Notes from Taiwan, Continuing the Record of Memories from the States

Missing Taiwan

I experienced a jarring feeling when Y and I landed in Houston and even more so when we walked through the Cleveland International Airport this past Sunday. The feeling was rooted in the fact that that I already missed Taiwan. The feeling itself was the realization that the States aren’t all that great–especially the Great State of Ohio. I had a similar recognition when I returned to the States after a year in the UK reading for my MA in Science Fiction Studies. However, the feeling wasn’t as strong, because there are many similarities between the UK and the US that cannot be elided. Taiwan’s differences with the US, including its speed and agile pace of life, technological innovation, and deliciously healthy food, make me more curious about other career opportunities abroad.

Working at Y’s Parent’s House

Before Y and I left Taiwan, I had a few opportunities to show off my handiness to her folks. I had already got her father’s computer working and cleaned up the computer desk area at the front of the house. Other chores that needed to be taken care of included a row of sagging wooden ceiling tiles on the third floor, a loose sliding glass window above Y’s room on the second floor, and replacing fluorescent lights on the first floor 12′ above the ground with a short wooden folding ladder.

I chose to take care of the ceiling tiles first. After a little experimentation and Y and her father taking turns helping support the tiles, I hammered nailed into the edge of the tiles to bring them back in contact with a ceiling joist. It wasn’t the prettiest repair because the tiles are made of a fragile wood fiber composite and they easily cracked under the pressure of being pulled back into place. I would have liked to pull them out and replace them properly with their tongue-and-groove, but they were affixed with glue or nails against the wall above the moulding.

The next repair was necessitated after new telephone wires were installed in the house. Since the walls are solid concrete, the wires had to be run along the wall. For Y’s room on the second floor, they ran the wires into her room through the sliding window above her door. Unfortunately, they did not take the time to notch the window frame to allow the wire into the room while also making the window capable of closing. Luckily, Y’s Dad had a bush cutting saw, which I used to notch, a little at a time until I had just enough clearance to reinstall the window on its slide while allowing the wire to enter the room.

The last repair involved replacing some florescent lights on the first floor. Each floor of the house has vaulted ceilings with the first and second having the most height. The first light was at the front of the house above where they park their Camry inside. That particular light wasn’t turning on occasionally. I tried replacing the light and then the condenser, but it wasn’t turning on every time it had power. Then, I wiggled the connector on the right side and realized that it wasn’t making proper contact with the tube. It was an older light assembly, so I told Ba that he should get an electrician to replace it. My repair will unfortunately be temporary. Next, I needed to replace one florescent tube in the living room at the back of the house. This was scarier to do, because that room does not have a dropped ceiling as the front of the house does. This meant that I had to go up 12′ into the air to replace that light. Having Y steady the wooden ladder, I went up and switched out that tube, which resulted in a much brighter room!

Packing Our Suitcases

Two days before we left, I took charge of packing our luggage, because I wanted Y to spend extra time with her folks. We had four checked bags and two carry-on bags. In the checked bags, we managed to bring over 200 lbs of stuff back with us, which included books, research photocopies, and foodstuff that we can’t find in the States. Y’s folks told her that my packing efficiency impressed them!

Flying Back to the States

Before we left the States, Y and I had cashed in all of my air miles and some of hers for the privilege of flying first/business class on our three flights from Taiwan to Cleveland, Ohio. We were waitlisted on those flights until 24 hours before each flight. We were upgraded on the first two flights to Business class.

On the Taiwan to Japan’s Narita International Airport, we flew on the top deck of a United Boeing 747. This was the best Business class experience that I have ever had. Since the upper deck is a smaller space, the flight attendants gave us much more attention than you get in the larger business class section on other airliners. Y was a little intimidated by the attention, but it was nice having my glass of wine from the Rhone refilled automagically. Also, Andre Agassi also flew on our plane, but he was in the lower deck’s first class section.He had been playing a match in Taipei while we were also in Taiwan. We had seen him on television playing against professionals and teaching younger Taiwanese players how to improve their game. He even took the role of ball runner for them!

On the long Continental flight from Narita to Houston, Texas, we flew in the middle of the business class section of a Boeing 777 airliner. This was a good experience, too. The flight staff were very friendly and looked after us very well. However, I looked back to coach whenever I would get up, and I thought about how unfair it is that all air travel cannot rate the same level of service and respect as you get in business class. Y and I flew to Taiwan on coach, and it was a completely different experience. I always try to be friendly with flight attendants, because I know they have a rough job and it can be advantageous for me to make a friend on a flight. On the way to Taiwan, one flight attendant who I told, “This meal was the best, thank you!,” said back to me, “Thank you for saying that. Most people never say thank you for anything, especially Americans.” So, I can’t blame all of the problems of coach air travel on airlines and attendants. From what I have observed and based on what that attendant told me, it has a lot to do with how passengers act. Air travel is extremely stressful and uncomfortable for coach passengers, but I think we all should be nice to those folks who serve us. It doesn’t cost you anything, and it may just make that person’s day a little brighter. Additionally, they may return the favor to you.

