Showing posts with label moving_to_taiwan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label moving_to_taiwan. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Love and Cheap Sushi - my Valentine's Day meditation on dating for MyTaiwanTour

My second piece, just in time for Valentine's Day (not a holiday we actually celebrate, by the way, even when we were young and dating) for MyTaiwanTour.

It's the story of my date at Sushi Express - a restaurant I picked because I was new in Taiwan and didn't know better - with a friend who could have been something more, but wasn't. Eric Lin was not his real name, of course, but a dozen years on it hardly matters.

Plus, some thoughts on observing the dating scene from afar in Taiwan, as a boring old married lady!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Brexit Barfing: Both Taiwan and the UK need to stop fearing immigrants

Though I haven't read of anyone quite doing this yet, I imagine in the days to come someone will publish some thinkpiece drawing comparisons between Brexit and Taiwan's fight for de jure sovereignty. Certainly people commented that China watched the Scottish independence vote very closely, so I imagine they will also have watched the Brexit vote not only for economic reasons but political ones, too. Frankly, I'm surprised that China's state media wank-factory hasn't excreted some steaming turd of churlish nonsense that reads, in short, "see, Brits voted for Brexit and look at the turmoil that is causing! Imagine what would happen if we let Taiwan be recognized for what it already is! That can't happen! DOOM! GLOOM! ZOMBIES! Also you can never understand our 5,000,000,000,000,000 years of culture and that hurts the feelings of the Chinese people".

(I'd like to say my narrative above is outdated, but unfortunately, it's not. Or rather, fortunately it’s not - it's so simple to tear apart. China makes my hobby easy).

So, I just want to beat that hypothetical pundit to the punch and say that while there are philosophical relationships between Taiwan and Brexit, they actually have nothing to do with voting to break from a larger political bloc.

First, why they are different:

The people of Taiwan are currently fighting for international recognition of what almost every Taiwanese person already takes as fact: that Taiwan is inalienably sovereign and independent. This question has been so settled in Taiwanese society, to rip off Michael Turton, that the populace has already moved beyond existential questions of national identity and toward making the nation they have a better place. Nobody thinks that the UK isn't sovereign, nobody refuses to recognize it as the nation (or group of nations, whatever) that it is. The EU isn’t a big authoritarian regime across the English channel that openly strategizes how to force the UK to join its fold.

The UK agreed to enter the European Union. Taiwan never agreed to be ruled by China (or any other colonial power, including the ROC). When British people say they "took back Britain" I have to ask - from whom? Nobody invaded you, nobody claimed you as their territory. The EU didn't insist you must be annexed because you have been a part of their territory 'since antiquity' as China ridiculously does. You agreed to something and now you don't, so you voted on it. That's all. "We fought for our sovereignty" - no, you didn't, because you never lost it. In order to have the vote in the first place you had to have had sovereignty. They are simply not the same.

What Taiwan is fighting for is recognition of their entire nation from a horrid dictatorship that has clear, acknowledged designs on annexation. The UK seems to be pissed off about a few regulations, the downsides of which I have not heard articulated well, or at all, and an inchoate fear of “immigrants”.

Not the same. Do not compare them. Don't give in to the false narrative that Britain won back 'sovereignty' that it had never lost.

Instead, compare them in terms of how the people view their national identity, and the lessons that may be learned from putting too much stock in national identity along ethnic lines, and in terms of understanding how foreign workers impact a nation's economy.

All the talk about “we don’t want foreign bodies we didn’t elect setting laws and regulations in our country”...fine, sure. I may wonder what laws they have set or what regulations they have imposed that are so terrible that the UK no longer has faith in its own agreement to join the EU, but I can understand the sentiment at least.

But the talk about immigrants? That’s nonsense, and it has parallels in Taiwan. By the logic of Brexit voters, immigrants are a problem – they are taking away jobs and tanking the economy. They are a threat, somehow, to cohesive British culture.

Nevermind that there is little proof that immigrants – workers or students – hurt economies in deep, far-reaching or permanent ways (there is bound to be a little turmoil but nothing that outweighs the benefits of attracting diverse foreign talent), and plenty of proof that they do not have a net negative impact. All of the “Eastern Europeans” Brexiters are clamoring against are not the reason why their economy is in the tank, just as Latino immigrants are not the reason why the American economy hasn’t truly recovered from 2008.

