Taiwan: Summing up the culture, what we’ll miss about America, and our plans for the future – Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 23

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

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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.

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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).

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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

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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.

Traveling makes me feel like Indiana Jones!
Traveling makes me feel like Indiana Jones!

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

Taoyuan, Hsinchu, and Taichung, TAIWAN: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 14

Our experiences so far in Taiwan from my Husband Richard…

3 May to 13 May, 2015 – Taoyuan, Hsinchu, and Taichung, Taiwan

At the time I’m writing this, it’s June 1st. A lot has happened, most of it not really funny enough to be snarky and sarcastic about. This has been a difficult month, no two ways about it. My wife and I have come to the brink of economic destitution, and while it’s not over yet, it is looking better.

We landed in Taiwan on the 3rd. A thankfully uneventful flight from Hong Kong, but I wished we could’ve stayed, but there were too many opportunities in Taiwan to take the risk. Vietnam had been a waste of time and money, and by the time we left, paying for the flight to Taiwan, we were getting down there, money-wise. I just couldn’t put my wife in a hostel – just didn’t feel safe enough to me – so I had to find some decent hotel for as low a price as possible. Fortunately, we found one for a little over $40 a night. The bedroom wasn’t much, but the bathroom was beautiful and spacious. They even gave us a free upgrade on our last night there.

Meanwhile, I was exploring job options in the area, but nothing had worked out. There were a few schools, but they were NOT good. One wanted me to start the same day, without a contract, in a run down school where the American who showed us around referred to the children I was to teach as “dumb”, and “little shits”. NOT encouraging…so I held out for another one that I was to interview for the following week.

Meanwhile, we were running out of options. I set us up to check out of this hotel on the 8th, to one about the same price, but closer to the airport and the high-speed rail station. That one was more like a stereotypical hotel, but still about the same price. It felt safe there, and it felt familiar, and we needed this now, when our situation was getting scary. I had a couple of interviews set up the following week in cities south of here, which meant we only stayed here for a couple of days, before moving on to Hsinchu. By the 10th, we checked out and headed to Hsinchu on the slow train because it was cheaper. We made it, but it was a fucking pain in the ass to take the regular trains. Unlike HSR (high-speed rail), nothing is in English, so we were using deduction and luck to determine what the right train was, while toting two laptop bags, two rolling carry-ons, and a 50-pound suitcase in the sweltering heat. Not fun. Nevertheless, we made it to Hsinchu, to an even cheaper hotel to stay until Wednesday the 13th. During that time there, I finally got a job in Taichung to start the following week. Still, we were getting even lower on money, and running out of time.

At this point, I should go back and say a few things about our experiences during our first 10 days here. Because of our money situation, we only ate what we could get at either grocery or convenience stores, both of which are cheaper than eating in restaurants, and none of our hotels were located near where there was street food. However, every hotel we stayed in did have a free breakfast. Unfortunately, half of them served only Chinese breakfasts, which my wife loved but I cannot do yet.

Anyway, we left Hsinchu on Wednesday the 13th, taking the HSR this time (with ALL of our luggage), and it went infinitely more smooth this time. We got settled into the Grand Hotel, just a 10 minute walk from the school I’d be working at. We were staying there, as it turned out, from Wednesday the 13th until Sunday the 17th…just two weeks ago. Fortunately, through making reservations on hotels.com, I’d only have to pay for one of those nights in Taichung; the rest we’d get for free. On Thursday the 14th, I’d be sitting in on some classes, to get a feel for it, and to talk to the person running the school, Crystal, who will feature prominently in the next few blogs. For now, things are only beginning to improve, and financially, things were going to get worse before they got better.

At this time, there have been countless people, back home, in Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Taiwan, who have helped us in countless ways. I’m not going to name names here, but to each and every one of you (you know who you are), we say “thank you”. You may never know how important your efforts were to us getting where we are going now, but we do, so thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.

Until next time…

– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston

THE FOOD AND MARKETS OF NORTH POINT, HONG KONG: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 4

2 April, pt. 2: City Garden Hotel, North Point, Hong Kong

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After that unforgettable early morning experience, I went for a walk around this massive city block, which was about the size of 3 of our city blocks back home. I saw so many shops, restaurants, bakeries, all in various stages of preparing to open for the day. The morning light was growing, and I began to see more people in the street. Away from that beautiful square, I got more of a feeling of the city. The sights and smells left me wide awake, and my eyes and my nostrils attempted to take in every bit of information. One moment, it’s bread, than coffee and tea, then it’s meat coming from some restaurant’s exhaust port; the next, pungent fumes coming from the city’s sewer system, up through the manhole covers. Bad and good alike, it was exhilarating, like that first cup of morning coffee. It was bordering on sensory overload, so I headed back to the hotel.

Once my wife woke, we went down to the breakfast buffet, which was extravagant, but expensive. We only went there twice – it just wasn’t quite worth the price. We started to slowly explore our new neighborhood together. Over the next few days, I bravely jumped in, going out and exploring in a 500 meter radius from our hotel whenever I could. We explored the nooks and crannies of the neighborhood, going into the little malls around and beneath the streets. We went up to the nearest subway station and got familiar with Hong Kong’s MRT (Mass Rapid Transit). It is a very efficient and inexpensive way of getting around the city, no matter where or how far you need to go. Later on in our stay, I was able to go from Sha Tin, in the New Territories, back to North Point in 45 minutes. That’s a about the same amount of time as it would be to take a taxi that same distance, but for about 1/10th the price.

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We went to several street markets, which were filled with vendors selling clothes, fruits and vegetables, meats of every kind, knock-off watches, handbags, jewelry, and touristy trinkets. The markets would take up streets of every size and width, and go on for several blocks.

We had breakfast at a McDonald’s, which was conveniently located right next to the subway station, but looked much nicer and had better food quality than the McDonald’s in America. There was also a KFC across the way, which again had better food. I tried a bucket there that had all white meat popcorn chicken, with a spicy country gravy that most Americans are familiar with, covering a steamy pile of sticky rice. Best food I’ve ever had at a KFC.

But going back to that first day, that evening we went to YUE, the Michelin starred restaurant located on the 2nd floor of the hotel. My wife had sweet and sour pork, which she liked, but didn’t think it was Michelin star worthy. I had roasted pork belly, only because they were out of roasted suckling pig, a theme you will see repeated later in our journey. It was okay, the presentation was nice, and it tasted good, but Michelin star? No. If Anthony Bourdain had film this, it would have wound up on the cutting room floor.

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So, the hotel had overrated, overpriced food. That was the last bad experience we’d have at this hotel. The rest of our stay there only increased my love for this neighborhood, its people, its food, and its feel. But that’s another story…
-For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston

HONG KONG: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 3

2 April, pt 1: City Garden Hotel, North Point, Hong Kong

On our way to Asia!
On our way to Asia!

After that long flight, and some problems at our new hotel that first night, we weren’t feeling very optimistic about our stay as we got ready for bed. I think we were asleep by 9pm; as a result, I woke up at about 5 or 5:30 the next morning, 2 April: my birthday. I took the elevator from our 15th floor room, down to the massive lobby, and out the front door into the warm, moist morning air. I wanted a cigarette, so I walked next door to the 7-11. Hong Kong has 7-11’s and Circle K’s everywhere. There’s no shortage of them, though I quickly found that cigarettes cost more here. I bought a pack of Winstons (sorry, no American Spirits here), some water, and walked back to the front of the hotel to smoke and take in early morning on the other side of the world. The air smelled different here. It wasn’t bad; it was warm, there was the hint of garbage, but above all of that it smelled – floral. Across the street was a square, filled with trees, bushes, a fountain, walking paths, and a children’s playground. Around the entire square in a half-square formation were six 25-story apartment buildings, filled with residents of Hong Kong, still sleeping or just getting up, getting ready for work, a warm morning fog partially obscuring the highest floors. Hardly anyone was out on the street, but nearly every car that was parked along the streets were high-end cars or Mini-Coopers. I saw a Ferrari, Mercedes, BMW, Porsche, and a Fiat. Only the public or city vehicles were Japanese or Korean (Toyota, Hyundai, Mazda, etc.). I was what I heard first, however, that caught my attention the most.

Before I came here, I had of course told my boss what we were going to be doing. He had been to Thailand once, and was struck by how different the BIRDS sound there, and suggested to me that I pay attention to that. I kind of thought he was overplaying this particular characteristic of an exotic Asian country…until I quieted my mind, looked across the street into that square and listened to the early morning calls of the birds in trees there, filling the air with a sweet, foreign sound. It was a beautiful isolation. Sure, there were a few people walking down the sidewalks as the night sky slowly filled with the morning light, but in that moment, I felt completely and exquisitely alone; it was just me and that symphony of birds, and I understood what my boss was talking about. It was a private moment, filled with contentment and bliss. It was only a moment, but it was all mine. Thus began my man-crush on Hong Kong, that over the next week would become love.
-For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston