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

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HANOI, VIETNAM: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 12

9 April – 2 May, pt. 5: Thaison Palace Hotel, Old Quarter, Hanoi

Adrian Cronauer: Mayday! Mayday! Dragon-Lady with incredible figure at 11 o’clock! Stop the car.
Edward Garlick: I can’t do that, sir.
Adrian Cronauer: Aw, Edward, you don’t understand. I’ve been on a small Greek island with a lot of women who look like Zorba, I never thought I’d find women attractive ever again. And now that I do, you won’t even turn the car around? Thanks a lot.
Edward Garlick: You have a very important meeting with the top brass…
Adrian Cronauer: -Oh, there she is again! How did she get ahead of us?
Edward Garlick: That’s another person, sir.
Adrian Cronauer: She’s beautiful and quick. Speed up, check her stamina. Oh my God, they’re quick, they’re fast, and small. Ha, ha, ha, ha! I feel like a fox in a chicken coop!

Robin Williams, as Adrian Cronauer in “Good Morning, Vietnam”

The People and the language of this country are, well, interesting. Let’s get started,

The People
In general terms, the people are friendly, but they have manners that could be construed by westerners, including myself because I never got used to it, as rude or even downright disgusting, especially with the men. Street peddlers can be aggressive and annoying, but some people we met were extremely generous. No one here has apparently ever heard of the term “personal space”. They love to touch you, sometimes inappropriately. They are not aware that from our perspective, there are boundaries. It seems like a blindingly obvious social rule to us, but it doesn’t exist to them! Like every member of the human race, they are judgmental, and they prefer to pass judgment on foreigners in their own language.

The Language
Make up a bunch of words that rhyme with “gong” and “home”. Now, do that while simultaneously imitating the sounds of a cat in heat. That’s what it sounds like to most Americans. We tried learning the language to a certain point, but once we realized we weren’t staying, we kind of gave it up. We found that saying “thank you”, like in Hong Kong, brought smiles to the locals, especially the woman I buy cigarettes from. We also learned to say, “no problem”, “sorry”, “hello”, and “excuse me”. I think we did pretty well most of the time, because we mostly got that smile and a bow back from people. We also found that the younger the people were, the more inclined they were to want to speak and learn English. I even taught some of the hotel staff some of our more “colorful” metaphors.

The Hotel Staff and Guests
We made a lot of friends in this hotel – some fellow guests, but mostly the staff, many of whom my wife became Facebook friends with. The guests were more hit and miss. There was a big ugly man from Austria that had a Vietnamese woman for a wife. She seemed VERY submissive, and he was just a misogynistic prick, blatantly checking out every attractive woman he saw. And he constantly complained, loudly, about what was wrong with this place. I kind of get it, but at some point, just shut up and leave! Then there was the hippie expat who now lived in Baja. He was a very nice guy, but damn, he could not stop talking! He could have you trapped in a conversation for over an hour without getting a word in edge wise!

Almost everyone on the staff was friendly, nice, and generous. The housekeeping staff were shy, but polite for the most part. One of them looked a little like a pissed off Himalayan cat, but when she’d leave after she was done with her shift, having already changed out of her uniform…damn, she had a body on her! The girls at the reception desk were all so sweet to both of us, and just beautiful. One of them could’ve EASILY been a model had she lived in America. Another one felt close enough to me to cry in front of me over a man she loved living in Malaysia, but whom her family didn’t approve of. They are both on Facebook with my wife, as is one of the doormen, who gave my wife a Buddhist beaded bracelet. He was a sweet kid (21 y.o.), as was our closest friend here. His real name is Phu, which in Vietnamese translates to “rich”, hence his Anglicized name, “Richie”. We always spoke at night, smoking, sometimes having a beer or two. If you’ve been on my wife’s Facebook page, you probably saw a video of him and me singing. She also has pictures of him with his girlfriend. Together, they are so adorable, had we had the money, we would’ve adopted them! They look cute enough to be in a commercial for the ASPCA, without the sad Sarah McLachlan song.

