20 July, 2015 – Taichung, Taiwan
“Que Sera, Sera
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see
Que Sera, Sera
What will be, will be”
-”Que Sera, Sera”, by Doris Day
No future no future no future for you
No future no future for me
-”God Save The Queen”, by The Sex Pistols
Oh, crystal ball, crystal ball
Save us all, tell me life is beautiful
Mirror, mirror on the wall
Oh, crystal ball, hear my song
I’m fading out, everything I know is wrong
So put me where I belong
“Crystal Ball”, by Keane
This being the last one for a while, I think, I thought I’d put in 3 song quotes this time. I do love music!
What’s to come for us? How can I sum up where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going? I guess we’ll all know before this entry is complete.
The Sum of All Fears
We have been in Taiwan now more than twice as long as we were in Hong Kong and Hanoi, combined. So, how can I sum up this country, and its people, as compared to everywhere else we’ve been? Taiwan is…well…Taiwan. There’s no other place exactly like it, to be honest, for better or worse. There’s parts that remind me of Hong Kong, others remind me of Hanoi a little, but most remind me of nothing, because most of the places I’ve seen here, in some ways, are even more foreign than where we’ve been. The people here are friendly, and most try to make you feel welcome and at home, without putting out more than the minimal effort about it. This place, culturally, is such a mash-up of Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, Japanese, European, and American influences, it’s hard to know for sure what the national identity is, or if there even is one. Taiwan and its people seem to be suffering from a national identity crisis. As a result, to the outsider, you’re not sure what to make of it at all…but I’ll try to give my opinion anyway, as best I can.
Taiwan is confusing. It’s certainly better than Hanoi, but to be honest, I doubt we’re going to stay here forever. In the part of Taichung we’re in, anyway, it seems like somewhere in between the developing world that Hanoi is in, and the developed world that America, Canada, and Hong Kong are a part of. It’s bearable, maybe even long-term, but permanently? I don’t think so.
What You Leave Behind
I don’t want to go so far as to say we regret leaving, but there are some things we miss very much. We miss not having to search for a good place to eat, because we knew all of our favorite places to eat, one of which was our home kitchen. I know my wife actually misses being able to cook, especially the one thing that’s so difficult to find here: her chili. I know I miss it too, because it was so good! I miss a good hamburger; pizza, not so much anymore now that we’ve found good pizza. We miss some American television, as there are just some things we can’t get here without paying for it online. Which is another thing I miss. Without a checking account here yet, we cannot make purchases online of any kind. I miss Oregon rain, which is unique, though they aren’t getting much of it now anyway. I miss the stars. Yes, of course there are stars here too, but they’re not the stars I’m used to. I suppose that if we lived south of the Equator, seeing the Southern Cross would be cool, and might take my mind off of Oregon’s sky when I look up at night, but here, it’s just not the same; even the sky is foreign to me. We miss all of our conveniences of home: the space, the extra room for Mischa’s artwork, all of our DVDs, our books (though both are saved on hard drives), our freezer, using a dryer for our clothes. We miss a bathroom with a tub, where the shower is separated from the rest of the bathroom with curtain. We miss pine trees and deer foraging in our backyard. I know we’ll miss snow, when winter comes. We obviously miss being able to have a conversation with anyone, in English. But most of all, we miss our friends and (some of our) family. Kate, Jess, Holly, Jay, Shanan, and everyone else (you know who you are).
Although we miss you all VERY much, I don’t want to come home. Rather, I wish you could all be here, with us, and share this experience with us, and all the journeys to follow. Miss these things, yes; sorry we left, no. It will just take time to forge new relationships, either here or elsewhere, and to find somewhere we want to be, and where we feel that we belong. And it’s good for us, and you, the reader, to realize that, despite what we miss, it’s already been an adventure, good and bad. In all the years I’ve lived before the end of March of this year, I had hardly seen ANY of the world outside of Oregon. Now, I’ve been in 5 different countries in the span of 4 months! And as I am writing this, it’s almost 7pm on Monday, July 20th; back home, it’s 4am that same day. I’m on the other side of the world! If that doesn’t help put things into perspective, and curb some of those yearnings of home, I don’t know what does.
Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow
Together, my wife and I are making plans for the future. While I will continue teaching for the foreseeable future, I am starting to look into creating an online consulting business, dealing with work, life and research consulting. I suppose it could be face to face as well, but unless you’re where I happen to be, online consulting seems more likely. My wife, on the other hand, is putting her many talents to use. She has already started doing freelance logo design and has had her work selected by one company, which paid her a little over $100 for about 3 hours work. She already has more that she’s working on now. She is also looking into freelance writing, as am I, but mine is more slanted towards travel writing, for obvious reasons. She’s also looking into web design, but the big one is her own artwork, which I, and many others, think is brilliant. She won a contest for her art back home, a couple of years before we left, has sold a couple of her works, given away others to family and friends, so she is in the planning stages of starting an online art business. It would allow her to sell prints of her work, in various forms. Based on her success and popularity of her work thus far, it could allow us the potential to make a VERY comfortable life for ourselves anywhere in the world. As you can probably tell, I am her biggest fan, and not just because it might allow me to stop teaching. I think she’s an incredibly talented artist AND writer, and that she is capable of doing great things with her work…plus, I’d be able to stop teaching!
And what about that? Stop teaching? I must admit that, thus far, while it has it’s moments, if I can find other options, I don’t think that teaching is for me, at least not for the rest of my life, though that may be one of the better things about Taiwan: teaching salaries here allow you to save A LOT of money; as much as $1000 per month. As for us, once our financial situation levels off this Fall, we’ll probably save at least 500-700 a month. In 2-5 years, depending on how our other businesses go, it would allow us possibly to go anywhere we want.
Where would that be? Well, if teaching’s still in the plans there are still a few options. Here in Asia, if I could find the right job, I could go to Hong Kong. Yes, there it is again. If you’ve read my blogs since the beginning, you know I have a huge hard-on for this place. I found it exotic, technologically comfortable, and altogether enticing and more like a potential home for me than I ever thought possible in a foreign land. Another possibility (maybe the only other possibility for us in Asia) is Japan. Again, technologically comfortable, but it would mean more work, as the Japanese are another one of those live to work cultures, probably even more so than the US. However, with the money we will have saved, we could go back to the western hemisphere. There are lots of choices in Central and South America; Costa Rica, Colombia (all the drugs you want, some with complimentary kidnapping!), Ecuador (one of the American expat capitals of the world), Chile, or Uruguay (my personal favorite). If she, or we, are successful at our various online endeavors, then the world is our oyster! We could, conceivably, go anywhere, jumping from one country of our choice to the next, on our 90-day visas, seeing the world from New Zealand to England, from Argentina to Australia, from Africa to Turkey to Austria, until we found a place to settle down! That’s my dream and I hope, with my wife and I giving each other the love, support, and encouragement that we always have, that we can make those dreams a reality.
So there it is, now you know. I hope we won’t have to go back home. There’s too much of the world I want to see, and I hope that as we continue this (hopefully) ongoing adventure of ours, you’ll come with us, through these words, the images that accompany them or, if you’re feeling daring, come and join us on this adventure and wherever it may take us. We’ll keep a light on, the beer cold, and the pizza warm. I just hope you’ll be able to get a slice without my wife cutting your hand off. Until next time…
– For images of our journey, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston
19 July, 2015 – Taichung, Taiwan
Letting the days go by
Let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by
Water flowing underground
Into the blue again
Into the silent water
Under the rocks and stones
There is water underground
“Once in a Lifetime”, by The Talking Heads
This is not my beautiful house! Hello again, everyone! Let’s get started with the subject of today’s article.
