Taiwan: Summing up the culture, what we’ll miss about America, and our plans for the future – Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 23

20 July, 2015 – Taichung, Taiwan

“Que Sera, Sera
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see
Que Sera, Sera
What will be, will be”

-”Que Sera, Sera”, by Doris Day
No future no future no future for you
No future no future for me

-”God Save The Queen”, by The Sex Pistols

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Oh, crystal ball, crystal ball
Save us all, tell me life is beautiful
Mirror, mirror on the wall
Oh, crystal ball, hear my song
I’m fading out, everything I know is wrong
So put me where I belong

“Crystal Ball”, by Keane
This being the last one for a while, I think, I thought I’d put in 3 song quotes this time. I do love music!

What’s to come for us? How can I sum up where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going? I guess we’ll all know before this entry is complete.
The Sum of All Fears

We have been in Taiwan now more than twice as long as we were in Hong Kong and Hanoi, combined. So, how can I sum up this country, and its people, as compared to everywhere else we’ve been? Taiwan is…well…Taiwan. There’s no other place exactly like it, to be honest, for better or worse. There’s parts that remind me of Hong Kong, others remind me of Hanoi a little, but most remind me of nothing, because most of the places I’ve seen here, in some ways, are even more foreign than where we’ve been. The people here are friendly, and most try to make you feel welcome and at home, without putting out more than the minimal effort about it. This place, culturally, is such a mash-up of Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, Japanese, European, and American influences, it’s hard to know for sure what the national identity is, or if there even is one. Taiwan and its people seem to be suffering from a national identity crisis. As a result, to the outsider, you’re not sure what to make of it at all…but I’ll try to give my opinion anyway, as best I can.

Taiwan is confusing. It’s certainly better than Hanoi, but to be honest, I doubt we’re going to stay here forever. In the part of Taichung we’re in, anyway, it seems like somewhere in between the developing world that Hanoi is in, and the developed world that America, Canada, and Hong Kong are a part of. It’s bearable, maybe even long-term, but permanently? I don’t think so.

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What You Leave Behind

I don’t want to go so far as to say we regret leaving, but there are some things we miss very much. We miss not having to search for a good place to eat, because we knew all of our favorite places to eat, one of which was our home kitchen. I know my wife actually misses being able to cook, especially the one thing that’s so difficult to find here: her chili. I know I miss it too, because it was so good! I miss a good hamburger; pizza, not so much anymore now that we’ve found good pizza. We miss some American television, as there are just some things we can’t get here without paying for it online. Which is another thing I miss. Without a checking account here yet, we cannot make purchases online of any kind. I miss Oregon rain, which is unique, though they aren’t getting much of it now anyway. I miss the stars. Yes, of course there are stars here too, but they’re not the stars I’m used to. I suppose that if we lived south of the Equator, seeing the Southern Cross would be cool, and might take my mind off of Oregon’s sky when I look up at night, but here, it’s just not the same; even the sky is foreign to me. We miss all of our conveniences of home: the space, the extra room for Mischa’s artwork, all of our DVDs, our books (though both are saved on hard drives), our freezer, using a dryer for our clothes. We miss a bathroom with a tub, where the shower is separated from the rest of the bathroom with curtain. We miss pine trees and deer foraging in our backyard. I know we’ll miss snow, when winter comes. We obviously miss being able to have a conversation with anyone, in English. But most of all, we miss our friends and (some of our) family. Kate, Jess, Holly, Jay, Shanan, and everyone else (you know who you are).

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Although we miss you all VERY much, I don’t want to come home. Rather, I wish you could all be here, with us, and share this experience with us, and all the journeys to follow. Miss these things, yes; sorry we left, no. It will just take time to forge new relationships, either here or elsewhere, and to find somewhere we want to be, and where we feel that we belong. And it’s good for us, and you, the reader, to realize that, despite what we miss, it’s already been an adventure, good and bad. In all the years I’ve lived before the end of March of this year, I had hardly seen ANY of the world outside of Oregon. Now, I’ve been in 5 different countries in the span of 4 months! And as I am writing this, it’s almost 7pm on Monday, July 20th; back home, it’s 4am that same day. I’m on the other side of the world! If that doesn’t help put things into perspective, and curb some of those yearnings of home, I don’t know what does.

Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

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Together, my wife and I are making plans for the future. While I will continue teaching for the foreseeable future, I am starting to look into creating an online consulting business, dealing with work, life and research consulting. I suppose it could be face to face as well, but unless you’re where I happen to be, online consulting seems more likely. My wife, on the other hand, is putting her many talents to use. She has already started doing freelance logo design and has had her work selected by one company, which paid her a little over $100 for about 3 hours work. She already has more that she’s working on now. She is also looking into freelance writing, as am I, but mine is more slanted towards travel writing, for obvious reasons. She’s also looking into web design, but the big one is her own artwork, which I, and many others, think is brilliant. She won a contest for her art back home, a couple of years before we left, has sold a couple of her works, given away others to family and friends, so she is in the planning stages of starting an online art business. It would allow her to sell prints of her work, in various forms. Based on her success and popularity of her work thus far, it could allow us the potential to make a VERY comfortable life for ourselves anywhere in the world. As you can probably tell, I am her biggest fan, and not just because it might allow me to stop teaching. I think she’s an incredibly talented artist AND writer, and that she is capable of doing great things with her work…plus, I’d be able to stop teaching!

And what about that? Stop teaching? I must admit that, thus far, while it has it’s moments, if I can find other options, I don’t think that teaching is for me, at least not for the rest of my life, though that may be one of the better things about Taiwan: teaching salaries here allow you to save A LOT of money; as much as $1000 per month. As for us, once our financial situation levels off this Fall, we’ll probably save at least 500-700 a month. In 2-5 years, depending on how our other businesses go, it would allow us possibly to go anywhere we want.

Traveling makes me feel like Indiana Jones!
Traveling makes me feel like Indiana Jones!

Where would that be? Well, if teaching’s still in the plans there are still a few options. Here in Asia, if I could find the right job, I could go to Hong Kong. Yes, there it is again. If you’ve read my blogs since the beginning, you know I have a huge hard-on for this place. I found it exotic, technologically comfortable, and altogether enticing and more like a potential home for me than I ever thought possible in a foreign land. Another possibility (maybe the only other possibility for us in Asia) is Japan. Again, technologically comfortable, but it would mean more work, as the Japanese are another one of those live to work cultures, probably even more so than the US. However, with the money we will have saved, we could go back to the western hemisphere. There are lots of choices in Central and South America; Costa Rica, Colombia (all the drugs you want, some with complimentary kidnapping!), Ecuador (one of the American expat capitals of the world), Chile, or Uruguay (my personal favorite). If she, or we, are successful at our various online endeavors, then the world is our oyster! We could, conceivably, go anywhere, jumping from one country of our choice to the next, on our 90-day visas, seeing the world from New Zealand to England, from Argentina to Australia, from Africa to Turkey to Austria, until we found a place to settle down! That’s my dream and I hope, with my wife and I giving each other the love, support, and encouragement that we always have, that we can make those dreams a reality.

So there it is, now you know. I hope we won’t have to go back home. There’s too much of the world I want to see, and I hope that as we continue this (hopefully) ongoing adventure of ours, you’ll come with us, through these words, the images that accompany them or, if you’re feeling daring, come and join us on this adventure and wherever it may take us. We’ll keep a light on, the beer cold, and the pizza warm. I just hope you’ll be able to get a slice without my wife cutting your hand off. Until next time…

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

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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

WHAT ART REPRESENTS FOR ME.

The first thing I remember drawing was a large smiling sun with my canary yellow crayola. I was around three and still potty training. I was so serious about it that I insisted my Mother put the potty next to my work station. My ‘art studio’ was fashioned from a large square slab of cracked marble propped up on two crumbling cinder blocks but it felt like another planet to me. My whole world. Nothing could force me to abandon the details I had planned for this drawn landscape until it was molded to my exact specifications. Not even a basic human need.

My first art studio.
My first art studio.

That was 32 years ago and I’m still just as obsessive about my work. I have only completed two or three pieces out of hundreds that meet my standards of perfection in 32 years of pursuing life as an artist.

I’ve never had extreme judgement when I admire the work of other artists. I always find something within the concept, the technique or the emotional content that inspires me to say…”Damn, I like their work.” I never expect perfection from other human beings. Never. That’s impossible. So, why do I expect it from myself? Massive Insecurity. The ego can be a harsh mistress that controls every human impulse we have. Hell, I’d still rather piss myself then leave my art when I’m on a roll.

But things have changed since I willingly left everything I’ve ever known behind me. It is the craziest thing I’ve ever done and in the wake of that impulsive decision…a strange and almost unnerving calm has slowly crept up into my ego’s domain from the softest parts of my being. For the first time, I can see myself as that 3 year old child from a 36 year old woman’s perspective. She is here with me. Always with her tiny furrowed brow; her tongue sticking out the side of her mouth in tortured concentration as she grips her crayon so tight it breaks in her small, trembling hand. She’s still trying so desperately to achieve something she can just be proud of for once. She’s never been allowed to color outside the lines. Not by anyone. Not even by me. But, flinging myself into the unknown also means I need to let her, and in turn myself, make mistakes.

And so, as I sit on a creaky motel mattress in the middle of the noisy, crowed streets of Vietnam I realize that I can be her soft place to fall. I am all she has ever had. And when it comes to the deep-rooted pain of my childhood..she is all I have. She is finally enough.

I am starting a new painting soon. An Asian landscape with a large smiling sun overlooking a rainbow colored lake. I’m gonna wing it this time:)

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

KOWLOON, HONG KONG: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 6

Enjoy it while it lasts because I go for the throat when we move on to Vietnam:) Enjoy!

3 April – 5 April, pt. 2: City Garden Hotel, North Point, Hong Kong

While we didn’t do as much sightseeing as we had originally planned, we had gotten to experience the culture, which in some ways may have been better and certainly less touristy. However, we did go to some of the places we wanted to go. The subway was our main mode of transportation for these excursions, but sometimes a taxi supplemented the journey, when the remaining distance was short, but too far for walking.

One of the first places we went to was the Hong Kong Botanical and Zoological Gardens, which was so beautiful. This lush hilltop park filled with exotic plants, birds, reptiles, and mammals, was very peaceful, with one exception: the primates, and no, I’m not referring to the humans. We were about to head back when we heard a loud commotion coming from one of the monkey exhibits that we had passed earlier. The were whooping, chattering, howling so loud, you could feel the sound vibrate in your inner ear. It was amazing; never heard anything like it! It was a very beautiful place.

My hubby goes to the zoo:)
My hubby goes to the zoo:)

Our last full day in North Point, I took my longest MRT trip to date. I went across most of Hong Kong Island, transferred to another MRT, which took me under Victoria Harbor to Kowloon to see the Avenue of Stars, which is basically the Hong Kong film industry’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, combined with Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. They have marble stars scattered along a broad sidewalk, with a breathtaking view back across Victoria Harbor to Hong Kong Island. Some of the stars also include hand prints. They had Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chow Yun Phat, among others, and of course, Bruce Lee. They even have a beautiful 10-foot bronze statue of him. It was fun to see and the view was magnificent, as it was a bright, sunny day.

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My next stop was to Hong Kong’s 3D Museum. It’s a very touristy place, and overpriced considering how small it was. It was still kinda cool to see this impressive 3D artwork, but it’s hard to describe it. I’d recommend checking out their website to get a feel for how impressive it really is. Still, it only took maybe 30 minutes to go through all of it, and the entrance fee was the equivalent of $30.

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After that, I walked around Kowloon for a bit before heading back. Not as much of a fan of Kowloon as I am Central Hong Kong. This place used to be and overpopulated slum; not anymore, though based on the southernmost tip of it, I’m not sure it’s an improvement. It’s a massive shopping district for the wealthy, filled with stores that may only the wealthiest 5% can afford. And the salespeople standing outside of some of the privately owned stores…they are pushy. They’ll see a tourist, and aggressively try anything to get you to go into their store.

I’d see other parts of Kowloon later, but the next day, we were leaving North Point, and switching hotels; to the Hyatt Regency in Sha Tin, New Territories, about 22km to the north. By this point, we weren’t looking forward to the move,and were regretting dividing our vacation in Hong Kong between two separate hotels. We’d fallen in love with this neighborhood, and we didn’t want to leave. To be honest, I was a little tearful about having to go. Nevertheless, on 5 April, at noon, we checked out of the City Garden Hotel and took a cab up to the New Territories.

One thing I’ll say about cab drivers here; they may not know much English, so you need the hotel concierge to give you one of their business cards and write where you want to go in Cantonese. But those drivers are honest. They’ll take you exactly where you need to go, and they won’t take the scenic route to boost their fare. It’s something we wouldn’t always encounter in our travels, but we were very grateful for it.

North Point
North Point

As we left North Point, we were feeling rather melancholy about the move. We knew the hotel would probably be nice, but it wouldn’t be the same…it wouldn’t be North Point. Nevertheless, off we went, not sure of what to expect from our new surroundings.
– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston