Archive for January, 2008

one thing I forgot to mention

Thursday, January 24th, 2008

When I said they handed me our pay in cash …. US$1 = NT$32. Two people’s salary for two months. And the largest bill they have here is NT$1000, which is about $31 US.

I mean, it came in bags like small lunch sacks. Good thing I had a backpack.

Thursday, January 24th, 2008

The good: I finally got to open a bank account!
The bad: For some reason Finance picked today to pay our back salary from November and December. In cash.
The good: At least we have our money.
The good: And the bank’s website is in English.
The bad: Except when it’s not, like for instance the New Customer Manual. ANd not all of the English is actually intelligible.
The good: The bank has a helpline with operators who (I’m told) speak English.
The bad: The banker who came to the office to open my account didn’t.
The good: Still, who ever heard of a banker who made office calls?
The bad: We can’t transfer money online to our US accounts.
The good: Supposedly we can do it at the teller desk, and supposedly the tellers speak English. The good: There are apparently no account fees, and the fees for transfer don’t sound awful.
The bad: The interest is minimal. Also, all of the above information is dubious, having gone through an information chain from the banker to a colleague whose own English is mediocre to me.
The bad: Banks are open 9AM to 3PM, M-F, cleverly ensuring they’re never open when we’re actually out of work.
The good: There’s a branch not too far from our office.
The bad: If you call those tiny spaces in front of it “parking”.
The good: I hear is pretty good for converting and transferring money.

Also to the good: the guy in the next cube just wandered over and asked if I wanted a passion fruit. I’d never even seen one, only had passionfruit-flavored candy. Apparently what you do is to open the hard outer shell with brute force and trickery and then scoop out the soft, slimy seeds with a spoon. They’re initially sweet but with a very tart finish. Not bad.

So I guess the goods are outweighing the bads.


some local pictures

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Last week while checking out the DIY (do it yourself) stores, which are all clustered on one street as is the norm here, we also checked out a couple of temples. Here you can see how they just fit into the middle of a street. According to our guidebook, this temple is sacred to Fazhu, a slayer of snakes and demons whose worship was brought in from Fujian Province in Imperial times by a tea merchant.
Down the block from the DIY stores, you come to the clothing and tailoring stores and then to the herb / traditional medicine / traditional food stores. We recognized the nuts, the rosebuds, and the teas, but not much else.

Ted called me to our back window this morning to see this. That window is remarkably good for light shows So far we’ve been in this apartment two months and from it we’ve seen fireworks, a spectacularly lit Feris wheel (now regrettably blocked by a new building) and now this. I’ve never seen a rainbow that seemed so low or so close:

finally! (first row in Taipei)

Sunday, January 13th, 2008


Saturday was our first row in Taipei and it was good to be back on the water. When we left the house in the morning it was 70 degrees Fahrenheit, calm, humid, and hazy. (They call this winter?)

The boat storage area is across the river from our apartment, under the Dazhi Bridge on the northern side of down town Taipei, at the base of the Grand Hotel, with Taipei 101 clearly in view. The rowing is on the Keelung river which meanders its way through Taipei toward the ocean. The river is bordered on both sides by a park & cement levee that follows the river all the way to the Taiwan Strait. The primary purpose of the park area is to provide flood protection, so there are no real structures in it and a limited number of trees, leaving a lot of room for sporting fields. The overall surroundings are not majestic but they are much more scenic than the surrounding city.

We had gotten up early in the hopes of meeting some of the other rowers. Upon arrival we found the boat cover very damp and black with dirt. It is amazing how much gunk collected on the boat cover in only a few weeks. We tried to quickly rig the boat but found that I had forgotten to bring the hatch covers, so Paula graciously volunteered to ride the bicycle back to the house and pick up the missing parts. While Paula was out I finished rigging, and watched the kayakers start their routine. The coach was riding a bicycle, rigged with stop watch on the handle bars, and yelling instructions through a megaphone at his athletes on the water; it looks like coaches are the same everywhere.

The water is tidal and when we arrived it must have been low tide because the boat dock looked more like a ski jump than a dock. This did not stop the kayakers but it definitely stopped me. Soon the coach that I had met many months ago arrived. I tried to get a safety briefing but it was rather difficult because my Chinese is non-existent. I figured out that the tides were important, I should only row on the very nicely marked 2000 meter race course, and the traffic pattern is counter-clockwise. Paula arrived and the coach found a nice boat for Paula to row. So with the help of some junior rowers we got the boats, tried not to slide down the ski ramp dock while it bucked in response to our steps, and not flip while getting into the boat since the dock was not made for rowing (too high off the water).

The water was glass and it was really nice to be in the boat rowing again. Quickly I learned that rowing in Taiwan has similarities to driving here: rules are optional and expect the unexpected. Generally people followed the traffic pattern except when they did not feel like it, and you had to keep a close watch out for large debris in the water. With my mirror and a little concentration this was no problem. The bliss of rowing allowed me to ignore all these minor issues and have a great day.

Later that evening nursing my sore and sunburned body I realize Taiwan is truly my new home now that I can row.

Also: below are pictures from last week’s visit to Danshui. The first picture is from the fort; the rest are from the wharf area.

by the sea

Tuesday, January 8th, 2008

Living abroad is a learning experience. We even get to learn about our own country. Spotted on a coffee mug left in my office’s break room:

“The Grand Canyon is an awesome spectacle of nature’s grandeur. Established in 1919, the canyon still continues to bring awe and inspiration to those who visit this amazing piece of America.”

I bet John Wesley Powell would be shocked to learn that he’d only imagined rafting through the canyon in 1869! On a mug seen in Taiwan, I’d give the maker a break for working in a second language, but so many of my coworkers have worked, studied or traveled in the US that I suspect the mug was actually bought as a souvenir right at the Grand Canyon itself.

On Saturday we drove out to Danshui to go see the ocean (actually, the Taiwan strait). It’s only about 20 km north of our apartment, but the drive seems longer because there’s plenty of traffic. Danshui is locally famous as the place to go on a date, but there’s also lots of history there, though some of it was imposed from outside.

We began with the history, at the Tamsui historical area. It’s up on a hill, an advantageous point overlooking the mouth of the river that flows through Taipei, and it’s obvious why it woul dbe a good spot for a fort. First we walked through the 1644 fort building, called Fort San Domingo when it was built by the Spanish, who were then kicked out by the Dutch, who then ceded it to the English. The fort has historical information, a few nice statues (it wasn’t clear of whom), and models of the complex and of a Dutch sailing ship. You can see down into the dungeons, and there are cutaways to show the construction of the walls. Next to it is the British Consulate building, built in 1891 and furnished from that time. Some of the rooms also have displays about the tile floors, shipping and sailor’s knots, the various consuls (including Giles, who worked on the Wade-Giles system of transliterating Chinese), and the Opium War. Afterwards we had tea, in exactly the sort of pavilion you’d expect to see serving tea next to a British consul. (In another display of not getting concepts quite right, the tiramisu I had there was reasonably tasty but entirely devoid of coffee, let alone rum. This is probably a fair analogy for what Taiwanese think of Chinese food as served in the US.)

Next, we drove out to Fisherman’s Wharf. This is the place to go on dates, to watch the sun set from Lover’s Bridge, though the crowds must make it all a bit less romantic. It was less crowded on this winter’s day than it is in summer, but there were still plenty of people. Parking wasn’t hard, though I’m told it’s hard to find a spot in summer. We didn’t stay for sunset anyway. We walked across the bridge to the waterfront, looked out of the Taiwan Strait, and took a few pictures (we haven’t downloaded them yet). Then we walked along the boardwalk (which faces in to the harbor, not out to the river). There are small storefronts serving every kind of Taiwanese food and a few others, but many were closed for the season. We ended up eating something called a “pirate roll” for some reason (beef baked into a bread roll) and a pizza, both not terrible but capable of improvement.

Heading back to the car we made a pit stop (all squat toilets – potential visitors here need to start stretching now!), looked at the fishing boats, watched some of the ubiquitous stray dogs eating fish some men were throwing off a boat, and taking pictures of the bridge. We’ll post some if they come out well, when we have a chance to look at them.

Yesterday we had our second Chinese class – at least we did once we finally got there, after the GPS led us all over Tienmu. More practicing tones, this time in 2 and 2-syllable groups, and the beginning of learning some vocabulary. I feel a lot better being able to put a few words together, even though I’ve forgotten half of them already. The teacher claims we’ll be able to have simple conversations after 7 lessons. I am not convinced.

learning to say “ma ma”

Sunday, January 6th, 2008

On Friday night, after my return from the doctor, we had our first Chinese lesson finally. In an attempt to learn from previous experience, we’d been nagging HR here to get us started as soon as we arrived or even back before we left Eindhoven. No dice, mostly because we’re working with a whole new set of HR people. I guess you only get to learn from experience with people who have been along for it.

Since Ted was meeting me at home and we’d never been there before, we decided to take a taxi instead of driving. Now at least next time we’ll know what the place looks like and where to park. The facility is up in Tienmu, a neighborhood known for being home to lots of expats. (We chose not to live there because it owuld take much longer to get to rowing and to work.) It’s not nearly as nice as the one where we had our Dutch lessons; that one was cheerful and clean, with rooms about like small office conference rooms. This one was a rat warren of tiny rooms with a level of decor and dirt best described as Early Bus Station. Also, at least on of our two Dutch teachers had some training in linguistics; the woman we had Friday was definitely a competent teacher, but I don’t think she’s going to be able to answer some of my questions. She may not be our regular teacher though; that wasn’t entirely clear.

We didn’t really get to learn many new words Friday; instead we worked on some necessary basics, spending most of the time practicing repeating syllables with the different tones. There are four tones in Mandarin, and you probably already know that a different tone can change the meaning of a word. In one famous example, “Ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma”, when pronounced with the correct tones, can mean “Does my mother yell at horses, or do horses yell at my mother?”. Could be worse; apparently Cantonese has eight tones. However, tones are not a completely foreign concept to English-speakers; just today I was reading an essay by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould that contained the following joke (fortunately I was able to find the essay online so I didn’t have to retype the whole thing:

One fine day, or so the legend proclaims, Joseph Stalin received a telegram from his exiled archrival, Leon Trotsky. Overjoyed by the apparent content, Stalin rounded up the citizenry of Moscow for an impromptu rally in Red Square. He then addressed the crowd below: “I have received the following message of contrition from Comrade Trotsky, who has obviously been using his Mexican retreat for beneficial reflection: `Comrade Stalin: You are right! I was wrong! You are the leader of the Russian people!'”

But as waves of involuntary applause rolled through the square, a Jewish tailor in the front row–Trotsky’s old school chum from yeshiva days–bravely mounted the platform, tapped Stalin on the shoulder, and took the microphone to address the crowd. “Excuse me, Comrade Stalin,” he said. “The words, you got them right; but the meaning, I’m not so sure.” Then the tailor read the telegram again, this time with the intended intonation of disgust and the rising inflection of inquiry: `”Comrade Stalin: You are right?? I was wrong?? You are the leader of the Russian people??'”

We’ll clearly need more practice; we can both repeat tones correctly, but I don’t think either of us can recognize them in conversation yet. The whole repeating thing would have been easier if I could talk much at that point without going off into a coughing fit. (The medicines have definitely helped with that, though I think Ted will agree that they’re making me a bit groggy and irritable.) After a while I realized I was just singing tones back to the teacher – it’s not hard to learn a song in a language you don’t understand – so I tried to pay more attention to reading them off the page. We’re working with a system called pinyin that is used to write Chinese words in the Roman alphabet, but for some stupid reason it doesn’t use all the letters as they’d be used in English or in any other language I know of – ‘x’ is used for a ‘ch’ sound, for example. It seems like it would have been a lot easier to just use the International Phonetic Alphabet!

We highjacked the lesson for the last half hour and got her to help us with some basics: we had her write the characters for some basic menu items like beef, chicken, shrimp, soup, and spicy, and had her teach us some taxi terms like “turn left”, turn right” and “stop here”. (Using the numbers to indicate tones, those are zuo3 zhuan3, yo4 zhuan3, zhe4li3 ting2, respectively.)

Afterward, we had dinner at the upscale department store down the street. The food was restaurant-level, a bit better than the usual food courts, and we had Thai food. Since lessons run 7-9 PM and we’ll be going right after work, we’ll probably get to try out all of the options. There’s also a branch there of Jason’s Marketplace, the same international-foods supermarket that’s in Taipei 101, and this one seems to have an even better selectino, so we’ll definitely be making regular stops for foods we miss.

On the way home, we had a Burmese taxi driver who spoke English, though we haven’t decided if that was a good thing. He told us about all his brothers and sisters who are doctors and engineers in the US, about his religion (1/2 Catholic, 1/2 Christian, 1/2 Taoist – we didn’t ask about his math, let alone his theology), and about US politics. He had two large dogs in the front seat with him, which is more wildlife in a taxi than we’ve seen since the driver with the bird. Oh, and he told us several times about how handsome Ted is, how beautiful I am, but that Ted is too skinny and I need to feed him more. With chicken soup, because that’s the best medicine for everything. And he told us that there’s a local saying that a woman who hasn’t had children is like a new car. I will very carefully not be asking if that’s really a saying here.

