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

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

How to help Hong Kong refugees without calling them "refugees"


Since the imposition of the National Security Law on Hong Kong and renewed protests in opposition to it, there has been a great deal of discussion regarding whether Taiwan is obligated to help Hong Kong (honestly - no), whether helping Hong Kong is the right thing to do (yes), and what exactly Taiwan can do to help.

Despite some Taiwanese saying that they need to prioritize the well-being of their own country rather than helping refugees - a false comparison, as any nation can do both - I do believe most want to help Hong Kongers fleeing their increasingly authoritarian city. How to do that, however, is not clear.

Measures are expected to be approved on Thursday (article in Cantonese, but there's a decent English rundown here) to help political asylum seekers. According to Radio Free Asia, this would include vetting both by Hong Kong and Taiwanese human rights lawyers at different stages of the process, help with housing, including centralized housing options, and financial and employment aid upon arrival. These measures are based on Article 18 of the Act Governing Relations Between Hong Kong and Macau, and would amend Article 25 of that same act, which concerns transportation of goods and people between Taiwan and Hong Kong/Macau.

There are many questions that still need to be addressed, however. Until very recently, the Taiwanese government was saying that Hong Kongers coming to Taiwan should not be considered "refugees" because the term was too 'emotionally sensitive' - I can't find a link right now but will source one soon.  Of course, the real reason is that considering Hong Kong's status vis-a-vis ROC and PRC laws, specifically designating Hong Kongers fleeing to Taiwan as "refugees" is very murky legal territory. As early as 10 days ago, the Tsai government was saying no new laws were needed, even though refugees and advocates say that current mechanisms are clearly insufficient

If the laws won't change, whatever happens on Thursday is not likely to open more pathways for Hong Kongers than the ones which already exist: work or study, which visas that not everyone can get; investment, which is really only for the wealthy; or throwing oneself into an ill-defined humanitarian legal system that is just being set up. 

Honestly, there is more we could do. Simply making it easier for Hong Kongers to get visas to come to Taiwan would be a start, as would prioritizing the opening of a 'travel bubble' of places that have handled coronavirus well, which would include Hong Kong. Having a wide array of visas to choose from would ensure more Hong Kongers might find a visa that applies to them.

Here are some ideas for visa classes that could be opened to Hong Kongers, if they don't exist already. Some have already suggested this, but the talent they seem keen on attracting is still far too narrow. Many of these are already available to people from some countries, though I'm not clear what the entry requirements are or if they are available to Hong Kongers. Changing the requirements or applicability of these visas wouldn't require new laws - existing ones could simply be amended.

Employment-seeking visas: give Hong Kongers who apply and pass a security check a visa with a generous time limit, during which they may seek employment, with few (if any) restrictions on what that employment is. Make it possible to convert this visa into a resident visa with a work permit in Taiwan. These could be broadly open to just about anyone. In addition, barriers to what sort of jobs and salary offers qualify one for employment should be relaxed - for everyone, not just Hong Kongers.

Entrepreneur visas: for Hong Kongers who have a bit more cash and could conceivably open their own small business. Make the requirements for this low - even a street stall or coffee kiosk would be sufficient.

Study and academic visas: offer a wider range of student visas, including a visa simply for signing up for classes at a language center. 

Artist visas: this class currently exists, but is extremely hard to get (I don't know anyone who has successfully obtained one). Make it easier to get, so that all you need to do is prove you've had some commercial success with your art - whether that's fine arts, getting DJ gigs, getting paid to write or design or sell your handmade goods...whatever.

Reduce requirements for work visas: end the salary and some of the educational requirements for obtaining a work visa for those who can get hired, so that the current requirements aren't overly onerous. As it is, most front-line protesters - that is, people most in need of a way out as they will absolutely be targeted - are young and probably don't meet the current requirements.

Certainly, financial, housing and legal assistance are also important.  By centering these, Taiwan is clearly expecting an influx of people arriving and sticking around without any legal status, and that's an important thing to consider. However, alongside these, more legal means to come to Taiwan need to be put in place. 

