Showing posts with label chenggong_apartments. Show all posts
Showing posts with label chenggong_apartments. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Why the Earth God Is My Favorite God

Image from here

The best god ever.

As you may remember, recently we'd found out we'd have to move. I was stricken - although of all the things I value, the least horrible to lose is our greatly-cherished living space, I still felt sick at the thought of having to leave it when I didn't want to.

Well, things have changed. Although I don't believe in God, or any gods, at least one of these supernatural nonexistent beings is awesome.

One thing I love about folk religion in Taiwan is that you can participate in it without necessarily believing in it. It's hard to wrap one's head around this from a Western mindset, but there is nothing about Chinese folk religion that has a problem with atheists praying at temples. I suppose it is preferable if you believe in the god, but if your question or problem is sincere and visiting a temple gives you some unnameable comfort, or is done out of family or traditional obligation, the act itself is good enough and the mind does not have to be behind it. If you're in Taiwan, ask your friends or students - some really believe, but you'd be surprised how many are agnostic or atheist or "vaguely spiritual" without any clear convictions, who see no problem in participating in temple rituals.

I know in a lot of Western cultures, worshipping when you don't believe is somewhat taboo. I have heard, however, that in some Jewish circles it's fine: you can be an atheist and still participate in the culturally prescribed rituals, but feel free to correct me if I'm wrong there. It seems to be fairly common among cultures where the dominant religion and the culture itself are so deeply intermingled that there is no clear line where secular "culture" ends and "religion" begins.

As I wrote in my last post on the topic:

Side note: one thing I like about Chinese folk gods like Tu Di Gong is that they don't care if you're an atheist. They care that your issue or question is sincere, and that you show up to pray. Even if you don't pray, they may help you. If you do, they may or may not, it depends on their mood or whatever heavenly politics they're involved in at the moment. The idea that an atheist could go to an Earth God shrine in Taipei and pray, despite not believing, is not irreconcilable in this culture. To me this is realistic (either a god will help you or he won't, and praying may help your case, or you may get lucky), echoing how things work in the real world (either you get lucky or you don't). It's a way to make myself feel better, and feel more connected to life in Taiwan. I can do that, and be an atheist. Thanks, Earth God. You're cool.

I also quite like that religion in Taiwan is not a closed-off thing. There's no conversion process. You don't have to attend meetings or go through a ceremony in order to be considered a true believer or "congregation member" of Chinese folk religion. The gods are there, according to local tradition, and you can believe in them or not, pray to them or not (but if your family is traditional you'd better pray to them no matter what, just in case). You don't have to be a believer at all!

And while it's uncommon, and perhaps surprising, when a foreigner goes to a Chinese temple to pray, it's not forbidden, nor is it particularly taboo.

So, when I found out I'd have to move, my Chinese teacher and I went off to the nearest Earth God (土地公) temple, which we were directed to by my doorwoman (who thought it was cute, but wasn't entirely shocked, that I wanted to go). The Earth God isn't a one-off god, every area has its own shrine which oversees property, moving, farming, business and other issues for that area and you have to go to the shrine in your area, so I figured it'd be best to go to the one my doorwoman goes to.

And, lo and behold, that weekend our landlady's sister gave us up to a year to move rather than the original two to three months. Thanks Earth God!

Over the next few weeks, we looked at 5-10 apartments, and liked only one of them. It was in our lane, so the neighborhood was the same. It had a different - not better, not worse, just different - layout. I liked the better-designed kitchen, separate living and dining areas, two large bedrooms (one could be both a guest room and an office), and two recently renovated bathrooms, one of which had a Japanese fancy magic toilet.  The downsides were refrigerator and washer/dryer spaces that didn't quite fit our appliances and some traffic noise, no outdoor casement for my bougainvillea, orchids and mint, and no window looking out on a courtyard.

We wanted to take it, but the agent's fee was one full month paid by us, and we had to move in almost immediately. Yeeeaahhh that's a big ol' sack of NOPE. We told him we were interested, but the highest agent fee we'd ever seen was half a month paid by tenants, and we couldn't move until April. He said he'd "let us know" and then we didn't hear from him for two weeks, so we figured the answer was "no".

About two weeks later I was doing my morning tutoring in Zhonghe (I don't do it for the money). My bus sideswiped a car soon after I boarded, and rather than wait for the next one after traffic cleared, I walked to Burma Street (華新街) for lunch. Then I grabbed a bus to Ximen, figuring I needed to pick up some more Imigran and it would be fun to wander around Red House and the arts&crafts market. I passed a few people bearing huge flags that said "Normalize the Recognition of Formosa State" and took some photos. At some point on my jaunt, my phone battery died.