Of course, the real problems are the wealthy business owners who continue to pay poverty wages and exploit workers, thinking of their own wealth only (which I can understand, but why are they given free reign when they don’t care about contributing to the economy and country that helped them get rich in the first place? What good are they doing that they should be allowed to continue?), and the relentless attacks on social assistance programs that could actually help the unemployed and poor get on their feet – and in Taiwan, a complete disregard for the idea of personal property by developers and politicians who are in their pocket.

As I’ve written before, it was never immigrants – we are fighting for the samecrumbs of one cookie with locals, while corporate interests have taken the restof the batch. Go after them, not us. We are not the problem.

You can see the same sort of anti-foreign-labor sentiment that drove much of the Brexit vote in Taiwan as well. It is apparent in mistreatment and prejudice against foreign workers – both domestic helpers and factory workers but also, at times, of professionals and English teachers.

By the logic of Brexiters who think, among other things, that “immigrants” are the problem, an immigrant like me in Taiwan could contribute nothing positive to this country. According to that train of thought, the best I could hope for would be to not leech too much off of another country, and I could never hope to be a part of it, do something good for it, be an overall advantage rather than disadvantage to have around, or even fully assimilate. Note that a lot of Brexiters say immigrants ‘don’t assimilate’ into British society, but when that is proven wrong with examples that they do in fact assimilate, those same immigrants are the target of harassment and insult. The same can be true in Taiwan – if foreigners don’t assimilate, they are held up as examples of why “IMMIGRANTS BAD, THIS IS OUR CULTURE”. When they do, they may be told they are not and can never be Taiwanese, or simply not treated as locals, ever, despite their best efforts.

It can be seen in the lack of enforcement of labor laws in the English teaching industry, fishing industry, many factories, many households that employ domestic laborers, and the brokers who bring all but the English teachers here.

And lest you retort with “but English teachers have it good here” – no, not really. Many don’t get enrolled in the labor insurance they are legally supposed to have. Most don’t get paid Chinese New Year even though it’s the law, even for hourly workers. Employer control of visas is a real problem, and plenty of complaints to the labor bureau go unresolved. 

It can be seen in the harassment faced by legislators who try to make things better for blue-collar workers, who receive actual death threats for their efforts because it would mean less money for shady labor exploiters brokers.

It can be seen in attempts to amend the law for professional workers (the class English teachers fall under), which would end the requirement that hires in fields other than teaching have 2 years’ experience or a Master’s degree (technically a relevant one but in practice this is often ignored), which then get resistance from groups I otherwise generally support, such as labor groups and the New Power Party with the excuse that it could “hurt local labor”.

Again, there is no evidence that this is, or would be, the case, and plenty of evidence that attracting foreign talent has more net advantages than disadvantages. Remember, most local companies prefer to hire locally because they feel more comfortable culturally and linguistically with other locals. If they want to hire a foreigner they probably have a specific reason for doing so, and should be allowed to.

By that logic, someone like R. (a person I know of tremendous intelligence and potential) who loves Taiwan and wants to stay, and has 1.5 (not 2) years’ media experience and no Master’s, can’t legally get a job outside of English teaching. R. doesn’t want to teach English, but her intelligence and interest in Taiwan could help her contribute a great deal both locally and internationally in the form of soft power. By the “immigrants hurt local workers” logic, someone like R. would be a hindrance, not a help, to Taiwan if she were allowed to do something other than teach – a job she doesn’t really want. If she can’t get something else, she will leave. Is that really good for Taiwan? How does it help in any way to ‘ghetto-ize’ R. and people like her in an industry they don’t want to be in?

If the problem is a fear that companies would hire foreigners at lower rates, rest assured that Taiwanese are among the worst-paid professionals in the developed world and most professionals, even from less-developed countries, want better salaries than are generally on offer here. If you are still worried about exploitation, then deal with salary stagnation and exploitation, don’t cut off foreign talent from potential jobs out of a misguided attempt to “protect” locals.

I know I’ve said it before, and repeated it, but I will keep repeating it until more people listen. For the same reasons Bernie Sanders’ outdated immigration policy is not right, this is not right either. I like the New Power Party, but they got this one way wrong.

Just as the UK seeks to cut itself off from open borders with 27 other countries, and thereby threatens depriving itself of foreign talent all out of fear of “immigrants” who “hurt local labor” (except they don’t) and “threaten our culture” (except they don’t), Taiwan has a real problem with its love-hate relationship with foreign talent. They say they want to attract more, then do everything possible to make it difficult to accomplish. Otherwise good parties like New Power take on straight-up terrible anti-foreigner policies despite calls for social modernization and progressivism.

In short, what we can learn from Brexit as it relates to Taiwan is not the oversimplified story of a country seeking ‘freedom’ or ‘sovereignty’ against a larger power, but that if you fear and push away your foreign talent, it will come back to bite you in the ass. In the UK and in Taiwan, we foreigners can and do contribute positively and we can and do assimilate. 

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.

So.

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. "Like...now." 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 - twhouses.com, kijiji, House Fun, happyrent.rakuya.com, 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.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Hailongtun



Stairs up Jingling Mountain on a foggy day, our goal forever elusive 

The weather today has inspired me to write about Hailongtun.

In 2002 and 2003 I lived in Zunyi, a small town (which meant that it had less than a million people) in Guizhou, southern central China.

While it got colder there than it does in Taipei – it even snowed twice - the weather, especially in winter, was generally about the same: overcast and dreary for days on end, cold, drizzly.  Although I lived on the refurbished “old street” (which was the newest part of town in terms of building age), the smoke from hundreds of coal stoves would fudge up the air as much as Taipei 101’s fireworks did last night. Leaving the New Old Street, other than the mountain park and the river and one memorable temple, the city became a mostly indistinct blur of white tiled, blue-glass windowed concrete monstrosities stretching down wide roads for miles.  Puncturing this was the train station, some thoroughly horrific public bathrooms, one so-so park, a “night market” that was put to shame by even the most humble Taiwanese night market, and a casino with a giant plastic Sphinx out front, topped off with a generous helping of neon. It wasn’t a classy enough place to warrant LEDs.
The giant medicine gourd in
Dragon Phoenix Park

 I found some escape in the mountainside park, which did have a network of fairly respectable hiking trails, and a giant cement medicine gourd, venturing pretty far out of town in that direction on several occasions – even in winter. Soon, I started to venture further into the countryside, renting a bike towards the end of the New Old Street  and riding out past Gaoqiao (the way I consistently mispronounced that neighborhood made it sound like “gaochao” or “orgasm”) and towards the rice fields to the west of town. Out past there was a park and pagoda where I’d stop to rest, looking at the 8 demigods’ symbols painted above (a medicine gourd, a flute…some other things) before riding back and returning the bike.

 With more than half a year gone by in Zunyi, I was starting to feel like I’d never figure the place out before I left. Not just Zunyi, but China, which I was starting to feel was a more exciting place in Western fantasy than in reality: the name “China”  conjures up temples, pagodas, a rich musical tradition, delicious food,  richly brocaded fabric, or at least some sort  of modern equivalent to these things (seeing as I knew that people generally did not live in pagoda’d and pavilion’d houses anymore, and not everyone sat around all day painting calligraphy or playing the zither). At least you expect scenery, historic sites that look vaguely authentic, food you can trust, maybe a lantern or two, and some adventure.

You’ll get the adventure – if  “ did this bus just drive up a flight of stairs FOR REAL?” is your idea of it (it is for me!) – and the food generally was fantastic, at least when it wasn’t bitter gourd, some other weird roots or things, or mostly bone, fat and sinew…but the food supply was (and is) so untrustworthy that eating was a risk unto itself. I survived…with three fewer teeth than I had going in.

I did learn how to cook some amazing dishes and I was introduced to the life-changing, or at least digestion-changing, concept of 花椒, or flower pepper, though.

But the historic sites are mostly gone or covered in bathroom tile, everything else is basically a concrete box (also covered in bathroom tile) and few really care about any of the traditional, well, anything. There was scenery, but views of it were so gummed up by pollution that even that was a let-down.

And yes, I was starting to wonder what on earth could possibly keep me in China. Wouldn’t I be better off returning to India or exploring some other part of the globe? One not covered in tile? What was I doing in China and was Zunyi a place I could really settle into for longer than my one year contract?

Ruminating on this and marinating in coal smoke, the other two foreigners and I decided to try and find Hailongtun: the ruins of a 13th century fortress with a bloody history about 30km outside of town. It was the site of a battle between Ming dynasty forces and a ruling clan in what is now Guizhou and part of Sichuan – it was build by the regional ruling clan, which by the end of the 16th century was in direct conflict with the Ming court. A bloody battle took place and thousands, if not tens of thousands, were massacred here. The head of the ruling Yang family killed himself along with two concubines. as he was outsmarted by the Ming soldiers.

We also knew that we were in for quite a climb if we attempted to get here, but then doing anything in China felt like quite a climb, if not physically, then mentally. I handled this feeling well in India, but for some reason getting into the groove of it was not working out in China. Where in India my memories  are sunny, colorful, occasionally mud-colored but always warm, when it comes to China my thoughts turn a cold, dingy gray, not unlike the side of a cement wall in winter.

Other than Fragrant Mountain Temple (香山寺) and the buildings in my neighborhood considered historic sites for their significance during the Long March (you could see the roof of the building where Mao Zedong was elected to the Communist Party Central Committee from my window), there wasn’t much of historical significance in Zunyi. I guess having even what it did was a feat: the town was mostly spared destruction of its culture and relics because of that  significance in Communist history. I thought seeing something of genuine historical significance would reaffirm my faith that my year was worth it, that I’d be amazed by something. That maybe I would be brought a little bit closer to the country I was living in by our shared values regarding the importance of history (Cultural Revolution notwithstanding, and leaving most of that history not standing).

It didn’t seem like it would be that hard - it was mentioned in a book published in English, which was a rare thing in itself, to find good tourism information on Guizhou in English. There even seemed to be a bus that would take us close by, followed by a short hike.

The first time Jenny and I tried to go was just before Chinese New Year – we stopped in a random town where the bus route ended, maybe 17 kilometers outside Zunyi. We asked around for “Hailongtun” in piss-poor Chinese, and were led up a street to a hiking trail. We were told it was a 5-hour walk each way. It was already 3pm. We turned back, after snapping some photos of New Year fireworks for sale.  As we were waiting for a bus, a guy with a van stopped and asked us where we were headed. I tried to say that we had wanted to go to Hailongtun. I don’t think he quite understood: he arranged for us to take a bus which we thought was heading back to Zunyi. Instead, the driver said, he’d take us to Hailongtun.

Great!

Oh, but from where he would drop us off it was a two-hour hike each way. We tried protesting but it wasn’t working. Finally we just let him drop us off, praying that wherever we ended up there, would be another bus back to Zunyi. He let us off in some other random town with one place to stay, one liquor store, a few street stands and a village atmosphere, and bid us a nice hike. It was already getting a little dark out.

We did catch a bus back to Zunyi, with the promise to try again in a few weeks. This time we brought Julian, whose Chinese was considerably better than ours but who, like me, wasn’t as fast a hiker as Jenny. We took the bus back to the second village and started out again. Villagers said that in fact it was a four hour hike, and to start from Jingling Mountain, “just over that way”.

Pagodas and farms on the way to Jingling Mountain
OK, misinformation was nothing new for me after life in China and India, so we rolled with the ever-changing time estimates of how long it would actually take to get there, and starting points that seemed to float around with no fixed center, as though the goal didn’t even exist. We grabbed some water and food and headed down the dirt road to the Jingling Mountain trailhead, passing rice fields and a few rustic pagodas on small hills.

Then the stairs began, and with them, fog.

“I hope this clears by afternoon,” Julian said dryly, knowing as well as we did that fog in the mountains of northern Guizhou, once settled in, basically never clears.  We trudged up stairs – miles and miles of stairs, not unlike hiking in Taiwan – into ever thicker fog and a bit of drizzle.

“Maybe it’ll look better in the fog, you know, more mysterious and otherworldly,” said Jenny hopefully. Ever the optimist.

More stairs. We passed a temple, and then another. Nobody had told us that Jingling Mountain was dotted all the way to the top with increasingly beautiful temples, many of them untouched by the scourge of white tile. Most appeared to be Dao/Chinese folk religion in affiliation rather than Buddhist, but it is sometimes hard to tell. We stopped at a few to admire the architecture, idols and incense and chat with the shrine-keepers, who walked up these miles of stairs every morning  and down them every evening.

 The stairs led on, sometimes sharp-edged concrete, sometimes rough-hewn stone, sometimes packed dirt, but they didn’t let up. At one point it felt like we were ascending to heaven. We passed a small turn-off with a shack down the way and asked again there if we were going the right way “no, no, don’t go this way, keep going up the mountain,” the woman told us.
Incense burner (photo by Julian) in one of the temples on Jingling Mountain

Well, alright then. I just hoped that we wouldn’t hit the top of Jinglingshan only to discover that we had to descend the whole thing and ascend the next mountain, and then go back and descend, ascend and descend again. We’d started early but there wasn’t enough time in the day for that.

About three quarters of the way up, Jenny got sick of our slow butts and decided to hike at her own pace. “I’ll meet you there,” she said.  It was true that she was reasonably fit while Julian and I sputtered up the stairs like the duo in Absolutely Fabulous.

We really didn’t have a choice, although I was filled with dread, because rather like my gut feeling that I would never really settle into China, I had an instinctive knowledge that we had approximately .00001% of a chance of making it to Hailongtun that day. So if not there, where would we meet her? Julian could speak Chinese, I could get by in Chinese, but Jenny couldn’t, although she could quite literally run circles around us athletically. She might make it to Hailongtun but would she make it back? We two probably wouldn’t make it to Hailongtun but we could get home just by asking nicely.

Julian and I trudged upward, hitting one final temple and being told that Jinglingshan’s summit was only about 10 minutes up some more stairs.

The temple had a dragon fountain into which you could throw tokens – one renminbi for five, or something like that. If the token landed on the dragon sculpture and not in the bowl, you could make a wish.

I bought the tokens and added something to the game – completely made-up, but I felt like a lot of rules of life and even courtesy in China were basically made-up, slapped together ad-hoc or sometimes not even as necessary but for the explicit purpose of being inconvenient, so it wouldn’t really matter if I made up my own fortune telling superstition it wouldn’t matter to anyone, man or god. I  asked a question each time a coin was thrown, and if it hit the dragon, a heads-up would mean “yes” and a tails-up would mean “no” (the heads were Mao Zedong and the tails were some kind of flower, the tokens were cheap aluminum).               

Two of my coins hit the dragon. I’m not using that as a narrative device – it actually happened. Ask Julian. I made two wishes and asked two questions.

It was now mid-afternoon, and the fog hadn’t let up. But we knew that it wouldn’t. We also knew that we had very little time to actually get there, because we absolutely needed to start heading back.

We decided to go for it. I don’t believe that a stone dragon in a fountain on a temple as a magical fortune-telling device, but I knew, I just knew, what was going to happen.

We walked the ten minutes – for once someone was accurate in their assessment of how long it would take – and hit the summit.
Without fog, the view would have been spectacular. You could feel it in the air. We were surrounded immediately by open space and further on by other mountains and valleys. It would have been stunning. Life-altering, even. Maybe enough to make me reconsider my fairly lackluster opinion of China.

There was fog, though. All-encompassing, all-engulfing white out. You couldn’t see past the stone fence surrounding the platform on the summit, not even down the mountain slope beyond. Nothing. I shouted into it. There was an echo, but that also told me nothing. I called Jenny’s name. Nothing. I screamed it. Nothing.

Of course, the trail ended there. There was no descent. There was only back the way we’d come. Dead end, no Hailongtun, not even a trail we could have taken if we’d had more time. I can’t help but see that as metaphorical.

We turned back, stopped partway down at the turn-off and asked again.

“Of course that is the way to Hailongtun”, the woman said.
“Why didn’t you tell us before? Why did you tell us not to go?”
“Because it’s another three hours’ walk from here. You’d never have made it.  If you go the other way at least you can go to the peak of this mountain.”
“Did another foreigner go that way?”
“Yes, but she came back awhile ago.”
“Did she make it to Hailongtun?”
“I don’t know, she couldn’t speak Chinese. Probably not. Are you hungry?”
“YES!”

She fed us some rice, tofu, cauliflower and carrot cooked in basic Sichuan seasoning. I wolfed, Julian, who doesn’t care for Sichuanese flavors, barely ate. We offered to pay her, but she’d have none of it, even after we offered three times.