Just a few years ago, the media was focused on discussing "brain drain", especially from Taiwan to China.  This is just one of seemingly hundreds of articles dissecting the topic. If that really was an issue, and Taiwan has a talent and labor shortage, it would be beneficial to let Hong Kongers who want to start a new life in a free country do so. 

Obviously, anyone applying for these would still have to undergo some sort of security check. We can assume that the CCP would attempt to funnel in bad actors through a more open visa system in Hong Kong, especially in these times. However, once they do, an influx of talented Hong Kongers who share Taiwanese values such as respect for human rights and democracy can only be good for the country. 

Friday, March 20, 2020

Thoughts on the "Expanded Overstayers Voluntary Departure" Scheme

I cannot imagine a poster with more Taiwanese-style design choices

I'm still forming a full opinion on this, so my position is subject to change.

At the moment, Taiwan has a program running where visa overstayers can voluntarily turn themselves in until 30 June 2020. They'll pay a minimal fine (NT$2000) and face no detention or entry ban.

Please be aware: anyone caught by authorities will be subject to full penalties which may include a ban on re-entering Taiwan. That includes being caught at any time, including the "voluntary departure" period.

There is no promise that the immigration authorities will not conduct checks during this period, and if you are caught you will be deported with full penalty. 
In other words, this program isn't aimed at helping you stay - it's aimed at convincing you to leave by making that option relatively painless. The government is not saying "you can overstay your visa", they're saying "you can't overstay your visa, but if you do, we'll make it easy for you to get out".

Therefore, "taking advantage" of the amnesty program is a huge risk. Do this at your peril: I can't in good conscience advise it. If you are an overstayer, you may get caught, and you may be deported.

It's quite clear that if you turn yourself in, at that time you will be expected to leave, so this is not a "you can stay" program. It's a "if you leave on your own before we catch you, we won't punish you" program. Bear that in mind.

On one hand, this is more than most countries do for people whose visas are running out, or who may be in the country illegally. It feels like a very 'Taiwanese bureaucracy' way of saying "in practice, you can theoretically stay until 30 June, which is our intention, but we have to pretend to be tough on immigration for appearances' sake".

It's not perfect and it doesn't reduce anxiety, but we really must recognize that the vast majority of governments would not do this. Taiwan did. That counts for something. 


It also gives them leeway to decide to extend the program for as long as the CCP Virus rages. So, there is humanity in it. It offers options to some of the people who otherwise might have none.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the CCP Virus will have abated by then (do not believe the data coming out of China) and no guarantee that the program will be extended. There's no guarantee that a cheap, regional visa run will be possible at that time.

On the other hand, there are a lot of people it doesn't help. People trying to get paperwork through that would allow them to stay legally, but won't be processed by the time their visas run out and might have to wait out the CCP Virus in a far more dangerous country where they might not have a clear place to stay aren't offered much here. People who do regional visa runs (like the Honduran man in my last piece who wants to marry his Taiwanese partner, but can't) can use this program as an unofficial extension, but face uncertainty after that date. Illegal workers, especially those who are scraping by in Taiwan, might not have the resources to leave if they do turn themselves in.

What bothers me about it, I suppose, is that philosophically it's still in the "go home!" camp, and a lot of people facing visa issues in fact consider Taiwan home. As a supporter of open borders, I'd prefer a "you are here, we'll shelter in place together" approach. Instead, it's a kinder form of trying to kick people out.

Allowing all landing visa holders to convert to a visitor visa would be the real game-changer, as those visas would start running out at about the same time, but would grant temporary legal status rather than giving people anxiety for choosing to overstay. It looks a lot less "strict" but it would be a more progressive approach.

And yet, at a time like this, can I really expect a perfect response? 

It's hard to say I like this approach, but I have to recognize that it's a slight improvement in the situation with some practical benefits.

However, it really doesn't solve the issues faced by those who are affected by the travel ban as their legal stays in Taiwan start to expire.


Thursday, March 19, 2020

In Limbo: foreigners hoping to build lives in Taiwan face uncertainty with the new travel ban


The Taiwan CECC (Central Epidemic Command Center) announcement on Wednesday that all non-resident foreigners would be barred from entering the country sent shockwaves across Taiwan’s international community due to the CCP Virus. Many who had hoped to enter Taiwan, or who are here legally on landing or tourist visas and had hoped to stay, were caught without many good options. 

On a positive note, the government’s explicit clarification that foreign residents would be allowed to enter was a relief. While it’s unlikely we would have been banned, policymakers have a tendency to forget that the foreign community exists, leaving us confused and anxious whenever a new policy doesn’t clearly state whether we are included or not. That they thought of this signals a welcome change.

However, many foreigners in Taiwan who do not have legal residency are now finding themselves difficult situations. While regular tourists can be expected to leave, not everyone fits that category. There are those who are here legally as job seekers, engaged to marry a resident, digital nomads, and others who wanted to fly in to be with family but now can't. 

I asked a few of these people if they'd mind sharing their stories, and they've agreed. From employment, to marriage, to pregnancy to keeping families together, there are so many ways that the new policy has impacted foreigners, in ways the government likely never considered.

Here are some of their stories. 

(More stories are coming in, so I'll update as that happens.)

Trying to marry as the window closes

D. is a resident in Taiwan, working in the tech sector. A Hungarian national born in Serbia, he is engaged to an American woman who has been staying here on landing visas. He can stay, but she can't, once her visa is up. It's highly unlikely that "we're planning to marry" would trigger an exemption, but of course it would be safer and better if they weathered this pandemic in place, together.

They've looked into speeding up the wedding, but the thorny issue of his nationality makes obtaining the necessary certificate of single status difficult for him to obtain, at a time when de facto embassies here are dealing with bigger matters. The TECO office in Hungary also serves Serbians (there is no office in Serbia for political reasons), but he has no contacts in Hungary who can send him the needed certificate. It is easier for his partner, who should be able to go to AIT if they're not completely overwhelmed.

They are currently planning to try to get the required document for him from the Hungarian embassy in Taiwan so they can register to marry before her visa expires, but it is still unclear if that will be possible.

A high-risk pregnancy and delivering alone

M. is single and carrying a high-risk pregnancy which is due in 4 weeks. Her mother was scheduled to fly to Taiwan for the delivery, was willing to do the mandatory quarantine and even moved her flight up. She was going to get here this Saturday - which was not soon enough before the travel ban took effect.

Due to coronavirus concerns, only one family member - and yes, they must be a family member - is allowed in the delivery room. M. has no family in Taiwan, so she will deliver alone. She also lives alone, and can't afford a post-partum hotel, so while she'd been looking forward to having her mother there during her recovery period, now she'll be living alone for that time.

She doesn't know when her mother will be able to get here. 

Family reunification

S. and S. are permanent residents in Taipei, but their daughter A. lives in London with her boyfriend, whom she met while attending international school in Taipei. They've been together 6 years. The daughter and her boyfriend want to return to Taiwan to stay with S. and S. (the boyfriend's parents currently live in China, and he is American by nationality). Because the option to get permanent residency for the children of permanent residents was only recently made available, A. missed that window and has no resident visa.

S. says that A. and her boyfriend attempted to get visas, giving the reason that they want to be with family (official or otherwise) but were turned away.

"I don’t know when I’ll see her. I wish they had ARCs. It doesn’t seem fair, because this is our home now - we both have APRCs. This is the only home she has, besides her apartment in London," S. says, and she clearly wants her daughter with her.

Newly-Hired Limbo

For those hoping to teach in Taiwan, a background check from their home country is necessary for their first job. For subsequent jobs, if they haven't been out of Taiwan for too long, a Taiwanese background check is sufficient. Of course, the home-country checks take forever because Western governments just can't get these things right. The Taiwanese check is cheap and takes a day or two.