Don’t drink it right out of the faucet…ever. Due to the seismic activity on the island, and the outdated water systems here, there are things in the earth which can leak into the reservoirs that would make you sick, and make your bowel movements look like the chunks of sediments that flow through the Mekong Delta. However, we have a Brita pitcher and we filter the water twice; we’ve had no problems. Before that, we bought bottled water, which is everywhere. You can get a 1.5 liter bottle for about $1.50. Two of those would be enough for one day, hence our decision to switch to a Brita.
This is the moment where I hang my head in shame. I have not tried a lot of the local cuisine yet. Between our financial situation and culture shock, I’ve admittedly not tried much of the regular food here. To save money, most of the food we’ve bought for home has been bread and various things we can put on bread – we don’t have anything to cook with. Either that, or I’ve gotten stuff from the convenience stores, which have familiar items AND regional foods too. However, I’ve gotten out there a little more in recent weeks, we both have, so I can share some things with you. My wife and I have eaten at a bistro down the street, which is pretty good. The only problem is we’re never sure what we’re going to get in our sandwiches because no one speaks English. My wife has tried the little noodle stand across the street from our place. She says it’s good and spicy, but she doesn’t like the pork meatballs, which she says are all fat and sinew. We’ve both tried MOS burger, which is like Japan’s answer to McDonald’s. It’s still fast food, but its way better than McDonald’s. I’ve tried a meat patty in a rice cake with BBQ sauce and seaweed, which was surprisingly good. I’ve also tried a place that I mentioned before called My Love Chicken. They have fried chicken, fries, and assorted other chicken parts, and they season it as mild or as spicy as you like it. I thought it was WAY better than KFC and VERY crispy, especially the 2nd time around, when I asked for it to be extra spicy and crispy. It was wonderful, but definitely needed some Zantac after that!
The Taiwanese people also love Italian food, or at least their version of it. It sounds a little odd, until you remember that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from China. It all comes back around, doesn’t it? While we haven’t tried the pasta here yet, one thing we did look for right away was a pizza place. Now, they have Pizza Hut and Domino’s here, but most of their fare is very different from those in America. Way more seafood pizza options, and way more mayonnaise and white sauce options for those pizzas. Eck! So, we looked around and found a place just a half a block from my work called Pizza Rock. Let me state here that back home we mostly ate frozen pizzas, Red Baron, DiGiorno, etc. Since being over here, we did have Pizza Hut in Hong Kong once, and pizza several times in Hanoi, which were okay, but the sauce was like ketchup, and the crust was like cardboard, both in consistency and in taste. But Pizza Rock is run by an Italian-Canadian who married a Taiwanese woman. As a result, you don’t get the weird shit they put on most pizzas here. Instead, he creates an authentic, neo-Neapolitan, Roma style pizza that is, in the words of my wife, the best. Pizza. Ever. When we had it for the first time (pepperoni, of course), our eyes teared up. It was that good, and a magnificent taste of home for us. She teared up again when it was almost gone. The crust was crispy on the outside, softer towards the middle, and thin throughout. The homemade sauce was tomato-y and glorious. Combined with the cheese and the pepperoni (all the ingredients are clearly top quality, and way better than anything else you’ll find for pizza in this part of the world), and the condiments (Parmesan, Tabasco, garlic oil, and red vinaigrette) and I swear you can hear angels sing with every bite! I’m not usually one to refer people to websites, but this one I just have to: http://www.pizzarock.com.tw/
Check it out. They do more than just pizza there too (panini, baked pasta, etc.), but we just haven’t gotten that far yet, but we will. Oh sure, as we get more comfortable, both emotionally and financially, we will do more food exploration. But Pizza Rock is already our go-to place, and we will go there at least once a month until we leave. Guaranteed.
Other than water, there are consistent items to be found here. Tea is high on the list of popular drinks here. Nearly everyone drinks it, hot or cold, and has more flavors and types of tea than you can imagine. My personal favorite is the chocolate milk tea. Tastes more chocolaty and creamier than chocolate milk, like melted chocolate ice cream! Delightful. There is also coffee, and it too is very popular here. In fact, about the only stores you’ll see more of here than Starbucks and other local cafes are either McDonald’s or convenience stores. You can even get coffee in cans here for less than a dollar. I’m not a coffee connoisseur, so I’m not big on coffee, so long as it gets the job done in the morning. However, my boss did take me to a Starbucks once, and I got an iced caramel machiatto, which was wonderful.
Coffee not your thing? Hope you like Coke! Pepsi is hard, but not impossible to find here, but Coke is everywhere, though it is harder to find diet. No big deal for me though, as I’m not fond of aspartame as a sweetener. You can also get Sprite here too.
But the important one is alcohol! Vodka costs about the same as back home, as does the cranberry juice or orange juice to go with it. If you want to save some money, and try something local, there’s Kaoliang liquor. It’s made from fermented sorghum wheat and when taken straight, tastes like gin to me, as it burns on the way down. My wife detected a taste similar to tequila which, lucky for me, it wasn’t, otherwise she may have put me in the hospital. Either way, probably not something we’ll try again. Beer, however, may be a different story. The Chinese actually invented beer thousands of years ago, so you’d think they’d be pretty good at making it, which they are, but you get what you pay for sometimes. The least expensive beer here is Taiwan Beer, which tastes about as original as the name. It’s less than a dollar per beer for good reason; it tastes so bad, you’ll wish you’d bought Budweiser. However, for not much more you can find other good beers, foreign, regional, and domestic, depending on which stores you go to. Thus far, I’ve found Budweiser, Heineken, Carlsburg, Tiger, and my new personal favorite, Tsing Tao Beer, a Taiwanese beer. Tastes very good and smooth, like Tiger, but costs much less, and has almost the same alcohol content, about 4.7%, much more than most American brands. Go up on the roof near sunset, with a couple of beers and some smokes…and pizza…that’s about as good as life can get in Taiwan!
Well, I think this covered just about everything I can tell you thus far about Taiwan. As I have more to add, I will, but that’s it for now. So what’s next for us? How does Taiwan rate, and how can we sum that up, compared to the other places we’ve been? That will be coming up in my next post. Until then, keep your feet on the ground, and your knees above them. Same as it ever was…
– For images of our journey, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston
19 July, 2015 – Taichung, Taiwan
There is a yellow one that won’t accept the black one
That won’t accept the red one that won’t accept the white one
And different strokes for different folks
And so on and so on and scooby dooby dooby
“Everyday People”, by Sly and the Family Stone
Well, it’s that time again. I’m sitting here, on our bed, writing out another blog, and it’s finally, blissfully raining outside. Our little friend, Lost Samurai the gecko, is around here, somewhere, napping before he goes out hunting tonight. So, it’s on to our next subject.
The People: The Language
I’m going to break this down between genders, and deal separately with the children, whom I have more experience interacting with, as a result of my teaching job. But first, let me deal with the language. Everyone here speaks Chinese, specifically Mandarin Chinese, not to be confused with the aforementioned Hong Kongers, who predominantly speak Cantonese. Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in China, and the world, with nearly a billion people calling Mandarin their native tongue; that’s over 14% of the world population. To put that into perspective, Spanish is the 2nd most widely spoken language on Earth, and twice as many people speak Mandarin on this planet. Mandarin is, like most Asian languages, very difficult for westerners to get a grasp of. I basically know “hello” and “thank you”, but retaining any more than the most rudimentary parts of this language, for me, requires more time and effort than have at the present moment. Fortunately, about half of the people I’ve met here randomly, know some basic English. Unfortunately, you’d expect them to know more, considering that Taiwan has been a hotbed for foreign teachers for 20 years. I guess like most of us, who took a foreign language in high school, they learned it, stopped using it, then forgot most of it. And if you think about it from the point of view of a Taiwanese person, English may be just as hard to learn as Chinese is for us, if not more so. So, I have patience with them, and from what I’ve seen, they have patience with me. They love it when I speak even a word or two of their language, probably akin to seeing a talking monkey, but hopefully with more endearment behind it.
It can be a beautiful language to hear, but it can also be like nails on a chalkboard, depending on the tone. If it’s whiny, as is often the case amongst the youth, you either want to kill yourself or the person who is speaking like that. When it’s angry, it can be either scary, like when a man does it, or hilarious, when a woman is shouting at her husband for something. You’re not sure exactly what she’s saying, but you can certainly infer from her tone! Sometimes, if you hear it in our stairwell, but you can’t see them, but it’s in conversational tone, it can almost sound like a conversation in English. It’s a remarkable, ancient language, thousands of years older than any form of English spoken today, and I’m quite certain I’ll never be able to completely learn it or understand it. Moving on…
Men here are generally polite and non-threatening towards myself, and even my wife, which kind of makes sense, considering that most of them are shorter than either of us. Some can be quite tall, well over 6-feet, which makes their fascination with basketball more culturally feasible. They are not lazy, like Vietnamese men tend to be in much greater numbers, though you will constantly see the older men in the park, which are meant for all people here, not just children. Just as often, you’ll see them at the community temple next to the park, smoking or playing Mahjong. Other than that, however, Taiwanese men (and women) seem to have a work ethic similar to that of people from Hong Kong or Japan. Whereas I want to work to live, they live to work.
Taiwanese men are not very aggressive towards women, from what I’ve seen, though as parents they can be, which I will get to. However, for the most part, I’ve found them to be polite and courteous, if not friendly, which often they are.
By most American male standards, the women here are not as beautiful as Vietnamese women are, which is to say they don’t all look like exotic, unattainable supermodels.
They come in all shapes, sizes, skin tones, and assorted varieties here, which personally for me, I like. I prefer girls that have, shall we say, more curves on them, so long as I only LOOK, right honey? They can have a sweet and shy charm, with glances that would make most western men think that they want something else, but that’s often not the case. They are genuinely shy, from what I have seen, and much slower to move further in the relationship process than American or western European women. But that’s okay…I think most American women move too fast as it is. Though the women here can come across as quiet and shy, which may be perceived by some as stuck-up, I have heard some be more boisterous (by Taiwanese standards), and can even be friendly and out-going, once you’ve said more than a few words to them. But in any relationship here, platonic or otherwise, it’s best to be patient.
The children in this country can be very whiny when they don’t get what they want. As a result, the younger generations are much more materialistic than the older ones, which makes this place seem much more like the United States, but with more Chinese people. However, as in most Asian countries, most of the children are adorable looking. They are easily the loudest, and most unruly, segment of the population, but coupled with the duality of how beautiful and charming they can be, it’s hard to stay angry or frustrated with them for very long, even in the classroom setting. Depending on which social strata their family is a part of, however, you can sometimes see scars on them, and with good reason: corporal punishment of children is very common here, which I find disturbing. I’ve had children in my class tell me that they are beaten, often with sticks, when they misbehave at home. I often hear violent tales of child abuse on the news, as that is an issue which still is not being addressed here. Domestic violence isn’t as bad between men and women, because just as often, the women give it right back. However, with children, they cannot, and the level of violence towards SOME of them has even led to death.
Between their regular school, and the private English language schools that most of them attend, they are up by 6am, in school by 8am, at their school, depending on age, until 2 and as late as 6pm, then to their language schools until 9pm by the time they’re 11 or 12 years old. From my point of view, their childhood is essentially taken away at about the age of six or seven, and they spend their rest of their formative years preparing for work, being tested every day, with little or no breaks during the day, being pushed constantly to excel. Not much time to play, which may explain why they sometimes try to take advantage of the “round eye” teaching English to them. Their young lives have very little respite, nor do they seem to have much of it when they get older. So once they learn to talk, they have about 4 or 5 years to play, imagine, and dream, before that’s taken away from them.
The people here are nice, that’s very true. In my first two weeks here, I was trying to order a taxi on this touchscreen at the 7-11, to get home, but it wasn’t working properly. So, one of the guys behind the counter offered to drive me home on his scooter. We’d never met before, but he was nice enough to help. That’s one aspect of a much bigger picture here. They are also workaholics, and push their children in that direction at a very young age. The fear of failure among the children of this country must lead to massive amounts of anxiety, ulcers, and thoughts of suicide here. While the people in this community are very nice indeed, even though I’m a stranger here, with all the bureaucracy I have to deal with to stay here long-term, I’d much rather be an American here than a Taiwanese child.
On that uplifting note, I’ll see you all next time when I cover food and drink, so bring your Imodium!
– For images of our journey, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston
19 July, 2015 – Taichung, Taiwan
Come a little closer, then you’ll see
Come on, come on, come on
Things aren’t always what they seem to be
Come on, come on, come on
Do you understand the things that you’ve been seeing
Come on, come on, come on
Do you understand the things that you’ve been dreaming
Come a little closer, then you’ll see
“Come a Little Closer”, by Cage the Elephant
The sights can often vary from one place to another. Where we stayed at first in Taoyuan, it was definitely more upscale than the neighborhood we live in now. The streets were cleaner, the buildings were nicer and more pristine looking. Our second hotel in Taoyuan, by the airport, was more comforting, because it FELT more like a hotel, which was what we needed at the time. However, the neighborhood was dirtier, and looked older than the neighborhood across town at our first hotel. The area near our hotel in Hsinchu was somewhere in between the two places we stayed at in Taoyuan. So too, was our last hotel, here, in Taichung. Our own neighborhood…well, let’s just say it has character. It’s definitely in a lower working class neighborhood, except that it’s filled with a lot of old people who don’t work much anymore, except for the street vendors. The streets themselves aren’t all that clean, particularly right after the market closes at about 2pm. It’s not at clean as Hong Kong, but it’s certainly cleaner than Hanoi.
As I may have mentioned before, our little apartment building is nestled in between other apartment buildings in the area, with very narrow lanes separating them. There’s a park in one direction down the street, and a massive elementary school in the other direction. A word about that: most schools here are massive by American standards. They usually take up a city block, and are anywhere from 2-5 stories high. They will have some outdoor areas for sports, but obviously no football fields. Some have tracks or tennis courts, and nearly ALL have basketball courts, as the NBA may be the most popular sport here now.
A short walk down a small hill past the park, takes us to the main street in our neighborhood, which is lined with 2 different convenience stores, assorted fruit and vegetable stands, and numerous food stands, clothing shops, a bakery stand, pet stores, and a pharmacy, where you can find almost anything, including antibiotics, without a prescription. That’s a big bonus, especially in a country where prostitution is legal; you don’t want to have to explain to your doctor what you need that amoxicillin for, now do you?
Once you make it out to the largest street in our part of the city, Wenxin Rd., the neighborhood improves, with cleaner streets, bigger, nicer shops and housing. They have bigger and nicer temples, indoor restaurants, grocery stores, shops selling more furniture, cars, and bigger luxury items. Everywhere, of course, are signs for these shops in Chinese, something you take for granted at times, but if you refocus and look at all the signs around you, it can leave you in awe, as it is the biggest reminder that you are now on the other side of the world. Some of these signs have pictures or some words in English, which can help expats like myself deduce what’s being sold there, but they are often misspelled or grammatically incorrect. Two examples: Ape Shape Bakery and My Love Chicken. Still, you get the idea.
From our rooftop, you can see out toward the west, though there’s a small ridge about 10 miles out, blocking any view from the city, of the Taiwan Strait. We do see a lot of birds up here, though nothing as unusual as what we saw or heard in Hong Kong. We’ve even seen some small bats, coming out at twilight. Also from this view, we can see the neighborhoods west of us, in various stages of growth or dilapidation. I find the areas that look like ours to be a little disconcerting, considering that this country is both typhoon-prone and seismically active. Granted, the worst of both occurs more on the east coast of the island, but still, one good 6.0 magnitude tremor, and there could be a lot of damage here.
As for our tiny little studio, we have our TV, our AC, our bathroom, which doesn’t look as nice or as clean as the rest of our place. In here, we’ve seen the occasional small spider, very tiny, but very fast ants, which come out anytime there is the smallest crumb left out, and one big-ass cockroach, which I killed…after 3 attempts to drown it in the bathroom, then crush it with my boot. That fucker was longer than my middle finger, and about two inches wide! Freaked both of us out for days! Then there is our latest little friend, a tiny little house gecko, which can be found everywhere in this part of the world. We’d seen them on buildings in every country we’ve been to, but this is the first we’ve seen take up residence with us. He’s tiny, about two inches long, grayish-green, and during the day when he sleeps (they are night hunters), he hangs out above our AC, mostly hidden from us. At night, when we turn the lights off to get ready for bed, he makes his way across the ceiling, usually in the direction of our tall, narrow wardrobe, behind which he seems to find various small bugs to eat. We’ve noticed him here now for almost a week, so we decided to name him. Though he’s small and young, we thought we’d give him a name to make him feel bigger and boost his self-esteem: 失去了武士 , or shīqùle wǔshì (you can get the pronunciation from Google Translate), which translates to Lost Samurai.
Yes, there is the smell of garbage here, though not as bad as Vietnam. It doesn’t permeate every aspect of your existence here, like it did in Hanoi, but you can always sense it lurking somewhere in the background. However, there are also other wonderful smells in the foreground. There is that steaminess, which is constant here, at least at this time of year. There is the smell of all kinds of fruit coming from the markets nearby, both familiar and exotic; apples, oranges, pineapples, lemons, mangoes, papaya, lychee fruit, and dragon fruit. There’s another fruit here called durian, which I fortunately have not smelled yet, at least not to my knowledge. Spread throughout SE Asia, durian is a very popular fruit here, called the “King of Fruits” throughout most of this part of the world. But it is a love/hate thing. Some people love it, some loathe it, predominantly due to its smell and taste. Anthony Bourdain described its taste as being “like pungent, runny French cheese”, and it’s smell as “your breath will smell as if you’ve been french kissing your dead grandmother.” Travel writer Richard Wright was even more succinct, if that’s possible – “ Its odor is best described as pig shit, turpentine and onions garnished with a dirty gym sock.” You understand my reluctance now, don’t you?
You can also smell food, lots of different kinds of food, from the various street vendors, and the restaurants in the area, and it can overwhelm your nose at times. There’s pork, spices, chicken, seafood, everywhere, all seemingly trying to force their way up your nostrils all at the same time. Then, there’s the flowers, all of which seem to put out very strong, almost perfume-like aromas into the air…or maybe that’s just all the women who, regardless of what they may look like, all seem to smell really nice (that didn’t come across as too creepy, did it?). Lastly, there are the fumes from all the trucks, cars, and scooters, intermingling with the aforementioned smells, topped off the with occasional aroma of burning incense, coming from one of the many Buddhist temples, or perhaps from a home or shop owner, praying for good health or good fortune, both of which seem to be needed here. If the sights can be culturally jarring, the smells can be downright overwhelming, bordering on numbness.
One of my favorite, but thus far all too infrequent, sounds here is the sound of rain and thunder. The thunder always sounds so much more gentle here, as opposed to America, where even the SOUND of an approaching thunderstorm seems to have an audible tinge of malice behind it. The sound of the rain here, however, varies greatly, from a gentle (but warm) version of an Oregon rain, to a tropical downpour that comes close to the force put out by a fire hose. Of course, there is the nearly constant sound, any time you go out, of Taiwanese people speaking in a language that makes Spanish seem as comforting as chicken soup on a cold, rainy day. For American ears, virtually every Asian language sounds more foreign to us than any other. They do speak some English though, and they know certain “colorful” words, like “fuck”, which in Chinese is pronounced like “cow”. Many is the time I’ve talked about animals to my students, and invariably the class goes into shock, then laughter, whenever I talk about cows.
Another interesting thing here is that you can swear, but not at someone. If you do, you risk getting sued. I’m serious! They sue people for everything here, kind of like America in the 90s. We even have, in our rental agreement, a clause that states that if we commit suicide in our apartment, they can sue us or our next of kin! Not that it’ll carry any weight in an American court, but still…I think it’s mainly because of that fear of spirits thing, though.
Even more constant, however, is the sound of traffic. Scooters are everywhere here, and between them, and the cars and trucks, there is a constant din of them anytime we step out of our home, to the streets below. It only dies off a bit, from about 2-4pm, when most small shops are closed. At that time, the streets are virtually deserted, as if it were 2-4am instead. But the sounds return shortly, forcing you to talk in raised voices, at the very least. Which brings me to my final destination on this particular blog…
Traffic and Transportation
I’ve already explained the traffic to you, I suppose, and the various modes of transport, but there are others. Taichung is currently working on its own Mass Rapid Transit system (MRT, for short), similar in nature to those of Hong Kong and Taipei. As a city with a metro population of over 2.5 million, it certainly needs it, but it won’t be completed for at least another 2-3 years. There are taxis, of course, but they cost about $3 for the first mile, and more after that (it’s been awhile since I’ve taken a cab, so I don’t remember the exact prices.). You can buy cards at any convenience store, which you put money on, and can spend at various stores, restaurants, and the local bus system. The good news is that you have to travel at least 8km before you’re ever charged for riding the bus, so most of my bus rides are free. However, bus schedules are, shall we say, inaccurate? The buses start out every morning, according to their respective schedules, but unlike in America, if they get ahead of schedule, they do not slow down or stop. They just keep going, so that by 8 or 9 in the morning, the times that they are supposed to arrive at your stop are off. Sometimes, you have to wait up to 30 minutes for your bus to come around again, so you need to leave yourself plenty of extra time to get to where you want to go, especially if an actual appointment is involved.
As for traffic laws, they do exist, but no one seems to mind them. It’s not quite as bad as in Vietnam, but it was WAY better in Hong Kong. As a result, though they have the ability to form a somewhat functional and stable government, they have not yet established a clear definition of the phrase “right of way”. As a result, vehicular accidents are regular here, and often bloody. And they cover the entire accident spectrum: car-car, car-truck, car-bus, car-scooter, car-pedestrian, truck-scooter, truck-bus, bus-pedestrian…you get the idea.
The street layout doesn’t help matters any either. Those of you familiar with the layout of the roads in Boston, Washington D.C., or Paris might be a little more equipped to handle the directional layout of the streets here, as I am pretty sure that all of these places, including Taichung, had their streets constructed by the world-renowned French architect, Marquis de Sade.
The city is laid out a in a circular pattern, not a north-south, east-west pattern, known in most American cities after 1800. As a result, if you’re heading north in this city, you can’t take a left, then a right, and expect to still be heading north again. You make that assumption, and before you know it, you’re swimming to mainland China. I thought I had an impressive sense of direction before I came here…and got lost…twice. Thank God for Google maps!
Well, once again, I’ve made my longest blog yet, and overstayed my welcome. Tune in next time for more adventures from Taiwan. In our next episode, the people! Until then, stay cool out there, and always use sunscreen.
– For images of our journey, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston
15 July, 2015 – Taichung, Taiwan
“Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city
All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head”
– “Summer in the City”, The Lovin’ Spoonful
Good evening, everyone! Well, we are starting to wind down towards the end a bit, at least for now. So feel free to savor, go back through my previous entries, and reminisce with me. I enjoy reading back through my entries myself; just to experience again, what it was like to be “there”, wherever “there” was.
I wasn’t sure where to start this one, but when I thought of the lines from this Lovin’ Spoonful song, I knew just the subject.
Now, I have been told, from several people here, and from meteorological history researched online, that it does get cooler here in the winter. It can get down into the 50’s (Fahrenheit) at that time of year, not bad when you consider what else lies along the 24th parallel north: Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, India, Burma, southern China, the Baja Peninsula of Mexico, and the Bahamas. Right now, however…IT’S FUCKING HOT AND HUMID!!!!! Don’t get me wrong, it’s tolerable, and certainly better than Vietnam was, but it’s still sweltering compared to where I’m from! I am starting to get used to it, though. I remember when it would get hot during the summer in Oregon, and when it did, and I’d get sweaty, I’d start getting annoyed by it. Really annoyed. Here, I don’t know…I’m just getting used to it. I still sweat, A LOT, but it doesn’t bother me as much. Nevertheless, I prepare for it. I assume that between the walk to the bus stop and the walk from the bus stop to the school, that I’m going to sweat through the collar of my shirt, so I bring an extra shirt to change into at the school. Perhaps it’s that preparation that makes it more tolerable for me.
Temperatures here are regularly in the low 90s everyday for the at least the past month, and should remain so for 2-3 more months. Even when it rains here, it doesn’t really cool off much, maybe down to the mid-80s. Either way here, lots of people carry umbrellas, as shade when it’s hot, and for cover when it rains. We even had a typhoon brush past the other side of the island last week and it barely did anything to cool us off. Lows don’t drop any further than the mid-70s at night, and the humidity rarely drops below 60% – twice as high as what Oregon experiences with the similar temperatures during the summer. The result is that it FEELS much hotter here, usually somewhere on the heat index between 105 and 110 degrees. Fortunately, air conditioning is almost universal here, so long as you don’t step outside, a virtual impossibility. I imagine that the closest you get to this kind of weather in America is maybe Florida or the bayou country in the other gulf coast states. How you southerners handle this shit, I’ll never know. However, it does explain your ancestors firing on Fort Sumter to start the Civil War. When you’re that hot all the time, you get pissed off, and start thinking about doing some pretty stupid and irrational shit. Hell, if I had a cannon here, I’m sure I’d use it…maybe start some shit with China! Hehe….
Currency and banking
The currency here is called the New Taiwan dollar, or NT for short. One American dollar equals about 30NT. The coins come in denominations of 1NT (looks like a penny), 5NT (looks like a nickel), 10NT (looks like a quarter), and 50NT (kinda looks like a Sacajawea gold dollar). The paper bills themselves start at 100NT, and are somewhat similar in appearance to Hong Kong bills. If you have enough, they go a long way, but I’ll get to that later.
My knowledge of banking is somewhat limited thus far, as I don’t have a bank account here yet. Combined with the fact that my account back home is essentially extinct, that means we’ve been using exclusively cash here for about 2 months. You can’t get an account here, for the most part, unless you have an ARC (Alien Resident Card), which I should have within the next two weeks. Still, I think we’ve both gotten used to just having cash, but it makes purchases online impossible – something we used to do all the time.
As I said above, if you have enough money, it can go a long way. During our first two months here, we managed to live on 6000-8000NT per month. That’s about $200-300. Okay, maybe it wasn’t living, but merely surviving. With a full paycheck now, that will change, but only slightly. Other than rent, we’ll be living on less than 10,000NT per month, saving the rest (For what, you ask? That’s another blog! So show some fucking patience!). But again, that can go a long way. Some things cost more here, others cost WAY less. Candy bars and soft drinks are about a dollar each, maybe a little less than back home, but not by much. Peanut butter is WAY more, about $5 for a small jar. A good pizza costs about $9, and most street food is between $1-3. If you want a taste of home like McDonald’s or KFC, you pay much more, about 6 or 7 dollars, about the same as back home. For that price, you can go to a real restaurant (serving food from all over the world) and only pay a dollar or two more. You can get a beer for under a dollar, but it’s Taiwan Beer, and personally, I think it’s shit. The best beer I’ve found so far is Tsing Tao beer. Still not much more, but the quality is better than anything I’ve tried in Asia, with the possible exception of Tiger beer.
Cigarettes are about $2 a pack…not that I’d know anything about that! All the bedding on our bed (5 pillows, sheets) ran us about 1200NT or about $40, and that was for pretty crappy quality pillows. A note about bedding here that makes NO sense to us. Fitted sheets are available everywhere, but we have yet to encounter regular bed sheets! However, there are comforters everywhere too! Who in the hell needs a comforter in this weather?!?!?!?! Do they just bring them out in the winter, or do they crank the A/C way up at night? Makes no sense to me, but we’re still searching. In the meantime, my wife undid the seams on one of our fitted sheets to make a reasonable facsimile of a bed sheet.
Oh, an additional note on grocery shopping here. Whether it’s at an actual grocery store here, or a convenience store, they always are playing music, and it’s fascinating and hilarious. They can go from a dance song from Maroon 5, to a dance song in Chinese, to “Careless Whisper” by George Michael, to some 70s pseudo-hippie choral song in Chinese. If you stay in the store long enough, your mind will go from “oh, I like that song!”, to “what the fuck?”, and eventually to either barely controlled hysterical laughter or the panicked realization that you have to get out of the store NOW, so that you don’t kill someone in a maniacal homicidal spree. As I’m not writing to you from a Taiwanese prison, you can be assured that I’ve always gone with the former…so far.
Well, that wasn’t the most interesting post I’ve ever done, but I suppose it was informative. However, I do have some observations to make. I’ve been keeping up on current events back home, and all I can say is, “Shit!” Part of the reason we left was to get away from the stupidity of America! Then you go a make a historic nuclear deal with Iran (if something pisses Israel off, it must both a good idea, and a rational one: I’m talking to YOU, Netanyahu, you psychotic fuck!), get rid of that idiotic Confederate flag, and you make gay marriage legal nationwide. You can’t see me back home, but I’m giving you a standing ovation, America! And I hate you for pulling your head out of your ass AFTER I leave. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still applauding you, I’m just doing it with my two middle fingers. Well done, my fellow Americans, especially on gay marriage. I’m proud of you, and it’s about goddamn time! With that, have a good night, and I’ll see you next time.
– For images of our journey, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston
6 July, 2015 – Taichung, Taiwan
Very superstitious, writings on the wall,
Very superstitious, ladders bout’ to fall,
Thirteen month old baby, broke the lookin’ glass,
Seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past.
When you believe in things that you don’t understand,
Then we suffer,
Superstition ain’t the way.
-”Superstition” by Stevie Wonder
This is complicated, but in simplistic terms Taiwanese culture is a mixture of Han Chinese, Japanese, European, American, and Aboriginal Taiwanese cultures, depending on what aspect of the culture you’re talking about. Looking at their culture through western eyes, it can be confusing: ancient religious beliefs mixed with modernity of a vibrant pop and sports culture, on the surface, don’t seem to make any sense together. But it SEEMS to work here, though I’m just as bewildered by it as most of you would be, were you here.
Some aspects of individual parts of the culture are a mix too. Take religion, for example. Religion here is generally a mix of Buddhism, Taoism, and Chinese folk religion, including ancestor worship. The combination of these usually falls under the category of Buddhism-Taoism, of which 93% of the population considers themselves to be part of. There are some Christians here, and religious freedom is quite tolerant here (I’ve even seen a couple of protestant churches here, and I’ve heard there’s a mosque in town), but only 5% of the population considers themselves to be Christian.