This was one thing I liked about China – this and the bus that drove up a flight of stairs. Sometimes, when you least expected it, people were kind. Even people who led you down the wrong trail earlier.

We walked back to town and caught a bus back to Zunyi, fog-dampened and exhausted.  We warmed up a bit and then went to Jenny’s apartment, where she was also huddled in front of a space heater and not concerned about us. “I figured you’d make it back.”

“Did you make it to Hailongtun?”
“Nope. You?”
“No.”
“Oh well…next time?”
“Next time.”

Except I knew, without really knowing, that there wasn’t going to be a next time, not for Hailongtun and not for China. I knew that I wasn’t going to renew my contract, and that I wasn’t going to stay in China. I did not yet know that I’d end up in Taiwan, or that I’d find both the settled happiness and adventure here that I couldn’t find in China. I did not yet know that I was going to marry my best friend, or that despite having a few ugly facades and terrible winter weather that Taiwan would suit me  remarkably well. Not because it is easier – although it is – but because something about life here, the more laid-back attitudes, the fraternity and hospitality, the fact that it’s full of (often) pollution-free scenery and history unencumbered by concrete and tile, sits better with me.

I didn’t know a lot, but I did know, somewhere deep in some internal organ in my gut, that my failure to find Hailongtun represented my failure to feel at home in China, or to be able to say anything more complimentary than “it was an interesting and adventurous experience. You could say it changed my life. It certainly ruined my teeth and my respiratory system.” I will say that while, like not reaching Hailongtun, I never did feel at home in China, that rather like finding all the lovely temples dotting Jingling Mountain, I did have a lot of adventures along the way.

I guess that’s all you can ask of a year abroad, so I don’t feel gypped. My year in Taiwan opened me up to the possibility of Taiwan, and for that I am grateful. I have found many Hailongtuns here.

So as for my questions to the dragon fountain on the highest temple of Jingling Mountain.

For the first question, I asked “Will we ever make it to Hailongtun?”

For the second, “Will I ever see China as more than a brief adventure, a pit stop, a place to explore but not feel at home in?”

No.

And no.

I won’t tell you what I wished for on top of that, but both my questions and my wishes came true.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Moving to Taiwan and Female? Here's what to bring.

So you're female, about to move to Taiwan, and wondering what to bring. From my own experience, plus some awesome suggestions on my last post, here are my suggestions on what to pack as you plan your exciting move abroad.

Men - lots of talk of women's hygiene, medicine and underthings below - feel free to skip this one (or, if you're not shy, you are welcome to read ahead).

1.) Tampons or basically any non-pad option –

We all know that Taiwan is not exactly a great place to find feminine hygiene items that are not pads. There are tampons available but they’re the tiny ones that…well, you know. Other items such as Diva cups and their ilk are available, I’ve heard, but never seen one for sale – if you do want to try this out, get used to it before you arrive. I would, however, be sure to bring a few boxes of tampons to last until you can get another supply.

I have heard unconfirmed rumors that Costco sells western style products for this issue, but haven’t been able to confirm in person.

2.) Birth control –

Birth control options are limited in Taiwan, and the most popular choices given out by OB-GYNs are Yaz and Yasmin, which many women don’t care for, and which can have some irritating side effects. Bring a supply if you don’t want to go through the rigmarole of changing your medication (although there are English-speaking OB-GYN options). IUDs and rings (NuvaRing etc) are available but implanted contraceptives and injections are not – apparently due to side effects, but I don’t really believe that considering the side effects of Yasmin and its continued presence in the Taiwanese market.

I have heard that a doctor will inject you with Depo-Provera if you bring your own supply – they all know what it is, they just can’t get it for you in Taiwan.

3.) Clothes you’d like to have copied or altered –

Bring any items you love enough that you’d like another version in a different color or slightly altered style: you can get clothes easily copied on Dihua Street in Taipei. Got an old article of clothing that you love to pieces and can’t bear to throw away even though it’s in tatters? I do – a faux leather jacket with a dragon on it – bring it along and take the time to get an exact copy made!

