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

Taiwan: Sights, smells, and sounds-Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 20

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

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Welcome back, everyone! Today, I thought I’d go through the sights, sounds, and smells of Taiwan in general, and Taichung specifically. So let’s get started!

The Sights

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.

The best view we could find in Hsinchu. A lovely post apocalyptic landscape, isn't it?
The best view we could find in Hsinchu. A lovely post apocalyptic landscape, isn’t it?

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?

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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.

This sign was in our hotel room in Taoyuan. Made us a little paranoid because you really shouldn't have to point this out.
This sign was in our hotel room in Taoyuan. Made us a little paranoid because you really shouldn’t have to point this out.

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.

Is that an 8.0 or did I drink too much coffee again?
Is that an 8.0 or did I drink too much coffee again?

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.

Hunt my little minion...hunt!
Hunt my little minion…hunt!

The Smells

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?

Hmmm...smells like ass flavored ass.
Hmmm…smells like ass flavored ass.

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.

The Sounds

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.

Don't cow with f*ck!
Don’t cow with f*ck!

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.

My condolences to you and your family...I'll see you in court.
My condolences to you and your family…I’ll see you in court.

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.

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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.

Just rub some dirt on it and be on your way.
Just rub some dirt on it and be on your way.

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.

"Oh, yeah baby! I get off on you being lost"
“Oh, yeah baby! I get off on you being lost”

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

The vast differences between America and Taiwan and adapting to culture shock.

View from our roof in Taichung
View from our roof in Taichung

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.

WTF are you?!
WTF are you?!

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.

Okay, you're not a freak. I can relax now.
Okay, you’re not a freak. I can relax now.

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.

Can you make my face look like this, please?
Can you make my face look like this, please?

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.

You will be mine, oh yes, you will be mine.
You will be mine, oh yes, you will be mine.

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.

I could die happy, right now!
I could die happy, right now!

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…

Oh, God, please don't let me pee my pants before the bus gets here!
Oh, God, please don’t let me pee my pants before the bus gets here!

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…

It's all good. I'll just wrap my head wound up in my tee-shirt and be on my way.
It’s all good. I’ll just wrap my head wound up in my tee-shirt and be on my way.

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!

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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…

eww...Eww...EWW!
eww…Eww…EWW!

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…

Bring it on human! I'll give you a noogie you won't soon forget!
Bring it on human! I’ll give you a noogie you won’t soon forget!

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.

There's a reason this kid looks so miserable.
There’s a reason this kid looks so miserable.

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.

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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…

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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…

Taiwanese moon
Taiwanese moon

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!

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

HANOI, VIETNAM: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 10

9 April – 2 May, pt. 3: Thaison Palace Hotel, Old Quarter, Hanoi

Adrian Cronauer: Here’s a little advice: Never eat in a Vietnamese restaurant next to a pound.

Robin Williams, as Adrian Cronauer, Good Morning, Vietnam

I know you’ve been waiting to read more about everything that’s fucked up with this country and laugh at my snarky misery, so here we go!

The Currency

OK, get ready to laugh. The currency in Vietnam is called the Dong. Go ahead, get it out, I’ll wait…………..OK, done? Moving on. One American dollar is worth about 21,000 dong. If you have about 50 dollars, that’s one million…that’s a lot of dong! It would probably go further, if you ate the local cuisine, especially the street food, but….

The Food

Nearly every food travel show touts Vietnamese food as some of the best, kind of second tier behind Thailand, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Spain, France, and Italy. From my experience, I say BULLSHIT! We tried, we REALLY tried at first! We had some street food just across the street from our hotel our first full day here that was pretty good. There was rice noodles, broth, a variety of greens, chicken, and tofu. I didn’t really like the tofu, but everything else was pretty good! And they kept feeding us until we stood up to pay, and it was only about $5 for the two of us. One thing to know about eating at these street food stalls. The chairs are plastic stools that are about the size of what you’d expect in a preschool. It doesn’t even make sense for Vietnamese to be sitting in these chairs even though they’re all smaller than us. But still the food was alright. On another night, we had fried rice and what I can only describe as smoked water buffalo jerky, that our waiter was certain I wouldn’t like…but I did! Sure shocked the hell out of him! And we both liked the national dish, Pho (pronounced like the 1st two letters in “fuck”). It’s basically rice noodles in a beef or chicken broth, topped with assorted greens like mint, lemon grass , and parsley. But other than that, it was a series of bad experiences, topped off with when we went to an indoor restaurant down the street. They had burgers on the menu! Beef or chicken. Unfortunately, they told us that they were out of beef and chicken (again, a common occurrence). So my wife ordered what was called Vietnamese Spring Rolls. When they showed up, they smelled funny…like swamp ass. My wife, who’s eaten with Filipinos in Hawaii, took a bite, already suspecting what that bite confirmed it to be: Dog. Fucking dog! After that, we only ate foods that we were previously familiar with.

We went to a KFC, but their version was comparatively bland, surprisingly. They had a fast food burger chain here called Lotteria; tasted like fast food, though my wife liked their Teriyaki burger. Otherwise, we stuck to crap we could get at the grocery store and 3 restaurants. At the grocery store, we mostly got chips (they have Pringle’s here), chocolate (Kit Kat, Snicker’s, M&Ms are about the only familiar versions), soft drinks (most of the Coke brands), and bottled water (you can shower and brush your teeth with the tap water, but nothing else, unless you want to be sick in bed for a week, or worse. Dysentery is not your friend!). As for the other three, I’ll take them one at a time, in the order in which we visited them during the day.

The AB Restaurant: They offered many different things, but the ones we regularly went for were an American steak for $9 (better than any steak I ever had in America), spaghetti for about $7 (again better than any pasta we had in America), a Caesar salad for $4 (big enough to be a meal by itself, and better than most salads you can find in America) and big plate of fries for about $2. For meals, this was about the only place we ate meals at, unless we ordered room service, which we did a lot of just to have SOME variety.
Kem Ti Amo: The name combines Italian (Ti Amo means I love you) and Vietnamese (Kem means Ice Cream). The place is owned by a couple of French guys, but staffed by numerous cute Vietnamese girls who were all very nice to us, probably because we came there so often during our stay. Best. Chocolate. Ice. Cream. Ever. It was dark and rich, like eating Denzel Washington! There were other good flavors there too, but I never strayed too far from the chocolate. It was like an old-fashioned ice cream shop, with a wide variety of flavors and ways to have them. Glass dish, waffle cone, sundaes, shakes – you name it, they had it. Wonderful!


Shi Sha Bar: Shi Sha refers to tobacco with flavoring that you can smoke out of a hookah, but we never tried that. We mostly went there to drink and smoke. I usually had a Tiger beer, probably the best Vietnamese beer out there, though probably not the cheapest. My wife found here perhaps the only place in the Old Quarter that could do a decent Long Island Ice Tea. After various traumatic tourism experiences in this town, we frequented this place probably more than we should’ve, but it worked wonders on our outlook on life!

So that’s it for food and money. Tomorrow, I’ll get into the sights, sounds, and smells of this city. It won’t be pleasant.
– 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

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