I didn't buy anything at the market, figuring I needed to watch my cash flow if I was going to have to move at some point in the near future, and grabbed another bus home. This one stopped very close to the Earth God shrine, so I decided it was time to go back and say hello, thank him for his help so far and ask for his continued support. You know, like ya do. 

But this time I was alone, no Chinese teacher. It was a stuffy afternoon, with a pale yellow sun whose light felt blunted by the haze. The sky was that hot Taipei white that is neither cloudy nor fully sunny. I felt a bit weird - being a weekend, there were more people at the temple and I felt watched. Why would she need to pray? I sat at a bench at the far end of the temple enclosure. Is she just tired? Do foreigners go to temples? Hmm. 

Nobody said that - but I could feel it. Or I was making it all up in my head. I don't know. I still have a lot of baggage from growing up in a culture where it's odd both be an atheist and go to a place of worship. Plus, I still wasn't entirely sure a foreigner would be welcome to take part in this cultural ritual, although all of my experiences have pointed to the contrary. 

What's more, I really, really did not want to get involved in cultural appropriation - real or seeming. And I wasn't sure if this counted.

And yet by doing this, I did feel more connected to Taiwan. I live here, my "property" (well, my rental property) is here, and the god looks out over that property, and there's no set of rules on who can pray to him and who can't. I was looking at this as someone who wants to be more connected to the place where she lives and learn about it by living it, not someone who wants to take on the elements from another culture so she can feel cool or special. But I wasn't sure if that would come across to others. So.

I sat on that bench for a good 40 minutes, both gathering the courage to talk to a god I didn't believe in, and waiting until there were fewer people around so I could do so in relative privacy. After swinging back and forth on it, and feeling really out of place in a way I hadn't since I'd first moved to Taiwan 8 years ago, I decided to go for it. 

The way to pray is this: you check the number of incense sticks that go in each burner, and what order they go in. You light the appropriate number (it's usually posted on a sign near the incense). First you stand facing away from the shrine, toward the large burner in front - that usually gets a few sticks, this one got three. You should repeat your prayer. Then you face the temple and pray again. You can murmur but don't speak out. Add a stick to that burner. Then go inside, on the right (the side with the dragon) and pray to the gods inside and put a stick in that burner. Then there's a small tiger god under the Earth God - only at Earth God shrines - he gets a stick too. People looking to succeed in business will put their business cards around the burner down there. Then you exit via the tiger door. When you pray, you should give your name and address so "the god knows where to find you".

I lit the incense, walked to the burners and started the familiar murmur (in Chinese, although one would think the gods could understand any language): My name is Jenna, I live at Fuxing South Road Section....number...I want to thank you for...and I hope you can...

My phone had been out of batteries for about 2 hours at this point. When I got home and plugged it in, within minutes it lit up with a message from the agent of the one apartment we'd liked. The call was time-stamped at about the time I'd been at the temple.

I called him back - we could have the apartment on our terms! Yay!

I punched Brendan's name - he agreed. Let's do this.

I called the landlady's sister. And...

Oh, I was going to tell you. 

You were?

I found another place to live. You don't have to move. I'm OK in this new place.


I confirmed three times: so we can stay? So do we have to look for another apartment? So you won't move in?

Then I confirmed with the landlady, who didn't really know but confirmed later that her sister was telling it true. We didn't have to move.

We don't have to move!

It was probably a coincidence, but the idea that I'd find out right after I'd been to the Earth God temple to ask for his continued help (and to admit I still did not, in fact, want to move although I'd accepted that I'd have to), with the catalyst being a phone call that came at just about the moment when I was praying...that's odd.

A week after that, I got together some Ghirardelli dark chocolate sea salt squares, a box of brown sugar mochi (I hear the Earth God likes sweets, especially mochi) and three tasty ripe oranges. You're supposed to bring three or five things, and if one of them (say, a piece of fruit) is small, you should bring three pieces to make up that one part of your odd-numbered offering.

And the fact that the landlady's sister wouldn't think to tell us we didn't have to move until right after I'd been to the temple, in a way that seems kind of weird (you'd think she'd have called us once she'd made that decision - the whole thing seemed rather sudden) - that's odd too. Odd and wonderful, like offerings numbered one, three, five or seven.

This time the sky was a roiling gray, spraying rain down at random intervals like someone spastically turning a showerhead on and off. It was a Friday - the temple was almost empty. I unpacked my offerings - this time I didn't feel weird about it. The Earth God (who isn't real) did us a real solid (which was very real), he deserved this offering and I was going to give it to him.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Cat Under A Hot Tin Roof: Looking for a living space as a long-term Taipei expat

As I wrote in a previous post...we have to move. And we're not happy about it. Thinking about it even 3 weeks after hearing the news still creates a sucking feeling somewhere around where my guts are supposed to be.