C., an American, had had a home background check done for a previous job, but that was awhile ago, so it's no longer valid. He's now back in Taiwan and had been job hunting on a landing visa (which is not really encouraged, but is quite common). He has a job offer with all other paperwork complete, but the employer needs a background check from the US, as this will be his first stint here on a work permit. Background checks can take a very long time indeed, though there is an option to expedite. An expedited check under the best circumstances takes a week. With the West in the throes of a pandemic, who knows how long it will be?

C's landing visa runs out on March 29th. Work permit paperwork takes 5 days. So, he has until this Monday - that's two working days - to figure this out and get his paperwork submitted.  That won't be possible, clearly. Normally one would just take a weekender to a nearby country to restart the landing visa and pick up the work permit after returning, but with the borders closed to all non-residents, that's no longer an option for C. - which was announced just a few days before his hard deadline to get the paperwork through, or leave.

C. isn't sure what he's going to do, or if going to the immigration office, hat in hand, with a letter from his new employer and copies of his work permit application materials, will be enough to have an exception granted (this is easier for Canadians and British people but not as easy for Americans). He can try, but his future is uncertain.

Love, Interrupted

W. is from the Honduras, and his partner, D., is Taiwanese. Although same-sex marriage is legal in Taiwan, Taiwanese can only marry foreigners if it is legal in their partner's home country as well (due to reasons I truly do not comprehend). Honduras, of course, does not recognize marriage equality, so W. and D. cannot marry in Taiwan. This also means that D., a Taiwanese citizen, cannot access a right that should be guaranteed to him by the government.

For now, W. is a "visa runner", but would prefer not to be. He just wants to marry D. and stay in Taiwan, but due to a quirk of the same-sex marriage laws, that's impossible. He's in a position he never wanted to be in.

That's not grounds for an extension or exception as, on paper, W. has no 'reason' to stay as there is no permanent situation available to him.

His visa runs out in 15 days, and he will have to go back to Honduras. After that, he doesn't know when he'll be allowed back into Taiwan, or be reunited with D. to continue their lives together.

Trying to Contribute to Taiwan

A. had been working with an American non-profit and an existing organization in Taiwan to self-fund his teaching of English and Art courses to Indigenous children. When the CCP Virus broke out, both sides backed out, and then the borders closed after he arrived. A. now has 81 days to find a way to legally stay in Taiwan.

The Uncertainty, and the Happy Ending

H. moved to Taiwan with her husband and had been planning to do a visa run to Macau to get a proper visitor visa and get her spousal visa paperwork in order. Now, if she leaves for Macau she won't be allowed back in, and while she may qualify for a special exemption, she's not sure at all.

G., who is British, and his Taiwanese wife had been living in Europe. His job ended, they had no desire to live in the UK especially after Brexit, and have ties in Taiwan, so it made sense to come back now. G. came in on a landing visa, and had planned to get another one after Christmas, giving them time to get the spousal visa paperwork through.

Then coronavirus hit, and their options began to narrow, as flights kept getting canceled to potential destinations. Travel clearly wasn't going to work. At that point, about a week ago, they went to the immigration office to ask for an extension, given the circumstances. Then the travel ban hit, and without an answer they were obviously quite nervous. If his extension were rejected, he'd have to go to the UK to wait out the pandemic, where he hadn't lived in some time.

Fortunately for G., he got word today that his extension was approved and he will be able to stay in Taiwan.

All I can say is,
 don’t assume an extension won't be granted - come up with a good reason and ask. Make sure you have enough time so that they can consider your case. Bring evidence. Get back-up. Fight for your right to not die. 

A lot of people are going to get screwed by this travel ban, but I hope that despite its tough talk, the government will be lenient with granting exceptions to those who have extenuating circumstances. These foreigners are already here, so they are not a risk. They want to build a life here and have the means to do so.

