened, and a torrential rain poured down, the wind as strong as ever, if not stronger.

I dried off, and called my boss to ask what was gong on- a telephone was one of my few amenities.

“There was a typhoon warning issued today! Didn’t you know?”

“No one told me….”

“Did you actually try to go to work?”

“Well, yeah; of course I did!”

“Stay home, buddy! I’ll see you tomorrow!”

I had actually tried to go to work during a typhoon.


The family that lived on the ground floor of my apartment building ran an early morning breakfast cart. I became casually friendly with them, as I used to pass them just about every morning when I would leave for work. One morning, when I had come downstairs, I noticed a tiny little ball of fluff scuttling along the wall, trying to escape the enthusiastic attentions of several excited and mildly bratty children.

I reached down to pick up a scruffy little calico kitten. She had a crushed right forepaw, which I assumed was a recent injury, as a heavy clot of blood and dirt was pressed into the deformed palm. She was a cute wee thing, but I was not at that time contemplating adopting a cat. After all, I was having difficulty looking after myself at the time. I put her down after a brief cuddle, and the children began fussing over her again.

The father startled me, appearing at my shoulder. “Oh, you like cats?” he declared in my ear. “I’ll give it to you!”

I was about to demur when I heard one of the urchins call into the house, “Ma! Gimme a piece of steamed bread so I can feed the cat!” At that moment, I thought to myself, “If I don’t take this cat, it’s going to die. And so I accepted.

I named the kitten Cinnamon, for her color and temperament. She remained my steadfast companion for the next seventeen years until old age overtook her.

One day at work, the following year, I heard the crying of a kitten coming from somewhere in the building stairwell. After searching for some time, I found a tuxedo kitten at the bottom of the stairwell, sitting on the machinery next to the elevator shaft. He was so small, I could only think that someone had placed him there. He was very friendly, but too timid to move, or follow me. I had just been shopping that day, so I poured out a handful of cat food for him that I’d bought for Cinnamon.

My instinct was to rescue the poor thing, but I was concerned about Cinnamon and her sense of territoriality. As it happened, one of my colleagues had expressed a certain amount of envy regarding my cat, and implied on numerous occasions that she, too, would like a pet cat. I approached her and made an offer: I would rescue the cat, take him to the vet, get him healthy, and (in due course of time) neutered, and then she could have him.

To my relief, she agreed. And so, after class that night, I got the cat, took him home, and nursed him to health. However, some months later, when he was healthy enough to go, my fellow teacher dithered. “Well…I don’t know….”

In short, I had just adopted another cat. I named him Copernicus.


In those days, Taiwan was only just beginning to acquire world-class cuisine. As recently as my previous visit, their idea of spaghetti was ramen noodles topped with ketchup. So, when it became known around school that I was a competent cook, I started having guests each month for a kind of dinner party.

I used to make a spaghetti with a Bolognese style gravy. I always made my gravy from scratch. Richly seasoned with garlic, onions, bay leaves, and black pepper, I used lamb and beef rather than pork. It was always a hit, given what usually passed for Italian fare, back then. Sometimes, I would also make my family’s recipe for gulyas, substituting chicken for kosher salami.

Oddly enough, I came to enjoy these get-togethers. I don’t think I’d ever been as pointlessly social, before or since.

Another unexpectedly enjoyable social incident I suffered was a teachers’ day out. All of our foreign staff, along with the Boss and his wife took a trip up to the Northeast coast of Taiwan, to Fulong Beach. The sea was dark and rough, and did not look particularly inviting. But it was, I admit, a very pleasant day of sightseeing and beachcombing. What I remember most fondly about that day was the evening meal. As night began to fall, we made our way to the docks of a seaside village we were visiting. The fishermen were heading in for the night, and we were able to buy fish from them. The day’s catch, still fresh and gasping in the bottom of their boats.

There was a restaurant in the village which did not sell food of their own, but would cook whatever you brought to them. Their specialty, of course, was seafood. We brought our purchases to the restaurant, and I had the best seafood supper I have ever had, before or since.

About Michael Butchin

I was born, according to the official records, in the Year of the Ram, under the Element of Fire, when Johnson ruled the land with a heavy heart; in the Cradle of Liberty, to a family of bohemians. I studied Chinese language and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I spent some years in Taiwan teaching kindergarten during the day, and ESOL during the evenings. I currently work as a high school ESOL teacher, and am an unlikely martial artist. I have spent much of my life amongst actors, singers, movie stars, beautiful cultists, Taoist immortals, renegade monks, and at least one martial arts tzaddik. I currently reside in Beijing's Dongcheng district
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