That post was more general - aimed, I suppose, at a wider audience. This one is more specific to trying to find a place to live in Taipei.

I prayed to Tu Di Gong (the Earth God, who's in charge of these things) once already and my fortune - after throwing fortune blocks - said that we'd have a successful move. It's about time I went back and thanked him for his continued help, although I'm waiting for a breakthrough that would justify doing so. So far that breakthrough has not come.

Side note: one thing I like about Chinese folk gods like Tu Di Gong is that they don't care if you're an atheist. They care that your issue or question is sincere, and that you show up to pray. Even if you don't pray, they may help you. If you do, they may or may not, it depends on their mood or whatever heavenly politics they're involved in at the moment. The idea that an atheist could go to an Earth God shrine in Taipei and pray, despite not believing, is not irreconcilable in this culture. To me this is realistic (either a god will help you or he won't, and praying may help your case, or you may get lucky), echoing how things work in the real world (either you get lucky or you don't). It's a way to make myself feel better, and feel more connected to life in Taiwan. I can do that, and be an atheist. Thanks, Earth God. You're cool.


A lot of the advice out there on renting an apartment in Taiwan is aimed at new arrivals, Fresh Off The Plane folks who don't know how things work. And that's great - they probably need the advice. I want to talk more to long-termers in this post, though. Not necessarily to give advice - I don't have any - but to open up about my own experiences so far.

My own renting history wasn't that great until our most recent apartment, which is basically the best non-luxury apartment in all of Taipei. No traffic noise, a courtyard "view", a good window that gives the living room natural sunlight, attractive faux-wood floors, a bathtub, a dryer, in one of the best possible locations (Da'an district, well behind Technology Building station and near the southern terminus of Da'an Road). First, I lived in a horrible foreigner flophouse where new hires at Kojen English are housed until they can find something better, or at least marginally less disgusting. Kojen never bothered to clean it, and it housed a rotating crew of mostly twentysomething men who never bothered to clean (not necessarily because they were men; more likely it was also because they saw their residence there as temporary, and they were immatu....I mean young). The kitchen was so filthy I wouldn't cook in it, the roaches were horribly brave, the balcony had a Coke can full of rainwater and cigarette buts on the tumbledown old table, the glass panes on the shelving were covered in old Taiwan Beer labels that had been applied while still wet, and the most memorable feature of the place was a dartboard attached to a stolen traffic cone - one of the darts still stuck in the board had a pair of women's underwear on it. Nobody knew where they'd come from.

Then I moved into the Japanese room of an otherwise nice first-floor apartment near Liuzhangli. It wasn't bad, but it was tiny, not terribly private, and had no natural light. I wasn't allowed to have overnight guests but the apartment's owner (at least I presume she was the owner) sometimes did. I couldn't get the Internet there to work on my laptop and after a few cursory attempts, she gave up trying to help me. I wasn't allowed to sign an official lease, which made it impossible to follow the law and have my residence address updated on my ARC.

Then I moved in with my then-boyfriend-now-husband, Brendan, after his roommates in Nanshijiao agreed to it (I was spending so much time there anyway that we figured I may as well pay rent). It was a 6th floor illegal walk-up, and I hated it. The other "couple" had broken up but were still sharing a room for a variety of complicated reasons. I tried to help the girlfriend get her life in order as best I was able to support her, but in the end they kept fighting (as broken-up couples sharing a bedroom are wont to do), neither was able/willing to move out, and we all decided it was best if Brendan and I moved out so she could live in the other room (well, I'm not sure it was "best" but I really wanted out, so it didn't really matter). I don't miss that apartment - hot as hell in summer, ugly white tile, ugly fake blue leather couches, white walls, cheap construction, fighting roommates - or that neighborhood (Zhonghe...kind of sucks. I felt like an ant in an overcrowded colony), but I do miss the female ex-roommate's friendly Labrador. I still think about him. What a great dog.

We felt pushed ou---I mean had to move right as I was changing jobs - I really could not stay at Kojen, I was deeply unhappy there - and we'd planned a visit home and after a year of being Kojen's butt-monkey, I had basically no money. So we took the first acceptable, affordable place we could find which was another illegal 6th floor walkup with an ugly floor, bad construction, a roach problem, a kitchen that didn't even qualify as Third World and a tiny bedroom. The only natural light was in the kitchen - little reached the living room.

At least we were back in Taipei and liked the neighborhood - Jingmei - and the rent was very cheap. We decorated the living room, even with the landlord's dilapidated old furniture (it didn't even qualify as "vintage"), to be as homey as we could make it, painting the walls a warm creamy yellow and the bedroom in shades of blue. It was so cheap, and we liked the area so much, that we stayed for four years. We got married. We planned a trip to Turkey. We went to Egypt and India. Rent was so cheap that we had lots of disposable income.