4.) Plenty of shoes in your size –

There is only one reliable source for large women’s shoes in Taiwan if you don’t want sneakers or sandals, and the selection is not that big. Bring lots of shoes – they tend to wear out quickly with all the rain and humidity and they’ll get dingy faster than back home.

Do bring your favorite shoes – you’ll have chances to wear them. It took me 3 years to get my super hot black leather boots to Taiwan but I’m so happy I did!

5.) Bras, underwear and a bathing suit –

Bras here are made for the Asian female form, which means probably not for your figure. Bring plenty from home, and more than you think you need – they wear out more quickly in the humidity. Underwear tends to be made of synthetic materials, doesn’t fit quite right and isn’t great for the weather (I don’t know how Taiwanese girls manage, honestly). Bring some soft cotton pairs for hot and humid days and a few nice pairs, ‘cause you won’t find anything really attractive that fits you here unless you are shaped like a Taiwanese woman – I don’t know about you, but I’m not!

6.) A few pairs of your favorite jeans / pants –

You can find tops if you look hard enough and get skirts made, but pants are an eternal problem. I have sworn loyalty to Old Navy sweetheart mid-rise boot cut jeans in dark denim, and you bet your boot cut that I can’t find anything like them in Taiwan. Nothing made for women fits me, and nothing made for men looks good. Like bras, they wear out faster in the humidity, especially between the legs, so bring a spare pair or two. The same for your any other pants you love.

7.) A large supply of your favorite skin and hair care products –

Many products are sold here – Clean&Clear has most of its product line (but not its strongest salicylic acid formula – it’s all much gentler) but St. Ives does not (and I swear by their green tea scrub). If you have a strong preference, bring along an extra bottle. Brands such as L’Occitane, Crabtree&Evelyn, Aveda and Lush are widely available – Lush closed for awhile but they’re back! Muji also makes a good facial soap and scrub, and the local herbal soaps are great. Only worry about this if you are loyal to a particular item, as I am. I have to get my parents to send a care package of St. Ives Green Tea Scrub and tampons every six months or so!

8.) Concealer and foundation in a color that suits you, makeup primer –

This stuff is all available in Asia, but generally the most stocked colors suit Asian skin tones…so if you’re super white like me, it’ll be harder to find stuff that suits your own skin. While major brands such as Shu Uemura, MAC, Smashbox etc. are available here, it still may be hard to find the foundation and concealer colors you need. Primer doesn’t seem to be a big thing here either.

Notably, Urban Decay and Bare Escentuals are not sold in Taiwan, and I do recommend bringing an oil-free primer and mineral powder foundation, not a cream, liquid or compact foundation simply because the weather is so humid: anything with even a touch of oil will make you feel like you smashed your face into a well-iced cake on any of the particularly devastating summer days.

Fortunately for me, I don’t wear a lot of makeup – most days I wear none, and on the days when I wear some it’s mostly to cover up undereye circles – so a little goes a long way.

Do bring “going out” makeup, as there is a good nightlife scene and you will use it.

9.) Your favorite deodorant –

Deodorant is available in Taiwan, so don’t fret if you run out. If you are loyal to a brand, though, bring along some extra as your choices will be limited and generally what is sold here isn’t as effective on us stinky Westerners. It all seems to be made for Japanese girls who don’t smell. Or something.

10.) Pamprin, Motrin, Zyrtec, Dramamine, Aleve –

Most medications are available here (Imigran, Allegra, benzoyl peroxide, ibuprofen, Panadol – which is a Tylenol/Excedrin equivalent – and more) but the ones above definitely are not. If you use any of these, bring your own supply. A Dramamine alternative is available but it puts me to sleep.

11.) Pajamas you love and a comfy, light bathrobe –

Pajamas are another thing that can be really hard to find – I find that the drawstring old lady Chinese pants and a t-shirt are fine, but if you like specific pajamas, bring them from home. Same for bathrobes – they are available but in too-small sizes and generally harder to find if you want light, soft cotton. I have one short cotton robe and one yukata (Japanese blue and white cotton robe) and they work well, but I procured neither in Taiwan.

One place to buy pajamas if you are feeling spendy in Taiwan is at SkinJoy/Danee 10)% Silk.

12.) Multivitamins or other supplements –

These are widely available but hellaciously expensive.

