Pandemic Twist: How A Stranded American Made A New Life In Taiwan

Stranded in Taipei amid the pandemic, Arseny Kaluzhinsky found that the city soon adopted him wholeheartedly, offering him the warmth of a home and renewing his faith in the future.   
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Whether he’s whizzing around town, gorging himself on gua bao, or catching local bands, Arseny’s countenance looks as fresh as his new lease on life. Illustration By: Taarika John

Arseny Kaluzhinsky never thought of moving to Taiwan. He simply got on a plane after saving up for a year, keen to see a new land and visit an old friend. Little did he know, sitting in row 16 seat C on March 9, 2020, that he wouldn’t be returning to his apartment and three roommates in Baltimore: in fact, he probably wouldn’t be setting foot in his American homeland until 2021.

Instead he sat there imagining all the temples and markets he would visit, his knees bunched behind an economy seat, poking out of his torn jeans like nervous gophers.

I saw Arseny after six years on a birthday video chat for a mutual friend at the beginning of the global lockdown. He had less hair, like most of us, but he looked radiant: not exactly how I had envisioned the hep 28 year-old, riddled with enough stick-n-poke tattoos to resemble a defaced high-school desk. I expected him to look worn out and underpaid, the all too probable result of working in the American service industry. In the seven years that followed, the trained videographer and editor perfected latte art and pouring pints—a part of his life that changed the moment he boarded flight AC017 to Taipei.

Although he and I didn’t get to speak much that day, I felt compelled to investigate why my old buddy looked so calm and rested amidst a global pandemic. Another friend later told me Arseny was weathering out COVID-19 in Taiwan, which was surprising enough, but when I reached out to him I discovered that after being stranded there he had decided to start a life in Taipei, complete with an apartment, steady girlfriend, marketing job, and health insurance—heck, he even had a motor scooter; meanwhile, everyone else I knew either had lost their job, or was preoccupied by that prospect. Life appeared to have thrown Arseny an unlikely rope, and he climbed it like a cat up a tree.

 

Broken Bootstraps

It wasn’t as if Arseny was living a life of indentured servitude before the pandemic, but his day-to-day was rougher around the edges. He had been jumped and mugged in Baltimore (service industry workers are often targeted for their cash tips), suffered a bad patch of unemployment for two months in 2017 (which sucked up all his savings), and worked such erratic hours it made freelance video work difficult to fit into his schedule. He also hadn’t been able to afford a flight to California to visit his parents for two years or go to the dentist for eight years. “In Baltimore, my situation just felt hopeless,” said Arseny.

After spending 2019 and the beginning of 2020 working hard and hanging out at home, he was finally able to save up enough to buy some much-needed video equipment, with a portion left over for a short vacation in Taiwan; his plan was to crash on his friend’s couch once in Taipei. As much as he wanted to visit his parents and fix his teeth, he felt that without a break, he’d probably pop a blood vessel, and so he left America a few days before his 28th birthday. As Arseny put it, “I felt I deserved a little break.”

 

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Illustration By: Taarika John

 

Open Doors In A Closed Country

A few days after Arseny arrived, Taiwan closed its borders in a nationwide lockdown. “My friend showed me a photo of the flight display at the airport, the entire board was covered with the word ‘cancelled.’” Arseny opted to stay at an affordable hotel in New Taipei since one of the friends he intended to stay with was a school teacher, and had quarantined herself for safety reasons. “It was really hard to tell what was going to happen to me, but I was only a little bit worried for myself. I had missed the worst part of the pandemic in Taiwan, which was only around a high of 500 cases in a country of around 24 million people because they handled it so well… Even if you’re new here, you can immediately tell it is a safe and organised place.”

Arseny found all the supplies he needed on local apps, gorging himself on Gua bao (known as the Taiwanese hamburger)—soft, pillowy buns that look like oversized marshmallows wrapped around glazed morsels of pork belly. Once he was able to step out, he worried about being an American in Taiwan, in part because of the rising antipathy against Asian Americans in the U.S., and also because his homeland was quickly becoming the pandemic’s worst casualty. However, Taipei’s atmosphere was accepting. “It turned out the only people I really needed to be worried for were my friends and family back in the states,” said Arseny.

During the beginning of Arseny’s tenure in Taiwan, a friend of a friend he met at a show invited him to go surfing the next day at Wai’ao Beach in the Yilan province, an hour east from Taipei. This was the first time they met, and despite Arseny being slightly taken aback, it led to a great day wobbling about on longboards.

While Taiwan’s surfing scene is relatively nascent, the island is home to typhoon-generated Pacific swells, offering highly desirable reef and point breaks. Most surfing spots are also relatively uncrowded, as the Taiwanese haven’t taken to the pastime in large numbers. This not only means that experienced surfers get more time on waves, but amateurs too have enough space to get the hang of things. “I became friends with a really sweet, amazing guy, just from that experience. Now we hang out all the time,” said Arseny.

 

Lucky Number 6

Arseny uses Mandarin slang to describe his greater experience in Taiwan: “六 (liù)六 (liù)六 (liù)”, which often means cool or amazing, especially in reference to overcoming an obstacle. The term literally means ‘six-six-six,’ a lucky number in Taiwan, seen everywhere from license plates to restaurant signs. “One of my friends here even has a 666 tattoo; I thought she might be a Satanist before I mustered the courage to ask her about it,” commented Arseny through a grin.

