PERSONAL OBSERVATIONS ABOUT TAIWAN: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 17

5 July, 2015 – Taichung, Taiwan

It’s funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can’t get to me at all!

It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me I’m free!

-”Let it go”, from the movie, Frozen, and one of the most popular American songs in Taiwan amongst children

frozen-let-it-go
In my last blog, I probably nearly bored you to death with a history and geography lesson about Taiwan. Now, I’ll get into more personal observations about the various aspects of living here. First up is…

Our Neighborhood

There are many different sections of the Xitun (pronounced Zhi-tune) district. Some are nicer than others, and you can often find these differences within a couple of blocks of one another. Ours is a lower middle-class neighborhood at best, with narrow streets, a small park across the street with a small temple next to a basketball court (they LOVE the NBA here…and baseball, of course). During the day, street vendors set up shop up and down the street on the other side of the park, but we have a small vegetable market next door to our apartment complex, and a place that sells noodles right across the street, which is only wide enough for two scooters or one car to drive through without flinching. Our apartment building is run down on the outside, and we live on the 5th floor with no elevator. That may not sound too bad, but try going up 5 flights of stairs when it’s 95 degrees, with 60% humidity, and see how you fare. Sweaty, isn’t it?

kioj

The inside of our apartment, thankfully, looks nicer than the outside, but it’s small, about 300 square feet, and that includes the bathroom, which has a washer, sink, toilet, and what I’d call a “showering area”, as there is no curtain separating it from the rest of the bathroom. The main room, which is basically a bedroom with a separate (but not separated) area that has a desk and a mini-fridge, serves as bedroom, living room, and dining room all in one. It also comes with an air-conditioner, which is a MUST, and a smaller flat-screen TV with about 80 channels, most of which are in Chinese.

There are a few English channels, but not many: Nat Geo, Discovery, Animal Planet (English sometimes), and 5 different movie channels including HBO. There are three others, but they mostly have crap shows that we’d never be desperate enough to watch, like reality shows, various CSI shows, and How I Met Your Mother…ugh. They repeat the movies a lot, so what we do watch mostly is whatever I can download or watch online.

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

The commercials are almost entirely in Chinese, with many of them being for video games for your phone. And in most of them, someone (man, woman, or child) is whining, which seems to be the national pastime here. I swear, if you could get the International Olympic Committee to make whining an official Olympic sport, Taiwan would finally win something other than the Little League World Series…and they’d win gold, silver, and bronze every time!

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

But I digress. Despite the scraps of food and fruits and vegetables that scatter the streets after the morning street market closes at about 2pm, the neighborhood is somewhat clean, though I did encounter a scurrying rat on one evening walk back from work. Fortunately, I was (slightly) bigger than he was, and he turned and ran the other way. Our home is mostly clean too, though like most places, we do encounter spiders and ants, though the ants here are surprisingly tiny and FAST! The spiders aren’t any bigger than back home, though we’ve heard stories of people encountering Huntsman spiders in their homes (Seriously, look it up! Their size may literally scare the shit out of you!). We thankfully haven’t seen any of those, but during one shower, we did see the typical tropics-sized cockroach scurrying across our bathroom floor! Terrified us both! It was about 4 inches long and at least an inch wide. It took me stomping on it 3 times with my boot to ensure that it was dead! Bleh!!!!!! We cleaned RIGHT AFTER that! Otherwise, pretty clean, just small. But, it’s only about 8000 Taiwanese dollars per month, including electricity, which comes to about $260 American dollars per month! Try finding that price for ANYWHERE in America, with A/C, cable, a fridge, and free internet! I’m not gonna even wait for you to look because it doesn’t exist there! Plus, when I want to smoke, the roof is one floor up, from which you can look to the west to see the skyline of the western half of the city at night or look up into the night sky (depending on visibility that night). All in all, it’s not home, but I’ve been amazed at what we can adapt to since we arrived here.

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

I know skirted several subjects here, including the culture, shopping, weather, food, people, and money. Don’t worry, I will go in-depth on all of these subjects in the blogs to come. Until next time, stay cool, and try not to blow any fingers off on the 4th!

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

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!

gfd

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.

jhyt
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…

41511f1e0a5e6f6df96c05f618ec80b2cfc040f1c20b97eb7e2831e6fe2d8d50
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!