At least his driving was less erratic than his conversation!

Next entry: Danshui: a visit to Tamsui fort and Lover’s Bridge

The medical experience, part two

Friday, January 4th, 2008

I should really write more often about the minutiae of life here – I don’t think I’ve even mentioned the poodle we saw wearing camouflage pants, for instance. Or the one day last week they actually had tasty food in our cafeteria (hot and sour soup with dumplings, yum.) But we have had a couple of new experiences lately.

Even though I feel absolutely fine, I’ve been coughing for about three weeks now, and my coworkers have been asking more and more frequently if I’ve seen a doctor. (I think this is the polite version of “All that hacking is really annoying!”) So I finally made an appointment. This time I picked a clinic off the list of English-speaking ones on the American Instititute of Taiwan’s list. (The AIT basically seems to be the consulate here – they call it that instead because we don’t have an official embassy.) I picked the Health Promotion Program (HPP) at the Sun-Yat Sen Cancer Center, which is actually a full-service hospital because it sounded good – when I asked a coworker to write the address in Chinese, she said, “That’s where all the celebrities go!”

It probably is; it turns out that you can get American-style medical care in Taiwan, but it comes at American style prices. Actually, this place was much nicer than any US doctor’s office I’ve been in. I was the only person waiting in the comfortable waiting room, which had couches rather than plastic chairs. The receptionist spoke good English, as did the doctor and nurses. I had a bit of a wait, but it was only because I’d showed up way early, having allowed for traffic. They asked about my medical history and family history, took my temperature and blood pressure, and had me talk to the doctor. I’d thought it might be bronchitis but he said that’s unlikely without a fever; he tentatively diagnosed “allergic rhinitis and chronic cough”, which I think is medicalese for “stuff is irritating my nose and throat and making me cough”. Then he sent me for a chest x-ray and prescribed with three different medicines (cough syrup, decongestant nose spray, antihistamine). I’m also supposed to go back next week for a pulmonary function test, which all seems a bit drastic for just a cough, but I guess they need to rule out pneumonia and asthma.

The only unusual thing is the cough syrup, labeled as “Brown Mixture” in two large plastic bottles. It tastes absolutely foul, not that that’s unusual. But the odd thing is the list of ingredients; it contains 12% “Opium camphor tincture”, whatever that is. Anyway, I haven’t been hallucinating or anything, though I definitely did sleep well last night.

The price was a bit of a shock after last time: the total was NT$7200, or about $240 US. Part of this was because they had me pay already for next week’s pulmonary test, though I think the doctor fee, a full half of the bill, was only for this visit. They said this first visit is more expensive and it will be cheaper next time. Overall this was a much more pleasant experience than the zoo that was my last visit to a Taiwanese doctor, but I actually liked that doctor better. (For one thing, it’s hard to take a doctor seriously who’s batting his eyelashes the whole time he talks to you!) Still, this one seems to have given me reasonable advice. We’ll see if the meds get the cough to go away.

Next I need to write up our first Chinese lesson, which was also yesterday. Lots of repeating syllables, which would have gone better i talking too much didn’t keep making me cough.

When the learning curve is a flat line

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

One would think that the second time as an expatriate would go more smoothly, because you’d learn from the first time. One would think.

The problem is that there are all the other people you have to deal with, who haven’t learned those things. Which is why once again we don’t get to start our language lessons until a few months after we’ve moved. And why once again they’ve sent us the information about our language lessons …. in the language we haven’t started to learn yet.

This time, it’s a map with the street names all in Chinese.

New Year’s fireworks!

Tuesday, January 1st, 2008

As promised in the previous post, here are the fireworks we saw on New Year’s Eve. Forgive the blurriness; we managed to forget the dingus that attaches the camera to the tripod.

There was plenty to watch during the wait until midnight:


The fireworks on Taipei 101 itself were the big event of the evening and the only professional ones – all the rest, ranging from sparklers to the big ones were just set off by families gathered in the park.



By the way, it’s now 6:30 PM on New Year’s Day here, and they’re still setting off fireworks periodically – very big ones – in an empty lot behind our apartment. There’s apparently some kind of new year ritual there; they set up big circus tents a couple of weeks ago and people have been coming and going and walking around in circles there very since. Today most of the people I saw were wearing bright yellow pants, for some reason. (Too bad there’s not a line for foreigners to call with questions about Random Confusing Things in Taiwan. I’d have used it a lot.)