Now he says the phrase “liù, liù, liù” when he passes eateries propelling the smell of fresh scallion pancakes hitting the griddle, or when he catches a good band. Even when he drifts off to sleep, the muffled horns of mopeds and taxis seem to whisper the words through his apartment window, urging him to take Taiwan in his stride.

And that he has, in spite of the fact he lost his source of income back in the U.S. because he initially could not return home, and still had to wait a month for his work visa to be approved, his time in Taipei has almost always felt like a new lease on life—a stranger adopted by a strange land that made him feel like there was still plenty of hope, even when the road ahead was uncertain.

 

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Illustration By: Taarika John

 

On Firm Footing

Once he got his footing in Taiwan, after a period of around two months, Arseny was able to access one luxury hardly accorded the average American citizen—affordable healthcare. That rotten molar he had shrugged off prior to the trip was now surgically removed for a mere $5 (150 NTD), a fraction of what it would have cost him in the States. “They did such a good job I didn’t even need my pain medication,” Arseny beamed. His eligibility for Taiwan’s national insurance plan has been a life changer for him. “I was also able to get two psychiatric appointments, which lasted 45-minutes each, and was prescribed two different types of medication for my sleeping disorder. All of that cost around $12 (350 NTD). It’s just nice when going to the doctor doesn’t have to be so stressful, you know, worrying about how much they’ll get you for.”

Arseny now works nine to five in a marketing role at a local firm, cycling to work each morning along the Tamsui river. “It’s so much easier for me to be healthy here, whenever I’m stressed I can just throw on my headphones and bike for hours. The bike path along the river is super well done, you can ride it for an hour in one direction. In fact, the infrastructure as a whole in Taipei may be the best I’ve seen in the world. The metro (MRT) is always on time and they have these bicycle rental terminals all across the city, called uBikes.” He continued, “Sometimes I feel super anxious when I’m cooped up, but in New Taipei, where I live, I can get out of the city in five minutes and take a nature walk.”

His new schedule allows him to play Super Mario Brothers with his co-workers at the office after clocking out, before he explores Taipei’s thriving live music scene. Many evenings end at his favourite izakaya (Japan’s impact as a former coloniser still influences the diet of the nation), munching on yakitori and sipping on highballs.

Arseny is even learning Mandarin, beyond pop culture slang, to help him better integrate himself in his new home. He wants to be able to walk into Taipei’s hole-in-the-wall restaurants and swap old man jokes with Taiwanese uncles, like his American friend Conrad, who first introduced him to the city. However, even though Arseny is bilingual, fluent in English and Russian, Mandarin might be the only facet of Arseny’s adoption of a new home that hasn’t been surmounted seamlessly. But, then again, considering how fast he settled in, it seems like only a matter of time before he’s able to hold his own while swilling beer with jolly Taiwanese tipplers.

 

Skipping Town

These days Arseny can be found roaming Taipei with his girlfriend Amber. He never thought he’d have a girlfriend in

Taiwan, yet meeting her has been as wonderful as meeting his new home.

At night, they can be seen at Shi Lin market, circling the underground food court, Arseny’s blue eyes reflecting displays of pungent tofu, sizzling oyster omelettes, and cloudy vats of beef noodle soup—a face mask covering his wild smile. Otherwise, the couple are on the prowl for live music venues like The Wall, one of Taipei’s best bars for good tunes. The two skip out of town too to explore Taiwan’s thriving music scene, travelling south to Kaohsiung City’s state-of-the-art venue Live Warehouse.

The countryside is also one of Arseny’s favourite things about life in Taiwan. It is relatively easy and affordable to catch buses and trains around the country, the routes offering vistas of lush environs and occasionally a glimpse into the traditional life of Taiwan’s aboriginal communities. Another way he enjoys Taiwan’s pastoral heartland is by ‘river tracing’: an activity that is popular in Taiwan, Japan, and Hong Kong, which is fundamentally hiking along a river, except those participating take on the boulders and caves in their immediate path, instead of circumnavigating them. “We arrived at this great waterfall and got to take a refreshing swim. I’ve also gone to Taroko National park in the north, which was stunning.”

 

Belly Full of Bao

Despite the miraculous nature of his journey, Arseny would be the first to admit that Taiwan is not some magical place untouched by prejudice. He recognises that his Western antecedents perhaps played a role in his greater acceptance in Taiwan. “It seems like in Taiwan there is a significant wage gap between some of the foreign workers and Taiwanese in the corporate (work) setting,” he said. However, the list of job opportunities that international workers are allowed to undertake in Taiwan is at least not dominated by Westerners —outside of teaching ESL.

It’s not as if all of Arseny’s problems disappeared in the vapour trail of that Boeing 787 Dreamliner which took him to Taipei. His close friends and family are spread across the U.S.A., and the time differences make it difficult to keep in regular touch. But they rest easy, knowing that somewhere in Taipei, Arseny is whizzing atop a moped, a belly full of bao and a heart full of joy.

 

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  • Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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