Fighting Jet Lag and More Dreams of Taiwan

I am fighting my jet lag hard so that I can return to a normal schedule as soon as possible. After arriving back in the States, I was able to get about 6-7 hours of sleep on Sunday evening, which put me at a wakeup time of 7:00AM on Monday morning. I was surprisingly able to stay awake all Monday, but I felt like I was in a half-daze. The effects of my sleep cycle daze bore down hard when I began to feel the weight of sleeplessness in the afternoon. I fought on by driving to Microcenter to get an Intel 120GB SSD drive for an amazingly low price, and I picked up dinner from Chipotle. I managed to stay awake until midnight when I went back to sleep.

During the night, I dreamt of Taiwan and Jhongli. I remember going somewhere with Y’s Dad and he showed me something. I woke up during the middle of the night and told some of it to Y, so I will have to corroborate any details with her after she wakes up today.

This morning, my 9:00AM alarm woke me, so I feel well rested after having a longer rest last night. Perhaps today, I will feel half-way normal as I continue cleaning the house and teach in the afternoon.

My Spring 2011 semester of teaching begins today, and I think I am well rested enough to stand my ground in front of 25 eager (they are eager, right?) Freshmen students. I will introduce them to their College Writing I class with the theme, “Mapping the Brain, Writing the Mind.” I will post a syllabus on after I have it finalized.

Dreams of Taiwan

Last night, Y and I slept very soundly after such a long trip to get back to the States. I am surprised however that I dreamed of Taiwan. Normally, I don’t remember my dreams, and I don’t recall having a dream about a foreign country that I have visited before.

The dream was simple yet satisfying. It was Y and I walking through small shops in Taiwan. The one that I remember the strongest from the dream was a store that sold Star Wars props from the first three films–something that I definitely did not see in Taiwan.

I think it is significant as well considering Taiwan’s convenience store culture that I woke up at 7:11 AM on the dot.

Notes from Taiwan, Massive Computer Markets in Jhongli and Taipei

Taiwan has BestBuy-like computer and electronic stores, but the real interesting stuff at low prices with some room to bargain with clerks is at the computer market places like NOVA. There are Nova stores around the country, including Jhongli, but we visited the one in Taipei near the train station.

Nova and the other computer market places are multi-story buildings with elevators and escalators to ferry people to each floor crammed full of vendor stalls selling computer goods. Each stall is like a Ginstar computer for those of you from Atlanta, Georgia. They have price lists printed out or posted above the stall, and you talk with the clerks about what is available and how low they can offer it to you. As you go around asking about prices, you can use the information that you gather as leverage to get a better price somewhere else. Failing that, you may be able to get some free stuff thrown in for the original price.

All of the markets were very confusing to me, because I had trouble keeping track of places and prices since I can’t read the Chinese names for each business. The labyrinthine setup of the floors doesn’t help matters either. However, these places are fun to visit, and you can certainly get a good deal there. Also, you will find some clerks unfriendly and others exceedingly nice–it just depends on the person you meet, so don’t hesitate to keep looking around and talking to different clerks.

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.

Van Cleef & Arpels Les Voyages Extraordinaires Advertisement

Van Cleef & Arpels has a new jewelry line called Les Voyages Extraordinaires that I saw advertised in Taiwan’s Liberty Times. The pictured necklace looks like a hot air balloon and the line at the bottom of the ad roughly translates into English as, “fantasy journeys across time and space inspired this collection.”

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, High School Friends

Before losing our Internet connection, Y and I spent two days hanging out with her high school friends.

On Sunday, January 2, we went out to a vegetarian place with Y’s friends Amy, Hwang, Kevin, Anita, Ethan, Russell, Samuel, and Melissa. The restaurant was once a building in China that its owner had disassembled and reassembled in Taiwan. I wrote about this previously here.

On Monday, Y and I went to Taipei for shopping and then dinner with her friends at a posh hot pot restaurant. I snagged a memory card reader and flash drive for unbelievably low prices. I wanted to buy an Intel SSD drive for my MacBook, but the shop owner very honestly warned me that they do have a small percentage dead-on-arrival rate. I had thought about that before, but when I was holding the cash to pay for it, I had second thoughts and decided to not buy it. Instead, Y and I put that money to good use buying her Simplified Chinese history text books that were imported from mainland China. She will use these in her dissertation.

At dinner, we met up with Amy, her boyfriend Cesar, Ethan, Song, Jim, Anita, Samuel, and Kevin for dinner. This was the first time that I had tried hot pot. Each table in the restaurant has one or two electric burners built into the table. The staff bring out large bowls of soup and place them on the burners. These heat up and then you put in the meats and vegetables that you want to eat from separate dishes. We had duck blood, tofu, pork, mushrooms, fried things (its just fried breading), and beef. The largest pot had a spicy soup, and the second pot had a metal yin-and-yang divider running down the middle separating the medium spicy and least spicy soups. Kevin and I shared two bottles of Taiwan beer, which we had promised to do from the previous day. After a delicious dinner, Jim nearly forgot to give everyone a cream puff pastry that he had bought from one of the best bakeries in Taipei. These were even better than the puffs that I had enjoyed in Y’s grandmother’s town.

After dinner, Ethan was kind enough to give us and Anita a ride home. This saved us a lot of time, because we would have needed to take a cab back to the subway, the subway to the train station, a train back to Jhongli, and finally, the walk from the train station back to Y’s parents’ house.

Notes from Taiwan, A Popular Seafood Restaurant

Last night, Y and her parents took me out to East Wind Seafood in Jhongli. It was Ma’s vegetarian day, but she insisted that we go out to the seafood place last night so that I could try it before we leave for the States this weekend.

When we arrived, East Wind Seafood was already hopping. Business people and workers were jovially sitting around tables eating from many dishes and drinking Taiwan Beer. A “Taiwan Beer” girl in a white suit and boots was walking around the tables making sure everyone who wanted a cool drink was satisfied.

The waitress on duty told us that they were full tonight. Apparently, they are so popular now that you have to make reservations in advance even during the week. However, Ba pursuaded her to setup a four person card table in the middle of the restaurant for us. Some businesses are very amenable to customers as long as the customer is flexible with things, too.

We feasted on seafood rice soup (a flavorful soup with clams, oysters, and shrimp), fried chicken breast with mustard, tiny squid (they aren’t baby squid–this species stays small–about 3″ long), large stirfried shrimp that you de-head and shell at the table yourself, fried fish with white pepper, a plate of extremely fresh sashimi fish and shrimp for me, and most amazingly, a lantern fish. I had until last night only seen lantern fish on National Geographic specials on TV. I didn’t know that people ate them. The waitress brought it out on a plate, complete with head and tail. Its head and body were flattened, and its many, sharp teeth jutted out between its lips. Its meat is the most tender fish meat that I have ever enjoyed.

While we were eating, we happened to see Maggie Shen’s mother. Maggie is one of Y’s friends, who lives in Switzerland now with her physicist husband Fede. She was there at another table for business. She saw us first and came over for a chat with Ma, Ba, and Y. I tried to follow everything, but since I don’t know Chinese, I smile, laugh when others laugh, and look forward to Y’s translation later. This is the most frustrating part of the trip, because I wish that I could participate more in conversations without putting an extra burden on Y to translate to me and for me. I will know some Chinese when I come back to Taiwan with Y next time.

After dinner, Ma and Ba insisted on buying me a jacket as a gift. We stopped by an outdoor clothing store located near their house. They picked out an Atunas fleece jacket for me, because it will keep me warm in Ohio.