But our formerly friendly landlady was starting to get weird, refusing to fix an obviously broken air conditioner (she blamed it on cat hair, but cleaning out the filter didn't fix anything). We baked all summer in 2011 under the corrugated tin roof, kept the faulty air conditioner at 19C, and our electricity bills skyrocketed. We couldn't turn it off - we'd come home to baked cat. I still harbor a suspicion that the bills, which went to the landlady, were artificially inflated but I can't prove it.

In Turkey we rented the first floor of a lovely old townhouse during our month-long course in Istanbul. We had an adorable living-bedroom combo, a sunny and inviting kitchen, and even a little back garden with a pear tree and friendly neighborhood cats. We also had slugs that would come out from a drain in the kitchen, but for one month we could live with that. When we came back, I huffed up the six flights of stairs to our ugly old place and my shoulders sank. I was glad to be back in Taiwan, but not glad to be home. I hated that place - I suspect now that the lack of sunlight and general uncomfortableness of it was affecting my mood to the point of near - but not clinical - depression.

And that was what it was like as expats renting apartments in Taipei. Your choices seemed to be old white-tile monstrosities with bubbling walls and no light, or apartments out in Taipei County (Xinbei - whatever) in ugly cities, or far from the MRT, or cat-under-a-hot-tin-roof illegal 6th floor apartments with no elevator, or tiny rooms in shared places with kitchens that were falling apart and furnishings on the wrong side of a bonfire (in that they hadn't been rightfully thrown in one yet).

No! I thought, three years ago. No no no no no NO! I WILL NOT DO THIS. "We have to move," I told Brendan. "" We decided to start preliminary searches, but decided we couldn't afford to move so soon after coming back from Turkey until 2012 at the latest. I was depressed, just thinking about a few more months in an apartment I'd previously liked for its location and cheapness, but had come to loathe.

It turns out we didn't have to look at all. I put a "yeah, right" ad on TEALIT describing my dream apartment - attractive floors, natural light, a goddamn elevator for chrissakes, I mean really - a kitchen that I wasn't afraid to use, air conditioning that worked. A dryer would be nice. How about a Chinese-style circular window, or one shaped like a bottle or peach or something? Why the hell not? A Japanese room! I want to be allowed to paint! A second bedroom, sure! In Taipei City! Near the MRT!

I didn't think for a moment that we'd find such a place, and in fact most of the replies I got were from people who had clearly not read the ad. "We have a great studio near Taipei Main" - nope, I want at least one bedroom. "We have lovely apartments for rent in Banqiao" - heh. Xinbei can suck it. I will not live in Banqiao.

Then I got an ad saying "I need to leave Taipei and I have basically exactly what you want. Come take a look." I thought, "probably not, but okay." We took a look. It was exactly what we wanted. Wood (well, fake wood) floors, natural light, a Japanese-style tea nook, a dryer (!!), three bedrooms, near the MRT, no weird architectural details or in-built shelving that we hated. Just a nice floor, good light and four walls that we could decorate as we wished.

Although we really couldn't afford it after such a long trip, we made ourselves broke for awhile and moved in just 2 months later. And we stayed happily for years, thinking that we'd make that place our home until someday, maybe, we either left Taiwan or bought our own place (which was not going to happen with the over-valuation of Taipei properties thanks to a massive real estate bubble that has not burst, but probably will).

Then, as you know, we were told we'd have to leave.

The first thing I noticed when we began searching for a new place is that people take really bad photos of the apartments that are available (something one of my Facebook friends also noted). A lot of photos are blurry, or don't show important features (a bathroom shot with no inclusion of the bathing area, so you have no idea whether you're going to get an Asian-style washroom with no separation between shower area and toilet/sink, a shower stall or a tub? Really?) or make places out to be darker or smaller than they actually are. Why would you do that if you want people to rent your space? Sometimes you get photos of what is basically just a corner of the room! What good is that? Sometimes the photos are even blurry - they couldn't take an extra 2 seconds to take a non-blurry photo? And sometimes the photos are oddly stretched or obviously manipulated, which I feel should be, if not illegal, at least considered so unprofessional that nobody does it.

The second is that people, even local friends, gave really bad advice. "Some apartments have flaws that don't become apparent until later," they might say. "So you should avoid that." Yeah, um, I don't see how that can be avoided if the flaws are not something you could know about when looking at a place. "You shouldn't pay any agent fees, the landlord should pay all of it" - well, when every single agent says otherwise, that the fee is paid half-half, there's not much I can do about it. "It's hard to find an apartment with nice floors, you can just get a tile floor apartment and cover it with a rug." Which is exactly what I don't want to do. First of all, it's still ugly. Secondly, especially with a cat but even without, rugs are a pain to clean.

