Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Laura's post--Taxis and technology

Whew, it's been a long week and a half of night shift.  Mostly since we arrived in Taiwan, I've been working.  So my time has been heavily structured around getting to work, and working (and eating and sleeping in the off hours).  That said, I'd like to share a little of my experience with taxis and a specific bit of technology.

Taichung is a busy city with lots of cars (and even more motorscooters), and I wasn't interested in joining the fray for the three months we're here, so for trips of any significant distance, we use taxis.  That means I'm ridng in taxis at least twice a day during the week.  Mostly the language barrier hasn't gotten in my way.  The relocation company provided both Ian and me with business cards, printed with our names and the apartment address in both English and Chinese.  I also recieved a laminated card from a colleague that says, again in English and Chinese, "Hi, Driver. Would you please take me to Corning, Taichung plant" and includes the address.  So, as long as I'm going to work or home, I'm pretty well covered.

Except when written Chinese doesn't work.  I'm not exactly sure what happened, but at least one taxi driver responded to the card with puzzled looks and a long string of language I didn't understand.  I tried my Google translator, but couldn't get him to speak into it.  I pulled up the GPS on my phone with the Corning Plant as the destination, but all the street names were in English, and it didn't seem to help him.  Eventually, I used the translator to tell the driver I was going back into the apartment building to get the attendant.  Again, I was able to use my translator, this time to tell the attendant that the driver didn't understand where we were supposed to go.  He made a concerned face and rushed out the door to speak with the driver.  A minute later, he came back in to get his personal phone to give the driver directions.  After another few minutes of discussion, it seemed like we were ready to go. I had my phone with GPS in front of me for that ride, hoping that we'd actually get to the plant, or that if we didn't, I could find a way to redirect us.  Although we made a few turns at the last possible opportunity, the driver got roughly to the right area and I was able to direct him the rest of the way.  But that's just one ride out of two dozen.

Working the same shift, the cast of taxi drivers has been surprisingly repetative.  I've gotten the driver I talked about above again, although this time he knew exactly where to go.  There's a fellow available when I get off night shift at the plant who calls me "Sir" everytime he speaks to me.  There's a guy who plays soft music and sips fruit drinks, and mostly during these rides I fall asleep at least once.  There's the driver with the car full of lace doilies who we also rode with back from a grocery store. Last night I got a speed demon that I hope I don't see much of in the future (but boy I got to the plant fast).  

Realistically, this repetition in drivers is probably because I'm calling a taxi from the same location at the same time every day.  Now that I'm switching to day shift, there will likely be a new cast of characters.  But I admit that I like to imagine that by the time I leave, we will all know each other.

Alright, time for that bit of technology I mentioned.  Badge systems for door access are common enough, and that's the system we use to get into the apartment building.  But on the way out of the building, everything is touchless proximity sensors.  There's a small black circle, about an inch in diameter, with a red light around the edge.  Waving or holding a hand a few inches in front of this circle causes the red to change to green and the door to unlatch.  I've encountered this sensor at the apartment, at work, and in shops.  I enjoy a culture allows me to use the Force to open doors multiple times a day.

Well, I guess that was a short bit about technology, so here's one more note.  Google Translate is a phenomenal help here.  I've been able to find baking soda and sticky rice with the help of an attendant at a grocery store, read washing machine instructions, avoid a laundry detergent with bleach added, assemble a rice cooker, and learn a little functional Chinese on the side.  With the help of Google translate, I feel so much more capable in Taiwan than I did in Korea.

Monday, January 30, 2017

An update on the Chinese New Year

What's it like in Taiwan for the Chinese New Year?

A little underwhelming, frankly.  What we didn't know coming from the West is that it is primarily a family holiday, that is celebrated behind closed doors, with meals and mahjong games.  So while we were expecting fireworks and music and lion dances, most of the holiday has taken place away from our eyes.  In this way, it more resembles our Christmas than it does Western New Year.

We waited up for fireworks on new year's eve, but didn't hear anything.  The next day, and every day since, we've heard the occasional burst of firecrackers, but it turns out fireworks are banned in urban areas.  We've waited for a municipal display, since that's what we do in the U.S. in areas where fireworks are banned, but no dice.  We did see a very brief shower of fireworks in the reflection of a nearby building, so there's that.  I heard drumming, but only on the first day.

The new year festival is six days long.  Garbage trucks--which play a jingle, not unlike ice cream trucks back home--were out in force Friday, and weren't seen again until today, the fourth day.  Most businesses remain shuttered, but most restaurants and grocery stores have stayed open, thankfully, albeit with abbreviated hours.

Some of the superstitions surrounding the new year are familiar to us in the West: cleaning house before the new year, paying all outstanding bills, and eating pork.  Less familiar is avoiding cutting one's hair or nails on the new year, or using knives.  I'm sure there are scores of others of which I am unaware.

What observances I have seen are chiefly decorations: most buildings have red vertical banners with calligraphy on both sides of the door, and also red silk lanterns, usually in multiples, more for smaller lanterns and fewer for larger ones.  The lobby of our building has out bowls of oranges, and gold-colored "ingots" full of interesting Chinese candies.  The traditional greeting is gong xi (gung shee), meaning "Congratulations," though I have been greeted with "Happy new year" in English, too.  One gentleman working the lobby desk even gave me the traditional salute of the left hand wrapped over the right fist, which is a very sincere and touching gesture.

While taking out our compost, I saw a family using a brazier the building set up for residents to use, burning offerings of so-called "hell money" (seems like a pejorative term, but I don't know of an alternative term), imitation paper currency for the propitiation of ancestors.  Also, later on, I walked past the temple around the corner, and it was fairly buzzing with people burning paper offerings (not only hell money but also origami ingots made from metallic paper) and incense.  I half-suspect the fireworks we saw refected were set off at the temple.

So, while I still hear the occasional staccato pops of firecrackers (some went off just now), commercial life is picking up and the new year festivities seem to be ramping down, for the time being.  The end of the new year season is the Lantern Festival, which takes place the 15th day after the new year (Feb. 11th this year), and we have some hope of seeing public festivities then.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

First days in Taichung

The other day Laura and I met up with an American coworker's husband and daughter who live in the building with us, and we went to see the National Museum of Natural Sciences, which is just at the end of the block.  It fancies itself an international institution, but only some exhibits were bilingual.

I should say something about the language.  The official language here is Mandarin Chinese, but the commonly spoken language is the Minnan dialect from the central coast of mainland China.  Most people speak some English.  Young, fashionable-looking people speak the best English.  Older or downscale workers tend to speak less English.

Signage and product packaging is inconsistently bilingual.  Luckily we have the Google Translate app on our phones, which can take a picture of text and somewhat translate it, and more reliably, it can listen and audibly translate.  We used this facility at the grocery store, where we were able to talk to a stocking clerk to locate various items.

For the one or two of my readers who know and care about such things, where Chinese is written in English (mostly roadsigns), Taiwan is slowly transitioning from Wade-Giles romanization to Pinyin.  Most roads have been renamed (our street is Guanqian, formerly Kuan-ch'ien) but cities are still rendered in Wade-Giles.  So it's T'ai-pei (usually without the apostrophe and hyphen, Taipei), not Taibei, and Taichung/T'ai-ch'ung, not Taizhong.  I'm fond of Wale-Giles for being old-fashioned, but it's really a mystifying system.  I mean, how is it that Peking and Beijing are the same word?

The museum is very nice, and despite not being to read a lot of the displays, it was informative.  The coworker's daughter is 5, and she eventually tuckered out, so there is still another wing or two we haven't explored.  Which is fine, because the tickets are something ridiculous cheap, like 100元 (yuan, or New Taiwan Dollars, NTD/TWD), which is US$3.  Also on the grounds are the botanical gardens, of which we saw a little, but there's a lot more we didn't.

When we left our friend, we wandered off to find a grocery store.  Sidewalks are interesting features here.  They tend to be extensions of the shop they're in front of, so you may find yourself stepping around tables or merchandise.  The materials for sidewalks can vary with the storefront--cement, wood, tile, sometimes marble--and are often not level from store to store, so one has to continually watch their step in areas thick with shops.  Also, sidewalks tend to be used as parking spots, so there's a lot of squeezing past parked cars and mopeds.  Crosswalks are a little scary, as vehicles turning don't wait for pedestrians to finish crossing, but weave around them, particularly the mopeds.

For walking, the weather is lovely.  It has been consistently in the low-70s during the day and mid-50s at night, sunny, and humidity around 60%.  It's very much like California in the winter, after the rainy season is over.

We found our grocery store and while small, it had most of the items you would need, of course with the caveat that the packaging is occasionally a hermeneutical adventure.  We ended up with mostly produce, since it is very obviously what it is.  We got a dragonfruit, which is Laura's favorite, but red inside instead of white.  Alarmingly, it can turn your pee red, but it's a harmless effect.  We also got oranges, which are unusual in that they are somewhat smaller than American varieties, sweet, with a fine flesh and little membrane, a thin rind, and little pith.

This is a convenient spot to mention that trash in our building is sorted into paper and packaging waste, and organic matter.  Packaging waste we can leave in trash cans on the landings in the service stairwell, but organic matter has to be brought down to the lobby and out a side door near the parking garage.  So far fruit trimmings are the only thing we've had to discard separately.  Most of what we eat at home is either packaged food or leftovers from dining out.  Dining here is very cheap, and we of course don't have much in the way of cookware.  Our microwave temporarily stopped working last night, and it was a moment of panic.

The night before, we went to a pizza place across the green from our apartment building with Laura's coworker and family.  The pizza was very creditable, with a thin, chewy crust, nicely toasted.  They served Sierra Nevada beer, which was a comfort to our companions.  The staff were young, trendy people with a good handle on English.

Later, we went to the 7-Eleven around the corner, and passed a halal Indian restaurant.  The owner or one of his employees saw us and invited us to dine, and we replied we would soon.  I've said this elsewhere, but there is something comforting about encountering Indians abroad.  Our cultures overlap, they speak English, and it's as good as meeting with a Briton or Canadian.  It's one of the happy accidents of the often dubious legacy of the British Empire.  When we were in Montréal and I was too tired to navigate the French-Canadian culture anymore that day, we went to an Indian restaurant and it was a very soothing, welcoming place to be.

We went back there last night for dinner, but did not see our proprietor friend.  I had the tandoori tikka with onions and peppers, and Laura had butter chicken curry, and it was quite nice.  The clientele was entirely Chinese, as was the woman serving us and working the register, though I glimpsed South-Asian men working in the back.  But it does seem to be a place of meeting for whatever Muslim community is in Taichung (there's supposedly a pretty mosque somewhere around here), as the bulletin board is full of inspirational quotes and informational flyers for Muslim youth daycamps and charities.

The Chinese new year is fast approaching (Saturday), and can last the whole week, during which stores are closed or have reduced hours, and cabs are scarcer and charge higher fares.  Already we're finding ATMs are emptied out, as one of the customs of the new year is to exchange red envelopes containing auspicious sums of money (800 or 1,000元, I'm told).  So this afternoon we're going back to the Carrefour (where we can use a credit card) to stock up as best we can and hope for the best.  Supposedly the greenway out front is the setting for a lot of organized new year festivities, so we're well-located to observe the goings-on.  I hope to see a dragon costume, but who knows.  There is probably a schedule posted somewhere, but I doubt it's in English.  Nevertheless, photos (on Facebook) and text will follow.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Nihao from Taiwan

Since I haven't traveled abroad in a few years (apart from a long weekend in Montréal), I haven't made any posts to this blog, which is a dedicated blog for travel updates and observations.  Well, the wait is over, as we're now in Taichung, Taiwan for the next three months.

Unlike the trip to Korea, this time I got to fly first class, which is the first time I've ever flown anything other than coach.  There are various attractions and detractions to the experience:
  • You generally do not have a lateral neighbor, with your "pod" taking up the entire side of the aisle, and the pods are staggered so no one is directly across from you.
  • You get to recline, all the way flat if you like.  This is obviously the biggest attraction, as flying 18 hours or whatever sitting straight up is frankly torturous and inhumane.  It is not perfect, however, as the seats are still somewhat hard and covered in sweaty blue naugahyde, and I found it difficult to sleep.
  • They feed you constantly.  Really, it was a bit much.  I'd go brush my teeth and put my Invisalign trays back in, and here comes the stewardess with another course.  Please, spare a couple courses and send it back to the suffering souls in economy who are getting by on pretzels and maybe one dry sandwich halfway through.
  • On the major leg, from Detroit to Narita, we had our own door and were on the upper deck, which is entirely first class.  From Narita to Taipei, however, it's one big cabin, so they seat you, get you a glass of champagne, and they march the proles past on their way to the cattle pen in the back.  I felt shame from deep down in my anarcho-communist soul.
  • We had an opportunity to use the first class lounge at Narita.  Apart from being able to recline, this was the other big attraction of having a first class ticket.  There is plush furniture everywhere, a free buffet, free alcohol (I decided on a small tot of sake, to celebrate landing in the country of my near-birth), private restrooms and even showers.  Hopefully one of our layovers on the way back will give me a longer opportunity to explore the lounge for other amenities I might not have noticed. 
Customs at Taipei Taoyuan International Airport was fairly low-stress.  The border control agent took my landing visa form, asked what I was visiting for, how long, and what sort of domicile I would be taking up.  She took my photo and fingerprints and we were off to claim our baggage.  If you have nothing to declare, you go through a turnstile labeled "Nothing to declare," and that's it--no forms or questions.  We took out cash at an ATM, hopped on hotel shuttle, and check into our room.

The hotel was nice, but nothing exceptional.  The breakfast was pretty good though, with Western, Chinese, and Japanese items.  I recall eating pork belly stewed with cubes of tofu, rice, vegetarian fried noodles, a couple pieces of sushi, various forms of seaweed (some good, some bad), bamboo shoots in a pepper sauce (delightful), and then a tongful of bacon.  

The hotel called us a cab, and we made the hour and 30-minute trip down to Taichung.  The area between the airport (which itself is a distance away from Taipei) and Taichung is somewhat older and more industrial, but Taichung itself is comparatively newer and more prosperous.

We made it to our apartment building, the entrance of which is somewhat recessed and hidden, and were stunned when we entered the lobby and found marble floors, marble columns, great glass skylights, and a garden atrium.  Also a desk with an attendant, and various red festoonery for the looming Chinese New Year.

We met with the relocation agent and landlord.  She was nice, but he seemed a little intense.  He was also strangely dressed like a teenager, despite being easily in his 40s, maybe 50s.  His baseball hat had a flat brim and "Hi haters" embroidered in script.  He went through the apartment in great detail, explaining the use of every gadget, knob, and lever, noting any preexisting dents or stains or scratches (for our benefit; he already had photos of everything), and then walking us through a packet of diagrams of various appliances and remote controls over-labeled in English.  I can now operate the TV, but everything else I just punch buttons randomly until I get the desired result.

Undoubtedly you've seen photos and video on Facebook, but to describe the apartment, it's on the top floor (the landlord called it a penthouse, with some evident satisfaction), the 27th, and the apartment itself is two floors.  It's decorated in what I would call a sleek Asian modern style, with a lot of wood and straight lines and all the furniture somewhat low to the floor.  There is cabinetry everywhere, far more storage than we would need even at home.  In fact, the whole place is 1,600 sq. ft., which is 200 more than our house in Indiana and 600 more than where we're renting in Corning.  I'm a little confused, as it has three full baths, but only 1.5 bedrooms (the office has a guest bed).  I'm thinking the layout was probably designed for a couple with a single child, or none.  Since the light switches for the guest room can only be gotten at by climbing across the bed, it seems like the bed may not have been part of the original vision.

While furnished, the place has no linens for the beds, kitchenwares, trash baskets, clothes hangers, etc., so we headed off to the nearby Ikea.  I have never been to one before, but it seems like a stressful place.  Of course, I had already had a busy day and it was on a Saturday afternoon in a densely populated city.  What we didn't pick up at the Ikea we got the next day at the Carrefour.  Carrefour is quite nice and exhaustively stocked, but nothing terribly unusual about their wares, except that the Taiwanese seem to prefer flat, folded toilet paper to the kind on a roll we're used to.  Nevertheless, you can get the stuff on a roll for a slight premium.

In general, Taichung is very clean and very modern, and apart from Chinese signage, would look like any other place in the developed world.  Probably newer, even, with an emphasis on landscaping that I, as a Californian living in New York, miss and appreciate.  However, as with city traffic in Korea, you're best to watch yourself in the crosswalk and be sure to buckle up in the taxi.  On the highways, the cabbies still speed, but they're less casual with traffic rules.  In the city, though, anything goes.  Make a yewy mid-block in front of a traffic cop, who cares.  Our cabbie did that, and even waved to the cop, who waved back.

We've been by taxi much of the time, and these are pretty easy to catch.  You can get the desk attendant to call you one, and tell them ahead of time where you're going, and they'll also write down instructions in Chinese for the driver.  When you're ready to go home, go to the nearest busy corner and stick out your hand.  Hand them your card with the address in Chinese, and it's done, easy as that.  Like in many countries, payment is exact and any attempt to tip the driver is a source of confusion.

A quick note on the Taiwanese character: everyone so far has been friendly and quietly deferential.  In this they remind me more of the Japanese than the Koreans, having a concept of face (mian) and harmony (huh ping).  Which is not to say that I dislike Koreans, just that they can be a little prickly and rough around the edges in random interactions.  The same could be said of the Scots, I might add.  The only thing approaching rudeness I've encountered here was an indifferent convenience store clerk.  But the convenience store itself was indifferent, too.   

What have we eaten since we got here?  We first were taken to lunch by a group of company expats to a place called the Gordon Biersch, which is a chain outfit that's supposed to be like a German brauhof, but apart from the beer is fairly standard American chain restaurant fare.  Dinner was my choice, so we went to a dim sum place across from our building, which was very excellent and very cheap.  The staff spoke no English but did have an English menu available to point at.  And then yesterday for lunch we went to a place called Mr. Onion, which is kinda like a steakhouse but more like an Asian impression of a steakhouse.  My filet of chicken was pretty much tonkatsu with a sweet-and-sour sauce.  Not advertised as such.  I ordered plum-and-lime juice, which is a little weird but also refreshing.

Dinner last night was instant noodles.  Lunch today will be instant noodles, too.  But then I'm thinking I might go outside to explore the block and, if this doesn't tucker me out (doing anything in a very foreign, non-English-speaking country is a double-effort), I might visit the national museum of natural sciences which is across the green on the next block up.

More in a day or two.