Y’s and my business class luck ran out when we got to Houston. We were flying on a 737, which only has 4 first class seats, and its upgrade seats were already taken. I tried talking to a Continental agent in the Elite line after going through customs, but she rudely said that my ticket doesn’t say Elite (as my earlier tickets did), so she wouldn’t help me. She walked away to talk to the people standing in line behind me. I suppose most airlines have a “what have you done for me lately” attitude, but I think this particular agent went out of her way to be a bitch. I learned from a more friendly gate agent that the seats on that flight had already been filled. Safely back in coach where apparently the earlier agent felt our kind should stay, we had an uneventful and sleepy ride back to Ohio. We gathered our bags from baggage claim, and Dave was soon there to give us a ride back to Kent.

Notes from Taiwan, Wireless Phone and Internet Ubiquity

One of the technological advantages that Taiwan has over the United States is wireless ubiquity, choice, and affordability.

The relatively small area of Taiwan allows for greater wireless signal saturation than in the United States, because it requires less infrastructural development on the part of wireless telecommunications companies. Also, there are more wireless companies here, which creates a more competitive marketplace than in the United States.

Wireless ubiquity of coverage, choice of carrier and hardware, and affordability of voice and data plans are all possible here, because there is more competition by carriers and technology manufacturers than in the United States. First, phones are not locked to carriers, but carriers may offer deals on phones if you sign an extended (usually 2 year) contract with them. Second, phone plans are less expensive here than in the States for comparable services, and carriers offer lower cost plans than carriers do in the States. This flexibility of contract plans allows many Taiwanese to have more than one phone number, because they will sign up with multiple carriers in order to get the latest phone at a good price. I believe this is part of what fuels the Taiwanese appetite for the iPhone 4. When you look around on the train or subway, it seems like every other person is playing with an iPhone 4. However, the Taiwanese are not limited to Apple technology lust. Technology integration into the daily lives of Taiwanese, especially younger people, seems to be to a higher degree than what I have seen in the States. All Taiwanese people are not super-hackers or techno-geeks, but they do appear to have a more integrated lifestyle with the latest technology trends. This augments or is augmented by the prevalence of technology made by a variety of companies in Taiwan and Asia in general. Considering wireless phone technology, there are more makers, especially Japanese manufacturers, in the market here than in the States. In fact, looking at the multitude of wireless stores–branch or independently owned–I have found the most amazing looking phones with numerous microcomputing and televisual technologies that just don’t show up in the States.

Wireless data access is also a big deal in Taiwan. Several of Y’s friends have tiny USB dongles for connecting to wireless data networks. Y’s friend Amy has the coolest thing that I have seen here for getting online: a tiny, battery powered wireless data router. It has its own sim card, it connects to the wireless data network, and it provides access to the Internet like any wireless router. I used this several times to check email and browse the web on my iPhone 3GS while we were hanging out with Amy.

Wired Internet, especially ADSL, is still the primary way folks here get online. You don’t see many wireless networks walking around Taipei and Jhongli, which makes me wonder if many wireless routers here are configured to not broadcast by default or if folks prefer to plug into their broadband modems. Y’s dad had a wired network until I switched him over to a wireless one so that Y and I could use our iPhones and iPads in the house.

Wireless and wired Internet connection costs are very inexpensive here compared to back in the States. Again, competition drives costs lower since there is great supply and demand remains unchanged.

If you like to get online for a cheap price with mobile freedom, Taiwan is the place to be.

Notes from Taiwan, Getting Around in a Busy Place with Trains, Cars, and Scooters

In the area around Jhongli and Taipei that I have explored, I have been paying attention to the way folks get around here.

To get between Jhongli and Taipei, Y and I use the “stand up for yourself and be strong” express train (this Chiang Kai Shek-type expression loses its power with a literal translation) and the slower commuter train service. Within Taipei, we transfer to the subway system to reach major points from which we can walk or take a taxi cab.

Y’s sister Yoshan move about Taipei with her slick scooter. It is important to note that the Taiwanese consider any motorized bike above 50cc to be a motorcycle. They do not have different names for moped, scooter, or motorcycle as we do in the United States. I wonder: Does anyone ride mopeds any more? If so, where?