The CECC surely did not mean to tear apart families when it formed this policy; they were trying to do what was best for the country. However, we must ask that they consider the impact this has on foreigners in Taiwan, and re-evaluate their visa extension and exception rules. 

Good luck to everyone. 

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Immigration and racism in Taiwan: it's not about who you are when you come, but who you become after you arrive

IMG_9736 2
Silhouettes of a visitor and a foreign resident in Taiwan

Perhaps an explosive title, but hear me out. I'm going to talk mostly about Taiwan in this post, but the ideas I want to express can be applied to more or less any country (there may be a few exceptions that I'm not aware of  - but by and large this is a global problem). Otherwise, let's just jump right in.

In Taiwan, it's fairly easy for professionals to immigrate and gain permanent residency, at least compared to much of the rest of the world. If you are a professional with at least two years' experience in your field or a Master's degree in any field (which has to be a face-to-face program and in some cases, excludes part-time programs) and someone will hire you, you can come to Taiwan with few problems. If you stay for five years, you can get permanent residency. That's actually not bad by global standards. It's much harder to get a visa to work in most Western countries, and permanent residency (e.g. a green card) can take ages. Of course, some are easier than others.

But it is discriminatory - if you're from a family that is middle class or wealthy, you're more likely to have access to the education you need to get hired. You're more likely to speak an international language (such as English, though for Taiwan, Mandarin is a huge help), because you had access to that same education which probably included it. You probably also come from a worldlier 'family culture' that would have encouraged knowing such a language: families where parents and relatives speak a foreign language are more likely to have offspring who also grow up to speak that language.

So, off the bat, any sort of points-based or 'professional' based visa system is automatically classist, because mostly people born into certain social classes have the access to the education and training they need to get hired and obtain a visa in a country like Taiwan (or Australia, or the US, or...etc.)

If you come from a 'developed' country, many (or most) of which are majority-white for historical reasons that are deeply unfair, you are far more likely to be born into such a family. What is the likelihood of, say, a European being born into circumstances that would allow them these advantages, compared to, say, someone from Southeast Asia outside Singapore? A lot greater. So what are your chances of meeting visa requirements calibrated to attract 'professionals' if you already come from a developed (and therefore more likely - though not necessarily - majority white) country? Comparatively speaking, how likely are you to be able to meet those same requirements if you come from a developing country that is almost certainly not white? Anecdotal evidence does not count. "I'm white but my life was tough" does not count - that's not statistical likelihood. "I'm from Vietnam but my family was rich" is also not statistical likelihood. On average, what are your chances?

Since race intersects with class - the color line is the power line is the poverty line - and you are simply more likely to be from a privileged background if you are white - such a system also gives an unfair advantage to people who are white. There are exceptions for sure, but again, we're talking averages here.

In Taiwan's case, I simply don't care if the goal is to attract certain kinds of professionals, in part because doing so is simply inherently classist (and therefore racist) - and that is exactly how Taiwan's immigration system works, both in terms of getting visas to come here, getting permanent residency, and getting citizenship. If you qualify for a professional visa, permanent residency is fairly easy, but if you come here to study - say, you are one of the Southeast Asian students that Taiwan hopes to attract - that doesn't count, and it can be difficult to transition. If you are a blue-collar worker, there's no path at all. To be a citizen, you have to be even more 'qualified', which probably means coming from an even wealthier background, or have 'Chinese ancestry' (which is a law that's obliquely about race).

You can come here and seek a better life, but probably only if your previous life was comparatively privileged, and you can stay forever, but you're probably already really privileged if qualify just isn't a good look.

I also believe that it doesn't actually achieve Taiwan's goals. The birthrate is falling, and while I don't necessarily think "we must unceasingly increase our population so the young can support the old" is a good long-term plan - Taiwan's easily habitable areas are already densely populated and there is finite space and resources - the best way to ensure population stability is to loosen immigration requirements. A lot of these immigrants will marry and have children locally, which is a huge bonus for Taiwan. Not just  professionals: everyone.

