I am an American technology worker who just moved to Taiwan.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Now that I know all the Chinese I need to know..

I started studying Mandarin with Rosetta Stone about a month ago and after getting in a decent amount of studying while on a ski trip in Utah, I found it difficult to free up time to continue. Several years ago I got Shirley the Pimsleur Chinese series on CD as a gift so that she could re-learn Chinese, having nothing to do with a move to Taiwan. I found it on the bookshelf, dusted it off, and ripped it to MP3 so I could fit the 26 disc series onto 2 CDs. Luckily my car stereo can play MP3s as my strategy was to use it on my hour (each way) commute to work. Finding something productive to do while commuting as like magically making the day 26 hours long.

Rosetta Stone is very visual, you associate sounds and writing with a photo and it runs on a computer. From my limited use with it, it at least starts out being very vocabulary based. Pimsleur is strictly audio, and immediately focuses on actual conversations. It's also clearly geared toward touristy situations. Where things are, what to eat, how to tell someone, "Sorry, my Chinese sucks".  While I can't necessarily say that the Pimsleur method is better than Rosetta Stone, for me, it is the better choice for now. I suspect the best solution long term is to use them both.

The lessons are about a half hour long. Most lessons I repeat once before moving on to the next and that seems to result in a pretty good mastery of the material. There is a lot of repetition built in so I suspect you could do each lesson once and not lose out as the following lesson will start with a review and then expand the material. I wonder if I look like and idiot driving down the road with my lips flapping away, speaking Chinese.

I just started the 8th lesson today and finally learned how to say, "I would like to drink some beer." The number 8 is regarded as very lucky  in Chinese culture. Therefore, I think it's no coincidence that the 8th lesson involves asking for a beer.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Holy Grail of Pizza

"When you know your time in a place is running out, you try to fix such moments in your mind's eye." -Julia Child, My Life in France

I've started thinking about what things I should do or see before leaving Connecticut, like a one last time "bucket list" of experiences that will not be available in Taiwan. Much of this revolves around food. In CT, pizza is like a religous experience.
Perhaps the most famous of the New Haven pizza joints is Pepe's. There's also Sally's and Modern and you have to choose sides. I am a Pepe's guy and this was high on my list of must dos before leaving. There are two buildings @ Pepe's, the newer building known as "Pepe's" and the original building known as "The Spot". Both serve the same pizza. The line @ Pepe's was easily two hours as we waited over an hour to get into The Spot. For pizza.
I'm starting to get that feeling regarding leaving for Taiwan. Eating food, going places, seeing people. What used to be routine now has a sense of finality about it. There's a bit of surrealness to it. While it has potential to be depressing, the upside is that there will be substitues for all of this activity and the opportunity to fill these voids with completely new experiences is very exciting.

I wonder if I will ever eat a more memorable pizza.


Monday, February 15, 2010

It depends who you ask

Now that word is getting out about the move to people who do not know us well, I am starting to get more questions of curiosity about Taiwan, itself. If I can avoid the ignorance that revolves around eating pad Thai and Bangkok, I'll often get, "So, are they part of China?" to which I'll offer, "It depends who you ask."

My first recollection of Taiwan as a kid growing up in the 70's was that everything non-edible that came out of the gum-ball machine was stamped, "MADE IN TAIWAN". The next thing was their dominance in the Little League World Series. I remember them playing as "Taiwan" but Wikipedia claimed that they were called Chinese Taipei at the time.

My father-in-law recently recounted the story of his's family's exodus from Taiwan. Apparently he was on guard after Nixon's visit to China in '72 and when the U.S. decided to close the embassy in '79, he quickly moved his family to Florida.

While I was (still am) no expert on Taiwan, I think I new the difference between Taiwan and Thailand at a pretty young age. My awareness of the politics was heightened in 1996 when China launched missiles into the Taiwan Strait in retaliation for a visit to the U.S. by the Taiwanese president the year prior. Travelling to Korea, Japan and Taiwan in recent years, I've noticed that the front page in the press belongs to North Korea. I found it striking while there, the idea of confronting nuclear proliferation. Even though I grew up in the States during the Cold War, it now seems so distant. I clearly remember being shocked as a child when I asked my Mom, "So where do we go if the Russians launch a nuclear bomb?" Her response was basically, "Nowhere."

What?!?! No exit strategy?!?!

While Shirley and I have considered many implications regarding moving to Taiwan, I don't think the whole political landscape is in the mix. Am I overestimating the safety? Or am I just in that same place that my mother was 30 years ago? If I get bombed or invaded, I'll deal with it then. There's no embassy to run to but there is a embassy-esque American Institute in Taiwan.  I'm not yet sure what all of the services are there, but I do know they can get you out of jury duty. There can't possible be a more important function of that organization.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chinese slang

I mp3'd Shirley's Pimsleur Mandarin CD's so I can continue my language study in the car during my commute and finally feel like I am making headway. Then she pulls this book off the shelf: Easy Way to Learn Chinese Slang.

I was all proud of myself because I can now say, "Sorry, but I am a stupid American and my Chinese sucks!" Though, considering how poor my intonation is, I am probably saying, "I have a small snake, but I like your daughter", which is likely to get me in some trouble.

So I started thumbing through the book and it is not exactly what I would call "slang" but perhaps more like proverbs. For example:


The story behind this one is a grocery store owner sweeping the snow in front of his store came close to his neighbor's porch and noticed a basket. Upon inspection, he found a corpse in the basket. He was startled and ran back to his store and left the broom and his footprints behind so the police arrested him as the murderer. His wife knew he could not be the murderer and appealed for a reinvestigation, upon which it was determined the the neighbor's brother was having an affair with the corpse's wife so the brother and the wife conspired to murder the husband and attempted to frame the brother/neighbor.

So the lesson is, mind your own business or you might get thrown in jail as a bystander in an attempted murder framing. Not sure how I'm going to work that one into a conversation. Actually, with all those words and me screwing up the intonation, I might inadvertently confess to a crime in the attempt of using this quip.

I like American slang better. Last week a Dutch co-worker of mine was asking me how to describe "glasses that you wear while skiing" and I said "ski goggles". But more importantly, I explained the meaning of the term "beer goggles". Now that's slang! And much more useful than "ski goggles".


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Jobs out of thin air

I spent this past weekend at my alma mater in Florida for a fraternity alumni reunion that I attend each year. It was refreshing to be with a group of people that get the whole Taiwan thing. The group is very geographically diverse as most people are not originally from Florida (some not from the U.S.) and typically scatter about the country after graduation. Many are in tech based job markets too and have moved to follow the shifts in market location. This group is unlike my typical coworkers who have grown up in CT and spent their entire lives in that area. So in FL I didn't get the "What the hell are you thinking?" attitude but more genuine curiosity and interest about what I was looking to do. It made it much more enjoyable to discuss.

Meanwhile Shirley went up to Boston to subvert the job fair and get a personal interview with the super of a school in Taiwan, interviewing for a math position which doesn't exist as the school is fully staffed. To make a long story short, it sounds like the interview went very well and the powers that be are scrambling to create a job for her where one does not exist because she has significant credentials that they can't resist locking up. In my post No soup for you! I ranted about skipping HR and just starting at the top when looking for a job. In this edition, the lesson learned is, don't be afraid to apply for a job that does not exist. As it looks, Shirley and I will both be employed into such situations.

When I started with the Taiwan boss, there wasn't a vacancy that fit my skills but he was quick to say that these were skills that he needed but when they wrote the job descriptions, they didn't have the luxury of knowing who/what was available. So after the interview process started and a few jobs were floated by me that were not what I was looking for, I just patiently waited until they found a way to work me into the mix in a way that was satisfactory to me. I think Shirley is headed down the same path.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Excuses, excuses

Tied to the whole video conference thing, I went to Office Max yesterday to pick up a webcam and a headset so I don't have to borrow Shirley's whenever my "new boss" wants to check in with me. The headset was $23 and the webcam $25. A young girl, probably in high school, was running the register and after scanning the headset her cash register prompted her to ask me if I would like to buy the extended warranty for $3. Really? Next thing you know there will be an extended warranty on a bag of ice in case you have a power outage and lose your frozen water.

I politely said, "No, thank you" to which she responded, "Are you sure, it's only, like, three dollars". At this point in my mind I'm trying to calculate the insurance cost to value ratio to compare it to other things to determine exactly how ridiculous it is to pay any amount of money to insure a $23 headset, which by the way, I've already proven to be nearly indestructible.

In my effort to quickly get out of this debate with a 16 year old over the value of three dollars, I piped up, "I'm leaving the country in a couple months and won't be here to cash in on the warranty." She was, like, "Wow!" It was just a matter of time before I broke the seal on this excuse and I'm sure it will be used many more times before I leave. I'm looking forward to getting the follow on question of, "So where are you going?" and making up answers depending on who is asking me to see what is the most ridiculous destination I can pass off with a straight face.

There was a TV show in the 80s called Perfect Stangers in which Bronson Pinchot played Balki Bartokomous, a character that came from a fictional island of Mypos. A kid, Dave, in my high school French class convinced our teacher, Madame Botossani, that his family was from Mypos. My goal is to see how many people I can convince I'm moving to Mypos. What will be truly epic is if I can get them to ask me questions about what it's like in Mypos. Botossani grew up in Europe and even she fell for the Mypos thing!

So back to the extended warranty, the cashier said it covers any damage. I heard a story once (urban legend?) about a couple guys who were on vacation and took the full insurance coverage at the rental car counter and proceeded to have a demolition derby with the two cars and then, I don't know, call AAA to tow them back to Hertz. I could conceivably do that with the headset, just pound it with a sledgehammer and bring it back, saying "I sat on it." Just for entertainment value.

Speaking of which, after the whole interraction with the cashier over the headset, she then scans the webcam and asks, "Does that mean you don't want the warranty for this either?"


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Video killed the radio star, and my beard.

Whenever I head west for a ski week I always grow a beard. We established a tradition in college that it was bad luck to shave on a ski trip and I'm superstitous so I've stuck with it. Last year in March I shaved my head as a cancer fundraiser for the St. Baldrick's Foundation so I thought I would up the ante this year by growing an epic beard that I could also shave as part of the fundraising deal.

Now my plan is falling apart. I was contacted by Taiwan HR yesterday that my "new boss" in Taiwan wants to have a VIDEO conference with me while we are waiting for the paperwork to go through so he can talk to me more specifically about what I'll be doing once I arrive.

What is it with Taiwan and the whole "visual" thing? Every job application my wife has submitted requires a photograph to go with it. Obviously, the American response is one of concern of privacy, if it was in America, I would assume they just don't want to hire fat or old people, right? Any insight would be appreciated.

But my issue is more of actually executing this video conference. We don't have this infrastructure built in to our workplace. I have a webcam on my personal laptop but the boss in Taiwan doesn't use Skype or any other web based chat software. We use MS Communicator on our work laptops for chat but I can't install my webcam on my work laptop because I'm locked out from making any modifications.

The suggestion was that I contact someone in US HR or IT to solve this problem. Luckily this was not proposed over the phone because I'm not sure I would have been able to choke back the laughter. I have attempted both and have gotten nowhere, yet. I think I might know someone in IT who will violate the International Creed of Information Technology and help. Hopefully his boss doesn't catch wind of this plot; I don't want to get him in trouble.

So back to the beard...if the technology side of this pans out I will shave the beard for the video conference as I don't want to appear homeless, though the backup could be a job as a Derelicte model.