Y’s parents drive a car or compact work van to get about their town or the whole island. Y’s friends also primarily drive cars having already cut their teeth on scooters when they were younger. Y’s parents own a Toyota Camry for family errands, and her father uses a Mitsubishi delivery van for his printing business. Her friends also tend to drive Toyotas–especially Corollas or the new Corolla Altis. However, Y’s friends do not all own their own cars. Instead, many of them live at home and the family shares the car. According to Ba, the Corolla is the best selling car in Taiwan. I can see why, because its small size affords easy maneuverability in narrow and busy streets and its price is relatively low.

I should note here that Y’s family parks their Camry in the front room of their house. The traditional front door of a Taiwanese house is sectional, so it collapses to either side (or just one side) like an airplane hanger door. This allows them to park the Camry right behind where I am sitting typing this message. They lock the front doors and park the delivery van in front of the doors. When they want to get the Camry out, they do have to play musical chairs with the cars. However, I believe this gives them some additional safety for the cars and the house.

Cars are great, but scooters seem to be the primary mode of transportation in Taiwan. They fill the streets and many scooter drivers zip between cars, sometimes on the wrong side of the street or on the sidewalk, as they make their way to where they are going. There are many different styles of scooters here, but the majority of makes seem to be from Yamaha, Sym, and Kymco. I enjoyed driving Yoshan’s scooter, and I would like to get one when I get back to the States. However, I do want to get one that I can work on and that doesn’t cost as much as a Vespa (these are very expensive compared to a standard motorcycle say by Honda, and Vespa isn’t even a contender on the scooter market in Taiwan, too).

Trucks, like their car cousins, are generally smaller here in Taiwan. Most work trucks are painted blue and they can be easily reconfigured for different tasks: covered storage, refrigeration, flat bed, standing sides, etc. Interestingly, the license plate numbers are also stenciled on the back tailgate in white letters above the plate.

There are big trucks here, too. Dump trucks, tractor trucks, and load hauling semi trailer trucks. These, especially the dump trucks, are given a wide berth. The word on the street about the dump truck operators is that if they hit you, they will probably run you over again if they didn’t kill you the first time. The reason for this is that their drivers union will pay for expenses if the victim dies, but they won’t pay out if the victim survives–expenses must be paid by the driver. There have been stories in the news in recent years that corroborates this.

One concluding experience: crossing the road on foot and generally not getting hit. Driving here is a dangerous enterprise for the non-initiated. There are certainly road rules, but they are more like guidelines. The real drivers assert themselves, often aggressively, to move where they will. Scooters fly around like Imperial Speeder Bikes in Return of the Jedi. Cars and truck drivers do what they need to do to get where they want to go, sometimes regardless of any one occupying the space where they want to go. Similarly, pedestrians try to avoid getting hit, but you have to be assertive as well to make it across the street safely. The best thing to do if you visit here is take a break in a coffee shop or restaurant and observe an intersection for awhile: you will pick up on the rhythms that you need to know before you join the chorus in the streets.

Notes from Taiwan, Dinner with Junior High School Friends

Last night, Y’s junior high school classmate Nathan picked Y and I up from Y’s parents’ house to go to dinner at an Italian restaurant called Cafe Grazie. It is one of the many restaurants in the enormous shopping complex in Jhongli called Metrowalk.

Before talking about the dinner, I should mention something about public school friendships in Taiwan and how they differ from my experience in the States. Students here in Taiwan maintain the same classmates through their courses in each level of education. This means that Y had the same classmates in junior high, and when she graduated to an upper level high school, she had new classmates who she shared the same classes with throughout those years. This system facilitates close friendships to form that you carry thoughout life. Y stays in touch with all of those friends even though she lives in a different country and has progressed to graduate school. I have maintained only one friendship (outside family) since junior high: Bert. Even though I hear from classmates or hear about them from time to time, I do not do things such as go out for dinners or plan special trips with my former classmates as Y does with hers. Besides having different classmates for different subjects throughout school, I never formed close friendships with most of the students I shared classes with in school. I know that cliques form and some friends do stay in touch over the years from K-12 education, but I believe this is not the norm. In the States it seems that you make more friends through the workplace or networking beyond school rather than in it. The exception could be graduate school, because you are finally sharing an intense educational experience with a select group of people who you share a common field of study with (this is a shoutout to Seth, Dave, Masaya, Kolter, Swaralipi, Sohom, Geoff, Robin, Tim, etc.).

Cafe Grazie is so popular right now that you have to make a reservation in advance. I’m glad that Y’s friends picked this place, because it was delicious. Y and I picked the “Venice Set,” which includes a drink, antipasta or appetizer, soup, main pasta dish, and dolce or dessert. Y went for a shrimp/seafood au gratin dish while I opted for a vegetarian red sauce spaghetti.

We had a good time chatting with her friends from junior high including: KT, Nathan, Jean, Yifang, Yi-win, and Kiwi. I was particularly happy to talk in English with KT about project management and lighting technology. He works for a company now doing project management for new and innovative forms of illumination. He used to work in LCD technology, but he switched companies when he saw more exciting engineering opportunities in lighting than in LCD.

I realized the most striking thing about the meal on the way home: It was the first time during our trip to Taiwan that I had used a fork rather than chopsticks.

Notes from Taiwan, Meetings from Last Week

I wanted to catch up today by writing about some of our meetings with Y’s friends and family here in Taiwan.

After seeing Ma and Ba after we first arrived in Taipei, Y introduced me to her sister Yoshan on our first train ride back to Taipei. We met up with her during her lunch break from work. After we rode the escalator up from the bowels of the subway, Yoshan was waiting for us in a very professional black suit. With her short hair and sharp glasses, Yoshan cuts a powerful image for someone who is also playful and fun to be around.

We all walked to a coffee shop near the insurance company where she works. The thing about coffee shops in Taiwan is that they all serve food, and I don’t mean Starbucks over priced foodstuff–I mean real sit down and eat food including noodles, rice, meats, soups, salads, etc. I had a pork plate with pumpkin soup. We only had an hour and a half to spend with Yoshan before she had to run back to work.

Two days later, we returned to Taipei to see more family and friends. First, we met Iris and her boyfriend Raymond for Japanese at the Sogo in downtown Taipei. This was fun, because each table has a flat grill for the staff to cook on. Unlike the humongous grills at Americanized Japanese hibachi, these grills are tiny–about 1 1/2′ x 2 1/2′.

A short while later, we met up with Yoshan and Y’s cousin Julia for afternoon tea. While we waited, Yoshan nearly killed me with a mega-massage. I had pulled something in my back, and she worked it out through my head and neck. I don’t know how she did it, but I slept much better that night. At afternoon tea, we had lots of coffee, tea, and cakes, and they were all very delicious.

After Julia left for a dinner date, Yoshan, Y and I met up with their Big Sister and her two children Peter and Annie and Yoshan’s girlfriend Jill for Thai food at the top of Sogo. We had a variety of spicy foods–shrimp pancakes, stirfry vegetables, chicken satay, stirfry pork, pepper shrimp, extremely thin sliced pork, rice noodles, and spring rolls. After dinner, we all went back to Yoshan and Jill’s place. Yoshan and Jill rode a scooter, and the rest of us squeezed into a taxi cab for an intensely TRON-like ride to their place. We hung out and played with their two dogs, little cat, and turtle. The little cat was particularly feisty, and continually play-fought with the oldest dog. Before we left, Yoshan let me take her scooter for a spin around the block. I have now resolved to get a scooter when I get back to the States.

Notes from Taiwan, A Personal Adventure

During the great Taiwan Internet outage in the Lin household yesterday, Y sent me on a lone mission to the nearby Starbucks. We needed to get in touch with her junior high school friends who we are meeting tonight for dinner. Unfortunately, Y had been using social media as the singular means of communication. Y hoped that Starbucks would have free wifi like in the States, so I walked down there while she stayed at home to help Ma.

Y’s folks have a great location in Jhongli. They are essentially a few blocks away from everything–the train station, McDonalds, Starbucks, shops, drug store, market, Sogo (a very large Japanese-based department store–I bought some Muji business cards and notebooks there to bring home), etc.

I set off with both of our iPads in my Timbuk2 bag to Starbucks. To get there, you go out Y’s door, take a right, turn left at the big road, and continue straight past another big road until you see the Starbucks sign poking out from many other business signs. The barista spoke a little English and was very friendly to me as a non-Chinese speaker. I ordered a “tall black coffee,” and sat down to try their wireless. Consequently, their wifi is part of a coalition of ISPs that offer free access to their customers. However, it costs $100NTD for everyone else. Y had told me that this was too much over the phone, so I walked back toward home via McDonald’s to see if they have free wifi.

While I was checking outside McDonald’s door, a pretty, young girl walked up to me and asked “can I be your friend?” It was Y playing around with me. She had finished her chores and met up with me on the street. We walked together to the library for another failed attempt at getting online.