In addition, I'm not at all convinced that the visa requirements and citizenship, plum blossom and gold card requirements actually meet Taiwan's needs. Taiwanese media routinely talks about the need to train more vocational workers, there is an oversupply of local workers for white-collar jobs (which is one reason wages are low, though not the only one), and with a low birthrate, Taiwan's labor force depends on immigration. Yes, this is true even despite the brain drain due to low wages and stressful, borderline-tyrannical office culture. And yet, it's especially true for blue-collar workers, because local vocational training is not particularly good and not highly-respected.

It would simply be smarter and truly meet Taiwan's needs, then, to relax rules for blue-collar immigrants, not just white-collar ones. So why have white collar workers been specifically prioritized? (That's a rhetorical question. The answers are racism and classism.)

And, of course, that's not even getting into what white collar workers Taiwan actually needs compared to whom it is trying to attract. With an initiative to become "bilingual by 2030", you'd think they'd want more qualified teachers and teacher trainers who can train up newly-hired local and foreign teachers, and yet for the education sector, only "associate professors", not regular teachers, qualify for dual nationality. That makes no sense at all.

And finally, it's simply the right thing to do. A place - whether that's a country, region or city - prospers when it is open to everyone seeking a better life, and the drawbacks are few. Yes, an influx of labor may cause short-term drops in wages, but those tend to recover. Yes, increased multiculturalism can cause friction, but it doesn't have to be that way, and the advantages of being exposed to people whose backgrounds and worldviews are unlike your own outweigh the drawbacks. Plus, it's a super great way to not be racist! They bring talent and creativity as well as hard work. They open businesses, get married, start families. They fill needs and niches in society. They matter, even if they don't come with a pre-fab education or specific work experience.

In other words, it's not about who you are when you come. Or it shouldn't be. It's who you become after you arrive. 

I want to insert a little story about how I came here and taught English with very few qualifications (some teaching experience in a variety of settings, from children to adults, from monolingual to multilingual, in the US and outside of it, both English and native-speaker literacy, but no formal training.) I want to talk about how the only way I got to where I am now - the person who trains people like my former self - is because of the opportunities I could only access after I got to Taiwan. I want to talk about how I could never have afforded my subsequent training and education with the low purchasing power my American existence felt like it was dooming me to. But I won't (I mean, other than the fact that I just did). I grew up with English as my first language, and standard American English at that. I'm white. I was privileged enough to be born into a family that, with some difficulty, sent me to university. I'm already privileged, so my story isn't the point.

Otherwise, if you say you support immigration to Taiwan but you only mean immigration for the already-privileged, you don't really support immigration. You support classist, and therefore racist, immigration policy. You support people who look and sound like me, but not anyone really different from you. I mean that for Taiwanese as well: yes, we are different, from different backgrounds. Yes, this might lead to some differences in worldview. But, educated Taiwanese readers who can read this in English, you and I have more in common because of our class background than either of us have in common with someone from a truly marginalized community. Especially if you are Han Taiwanese - Han privilege is absolutely a thing, and you know it.

If those other people like us are Asian - say, Hong Kongers, Singaporeans or Japanese - then they are just that much more similar to you, coming from the same region, though not the same culture and society.

Do you really want to support only people who don't seem so different - people like me - or do you really want to support Taiwan being an international society where everyone can seek a better life?

Taiwan is already a multicultural society - though the rate fluctuates, the number of Taiwanese children with a foreign parent has always been higher than a lot of people realize. After all, most of the time, those foreign parents are Asian, so it's hard to tell. For the past few centuries, this country has had foreign travelers, residents, colonizers and spouses interwoven into its cultural and historical fabric. Although there's a 'majority' culture, it's only a monoculture if you want to believe it is (and if you think 'monoculture' includes other foreigners if those foreigners happen to be Asian).

I see no reason why that can't be reflected in a better, more egalitarian, more welcoming and less racist immigration policy. 

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.


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.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


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.


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?”

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?”
“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?”


And no.

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