"You can find newer places in Banqiao or Xindian." Except I don't want to live in Banqiao or Xindian. I really, really, really don't like Taipei County. Like, really. If it's not old and crowded - and ugly, and depressing - it's overpriced (Yonghe #4 Park), too far from anything interesting (places like Danshui) which would mean a race we don't want to run to catch the MRT home every night. '"Banqiao is actually an easy commute to work" - except I only teach one class at that place, and I don't intend to structure my life around work. I structure work around my life. Yonghe and Zhonghe are too crowded, with even worse pedestrian infrastructure than Taipei, and are deeply unattractive and inconvenient to get around. Linkou is too far away and horribly boring. I will not live somewhere that requires me to have a scooter to get around. And Xindian, I'm sorry, is just fucking ugly (for the parts that are not ugly, you need a scooter). No, no, no, no and no.

The third thing we've noticed is that while any numpty with a camera and an Internet connection can post an apartment for rent on 591, the majority of postings are from agents. We'd prefer to just deal with a landlord, but have come to accept that we may have to pay someone half a month's rent when they haven't really done anything to deserve it (an agent who can proactively look for us and introduce us to properties not online yet and keep our wishes in mind, however, would be worth the money).

We've also been looking on agent websites -, kijiji, House Fun,, and on the foreigner sites (Taiwanease, Forumosa, TEALIT and Craigslist). The local sites tend to have more affordable listings, although they're often quite ugly. The nicer places are furnished - with furniture we neither need, nor like, nor want. The foreigner-friendly sites have better properties, but tend to be overpriced. I don't know what kind of money they think expats who need to rent their own places are made of, but an 18-ping non-luxury property is not worth over $1,000 USD a month no matter where it is in Taipei. It's just not.

What's more, we've realized how picky we truly are. I have a thing about floors - I'm *thisclose* to saying I have a floor fetish. Now that I've lived with floors I actually like, I'm not willing to go back to cold white tile. Now that I know what it's like not to fight wall cancer, I can't accept wall cancer. Now that I have lived in a place where, after showering, I can use the toilet without my feet getting wet, I won't go back to an Asian-style washroom. Now that I have furniture I like, I'm not willing to live with furniture I don't like. Now that I've lived in a great apartment near the MRT, I'm not willing to move far from the MRT and take the bus. Now that I've lived in a nice corner of Taipei City, I refuse to live in an ugly or distant corner of Xinbei. Now that I've had natural light I won't give it up. Now that we own a Whirlpool dryer, I won't get rid of it because it won't fit in a prospective apartment's new back room. Now that I have a real kitchen without having to put a refrigerator in the living room, and not had to fear that I'd walk in to find a rat in front of the sink, I won't go back to a dilapidated old kitchen with no refrigerator. Now that I've had an elevator, I won't walk up 5, or even 3, flights of stairs. Now that I've had good natural light, I won't accept a dark living room or frosted windows (in fact, I don't even want textured glass, nor do I want a window partly taken up by an air conditioner, making it hard to hang nice curtains). Now that we have had the chance to paint and decorate to our specifications, I can't accept ugly in-built shelving that I don't want, or light fixtures I don't like (I am, however, willing to paint any wall back to its original color whenever we move out of any given place, and make sure all lights are functional). I just want four plain walls, good light and a nice floor. A kitchen and bathroom that are not horrifying. I can tolerate a little traffic noise. I can tolerate a dark bedroom - it's for sleeping, anyway.

I know I can get all this, and about 30 ping of space, for $25,000-$30,000NT in Taipei City, in Da'an District even, because that's what we pay now. And now that I know that I can have that, I will not be the poor wand'ring expat living in some hot, leaky rooftop. And that's what I want. I will not let the sub-par rental market push me into a place I don't love.

And that's just it: locals, for the most part, either own an apartment and rent it out, living in a rental that they like (owning an apartment in Xinbei and renting one in Taipei to live is common), or rent apartments only when they're young and are willing to live somewhere that's not "home" because they're young and broke and see the arrangement as temporary, or do so because their ultimate goal is to buy real estate. Foreigners seem to be shunted into the worst properties by an apathetic market - it's easy to unload those shit-acular tin roof shacks to foreigners, or those privacy-lacking Japanese rooms, or those windowless spaces. I just won't let that be me. And you shouldn't let it be you. I've become accustomed to a more settled, prosperous life in a comfortable living space, and I am not willing to give that up.

We've considered starting a fund to buy a place (we don't have the necessary deposit money right now) so we could be as picky as we wanted and do what we wanted with the space once we owned it. And that's a great goal that we're going to start working toward - but for now, we're stuck in the rental market. And we will be until the real estate bubble bursts, because if I won't rent an apartment in an area where I don't want to live, I certainly won't buy one there.

So far, we've only found two places we could imagine living in. One was just a bit above our budget, which would have been fine if it hadn't been for a grand piano in the living room. Take out the piano, or lower the rent to account for the loss of space, and we'd be signing the lease right now. The other came with a pushy agent who wanted one month's rent as a fee (that's double the market rate - nope. Not gonna happen) and wanted us in by March 15 (one week from now). Not possible. I made a counter-offer - the market rate agent's fee and an April move-in, but haven't gotten a call back.

Which is yet another thing I hate about this whole process: it's deeply difficult, culturally speaking I guess, to deliver bad news directly. And so when the phone call must deliver a "no", people seem to prefer to not make the call. I was told, for the grand piano apartment, that the agent would try to get the landlord to lower the rent and she'd let me know. She never did. I asked one landlord of a Chenggong Apartments place we liked if we could put in our own faux-wood floor on top of the tile. He said he'd talk to his wife and call me back, but hasn't. The agent who wanted a preposterous fee said he'd "check" about my offer, and hasn't called me back.

I know this is the American in me talking - and is probably horribly culturally imperialist of me - but baby Jesus on a stick! Is it really so hard to pick up the phone, send an e-mail, even drop a text message - to let you know that something's not happening?

Finally, not long after we began the hunt, I was loitering outside of a rental agency - there was no agent present at the small branch office at that moment - and I got to talking to an older woman who was also there. She asked me what I was looking for - I told her my wish list. She said her kid had just such an apartment - same complex that we live in now, wood floors, a view of Far Eastern Hotel (meaning good light - I don't care about the view so much),  3 bedrooms, same rent, nice kitchen, bathtub. Sounds perfect. Available at the end of April. Great. We exchanged numbers.

Except...we can't see the place yet. We have to wait until April because the departing tenants don't want strangers barging in on their personal space. I find this odd - but maybe it's a cultural thing. Maybe the Earth God is helping me out and it'll all work out. Maybe not. Maybe the woman I talked to has dementia and she doesn't even have a kid, let alone a kid with an apartment to rent.

I don't know. We'll see. Come on, Earth God.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Kicked to the Curb: Moving House in Taipei When You Don't Want To

One ordinary Monday night, I came home from work, turned the key, opened the door and thought the same thing I think every night: I'm happy to be home. I love my home. My husband and I are so lucky to be able to live here! I may just be renting, but wow. What real estate heaven is this? Downtown Taipei! A tatami tea nook! An elevator in a city full of walk-ups! We were allowed to paint our walls! Natural light! Friendly neighbors - great for practicing Chinese! Three bedrooms - we had an office and a guest room! When I walked in the door I'd sometimes let out an audible "aaah" - this is home.

In all my previous apartments - even the nicer ones - I'd never quite felt that way. In those places I'd always known I'd be moving on, and I hadn't had the money to decorate the way I really wanted to (think rural Taiwan meets vintage Japan meets cool minimalist Turkish Mediterranean meets colorful India). With this apartment, I could afford to do what I wanted - my tastes are not expensive, but they are specific.

The next day I came home, turned the key, opened the door and my heart sank.

I had gotten a phone call from our landlady - a Buddhist nun who lives in a monastery in southern Taiwan - earlier that evening. A pit had formed in my stomach as she told me that we would have to find a new place to live. Her sister wanted to move into our place. I didn't ask for details because I already understood: apartments in Taiwan may be in one person's name, but they're often not really considered to be owned by that person alone. They're family-owned in spirit, and who lives there is often a family decision. That apartment was as much her sister's as hers. I wanted to yell and cry - let her know that I felt like she'd just sucker-punched me. But one does not yell and cry at a nun who hasn't done anything wrong. I couldn't make my problem her problem. I couldn't even be angry with her - her voice cracked, too, when she told me. She said she was so sorry, and she wanted us to find an apartment we'd really be happy with so we could take two, three months if necessary.

But it didn't make me feel better.

I had to get back to work, but I managed to croak out the bad news to Brendan and somehow face down the last hour and a half before I could go home. He looked like he was going to cry; this was really something, he rarely displays emotions as openly as I do.

My heart cracked. A knot formed in my gut. My eyes smarted and my head swam. I describe it in physical terms because that's how bad it hit me: it physically hurt.

So I looked around at our custom blue ombre curtains, our aqua blue wall, our high-quality faux-wood floor (restaurant grade, very durable), our antique milk glass pendant lamp that perfectly fit the tatami-floored nook it was hanging in. Some children were still playing, at that late hour, in the little courtyard that our window overlooked. Oh yes - no traffic noise. And I thought - I'm going to have to give all of this up. I don't want to! No! I refuse! I'd planned to spend several years, or more, in this apartment! I...I won't! I...have to. It's not my decision.

I'd given up fantastic apartments before - the one with the full view from my bedroom picture window over the Potomac River and National Mall in Washington, DC. The sweet little townhouse with wood floors and generous kitchen. But I'd chosen to give them up - I wasn't pushed. I'd regretted leaving them behind but I was moving on to other things - to other countries. This was different.

Then, as we began the search for a new place - still ongoing - I started beating myself up over my feelings. There were refugees fleeing their homes in other parts of the world with the clothes on their back and not much else, in the direst of circumstances. Through history people have been taken from their homes against their will, to be kicked out of the country, beaten and interrogated, imprisoned or killed. Millions, if not billions, of people around the world live in sub-par conditions, many in slums that would turn your stomach. What a First World Problem! I have no right to be feeling this way! I got a slice of real estate heaven and now I was being made to trade it in for what would probably be a not-so-tasty slice of real estate mediocrity. Boo fuckin' hoo. Wah wah wah, poor little white girl can't keep her dream apartment because she doesn't own it. I felt like crud and I didn't even have sympathy for myself.

Some folks told me to be optimistic - maybe we'd find a place that was even better, minimizing the flaws of the old place. Not likely - it had so few flaws. Maybe we'd find a place with other great features that would make up for the features we might have to compromise on. Hah - except I'm not willing to compromise on features like natural light and floors that aren't hideous, not to mention not freezing in the winter and having the apartment be hotter than the outside in summer (a major problem with one apartment we'd had). I was told point blank that I had better "find my gratitude" that I got to live in a great place at all, even if I had to move on.

None of that advice was bad, but it didn't work.

Considering the situations of those far less fortunate than myself did put things into perspective and was a reminder not to get too dramatic about the whole thing, but it didn't spackle over the hole in my gut. I still felt like crap. "Find your gratitude", while it came from the right body of advice, sounded more condescending than helpful. "You'll find something as good or better" - but I don't want an unknown quantity of 'as good or better', I want what I already have.

For the next two days I walked around with my stomach in a knot and my head a ball of fuzz. Occasionally - over reminders even tangentially related to how much I loved my apartment - an incorporeal spear would fly out of the ether and run me through, right in the belly. I would get into a taxi and think of how easy it was to catch a cab right outside my front door - schwam! I'd see sunlight through a window and think of how great the natural light is in our living room - stab! I'd look at a teal blue pen and think of the brilliant color we were able to paint one livingroom wall - fwoosh!

So I started really thinking about it - why did I feel this way? Over an apartment? Why was I so crushed over what was the very definition of a First World Problem? Why couldn't I "find my gratitude" or at least be optimistic about things? Why did I want to be so dramatic when the situation really didn't call for it?

Then it hit me like another knife in the gut: this is exactly how I've felt during bad breakups. This lint-brained, disemboweled, harpooned-by-the-universe, even-the-sunshine-makes-me-sad feeling is identical in every way to heartbreak. I was going through a breakup: I'd been dumped by my apartment! In the world of real estate, my true love! I'd been hoping for a proposal (I was working out a strategy for saving up the necessary deposit to buy the place - the equivalent of looking at wedding magazines before you're engaged!) and instead I got told 'it's over'. I was mooning over an apartment the way I might moon over an ex with whom I hadn't wanted things to end!

At least when you break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, you have the option of being single for awhile as you heal, not looking for anyone else as you get over those "I don't want anyone else, not even anyone better, I want him/her!" feelings. You can become open to a relationship on your own time. This felt like being dumped, and then pushed into a new relationship you weren't ready for, while you were still thinking "but I don't want anyone else!" We looked at other places but none excited us - even ones that would have been fine before we found our dream apartment were not satisfactory after we'd been to paradise. "Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all"? No, we'd have been much better off if we'd never fallen in love with that apartment, never found a place that we could truly turn into a 'home' without owning it.

Over the next few days details emerged: we offered to pay more rent (sometimes landlords in Taiwan, rather than raising your rent, will ask you to move out on false pretenses so they can charge more to another renter - I don't get the logic of this at all, as much as I try to be culturally openminded) but that had not been her intention. Her sister visited us and explained things - nearly in tears herself. She was losing her own home, which she'd owned and lived in for decades, through what I feel was no fault of her own. I won't tell her story here - those details belong to her narrative and aren't for me to blast all over the Internet - but the reason for her sudden need to live in what I thought of as our apartment (it wasn't ours, but I thought of it that way) became clear. She said not to worry about the painted walls - she wouldn't make us return them to their original white, and reiterated that we could have all the time we needed - six months, ten, whatever, more than the original two or three - to find a place we were really happy with. We offered to find her a place and pay the rent deducted from our own as the sister would lose that income stream anyway, but she didn't want to deal with a landlord (something she had never done before in her life). What could we say? Her anxiety about landlords was odd - at least she could speak to them in her native language, I had to do so in a language I'd learned with little formal instruction! - but it was her right. This was a very generous offer and quite fair.

I'm only now starting to feel better - just realizing that what I was going through was a breakup, a hellacious "this is nobody's fault, I still love you but we have to end it" dumping, helped me get a grip on things. It led me to these ideas, which lifted me out of the gutter more effectively than the advice I'd been given.

1.) It's okay to feel this way. It seems silly, but breakup heartache seems unjustified to those not going through it, too. You have a right to feel this way. Just feel it for awhile. Like with a breakup, it'll help.

2.) Everybody bounces back from breakups. It takes time, but you do eventually feel better, even if in the beginning all you can do is remind yourself that at some unknown point in the future you will be okay. You will bounce back from this. Just let it happen.

3.) It's okay to not want to "find your gratitude" or be optimistic when you don't really feel that way. You can have a different mindset: looking for diamonds in the turd sandwich may help some, but it's also perfectly acceptable to be a pessimist and call a turd sandwich a turd sandwich because it is one. You do not need to announce that it is actually a very stinky diamond mine. If it helps you more to say "My, this appears to be a big pile of bullshit" when a big pile of bullshit lands on your head, then go with it. Worked for me!

4.) Just remember - the sister who is moving in has lost basically everything. You have not. It's the more personal version of "remember that so many people have it a lot worse than you do", and fulfills a similar purpose. You don't have to automatically feel better upon considering the issues facing others (it really is OK to feel your honest feelings about your own situation while at the same time being aware of how your situation compares to that of others), but it can put your own issues into perspective.

5.) Don't regret making your rented space your "home". It's probably "easier" to not home-ify your rental, so if you ever have to leave you can do so without too much heartache, but you live here and now, and not at some probably-undefinable point in the future when you own your own place and can home-ify it as much as you want. Don't spend these years living in a house that's not a home. 'Tis better to have loved and lost...yadda yadda yadda.

6.) Remember your priorities: of all the bad things that could have happened in life - including the dangers that might befall my husband, my cat, my parents, sister and in-laws, my closest friends, my life abroad, my freelance career, a health crisis, an accident or worse, this is really the least "bad" thing of all the bad things. I have my husband and my kitty: together we three will be okay. If I had to choose another thing that is important to me to sacrifice so I could keep my apartment, I can't imagine what I'd choose. I'd probably say "okay, evil god, then go ahead and take the apartment".

We still haven't found a new place yet - although we trawl the online rental listings daily - and have the luxury of time. I still don't feel fully better, and I'm still not sure I have fully accepted the situation: my head has accepted that my home (effectively my "ex") won't be available for a "getting back together", but my heart still has this vacuum-like sucking feeling at the center. But, like moving on from an ex, I know eventually it will be okay.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Sony WX100

It does capture my cat's eye color but only in sunlight. It won't capture it inside.

So I just got a Sony WX100 on the recommendation of my techy-dorky friend. For awhile I was using Brendan's old professional Canon, but while I got a few great shots out of it, mostly it was clunky, too heavy, hard to use and far too conspicuous (and it didn't help that it was older and I had no idea how to actually work the buttons. Oh, and the viewfinder was the only way to see what you were photographing - you couldn't see from the digital screen). 

I was also using my iPhone for photos, which is fine if you see some bad English in the night market ("Let's Happy Together!") but I wanted something better. Something more. Something I could take on trips to Orchid Island (next week), home (Christmas) and Sri Lanka (Chinese New Year). 

But, as much as I am an enthusiast for good photos, I'm no pro. I do think I'm pretty good at composition - but not good at technical stuff. So I asked a friend - a friend who, I swear, memorized all the specs of all possible cameras and ran them through a computer program in his head to determine the best one, because that's just the way he is - and he recommended a Sony WX100 for my needs.

So far, I'm really happy. It's been one afternoon, but still, I'm pretty thrilled with the photos I'm getting. The shots in this post are ones I didn't try to hard to take - imperfect lighting, not a lot of time to really look at what I was shooting and adjust, and in the end I still got some good pics. Obviously, I played with the fancy new settings.

By the way, if you want one, they're NT$9900 at Guanghua.
This is my living room window - when I take a photo like this with lights off in the living room, generally, other cameras pick up so much glare that you can't see anything but light out the window. The WX100 is the first camera that made a decent shot of this. 

With background blur - pretty good, although if I edited it I'd make the black metal parts a bit brighter.

Very clear with primary color capture - set on blue obviously

Not as good capturing my bougainvillea - it would have picked up red but pink is difficult. Anyone know if I can do something about that?

Indoor light, background blur with my cat

Green only is pretty good
Need to focus on getting it to select color and focus on the thing I want - it focused more on the spices than on the anti-evil eye charm.