13.) A fluffy, absorbent towel you love –

You can buy decent towels in IKEA, Muji and Nitori, but they’re not cheap. Towels sold elsewhere tend to be too cheap, and made of a plasticky material that doesn’t really dry you off. You know I can be quite picky about certain things and have high standards for unusual items, and to me, a really good towel is key. Nothing beats the feel of a soft, absorbent towel and nothing is worse than feeling water slide around because you bought some cheap synthetic thing from the night market.

14.) A guidebook –

This goes for both genders, and seems obvious, but my own sister showed up for a year in Taiwan without a guidebook so I figured I should put it here.

15.) At least one semiformal outfit and one business formal suit/outfit –

You never know when an opportunity will come up and you’ll need to interview, and good business clothes are really hard to come by in Taiwan for the Western woman (although they can be found and can be made). If you will be working in an office, bring more than you think you need because they will be hard to replace. Sometimes this isn’t even a size issue – it’s a style issue. I’m not such a fan of the random lace and frills on women’s office wear here, nor do I care for those looks-like-two-tops-but-really-is-one shirts.

Semiformal outfits will work for nice dinners and who knows, you might be invited to a wedding! You’ll need something – like a not-too-fussy cocktail dress, to wear out.

16.) Pantyhose/stockings –

Also sold in Taiwan but in very limited sizes. I haven’t found any that are remotely comfortable (although I have found some that fit).

17.) Clothes you love -

Clothes that fit Western women are available here, but you may not find a lot that you really like or that flatters you. If you have favorites - as I do - bring clothing you feel great in.

Other suggestions I’ve received, and some things you do not need to bring:

1.) Iron supplements –

Yes, they’re expensive in Taiwan so bring them if you take them, but I find that the little white ‘women’s drinks’ in 7-11 as well as good ol’ beef noodles are fine for a woman’s iron needs.

2.) Cake and other mixes –

A great idea if you know you’ll have an oven, but don’t start your stay in Asia with these things, as most places you could rent will not come with an oven. It took us years to buy a convection oven and anyway, we prefer (well, I prefer) to cook from scratch. That said, if you cook with Betty Crocker or Jiffy mixes and do have an oven, bring them over as they’re really overpriced here.

3.) Photos of loved ones and a few personal mementos –

Photos are so much easier to just pile on a USB drive and print out here if you want to hang them up. I never felt the need for mementos (home for me is wherever Brendan is, awww), but if you feel more at home with a favorite item then go for it!

4.) Home décor items –

There are plenty of choices in Taiwan, often for cheaper than you can buy the same stuff back home. I recommend Nitori, personally, over bringing over items to decorate.

5.) Books –

Buy online with free delivery worldwide from The Book Depository or check out the myriad used bookstores in Taipei (not to mention the premium book retailers such as Page One and Eslite). Don’t waste luggage space.

6.) A formal dress/gown/outfit

You will basically never wear it unless you will be working for a company that holds a formal annual party (and even for those, a cocktail dress will do). I’ve never met an expat woman who needed to wear a black tie outfit in Taiwan. That said, if you will be working in a capacity where this might be necessary, then you are the best judge.

Generally, however, Taiwan is a much less formal place in terms of clothing. Most men have never worn a tuxedo, and most women don formal wear for their own wedding, and that’s basically it.

7.) Shapewear –

Most of the shapewear sold for old ladies will fit foreign women. I haven’t had a problem yet – you can probably get a lot of that stuff here.

8.) Spices –

Between Wellcome, the department store supermarkets and Trinity Superstores you can get whatever you need here. I make full-on Indian and Ethiopian curries in Taiwan and never brought spices from home. I can make bere-bere and chaat masala from scratch, and so can you!

9.) Hair care products -

For crazy hair colors, if you use Manic Panic do bring some, but otherwise if you are more every day in your hair care needs, Taipei has plenty of options, including hair care for colored and permed hair. I find L'Occitane and Just Herb products are good in Taiwan's weather, or you can go to Mix&Match and buy products there after your awesome haircut.

10.) Glasses -

Glasses are cheap and plentiful, available in a million styles here, and eye tests are quick and painless. Get glasses here, not back home.

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That's about it for my suggestions - I got a lot of great ones in my last call for ideas, but if you are just happening upon this post now and want to help a new female expat out (as I am sure some will find this page), do post suggestions in the comments below!