You can find Buddhist temples everywhere. You can’t walk 500 meters without finding a decent sized one, and you can find one in every community park which, though small, are dotted all over the city.
There is a lot of etiquette and superstition here that comes from their spiritual beliefs, and some of it may sound ridiculous to a European or American, bordering on paranoia. Some examples from Wikitravel which I, through personal experience, can confirm:
Some Taiwanese are superstitious about anything connected with dying – unlucky things should never be mentioned. One thing to note is that the number 4 (four, pronounced ‘si’) sounds like the word for death in Mandarin.
Do not write people’s names in red. This again has connotations of death. When writing someone’s name in English or another language, this is not a problem, but avoid writing Chinese names in red.
Do not whistle or ring a bell at night. This is an “invitation to ghosts”.
Do not point at cemeteries or graves. This means disrespect to the dead.
There are numerous taboos dictating that certain objects shouldn’t be given to others, often because the word for that object sounds like another unfortunate word:
Umbrellas, which in Mandarin sound the same as the word for “break up”. Friends should therefore never give friends umbrellas. Instead, friends will euphemistically “rent” each other umbrellas for a tiny amount ($1, for example).
Clocks. The phrase “to give a clock” (“song zhong”), in Mandarin, has the same sound as the word “to perform last rites.” If you do give someone a clock, the recipient may give you a coin in return to dispel the curse.
Shoes. Never ever offer shoes as a gift to old people, as it signifies sending them on their way to heaven. This is acceptable only if by mutual arrangement it is nominally sold, where the receiving party gives a small payment of about $10.
As with mainland China, symbols resembling backwards swastikas are commonly seen in homes and Buddhist temples. They are a Buddhist symbol and have no relationship to Nazism or anti-Semitism.
You get the idea. Also, I have found that the greeting culture is a mix of western and Chinese influences too! In America, if you’re passing a stranger and you make eye contact, you may give a nod upward, if anything. Here, a slight bow of the head is very common. If contact is more than just passing, they use a combination of Chinese and English: “Hello! Ni Hao (pronounced knee-how)!” And they often use “bye” or “bye-bye” at the end of an interaction, though I’ve discovered that this is, more often than not, about the only English they know, except for aspects of pop culture.
Pop culture here is also a mix of influences, but mostly a combination of western, Japanese, and Korean. You see it in the phones, which nearly everyone has, and more often than not, their faces are buried in it, usually playing one game or another, so I guess that doesn’t differ much from American youth, except for the difference in the language of the games.
Though Taiwanese love their traditions and their culture, and can be a proud people, they apparently do not like the color of their skin. There are offices everywhere that offer skin-whitening sessions. Michael Jackson would’ve loved it here, though the people here might’ve been a little freaked out about his nose, which I’m convinced proved he was an alien. Nevertheless, these a lot of Taiwanese have self-esteem issues, no doubt brought on by the media.
As you would expect, Karaoke is HUGE here, with Karaoke businesses all over the place, some reputable, some a little more shady. In Asia, most Karaoke establishments are private rooms that you rent for a few hours with your friends to drink and sing in. In the shadier establishments, women who work for that particular establishment will come up and offer you other forms of “entertainment” as well, since prostitution is now legal here! That’s right, guys! You pathetic little bastards can come over here and pay to get your rocks off in this country, at a fraction of the price you’d have to pay back home! Oh sure, the cost of the flight would make up for the difference in price, but hey…Asian girls! Need I say more?
As I mentioned in the previous blog, TV here is mostly Chinese, as is most of the print. But in both cases, anime and manga are massively popular here, thanks to the Japanese influence. You put some COMMON form of anime memorabilia, which can be found anywhere, between two ADULTS, and they’ll fight over it like two male cats fighting over a female in heat. Seriously, come over here and try it. Bring a Hello Kitty glass or backpack that you got as a kid and lay it on the ground around a bunch of grown-ups here, and stand back! Maybe not hours of entertainment, but at least a few minutes!
Music is a mix too. Lots of pop songs, both American and Asian. No rock here…they LOVE pop stars, though, so while I do hear plenty of American artists, I don’t hear any that I like, because pop = no talent. Nevertheless, the music has taken its toll on me. There are times when I want to drive a sharp implement into my brain because I caught myself whistling Wiz Khalifa’s “See you again”. That’s my greatest fear; that somehow, listening to crappy American music in Taiwan will make me retarded (P.C. People, get over yourselves), and leaving me looking like a combination of Stephen Hawking and a zombie on The Walking Dead.
Another thing about music. You can hear an odd thing coming from ringtones, school speakers, and garbage trucks here: Classical music. Among the annoying tunes I’ve gotten stuck in my head from these odd sources for music are Verdi’s “Spring” (you’ve heard it at weddings), Beethoven’s seemingly endless “Fur Elise”, and “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music. Lovely music in their own right, but absolutely maddening if you get it stuck in your head.
Sports, too, are big here, particularly the two American sports of professional baseball and basketball. Now, baseball’s been huge here for quite some time, as anyone over 30 might remember from watching the Little League World Series as a kid, and watching some team of 12 year olds from Taiwan beating the shit out of some 12 year olds from Davenport, Iowa. (Maybe that’s what happened! Those 12 year-olds from Davenport got their asses handed to them by some team from Taiwan, resulting in a trauma from which they never recovered from as adolescents. In response, to release the guilt and anger they felt from being violated on the baseball diamond by a score of 13-1, they formed Slipknot! Now it makes sense!)
Now, the NBA has surpassed it, and while every other Asian country has men and boys alike sporting gear from Liverpool FC, Manchester United, or Barcelona, Taiwan has men and boys alike sporting gear from the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Miami Heat, and the LA Lakers. They play basketball everywhere here too…not very well, though, from what I’ve seen. Sometimes I watch them playing, laying more bricks than a construction worker, all the while thinking they’re the next Jeremy Lin, and I’m thinking that even though I’m 44, out of shape, and a smoker for 18 years, that I could take them! But even so, you’ve got to admire their enthusiasm for the game, and with all the other culture shock we’re enduring, even watching an American sport I can’t stand suddenly seems comforting.
Lastly, there’s convenience stores. Yes, convenience stores. They. Are. Everywhere. There are, quite possibly, more convenience stores per capita than in any other country on Earth. There is one convenience store for every 2500 people. There are 4 major chains here: 7-11, Family Mart, Hi-Life, and OK Mart (known back in the states as Circle K). I walk 500 meters to catch the bus to go to work, and I pass two of them! I walked 700 meters to the bank to send money via Western Union, and I passed three of them! And there are always people inside! It’s bizarre, but it works…I know because I go there everyday too! Maybe it’s the air conditioning.
Whew! That was a long one! Hope you enjoyed it! I’ll be back soon, with more tales from Taiwan!
– For images of our journey, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston
5 July, 2015 – Taichung, Taiwan
It’s funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can’t get to me at all!
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me I’m free!
-”Let it go”, from the movie, Frozen, and one of the most popular American songs in Taiwan amongst children
In my last blog, I probably nearly bored you to death with a history and geography lesson about Taiwan. Now, I’ll get into more personal observations about the various aspects of living here. First up is…
There are many different sections of the Xitun (pronounced Zhi-tune) district. Some are nicer than others, and you can often find these differences within a couple of blocks of one another. Ours is a lower middle-class neighborhood at best, with narrow streets, a small park across the street with a small temple next to a basketball court (they LOVE the NBA here…and baseball, of course). During the day, street vendors set up shop up and down the street on the other side of the park, but we have a small vegetable market next door to our apartment complex, and a place that sells noodles right across the street, which is only wide enough for two scooters or one car to drive through without flinching. Our apartment building is run down on the outside, and we live on the 5th floor with no elevator. That may not sound too bad, but try going up 5 flights of stairs when it’s 95 degrees, with 60% humidity, and see how you fare. Sweaty, isn’t it?
The inside of our apartment, thankfully, looks nicer than the outside, but it’s small, about 300 square feet, and that includes the bathroom, which has a washer, sink, toilet, and what I’d call a “showering area”, as there is no curtain separating it from the rest of the bathroom. The main room, which is basically a bedroom with a separate (but not separated) area that has a desk and a mini-fridge, serves as bedroom, living room, and dining room all in one. It also comes with an air-conditioner, which is a MUST, and a smaller flat-screen TV with about 80 channels, most of which are in Chinese.
There are a few English channels, but not many: Nat Geo, Discovery, Animal Planet (English sometimes), and 5 different movie channels including HBO. There are three others, but they mostly have crap shows that we’d never be desperate enough to watch, like reality shows, various CSI shows, and How I Met Your Mother…ugh. They repeat the movies a lot, so what we do watch mostly is whatever I can download or watch online.
The commercials are almost entirely in Chinese, with many of them being for video games for your phone. And in most of them, someone (man, woman, or child) is whining, which seems to be the national pastime here. I swear, if you could get the International Olympic Committee to make whining an official Olympic sport, Taiwan would finally win something other than the Little League World Series…and they’d win gold, silver, and bronze every time!
But I digress. Despite the scraps of food and fruits and vegetables that scatter the streets after the morning street market closes at about 2pm, the neighborhood is somewhat clean, though I did encounter a scurrying rat on one evening walk back from work. Fortunately, I was (slightly) bigger than he was, and he turned and ran the other way. Our home is mostly clean too, though like most places, we do encounter spiders and ants, though the ants here are surprisingly tiny and FAST! The spiders aren’t any bigger than back home, though we’ve heard stories of people encountering Huntsman spiders in their homes (Seriously, look it up! Their size may literally scare the shit out of you!). We thankfully haven’t seen any of those, but during one shower, we did see the typical tropics-sized cockroach scurrying across our bathroom floor! Terrified us both! It was about 4 inches long and at least an inch wide. It took me stomping on it 3 times with my boot to ensure that it was dead! Bleh!!!!!! We cleaned RIGHT AFTER that! Otherwise, pretty clean, just small. But, it’s only about 8000 Taiwanese dollars per month, including electricity, which comes to about $260 American dollars per month! Try finding that price for ANYWHERE in America, with A/C, cable, a fridge, and free internet! I’m not gonna even wait for you to look because it doesn’t exist there! Plus, when I want to smoke, the roof is one floor up, from which you can look to the west to see the skyline of the western half of the city at night or look up into the night sky (depending on visibility that night). All in all, it’s not home, but I’ve been amazed at what we can adapt to since we arrived here.
I know skirted several subjects here, including the culture, shopping, weather, food, people, and money. Don’t worry, I will go in-depth on all of these subjects in the blogs to come. Until next time, stay cool, and try not to blow any fingers off on the 4th!
For images of our journey, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston
5 July, 2015 – Taichung, Taiwan
“Whose life is it? Get it? see it? feel it? eat it? spin it around
so I can spit in his face
I wanna leave without a trace
get out, I don’t want to die in this place”- Slipknot, “People = Shit”
Okay, so nothing in the above lyrics has anything to do with Taiwan, except for maybe the last line. Anyway, it’s the morning of July 5th here, but it’s the night of July 4th back in America, so Happy Birthday everyone back home. As you probably know, the Chinese invented fireworks, so without them, you’d be celebrating Independence Day with nothing but confetti. So, on behalf of my neighbors here in Taichung, you’re welcome.
Wait, was that sarcasm? Yes it was! I drank a Coke for breakfast, knowing I’d be writing this. It has temporarily brought back a manic sarcasm that will hopefully allow my snarkiness to come out in this article.
I figured I’d start out with an introduction to this country, then go from there. If you look on Google Maps or something, you’ll see that Taiwan is a small island nation, sitting about 110 miles off the coast of southeastern Mainland China. It’s formal name is the Republic of China. The current incarnation of this land was formed in the aftermath of World War Two. After Japan was defeated, China experienced a power vacuum. Chiang Kai-Shek’s so-called “democracy” faced off against Mao Tse-Tung’s communists. Obviously from what we see today in China, the communists prevailed, forcing Chiang Kai-Shek, and his like-minded followers, to abandon mainland China for the relative safety of Taiwan, where they established a separate nation there. Taiwan was not a democracy during most of the post-war years, but rather a somewhat benevolent military dictatorship.
Nevertheless, their economy grew thanks, in no small part, to the United States, who continued to support them in opposition to communist China, both militarily and economically, as part of the Cold War, in an attempt to prevent the expansion of communism. If you are anywhere near my age, you probably remember a time, when you were young, looking at the bottom of your Hot Wheels cars, or any other number of your toys, and seeing the phrase, “Made in Taiwan”. Well, that was one of our major trading partners during the 1970s, and Taiwan became an economic power in Asia during that time, rivaled only by Japan.
However, during the 1970s, America began reaching out to communist China, in attempt to develop a formal relationship with the massive country, and to further isolate the Soviet Union from the other major communist power in the world. Nixon established relations with them, followed by Jimmy Carter, who started the beginning of major trade with them. This signaled the end of formal relations between the United States and Taiwan, not to mention the United Nations, who shifted allegiances, and chose to recognize communist China as the legitimate government representing all the Chinese-speaking peoples (money talks).
China, in fact, considers Taiwan to be nothing more than another one of their provinces, though up until now, have chosen not to enforce that belief through occupation, out of fear that it would destroy relations with the rest of the world, which it would. Taiwan, for its part, refuses to acknowledge China’s view, vowing to remain an independent nation until ALL of China abandons communism and acknowledges the Republic of China (Taiwan, or ROC), as the legitimate nation of all China. This situation is likely to remain in stalemate for the foreseeable future, as China will not provoke the world (as mentioned before), and Taiwan does not have the military capability to seriously challenge China. Nevertheless, Taiwan has remained an economic power throughout east and southeast Asia, and has grown by leaps and bounds, economically, in the last 20 years. So there’s your fucking history lesson…you can wake up now, I’m done.
Taiwan itself is just under 14,000 square miles (almost 36,000 sq. km. for all non-American readers). For comparison, it’s about the size of the northwest part of Oregon, from Eugene, to the Columbia River, and from the Cascades to the Pacific Ocean. For everyone else, that’s about the size of Maryland and Delaware combined, or bigger than Belgium, but smaller than Holland, in terms of land. However, there are a LOT more people here, relative to its size, than any of the aforementioned locations; over 23 million to be exact, making this island the 17th most densely populated land on earth, with nearly 1700 people per square mile.
As for the city we live in, Taichung is a city of about 2.7 million, about the same size and population as Tampa, Florida, and a little higher in terms of population density. It has sister city agreements with numerous American cities, including New Haven, Connecticut, Tucson, Baton Rouge, Cheyenne, San Diego, Reno, Austin, and Tacoma. Taichung is broken up into numerous districts. The one we live in, Xitun District, is one of the largest and most populated districts in Taichung, and considered to be the shopping center of the city.
There are many aspects of my neighborhood, this district, and this city. I will start looking more deeply into those on my next blog. Hope I didn’t bore you too much.
– For images of our journey, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston
My husband and I moved to Taichung, Taiwan recently to find work teaching English. We didn’t have a safety net lined up. We just jumped off the edge of America without a parachute, and hoped it would all work out. Not the smartest idea, I know, but we wanted adventure before we were too old and complacent to try new things. It soon became clear that for two American tourists who had never traveled outside the United States, we hadn’t prepared for the massive culture shock ahead of us. At first the differences in our new environment seemed similar to my experiences growing up in Hawaii, but they quickly became vast and the adjustment to the adventure we seeked has been exciting, if not overwhelming.
The first thing we noticed were THE CONSTANT STARES, POINTING, AND WHISPERS. We’re a walking freak show in this part of the world. They are not shy about making you feel like you have two heads. I’m not sure if it’s just because we look different than most people here, or if it’s because Americans are in denial about how fat we all are. But if you bow and give them a friendly ‘Ni Hao’ (pronounced knee-how), they often smile and wave back.
They are just as obsessive about weight here as they are in America but they hate tanning. There are ‘skin whitening’ clinics everywhere. The harsh sun gives everyone a tan that no one wants. Other than video game phone app commercials, they advertise nothing on television but products to keep your skin as white and smooth as lotus petals.
The second thing we noticed was the drastic appetite changes we would have to accept. Familiar food can be one of the few comforts available when you’re neck-deep in chaotic change, but we had a hard time finding even the simple staples we had become accustomed to everyday in the U.S. like ketchup, beef, and chocolate. When we did find them, they were too expensive for our dwindling budget so we had to adjust quickly to what was available.
THE FIRST WORDS I LEARNED IN MANDARIN WERE CHICKEN, PORK, AND PLEASE. Luckily, we found a very cheap apartment near a local market where a delicious bowl of shrimp noodles and an endless variety of fruits and veggies were abundant everywhere we turned. Most food vendors close between 2:00pm and 5:00pm though so be prepared and fill up at lunch.
Chocolate is a tough one to locate but they do have bakeries that sell cheap donuts filled with red bean, custard and raisins. This makes losing all those packed on American pounds finally easy to get rid of. My husband had a harder time dealing with this so, with the added draw of convenience store air conditioning, he stuck to eating 7-11 hotdogs and Twix for the first month which was loads more expensive than street food. Luckily, OUR RENT IS ONE THIRD what it was back home which makes up for a lot! If you want to save up a nest egg, come to Taiwan and teach.
WHEN WE SAW A PIZZA HUT, I thought my husband was going to cry until he saw what it was made with. Instead of tomato sauce, they use miracle whip which ruined it for us both. The crust is like a cardboard cracker instead of soft buttered bread. They had a large variety of toppings but if you don’t like seafood with extra cheese, don’t bother. Then, one day we found ‘PIZZA ROCK’, opened by an American expat. Extra cheese, spicy tomato sauce, and pepperoni with garlic red vinaigrette dipping sauce on the side. This became my drug of choice though we can only afford to eat it once a month. I savor each bite like nothing else before, and even get a little teary eyed as the bus pulls away from the store front. Speaking of buses…
THE BUSES HERE HAVE LITTLE TO NO SCHEDULE. People just show up at the stops and hope they don’t melt in the constant humidity before their bus arrives. You should see their pained expressions and desperate hope fade when a bus appears on the horizon and it turns out to be yet another wrong number. But it’s a lot safer than driving or even riding a scooter here because…
THERE ARE NO RULES FOLLOWED ON THE STREETS OF TAIWAN. Don’t misunderstand me. There are street lights and crosswalks, it’s just that drivers and pedestrians simply choose to ignore them completely. This leads to many scooter and car accidents. I’ve been here for only two months and I’ve witnessed three collisions! As long as no one is gushing blood and nothing is broken, the victim just gets back on their scooter and hopes they don’t pass out from a concussion before they make it home. So, we’ll deal with the lack of public transit schedules as it does teach you patience, and makes you very grateful for the air conditioning on board. Believe me, you cannot live here with only an electric fan!
The constant humidity and heat would surely inspire the use of copious amounts of ice and flinging off of blankets – but not in Taiwan! IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO FIND ICE or even ice water in this country because Chinese medicine believes cold water is bad for your system. To top that off, TOP SHEETS ARE NO WHERE TO BE FOUND. Thick blanket are readily available though for lying in your own muck during the sticky Taiwanese nights. When our air conditioner broke recently, combined with the already painful metal springs jamming into my hips, I seriously considered flinging myself off the roof and onto the filthy streets five stories below. Which brings me to…
The filth. First off, everything is dusty because of the air pollution. But the worst thing is, there are NO PUBLIC TRASH CANS. Because we live in a cheap area near an outdoor public market, the rotting food and street garbage tends to pile up fast in my neighborhood which turns an average walk to the bus stop into a game of ‘watch out for the rancid’.
They do have garbage and recycling pick up a couple of times a week, which announces itself by playing classical music on speakers attached to back of the trucks. But you better get the sorting right! If you overlooked even one piece of crumpled paper or you forgot and tossed a can into your garbage bag, the recycling Nazi will throw a hissy fit. I always recycled back home in America, but my life still had meaning if I forgot an occasional can. I’m still learning Chinese, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard some nasty choice phrases directed at me for leaving an empty jelly jar in my trash. This hypocrisy combined with the lack of public trash receptacles can really bug the hell out of you. Oh, yeah – speaking of bugs…
ANTS, AND LIZARDS, AND ROACHES – OH, MY! I’ll just put it this way…the bugs here are so big, and aggressive that they’ll take your lunch money, and stuff you into a locker. It made me grateful I had grown up around the same breed on Oahu, and I’ve acclimated quicker then my husband has. I didn’t realize any man’s voice could reach that octave.
My husband did find a teaching job within a month, though I’m still looking, but it quickly became apparent how differently they treat their kids here. Beating children with sticks, ignoring them, insulting them, and shaming them about their weight and intelligence are common child rearing tactics here. There’s not much you can say or do to change it. It’s just part of the ingrained Asian culture in this part of the world, but it’s very hard to not swing the parents over your knee and show them just how it feels to be harassed and humiliated.
THE WATER IS UNDRINKABLE and makes your bathroom smell like rotten eggs. Taiwan is a volcanic island so there is a lot of sulfur in the water. We were spending a crazy amount of money on the bottled water industry, which I hate supporting, until my husband’s first paycheck when we could finally afford a Brita pitcher. But we still have to double filter the tap water if we don’t want to experience the symptoms of dysentery. Although, getting sick here is easier and cheaper to cure because…
YOU CAN BUY PRACTICALLY ANY DRUG without prescriptions here. Antibiotics and every painkiller you can think of is readily available, and cheap as hell at any corner drug store. I’ve always hated taking pills of any kind myself so it’s not much of a perk for me, but it would be paradise for all you American pill poppers back home! Prostitution is also legal here! It’s quite a relaxed contradiction considering…
THE BUREAUCRATIC BULLSHIT IS ENDLESS IN TAIWAN. I won’t go into detail but we’ve had so many problems with government policies surrounding foreigners that it sometimes feels like we’re living under Putin’s rule. If you want more details about how difficult it is to acquire a work and residency permit here, just check out ‘Diary of a mad expat: entry 15’ below. Despite all this…
MOVING HERE HAS MADE US MORE CAPABLE, RESOURCEFUL, AND AMBITIOUS than we’ve ever had to be in our lives. I’m pretty sure that would have happened no matter where we moved, because you can get lazy living in America. The everyday annoyances hold little weight compared to how lucky we feel to be seeing the world. Travel is always a life changing experience, and if you embrace things as an adventure instead of an ordeal, a little struggle can go a long way in growing your soul and character into what they were always meant to be.
If you’d like to know more in-depth detail about Taiwanese culture, like the superstitions, music, sports, and karaoke, check out my husband’s latest blogs on the subject. Hope you enjoy it!