 

But one guy heavily contributed to us hating this place. His name is Joe, the one that greeted us when we checked in here. Picture the stereotypical snake-like brother-in-law, who works as a used car salesman. That was Joe. He was not meant to be a day manager for a hotel. This place also runs tours, and he was more concerned about that, than taking care of the issues in this dilapidated hotel. Hotel staff are supposed to be about customer service, and as someone who has worked in customer service for a long time, I know what that’s supposed to look like…and it doesn’t look like him. He likes money WAY more than he likes people. In fact, I’m not too sure if he cares about his guests at all, unless it’s somehow profitable for him to do so. If you are ever in this part of the world, stay away from this hotel!

The Men
Men here are incredibly lazy, with the exception of those previously mentioned on the hotel staff. I see tons of them, spending the entire day, sitting in front of cafes, drinking tea, coffee, or beer, and smoking with other guys, doing nothing, while their wife works, takes care of the kids, cooks and cleans. They are rude; they love blowing snot-rockets wherever it strikes them, and based on what I saw, they may have invented “man-spreading”. To the few that have jobs, I apologize for this generalization. But to the rest of them, get off your lazy fucking ass and help your wife out for a change! I will give them one thing though. Unlike America, there is NO rape culture here. In the household, and in most businesses, the woman is so in charge, I don’t think it ever crosses their male minds. They know most of their wives could take them in a fight, or belittle them to the point where they’d be rocking back and forth, curled up in the fetal position if they tried. Still they have access to all the money, whether they made it or not, because all laws here still favor the man in terms of divorce and finances. So all the women here need to do is kill their lazy-ass husbands and make it look like an accident!

The Women
Now we’ve seen women, AND men, of all shapes and sizes here. We’ve seen a few bigger girls, even a one or two that were taller than us! But if I could sum up the women here in two words it would be: stunningly beautiful. That’s not just a description of them physically, though. Yes, most of them are 5-feet, 6-inches, or shorter, slender build, but some are just slim all the way down, but most, to put it delicately, have some curves (guys, you hopefully know what I’m alluding to). But their personalities, once to talk to them for any length of time, are beautiful too. Speaking from a platonic perspective, they are sweet, soft-spoken, and very polite. And their manner of dress is stunning, more formal than our own, and meant to accentuate the female form. It is impossible not to be enchanted by them, so long as you only LOOK, if you’re married (like me). If you’re single, though, and you’re patient with them, take things slow and respectfully, and can put up with all the other crap here, in the long run, I’m sure you won’t be sorry.

Well, that brings us up to date. Tomorrow, May 2nd, we check out at noon, not a moment too soon, take a taxi to the airport, and wait for our flight at 5:30, and head to Hong Kong to spend the night in the airport, until our flight to Taiwan the following morning at 9:30. However, despite any difficulties as a result of spending a night in an airport, we’d rather spend a night in an airport in Hong Kong, than spend one more night in this Vietnamese ‘hotel’. And we’re looking very forward to going to cleaner, if not greener, pastures. I already have a lot of options to teach there, so things are looking way more promising than they were here. Still, a couple of things to keep it in perspective for you, and especially for me:
The other day, I was standing outside our hotel, having a smoke, listening to “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix. Think about that for a moment. I was listening to a song that was made at the height of the Vietnam War. Now, here I am, 45+ years after it was recorded, listening to it in what used to be the capital of North Vietnam. We have gone down the rabbit hole!


It’s been only five weeks since we left Oregon, and my wife and I have seen more countries in that time, than we have in our entire lives up to now. In just five weeks, we’ve gone from the United States, to Canada, to Hong Kong, to Vietnam, and now, to Taiwan! Wow.
On that note, thank you, Vietnam. For better or worse, we’ll never forget you.

– 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

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