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

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?

woman poster world war ii syphilis gonorrhea.png
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.


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


OLD QUARTER, VIETNAM: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 11

9 April – 2 May, pt. 4: Thaison Palace Hotel, Old Quarter, Hanoi

“Ooooh that smell
Can’t you smell that smell
Ooooh that smell
The smell of death surrounds you”

– Lynyrd Skynyrd, “That Smell”

Few things in this world can trigger a memory the way that your senses can. That being said, I’m going to have a lot of unpleasant memories about this place.

The Sights

Some of you may have wondered, “Why didn’t they go anywhere in Vietnam? They went to several places in Hong Kong.” That is very true, but for those of you who are uninformed about us personally, here is the answer. We went to Hong Kong for a vacation after my last job [10 years long] came to a close, because I wanted to teach English overseas. Hong Kong was a luxurious stop for us; a chance to take a real vacation in what we had hoped was one of the most exotic and beautiful cities on earth. It was. Vietnam was where we decided to look for my first teaching job. So until I found work, we didn’t want to spend the extra money on trips inside the country. So we didn’t see the beautiful places of northern Vietnam, of which I’m sure there are many. We pretty much saw the Old Quarter, which isn’t quite so pretty. If you look at just surface stuff, you’ll see beauty here. The old French architecture, some of the sidewalks paved in old marble from the days when this was French Indochina, Hoan Kiem Lake, situated just 3 blocks from our hotel. However, look closer, and it’s not as appealing as the photos you can find all over the internet: The architecture looks run down, and covered in city grime that NO torrential downpour can wash away; the garbage of tossed away food, cigarettes, even feces, scattered along the sidewalks and curb-sides. Hong Kong was as clean, if not cleaner, than most American cities. By contrast, most Americans, including myself, would be disgusted by the sight and smell of just how dirty this place is.

The Smell

It was rarely pleasant. At best, tolerable. Most of the time, you smelled the moisture in the air. As soon as you step out onto the street most days, you are in a perpetual state of moistness. It’s like being a Duncan Hines pudding cake, but in my case, more fattening. I will say that the smell of fresh rain on a humid night here was delightful – as if the air itself was begging for the heavens to open up. Otherwise, it smelled like oppression, heat, garbage, and cooking dog, though in the case of the last two, it was hard to differentiate. You could also smell the exhaust of all the vehicles in the city. I for one, like the smell of burning fuel, but even this place was too much for me in that regard. Overall, this place smelled like sewage, a smell that never seemed to go completely away, probably because this place looks and smells like none of it has been cleaning since the Napoleonic era.

The Sounds

With the exception of later at night, in our room, there are almost always sounds being produced, whether it’s from other hotel guests (soundproofed rooms, my ass!), or from the constant din of traffic. Outside, it is virtually ceaseless, even at midnight, and this city has a midnight curfew, obviously not strictly enforced. During the day, sound fills the air; the sound of street food cooking on makeshift Hibachis, city sanitation workers banging on their giant garbage carts to let people know they’re ready to pick up the garbage, babies crying, people shouting above the rest of the noise, and always traffic, constant honking of horns from buses, taxis, private cars, and more scooters than the number of men who have masturbated to an image of Scarlett Johansson. They are everywhere, constantly, like a plague of locusts being chased by a plague of frogs. There must be more Vespas here than in all of Italy. Which brings me to…

The Traffic

The only time I’ve seen the streets ever come close to being empty is at either 1am, or on their Independence Day holiday, last night, when everyone was at the lake, watching the fireworks display. Nothing says victory over America than Chinese gunpowder making similar sounds to what was heard when the Americans were bombing this city 45 years ago!

The traffic seems, at first, to have no rules. However, that’s not true – it has FEW rules. My sister-in-law came up the best analogy. Pretend you’re the frog in the 80s video game, Frogger. That’s it. There you go. If you’re walking, that’s kind of what it’s like here. But combine that with what it’s like crossing Alder St. or Patterson, near the University of Oregon. Time it right, and you won’t have to worry. Avoid the cars and buses, sure, but dodging the scooters is easy. Walk with purpose, don’t slow down or stop while in the middle of the street, and you’ll be fine: they will dodge you…or at least I’m pretty sure they will…I wasn’t hit. Then again, I’m bigger than most scooters.

Tomorrow it gets even more interesting, as I cover the people here. Until then…
– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston