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

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TAIWANESE SUPERSTITIONS AND CULTURE: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 18

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


Okay! Up next on our experiences in Taiwan…

Culture

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.

Buddha is so cuddly:)
Buddha is so cuddly:)

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:

Superstitions-explanations1

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.

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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.

I didn't die...I move to Taiwan.
I didn’t die…I move to Taiwan.

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?

Taiwan! The home of happy whores!
Taiwan! The home of happy whores!

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!

Obsess much?
Obsess much?

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.

PLEASE...MAKE...IT...STOP!
PLEASE…MAKE…IT…STOP!

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!)

American Georgetown University men's basketball team and China's Bayi men's basketball team fight during a friendly game at Beijing Olympic Basketball Arena

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.

It's like a church in Taiwan.
It’s like a church in Taiwan.

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

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

VIETNAM: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 9

Observations of Vietnam…get ready for the snark!:)

9 April – 2 May, pt. 2: Old Quarter, Hanoi

[as Walter Cronkite] “I just want to begin by saying to Roosevelt E. Roosevelt, what it is, what it shall be, what it was. The weather out there today is hot and shitty with continued hot and shitty in the afternoon. Tomorrow a chance of continued crappy with a pissy weather front coming down from the north. Basically, it’s hotter than a snake’s ass in a wagon rut.”
Robin Williams, as Adrian Cronauer, Good Morning, Vietnam

So let’s see, I covered our lovely accommodations, which improved only slightly a week or so into it, when they moved us up one floor, into a slightly better room. Still had the gnats though, which was okay. We needed some new friends…Timmy didn’t make it. Still, we had the whole outside world to explore! The people, the men, the women, the language, the sights, the smells, the sounds, the traffic, the weather, the hotel staff, the food, the shops, the currency, the culture!!!! Turns out that, for the most part, the only good thing about this place was it gave me a lot of material to be a sarcastic smart ass for this blog! So in that sense, thank you, Hanoi! Wow, look at all that material up there, three sentences back! Where to begin….

Buddhist Monastery
Buddhist Monastery

The Culture

OK, I’m getting the hard one out-of-the-way first. The culture is, to say the least, difficult to explain, and almost as hard to grasp. Most of their oldest traditions are based on Buddhist or local religious customs. I’ve seen a lot of hotels and other shops with little shrines just inside the door, where the workers or owners drop to their knees and pay homage. Just as common in the smaller shops and cafes (almost as numerous as the gnats), is burning fake money as an offering. This is usually done just shortly before or after opening or closing, in a metal container, out on the street curb. The smell of burning paper is one of the few things I came to like here for two reasons: 1] It reminds me of campfires, and 2] It drowns out the other smells, but more on that later.

There is of course, the customary bowing, which I generally return, as long as it’s someone I like or I’m in a good mood and feeling respectful, which at times was harder to do than it sounds, but most of the time I’m courteous, certainly more so than most people I saw. I even made a point to bow and step aside on narrow sidewalks where there was only room for one person to go through, particularly when it was someone older.

The Shops

There are tiny little shops everywhere, even shops on the sidewalks, selling various convenience store items in a couple of glass cases with wheels. Cigarettes are insanely cheap here ($1/pack at most), and almost ALL of the men smoke. We saw very few women doing so, but we’ve been told that more of them smoke when drinking, again, an occurrence we didn’t see much of. There are small markets strewn all over the Old Quarter, selling similar merchandise to what we saw in markets in Hong Kong. One difference though: Shoes. There are places to buy shoes everywhere, ridiculous numbers of them. They mostly sell either flip-flops, children’s shoes, or the most frequent, heels. Really. High. Heels. They’re usually 3-6 inches, and when women aren’t working, they’re usually wearing these. Shoes are an apparent obsession amongst Vietnamese women, and they all wear heels that any woman in America would be envious of. Personally, the heels made it difficult for me to know whether they were just dressed up for a night out, or if they were prostitutes, but that’s going into the subject of women here, so I’ll come back to that later.

The really bad one is a roaming street vendor. He or she is usually older, and either walking or cycling down the streets hawking shirts, hand fans, or shoe repair, just to provide a few examples. They are tenacious. At first, we tried being nice and polite, saying no while smiling. But early on, that wasn’t working. If we were sitting, we’d have to get up. If we were standing, we’d start walking, and they’d follow us, and keep trying to sell to us. On one occasion early on, a man called to me and pointed to my shoe. While I stood there, saying no, he grabbed my fucking foot and wouldn’t let go! I finally had to lurch my leg away from him to get away. That one really began my loathing of this place. Look, I know everyone here is poor and needs to find a way to make money. But I’m not going to pay for a physical assault (Yes sir, please repair my brand new shoe that doesn’t have anything wrong with it, oh and could you get all handsy with me too? That’s how I like it! Yeah, repair that shoe! Harder! Harder!). After that, we learned that if someone is approaching you to sell something, keep walking, show them the hand, and say no, without making eye contact. Deviate from that method, and they might get you or at the very least, persist in their sales pitch which we couldn’t understand anyway.

The Weather

See that quote up at the top of this article? That summed up most of our time here. There were some days that were cooler, in the high 70s, but even then, the humidity is insane!!!! It rarely dips below 50%, and is usually above 70%. Put that together with the fact that right now it’s 11am here, and it’s 90 degrees (not Celsius, for you non-American readers), and the humidity is currently at 70%. Combine that with my furry girth, and I’m flop-sweating my way through the Old Quarter. This place does get rain, usually at night, but we haven’t seen much rain, except for one really impressive night. A couple of weeks ago, a big thunderstorm rolled through Hanoi, and we got one hell of a light show, combined with a tropical downpour that made our heavy rains in Oregon look like a shower with bad water pressure.

More to come next entry!

– For images of our trip, 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.

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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!

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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.

BLISS!
BLISS!

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.

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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