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…

Our Neighborhood

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.

Even the puppets look confused.
Even the puppets look confused.

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!

I'm just gonna burn the house down now.
I’m just gonna burn the house down now.

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.

Smoking central on our rooftop.
Smoking central on our rooftop.

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

NORTH POINT, HONG KONG: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 5

3 April – 5 April, pt. 1: City Garden Hotel, North Point, Hong Kong

The next few days sealed the deal for me and Hong Kong. We explored so many places, but we didn’t buy much. I did buy my wife a new camera, and we bought some small items to send to friends back home. For me, it was all about the atmosphere of the place, the food, and the people.


The Atmosphere

All of Central Hong Kong is very cosmopolitan, but in different ways. Downtown, in the business district, everything looks rich. The clothing, the buildings, the cars, the stores; it looks like Rodeo Drive with skyscrapers. North Point is different. North Point looks middle class, with the possible exception of the cars. The clothes are middle class; they’re not shabbily dressed; their clothes just didn’t cost $2000. Almost every building is for housing. The bottom floor might still contain a shop or two, but above that, it’s all apartments. Those 25-story buildings make up the majority of Hong Kong’s skyline. I did the math on it; based on the apartment buildings I could see within one block of our hotel, I estimated that there were at least 7000-10,000 people living within one block of us. And yet, it didn’t feel overcrowded anywhere we went. It was shocking paradox. It should have felt like a crazy tumultuous zoo, with everyone going everywhere in some form of organized chaos. But instead, it felt like a sanctuary. It made you feel small, in a good way, as if the city around you would swallow you whole and keep you someplace warm and inviting. You can lose yourself in its streets, its beeping crosswalks, its taxis and buses, its hustle and bustle, and its rhythmic cacophony of sound. Sometimes, I literally did get lost, but I always found my way back (thank you, sense of direction). You would have thought that someone who had spent the majority of their adult life in a metropolitan area of 250,000 would be overwhelmed by all this. But to me, it was paradise on concrete!


The Food

Apart from the overrated, overpriced food at the hotel, and McDonald’s and KFC, the food here is wonderful. We probably could’ve been more experimental and brave with our choices, but did try some new things. To start with, you can even find good food or snacks at the Circle K’s and 7-11’s here, something you can’t say about convenience stores in America. But the big one for me was roast suckling pig! We just picked a restaurant in the area that had it and took a taxi there, which was about $3. It was sooooo worth it! I know this was one of the best places for suckling pig in North Point, but certainly not the best rated suckling pig in Hong Kong.


Nevertheless…absolute bliss! Mischa took one of the few pictures of me in existence of me looking truly content. There was nothing special about this restaurant: it looked like any number of Chinese restaurants or diners you might find in America. But the food was so much better. It was like that for most places in Hong Kong. It’s hard to make a mistake with where to go to eat, once you get outside your hotel. Simply walk down the street until you find a place that looks good and go in. A good clue is if people are lined up outside, waiting to go in, which we saw quite often.

Fried pork skin and chicken fried rice
Fried pork skin and chicken fried rice

Another thing: coffee. It’s black. Very black. They do have creamer there, but it’s just like half and half. No flavored creamers there. You can add sugar, but that’s it for non-artificial sweeteners. Second thing – learn to like tea. If you can, you’re golden here. There’s no shortage of teas here, and once you acquire a taste for it, you’ll find that they’re all quite good. All in all, it’s hard to go wrong with food here.

The People

Now this one is tricky, as we discovered in hindsight from our driver that took us back to the airport. There are, for the most part, two distinct groups of people who live in Hong Kong: Native Hong Kongers (for lack of a better term), and Chinese, meaning mainland Chinese. Now the descriptions I’m going to give for both of these groups is a paraphrasing of our driver’s comments, but they are comments which, after careful reflection, I agree with. People who are from Hong Kong are generally quiet, shy, and just want to live their lives in this beautiful city. They can be hard to get to know, but they are still generally polite. What really starts to open them up are attempts to speak to them in Chinese, preferably Cantonese, but Mandarin coming from a white guy works too. For example, the lady at the Circle K saw me every day, usually buying cigarettes, but sometimes other things as well. At some point, I remembered my Chinese lessons from the movie, Rush Hour, and after paying for my purchases said, in my best Mandarin, “Xie, xie.” It wasn’t Cantonese, the primary language in Hong Kong, but still, you should’ve seen her face light up! Being able to have that effect on someone, with just two words, made my day, probably my entire week. Later on, I learned that I was saying thank you in Mandarin, and that the proper way to say it in Cantonese is, “m’goi”. Nevertheless, every time I said, “Xie, xie” to anyone in Hong Kong, it made them so happy, just that I was trying. THAT is how Hong Kong people are.


On the other hand, the Chinese, especially from the perspective of Hong Kongers, are rude, ill mannered, generally superficial parasites. Their exploding middle class comes to Hong Kong to buy up properties, which drives housing costs up. They come there to buy up everything they cannot get in China, or better quality versions of what they can get in China. They treat Hong Kong like a giant Costco, buying everything in bulk, then going home. They are demanding, and while few Hong Kongers spit or litter, the Chinese do it anytime they can get away with it (Hong Kong has laws against littering and spitting in most public places…were those laws there before or after the Chinese started coming in droves?). Most people from Hong Kong find them disgusting, and would gladly welcome British influence back over their being a Semi-Autonomous Region of communist China. Hell, one of their parks still has a statue honoring King George VI!!! Maybe there is a different view of the Chinese, but those that I spoke with from Hong Kong, DO NOT like them.

One last observation about the people of Hong Kong. They do have one thing in common with the Chinese: Neither of them like the Japanese…at all. One day, my wife was wearing a vintage looking Star Wars movie poster shirt, that was in Japanese. Everyone was staring and glaring at her. I don’t think she’s worn it since.

So that lovely little combination of Hong Kong culture, food, and people, combined to make this little vacation of ours such a happy one. I never thought I could live in a city this size, but after just 2 or 3 days, I would’ve fucked someone to stay there permanently. And we still hadn’t really seen anything yet! But we’d squeeze in some sightseeing soon.
– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston