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

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Farewell, My Musical Taste

I arrived on the island with an older CD with several albums of MP3's burned on it. While I won't try and say that I don't listen to a lot of crap, I think I have a little bit of integrity when it comes to music selection. That all went out the window when my car rental agency called to say they needed to switch my car. I know I was supposed to be in a smaller class car, yes, smaller than a Toyota Corolla, but they gave me an upgrade due to availability. So I had to go meet the "new car" out at the curb one morning and didn't realize I was looking right at it because it was the same exact car, same color, just with a bit more mileage. They had someone come along willing to sign a one year lease so I had to switch into an older vehicle. I would soon realize that the real downgrade would be that this car's stereo could not read MP3's.

Now I'm stuck listening to iCRT, the local English language station. It actually has decent news, but the music and D.J. banter is quite awful. I am not exaggerating when I say on every segment I drive, I hear Lady Antebellum and Rhianna, and am embarrassed to say that I can't get either song out of my head. I decided I needed to do something about this and came across an upcoming performance of Farewell My Concubine performed by the Taipei Chinese Orchestra at Zhongshan Hall in Ximen. The first challenge was getting tickets.

I went online to their website and for some reason, on the Englisg version of the website, this particular performance did not show up. If I switched to Chinese, then it showed up. So I tried to work through it using Google Translator and got stuck when I needed to create an account, I forget exactly why. But being concerned that I wouldn't even be able to get them in the mail or select "Will Call", I thought it better to try and get them in person. They broker through the Eslite Bookstore so I stopped there on my way home from work.

I went to the main store in Xinyi and went down to the customer service desk in the basement. Not knowing what the language barrier might be, I printed out the webpage for this event in Chinese so I could at least show them what event I was looking for, then worry about selecting tickets. They ended up speaking English very well and I chose a seat in the 4th row orchestra, pretty close to center, for $15! At this point, I was wondering how cheezy this might be as you'd be lucky to get into a crappy Matthew Maconahay movie in NYC for 15 bucks. And there was no nonsense service charges on top a la Ticketmaster. Fifteen bucks out the door.

The ~1100 seat theater is located a couple blocks from the MRT station. The program was 5 pieces, the last of which was Farewell My Concubine but it had a very interesting build to it. The first thing that struck me during the first piece was that the orchestra was predominantly Chinese instruments. That may seem like, duh, but I've never seen an entire orchestra composed in such a way. I've seen that lone guy in the subway playing a "Chinese violin". The first piece showcased a woman, Kemei Jiang playing the jinghu and she was amazing.

For the second, Wu Wei, a Chinese guy from Berlin was playing the sheng, which is a handheld instrument with vertical pipes and 27 valves. I was so close I could hear the percussive sounds of his fingers tapping the body of the instrument. Wu Wei was often smiling and jumping around on stage, really getting into the performance, not like my experience with classical musicians.

The third piece was the most interesting as it featured Huun Huur Tu, a quartet of Siberian "throat singers". I couldn't even attempt to describe it other than to say their instruments looked like they were made 2,000 years ago, held together with rope. You'll have to see for yourself. They were playing a solo gig the next evening so they were worked into this program but they meshed really well with the orchestra.

There was an intermission after which a Finnish cellist, Anssi Karttunen took the stage for a Stravinsky-esque concerto for cello. Maybe he was just sandbagging, or maybe Finnish classical music isn't my thing, but his performance here paled in comparison to the climax, Farewell My Concubine.

This piece is meant to be a duel between the male and female characters of the opera. Kemei Jiang rejoined the stage to battle it out against the Finnish cellist and it was fantastic. He really came to life in this performance and it served as a great climax to the entire night. I'm very excited about the opportunities to see world class musicians within minutes of my home for the cost of a pizza. Now if I could only find a pizza here worth $15.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Maybe I should have gotten the Attack

I've been trying out different flavors of ramen every time I pick up some supplies at the quickie mart and on my last trip, I found myself heavily debating the "kimchi" flavor vs. the "Spicy". I already had the kimchi and it was good. I figured I'd try something new with the spicy and that turned into an experiment gone awry.

It was very hot. Maybe a bit hotter than typical Thai or Vietnamese broths but I managed to put it down with a handful of tissues at my side. About 10 minutes later I felt like I was going to vomit. Fortunately that subsided and I was able to get to bed early as I have a long day planned for the morning, that is, until I woke up in gut wrenching pain! I had some antacid tablets and quickly choked one of those down with some yogurt drink and put the TV on because I knew it would take a while for any relief to kick in.

I found an English language Taiwanese news station and they ran a story on laundry detergent and how they have  found harmful levels of nonylphenol ethoxyltae in various brands on the shelves in Taiwan? A doctor came on to explain that it is potentially "harmful to the testicles". So I'm watching them yanking the stuff off shelves in the stores and it looks like the same stuff that I have! Keep in mind, other than the fact that it comes in a Tide-orange bottle, I cannot accurately identify any similarities or lack thereof.

At least the doctor on TV didn't say, "After the testicular damage, you will immediately experience gut wrenching pain." Then I would really have a problem.

Time to fold laundry...

Monday, May 24, 2010

57 Channels (And Nothin' On)

I am moving into my permanent place on Monday and will likely be without TV. My intent is to live off internet based media and just connect my laptop up to the TV since it has HDMI out, not that my TV will be here before August. I get a lot of questions about, "What is TV like in Taiwan?" and it actually IS an interesting question, or interesting response.

I have cable TV including about 100 channels in my current place. I'm not sure if I have the "foreigner package" or anything like that but I'll starting with English language TV, I get CNN, BBC, HBO, Discovery (sometimes dubbed in Chinese), Nat Geo (sometimes dubbed in Chinese), and several mediocre American movie channels, like "Hollywood". I haven't watched much beyond CNN and BBC and have come to the conclusion that there really is only 20 minutes of marketable news on any given day. BBC is just as bad as CNN in running the same stuff over and over. And it's not even the Headline News version, has our collective attention span gotten that short?

So on to Taiwanese TV. The great thing is it is very predictable which means I can get great bog material any time of day. The following programming is available 24/7. I kid you not, I just took all of these snapshots in sequence and I knew I would get each and every one of them.

1. Baseball - Baseball in on all the time. I couldn't get Yankee baseball back home through Dish Network nor MLB.com because of blackout restrictions and Steinbrenner family vendettas but I can always get the Yanks here. Live on up to 3 stations and replayed throughout the day. You can also get local Taiwanese pros, aka CPBL (See my previous post on Tian Mu Stadium). They also show the Dodgers and Red Sox quite frequently.

2. Annoying women selling stuff - It usually revolves around skin whitening cream or some weight loss supplement or non-cardio fitness type thing, like that vibrating band that shakes your whole body into weight loss. No joke.

3. Puppet Shows - I can't tell you how many attempts with a cell phone camera it took for me to get this shot as the puppet shows are all about crazy fight scenes which resulted in a pink and purple blur. Think Final Fantasy but with puppets.

4. Monk TV - Not the OCD detective, Buddhist monk TV. At least 5 channels at once. They all look like they are filmed in someone's basement. Think Wayne's World, but with monks.

5. Stock Market TV - There are always at least 4 or 5 financial channels and they all involve some printout of box plots with hand written notes and a guy holding a pointer. It really is that cheezy. For a society that is supposedly so high tech, there are a lot of anomalies. 

6. Cartoons - There are several adult-ish oriented cartoon channels and even a Chinese Cartoon Network with Japanimation. You can also catch Sponge Bob dubbed in Chinese and subbed in Japanese. As you can see in the photo, Sponge Bob himself is not subbed because he's always too stoned to say anything intelligible.

7. Corny soap operas with crying dudes - this comprise about 20 channels at all times of day.

OK, so there was one thing that is not on all the time. I only saw it once and scrambled to grab the camera:

Japanese Women Wrestling - This is not like the women's wrestling that I grew up with nor any Chyna like nonsense. These women are nuts, extremely athletic and brutal. In this pictured move she grabbed the other by the legs and spun here around like a helicopter about 10 times, getting faster each time and then just let go and hurled her like a rag doll. Insane!

In my plan to get TV/movie entertainment there is a big hurdle:

Most legit web based video content restricts access to those in the United States. I'm not sure if Guam gets in on the action but Taiwan can't access Hulu, Netflix or even Scrabble on Facebook. There is a loophole: you can log in to a proxy service which will route you through a U.S. server to make it look like you are in the States. I was using a free (advertising based) service that worked for a few days but Hulu just caught up with them.

There are pay services which are supposed to be better and stay one step ahead technologically against Hulu. I may give that a shot once settled in; I wonder if it will work. I'm willing to pay Netflix and just use the video on demand service rather than pirate movies but that is also restricted to those that can convince the Netflix servers that they are in the U.S. There is so much other stuff to do here, I'm hoping to divorce my TV. I always liked this T-shirt:

Sunday, May 23, 2010


 I've heard a common complaint among the Westerners at work that coming up with a strategy for dinner can be difficult; it all depends on what you are looking for. Luckily for us, lunch is free in our cafeteria. The first day I ate in the cafe was a Friday and I did what I find myself doing often, and stood off to the side to watch someone else go through the drill. There was a counter with women behind it putting food on plates, assembly line style, and our employees would just walk p and grb a plate. Then off to the soup line which had two choices and some fresh fruit. Then they went and sat down.

I scanned the room for a cashier. Nothing. Was there a separate exit through which you were charged? Nope. People seemed to just eat and go. There must be some high tech mechanism. Do you scan your badge somewhere? Not that I can see. Maybe my office chair has a strain gauge in it and at the end of the month I get billed based on my weight.I grab a plate, you have 2 choices of a set meal and it tends to be a mix of Asian/Western. Like a chili-garlic chicken breast, or teryaki salisbury steak. After eating I followed someone out, no option to pay. I was embarassed to ask anyone, as if it is free, I don't want to be the one to suggest that someone would be willing to pay for it, and potentially ruin it for everyone else. Maybe the boss forgot to install the cash register in the master plan.

So I waited until Monday and asked a colleague which whom I can confide who replied, "Yes Mike, there is such a thing as a free lunch!"

So, what to do for dinner in Taiwan?

My goal is to never go to McDonald's unless I'm legitimately craving Chicken McNuggets, assuming they even have them here. If the menu at McDonald's vs. the USA is anything like Starbucks vs. the USA, I may be missing out at McDonalds as I've found the food at Starbucks in Taiwan and Japan to be much better, though they no longer have the Raspberry Crepes they did a few years ago. So here are some approaches that I've taken since I've been here:

  • If you go out with a local and you like a particular dish, have them write stuff down in Chinese or grab a take out menu and translate over the top. You can later come back on your own and use your written translation.

  • Restaurants that have an English name out front like, "Mango Tango", probably have Enlish notes on the menu and there are probably a few employees with decent English skills.

  • There are a lot of Vietnamese/Pho places. If there is not an English menu, there will at least be a Vietnamese menu. If you never imagined that you could read a Vietnamese menu, such things will seem quite simple once you are struggling through traditional Chinese as Vietnames is at least romanized so you can read the words. Look up a Vietnames menu online and you can write down about 15 vocabulary words to get you through the menu. Beef/Pork/Chicken/Shrimp/Crab - Rice/Noodle/Soup is about all you need to know to get a great meal at pretty cheap prices.

  • Photo Menus - there will be a lot of places with photo menus; this saved us in Japan. It can be a challenge to tell what you are really looking at, especially in a bowl of soup or if something is breaded/fried like Tonkatsu, which is popular here. If you are feeling slightly brave, just point and eat.

  • Street Food - Taiwan is well known for its street food. In the evening, propane fueled carts roll out to the street side and crank out some amazing food at rock bottom prices. Pho looks like an extravagance compared to cart food. In Japan it is considered bad ettiquitte to stroll the streets eating food but it Taiwan there is no such rule, not even remotely. Here's the problem with street food: the cart vendors typically don't speak a lick of English, and it can be quite difficult to tell what they are cooking. I once ordered something that at first glance looked like grilled chicken on a stick and the guy was basting it with a teriyaki sauce. I ordered one and in looking at the price ($1) was thinking, even in Taiwan, no way can chicken breast be THAT cheap. I am pretty confident it turned out to be Tofu, but I'll never know for sure. Dumplings are very good as long as you ar enot too concerned what is inside them. Pork, chicken and vegetarian seem common and I haven't run across anything exotic at the dumpling stands. So, speaking of exotic...there will be many stands containing grilled, basted, umm...innards, I guess? One of the guys at work has a "food survival guide" of sorts and he explained that there is a Chinese character that is a predecessor for anything that includes innards, so once you learn that character, you can be on the lookout. I inadvertenly had pig's feet and intestine in Japan, both of which were quite good, neither of which I would have ordered voluntarily.

  • Traditional Taiwanese Restaurants - this is a big challenge so far. Local restaurants typically do not have English menus nor English speaking staff and if you want to have a nice, cool, sit down meal, you will have to learn to navigate these waters. A guy on the train taught me to say in Chinese, "I'll take your best dish". He said to call the boss over and ask for "the best" if I don't know what to order. I'm still a bit untrusting to do this, maybe, only because if I'm the boss and a Westerner strolled in and did this, I'd be tempted to see what I could get this poor sucker to eat. So, I'm hoping to get some help from folks at work in both written and spoken Chinese to be able to navigate the menu a little. I think this is the one thing that will force me to study some written language rather than just spoken. One option is if there is a local place by you, grab a take out menu and bring it in to work to be translated, then go back with your personal menu in tow.

  • Buffet - there are some nice buffets here and this can be an easier way to get mroe traditional local food without dealing with Chinese. Some charge by the weight if it's more of a cafeteria style place but there are also some nice restaurants where you can pay one price andit's all-you-can-eat. Some of these are stashed away on the second floor of a mixed use building so ask the locals or check guide books to find out where they are.

  • If you really get stuck there is also KFC and Pizza Hut in most high traffic areas and you can seek out a TGI Fridays or Outback steakhouse for something better.

I wonder what vegans, vegetarians or people who avoid pork and/or shellfish do. That can't be easy. I did eat at a place called Minder Vegetarian in the Taipei Main Station that was very good, buffet style. Any other vegetarian recommendations would be highly appreciated.

As for prices, at the local place by my temporary home, a combo fried rice (chicken/shrimp/pork) goes for $2.20. A big tofu egg drop soup meant for two is $1.90 and a Taiwanese snack that I love, scallion pancake, is $1.90 or $2.50 if you want it made with roast beef, which was awesome.

At the Vietnamese restaurant near the office, we usually end up paying less than $10 each for many plates to share including spring rolls, salad, soup and stir fry.

At a fancy Thai place in downtown Taipei, rice, seafood stir-fry, lemongrass iced tea and a beer was $21 including tip.

My experience is tipping is not customary in Taiwan except at fancier restaurants where they automatically add 10% to the bill. So you can just pay whatever it says on the bill and you are good to go. Prices include tax. The guy on the train said it is much cheaper to eat out than it is to buy food an cook yourself. Having no real cooking supplies here, I haven't crossed that bridge yet. There is an open air market right outside the door of our permanent apartment so I am looking forward to moving there, getting our kitchen stuff shipped over, and cooking with locally bought ingredients rather than big box supermarkets back home that ship everything in from South America.

I also notice a lot of Shabu-Shabu and Mongolian Grill type places which will be great to try once Shirley arrives or if I can get a group to go out but doesn't work well dining solo.

Hygeine can be an issue that you will have to get used to. I have eaten in some really dingy looking places and have yet to see a cockroach, which I did see at a really nice restaurant. Right now, I am writing this at Starbucks and am watching a monster cucaracha sitting on top of an empty chair across the aise. There are 4 people in close proximity, I'm wondering who will notice it first...if anyone.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Gangsta's Paradise

I have a bank account! I feel like I'm somebody!

One of the HR reps came to my office yesterday to deliver my ATM card and gave me some instructions. I must go online and change my password for online banking within 30 days. I must also go to a First Bank (my bank) ATM within 30 days to change my PIN. Deal. I immediately logged in to the website and changed my password. I also tried to find a list of branch locations but that did not exist.

Websites here are absolutely terrible. Even if it's in Chinese, via Google Translate I can tell it's terrible. And by that I simply mean function not aesthetics. For example, a bank that doesn't allow you to search for locations. So I went out for dinner tonight into a busier section of town and figured, on the way home I'd keep a look out for a First Bank ATM to change the PIN.

I saw every possible bank known to man. Take a look a this table below. If you pick one from column A, one from column B, and one from column C and call that the name of a bank; I saw it.

Then right as I was about to come to the end of the strip of businesses and turn down a pretty vacant road toward my building, there it stood in front of me, a First Bank branch! I wrote down the default 6 digit pin on a Post-It Note (actually a patent violating residue free sticky paper - more on that in the future) so that I could change it at an ATM. I was hoping the card reader on the machine was one that you just swipe and not one that sucks the card completely into the machine because I was sure that would be the end of my card.

Unfortunately, the ATM had jaws, in went the card. The first screen asked me to select a language, Chinese or English. OK, this is off to a great start. Then I see the most amazing thing I've ever seen at an ATM:

The screen says, "Attention! The gangster may use the English operation interface to cheat you!" I have no idea what this means, but now, not only am I neurotic about losing the card in the machine, but I'm looking over my shoulder for "The Gangster". I don't think they mean Steve Miller's Gangster of Love. I'm actually more worried about getting cheated by this ATM than I am about the gangster.

I went to the "more options" section of the menu and found the choice to change PIN. Now, if you've read any of this blog you know there is no way this is going to go down smoothly; I am not going to feel a sense of success walking away from this ATM. It's either going to eat my card, or something else will go wrong, right?

This ATM card is a VISA Debit card with 2 technologies built in. It has a normal magnetic strip, and an RF IC device that you can just wave by a sensor at some cash registers. So when I say I want to change my PIN it asked if I want to change the IC PIN or the Magnetic PIN. Clutched in my hand I have a 6 digit default PIN. As I attempt to change the magnetic PIN, it only allows me to input 4 digits and soon after I fail to change the PIN. Luckily, it doesn't eat my card and allows me to switch over to change the IC PIN which is a success. Where the heck do I get the magnetic PIN?!?!

Upon returning to the hotel, I find the original printout from the bank that the ATM card came in and it's in Chinese except for the PIN # and it appears to me like the default magnetic PIN might be 1234. So when I'm in the city tomorrow I may try that if I can find a First Bank. Watch, this time the card will get eaten.

Not that it really matters. My account balance is $0.00. I'm just glad I was able to get the account opened before the first payday as I could just imagine what the process is to recover from a failed direct deposit.

Brass Monkey, that funky monkey

There is a web forum focused on ex-pat living in Taiwan called Forumosa, I have been reading it extensively for the past 8 months or so, ever since I started thinking about coming to Taiwan, so perhaps even longer. Within the postings you can find answers to everything and people are really quick to help answer your questions, as long as they haven't already been asked a bunch of times and you are too lazy to use the search function. Pretty much like any other forum.

Through the forum the moderator announced that there would be a happy hour meetup of the "Forumosans" (as they call themselves) at the Brass Monkey, which happens to be on the MRT line which runs past my building, well, withing walking distance of my building, as long as you can walk far. So I decided to be the new, friendly Mike instead of the old, Connecticut Mike and show up, even though I wouldn't know a soul. There is something a little freaky about the whole thing, OK, a lot freaky about meeting "virtual" people in person but I think that is the wave of the social future, weaving online interactions with personal interactions, much like my meetup last week with the blog readers.

I get the sense that there is a network of local bars and ex-pat bars, the latter of which the Brass Monkey falls into, can't you tell by the name? I showed up and it was a near ghost town. I met the manager of the bar, Matt, who was from Boston and had a good chat about the place and how he ended up in Taiwan. Thats the ubiquitous first topic that always comes up, but it is very interesting to hear of the different paths that people took to get here.  There were a handful of "Forumosans" there. In walking up and introducing myself I felt kinda like Dorfman in Animal House when he says, "Excuse me, sir, is this the Delta House?" While there were no Blutos there, at least not on this night, I did feel like it was a "Sure, come on in..." welcome.

It was interesting to meet people with differing backgrounds sharing a strong common thread. I was surprised that it wasn't just teachers, but also people in publishing, restaurants, and software industries. Time blew by quickly and I had to rush out so as to not miss the last train home at midnight. If you live in Taipei and read Forumosa, you should come out to  gathering. One other surprising thing, most people I met had been in Taipei for years, some 15-20 years. I thought it would be more of a transient community. So there must be a lot of lurkers at Forumosa that haven't been out to an event. Come on out!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Take me out to the ballgame

It was only a matter of time before I made my way to a ballgame. My other travelogue pastime involves being part of a group of friends that has seen a game at every Major League Baseball stadium in the United States. It took ten years to accomplish and maintaining that status will be a work in progress as from time to time, new stadiums will be built and new stadiums must be visited. Publishing the stories is an incomplete aspiration but some of the experiences can be seen at Ballpark Roadtrip.

I had the pleasure of seeing a game at "the Big Egg" in Tokyo which was just insane. If you think baseball is borning, in a lot of ways you are right. But don't let that stand in your way of going to a game in Japan. The environment is more like a European football/soccer match than an American baseball game. I wasn't quite sure what to expect in Taiwan, but I headed down to Tian Mu Baseball Stadium to see the La New Bears take on the Brother Elephants. Also like Japan, the teams in Taiwan are corporate named.

So what is pro baseball like in Taiwan? Take the spirit of Japanese baseball and shrink it down to the scale of the Minor Leagues in the U.S. Tian Mu stadium holds 10,500 fans and there were about 4,000 in attendance for a Sunday evening game. The price of a ticket close to the field is 300NT ($10) and a bleacher seat can be had for 200. The food selection included fried mushrooms, grilled meat skewers, Taiwan sausages, some Pizza Hut thing in a box, and of course, hot dogs. The price of everything except the Pizza Hut box is about $1.50. What is also $1.50? A tall boy of Taiwan Beer. Even at the minors in the States, you can't touch a beer for under $5. Some will argue that Taiwan Beer is swill, but people pay $8 for an Old Style at Wrigley Field.

When you approach the ticket windows, you choose a line based on which team you are cheering for and the stadium is split down the middle with home team fans on the right, vistors on the left. This is the same as Japan. I wasn't aware of this in Japan and was amazed to see a sold out game, 50k+ fans in Tokyo, with the stadium precisely split right down the middle. I had a friend hook me up with tickets in Tokyo so I didn't understand how it happened, but it was obviously by design.

The fans in Taipei were equally as rabid as those in Tokyo, allbeit in smaller numbers. There were a couple guys waving huge flags right behind the dugout and a guy with a microphone leading the home crowd in cheers. There was a guy with a trumpet helping the cause and this later morphed into a 4 piece brass section. Everyone except me seemed to have some noise making device along the line of "thundersticks" with the Elephants logo on it. There was a specific beat to which they banged the noisemakers together in unison and there were Chinese songs. Though the visiting Bears used the melody of Popeye the Sailor Man as their theme.

Although they use the DH, from what I've seen on TV and at this particular game, it tends to be more of a National League style of play. They actually bunt, they actually hit and run. It's also a fast paced game, no acting like an OCD goofball in the batter's box. Just stand there and get ready to swing the bat! They have a halftime of sorts at the end of the fifth. The grounds crew comes out and the players clear the field and do some stretching and warming up in foul territory. It's probably a solid ten minutes. I haven't yet noticed what they do on TV during this time. They have a solid fence along the wall to screen you from sharply hit foul balls which was pretty surprising since their scooter use isn't quite characteristic of being risk averse. At the end of the game the players all lined up side-by-side along the foul line and bowed in unison to the crowd. Then a couple guys with purple mohawks and a guitar took the field to play a song and had a Milli Vanilli -esque audio malfunction, the crowd seemed neither surprised nor disappointed.

Monday, May 17, 2010

New blog feature - Map

If you look to the right you can now access my Taipei Places Google Map.When I mention significant things in the blog, I'll put a marker on the map, so if you're local you can find out where it is. Or if you're not local, you can reference the map to figure out if I'm living in a country that the evening news is reporting is under siege,  junta, revolution or general civil unrest. Since not everyone knows what a Taiwan is...

Driving in Taipei

I'm sure bellyaching about the driving in Taiwan is quite cliche but I'll at least make some comments about it since many ex-pats may be debating whether or not to get a car here.. My company is outside of Taipei and the MRT line out that way is not complete yet (2013) and since my wife will be working in Taipei, one of us needs a car. Part of the whole point of coming here was to enjoy a big international city and the excitement that comes with it so we have chosen to live in Shilin which is equally convenient to MRT, highway, and bus line up through Tian Mu.

Therefore, I will be commuting 22km by car to work. I have never driven in the Far East before. When my company sends us to Korea or Taiwan, we are highly discouraged from attempting to drive. They have no problem paying for taxis and limos to take us wherever we need to go. But since I'm here for the long haul, I must take on the task of driving.

If there is one succinct rule of thumb I would give about driving in Taiwan it's, Do not look at the lines on the road, ever. Like the points in Who's Line Is It Anyway, they just don't matter. You know how when you are speeding through a corner with a jersey barrier on the side, you're not supposed to look at the wall, otherwise you'll hit it? Same thing, follow the lines and you will hit something, because nobody else follows the lines. Cars and scooters intertwine and basically follow the path of least resistance down the road. If there is an opening in front of you, you take it.

The layout of the roads by the traffic engineers is merely a suggestion. On my way home from work I am on a main road, you need to make a left to get to the highway, the road has four lanes, 2 marked to turn left, 2 marked to go straight. During rush hour, all four lanes turn left. And once you come around that corner, all four lanes of traffic need to fit back into two lanes. The crazy thing is, it all seems to work. Very rarely do you hear a horn honk, people just let each other in, and I haven't yet seen a real wreck. A couple rear-end fender benders, but that's it.

One possible reason that there aren't accidents on top of accidents is there is extensive traffic monitoring, remote speed cameras, stoplight cameras, and cops on the side of the road running camera based radar traps. You get a ticket in the mail and you pay it at 7-11. You do EVERYTHING at 7-11 (more on that in the future). I didn't quite realize the photo enforcement scenario until I read it on someone else's blog a couple days ago. Now I know why every so often, the GPS makes a "BONG" noise and something red in Chinese flashes on the screen. It's probably alerting me to a known traffic cam. I guess I'll be paying a visit to 7-11 soon.

Speaking of GPS, before leaving the U.S. I wanted to have a GPS in hand that would work in Taiwan. Since Garmin is based in Taiwan, I figured that would be a good choice. I previously had a TomTom, which was OK, but support is nearly non-existent. After buying a Nuvi 765, I was surprised to find out that Garmin refuses to sell me a Taiwan map for a U.S. serialized Garmin. There are ways to pirate maps, and I am not advocating piracy, but I attempted to pay for the map and my money was denied so I boarded the plane with Garmin in hand. Be warned, there are Chinese maps and English maps for Taiwan. If you are reading this blog, you probably want the English maps. Taiwan City Navigator 8.63B works well,  if you can get it.

I noticed in my rental car agreement that it would come with a GPS so I had that as a fallback plan not knowing if mine would actually work. Upon delivery of the rental car, I looked through the favorites stored in the Nuvi 205 and it already had my apartment and my office stored in its database, nice! I used it to make my way out to the office and it worked fine. After using it throughout Taipei for a couple weeks I have noticed a few issues which may be generically applied to GPS in Taipei:

  • Inputting an address can be an issue due to the different forms of romanizing Chinese, that it, converting from Kanji characters into words that look more like English. There were different standards used which result in different spellings, Chung, Zhong, and Jhong can all be the same thing as far as I can tell so when you attempt input an address, it may be spelled differently than what the Garmin will recognize.
  • Another issue is that the Garmin does not treat Taipei as the  "city", you must further input what we would refer to as the neighborhood, for example, Shilin, which in Garmin is spelled Shihlin (note above bullet point). Often you will find an address in a guidebook that will not specify which neighborhood it is in so you may have to guess. One saving grace is the POI database is quite extensive and you can find most things, from big department stores to small mom & pop coffee shops.
  • Navigation itself can be troublesome. First of all, the technology of GPS is not accurate enough to always figure out what street you are on in Taipei because the streets are so close together. A variance of 30 feet can easily put you on 3 different parallel roads.
  • With narrow streets, tall buildings, and cloud cover, maintaining a signal can be difficult. It also takes time to lock a signal and when coming out of a parking garage right into traffic, you may be on your own for a few turns until the GPS can acquire satellites. I have found the Garmin 765 to be much better than my old TomTom GO 700 in this sense. That TomTom would require you to sit still for a minute before getting a fix on your position. If I just drove out of my garage, I could cover 10 miles without locking because I could get that far before a long enough pause in my travels.
  • Couple the previous 3 points together, and once you deviate from the intended route, the CPU speed in the GPS is sometimes not fast enough to easily get you back on track. By the time it recalculates the next route, you're already 3 turns past where it wanted you to go and you have to cross your fingers for a red light.

All in all, the GPS will get you to your destination. I also find it great for walking and the Garmin has a pedestrian mode. You can plan on visiting a certain neighborhood and load up some destinations from a guidebook and use the GPS to find you way around and most importantly, not get lost when you get twisted around in small narrow alleys. I'm hoping to soon replace the pedestrian value of the GPS with a smartphone and Google Maps. Unfortunately you can't get turn by turn directions in Taiwan via Google Maps on a phone yet.

If you can handle driving in New York or Boston, you should be OK in Taipei. If those places make you white knuckled, you will have a hard time, at least that's my opinion after a couple weeks driving here, I'm curious to see if that changes over time.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Meeting other ex-pats through blog

I have been contacted by a few people through my blog with questions and comments. It was particularly rewarding to get an e-mail from a couple who is basically in the same boat as us, a couple months behind us in the process and also from CT. She is an actuary and he is in education so there is even some similarity in careers, and they have a cat.

They were in Taipei on a house hunting venture before they start the transition in August so we met up for dinner. Food can still be tough for me here; I am trying to strike a balance between the easy way out (McDonald's) and navigating a restaurant entirely in Chinese. So what's the middle ground? I had found in Japan that you can often find places with photos on the menus, that doesn't mean you won't end up with pig feet, tongue and intestines (as I think I did-all were good), but you will at least be able to get some protein on the table. You can also search around for menus with English subtitles, the availability of which seem dependent on location, neighborhoods with more foreign business travelers will be easier. Neihu is a little challenging in that sense.

Folks at work recommended the Breeze Center on the second floor of Taipei Main Station which ranges from food court to decent sit-down restaurants. It is also appears to be segregated by food types: Indian/pita/kebab type stuff in this corner, noodle stuff in that corner, Japanese together, etc. We ended up at a Japanese tonkatsu style place with a very strange sign on the front door, the least strange of which is you apparently can't bring cats, but dogs are OK? If anyone can explain the ban on astronaut bulls you win a prize.

Department store basements and train station areas tend to be easier to get by in English; we ended up with a picture menu and the staff was actually pretty good in English. It was fun to have other ex-pats to share similar stories with. They are struggling a bit more with finding a place. They were focused on living downtown and the spaces seem to be quite small there. Hopefully things work out!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Mechanical car park

You've probably heard me do some whining about how difficult the simple things can be in Taiwan and the mechanical car park is the perfect yin & yang situation, the sweet and sour. On the day I was about to receive the rental car, I went to the apartment manager and asked what the parking situation was. It started with a response of, "I don't have a parking spot available" and I eventually worked it to, "I don't have a spot available in this wing of the building right now but if you come back at 2PM I can set you up in the wing next door and move you over to this wing on Sunday." I liked the second answer much better as for a brief moment I had that sinking feeling like, "What the hell am I going to do with this car?"

After learning the drill with parking next door, on Sunday I went to arrange the switch. I thought I would just exchange swipe cards and she would tell me my new spot #, but it could not be that easy. She said to go get the car and meet her curbside in three minutes, three, not five or ten. I scrambled to get the car and she met me on the ramp heading into the garage below my wing. Earlier in the week when I was out apartment hunting, one of the landladies noted that her building had a "real" parking garage and not a mechanical car park. I didn't know exactly what she meant but thought a parking attendant must take your car and bring it somewhere else where cars are stored on top of each other like you see in some places in Manhattan. I was partially right.

The reason why the apartment manager had to take me down to explain it to was that the garage in my wing is a mechanical car park, and there's a system to it. First of all, you turn from the street down a ramp, and unlike the other garage where you had a sensor mounted in the window to trigger the gate, at this one I need to press a button on a remote control on a keychain. Right beyond the gate is a metal garage door that covers the entire entrance. A different button on the same remote operates this door.

She motions for me to pull up to one of two garage bays and to put the car in park. Then I have to get out and use a new scanner card to walk up to a sensor by the garage bay door and swipe it. The light above the door turns red and it takes about a minute to open. I then have to drive the car into the bay and into a specific depth at which point a sensor indicates the car is in the right spot. The manager tells me I need to fold in the side view mirrors, if I don't they will probably get sheared off. How long before I forget? There's actually a button in the car that automatically moves the mirrors. With the car in place I can turn it off and lock it up.

In the meanwhile the garage is talking to me, a female voice in Chinese, perhaps telling me that the car is in the right spot or "Don't forget the mirrors idiot!" In English, automatic voices are typically female, soothing and pleasant even if frustrating, i.e. "Press one for this, press two for this, press three for this..." There's something about Chinese that just sounds mean, especially when you are being told what to do. Shirley and I were at a dim sum place in Boston once and one of the cart ladies shouted, "Cheezy Mussel" at me. I was so scared I took the cheezy mussel. Who would ever think it was a good idea to put cheese on mussels? I guess as long as I'm in the restaurant, there's a market for "cheezy mussel".

So after the car is all buttoned up I have to step out of the garage and reswipe the card. The door closes and I can leave. What threw me for a loop was, the manager pointed toward two garage doors on the other side of the parking facility and said, "When you need to leave, you go get the car over there." For some reason, I had a hard time wrapping my head around that. How does my car come out over there? Where does it go? How does it find it? Are there elves behind that door running this operation?

The mechanism comes up, grabs the car, takes it down into a multi-level parking grid, stashed the car on a shelf, then comes back to get it out, and sends it op a different elevator into a different garage. I left the car there for the night and  the next morning went to get my car. I swore there was no way that car was showing up. Especially since she told me if I had a problem and the garage attendant wasn't around I could go ask the lobby security guard for help. I swiped my card, a low and behold, the door opened and my car was there, pointing outward nonetheless.

I love you, mechanical car park!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

OK, so some things aren't that tough

About the second day in the car I looked at the fuel gauge and realized it was only a quarter full. I think I remember in Europe there is no concept of returning the car with the tank full, you can just coast in on fumes. So now I'm wondering, how to you get gas. It can't possibly be self serve because that will involve less employment so I went to scout out a gas station across the street after the scallion pancake dinner, and sure enough, attendants at the pump.

The next morning I went out to give one last check over the apartment we chose and I remembered to ask Hope, the real estate agent what I need to say at the gas station. First you tell them the octane level. For 92, you don't say the equivalent of "ninety two" it's just "nine two" or "jeo er". And "fill it" is "jia mon", kind sounds like saying "yes" to a Jamaican.

On the way to work after the meeting with Hope, I found a gas station near the office. The lingo I got from Hope worked perfectly. As they hand me my receipt, they asked if I wanted a Coke and handed me a liter bottle. I guess if you fill up you get free Coke, sweet! Many people will ask how much gas costs; I think it works out to about $4/gallon, not insanely expensive, considering there are only a few places where gas is cheaper than the U.S.

If you ever catch me bitching about how everything in Taiwan is a hassle, remind me about the EasyCard as I have found nothing else in Taiwan so aptly named. The subway system, MRT, in Taipei is great for several reasons:

  1. It is very clean
  2. The stations are laid out in a very standardized manner such that once you learn to navigate one, they all seem the identical
  3. The entire MRT system map is on display showing the cost to each stop from where you are
  4. Inside the subway car, there is audible instructions telling you which stop you are coming to
  5. Inside the subway car, there is a map of that line with a light showing which stop you are coming to and you can basically see your line, and there is a map of all the other lines
  6. Everthing is in English
  7. On the platform, you have lanes to stand in as you wait for the train. When the doors open, the lanes are located such that everyone can get off first without interfering with the queue, then everyone gets on in an orderly fashion. Pretty much.
  8. On the platform, it tells you how long until the next train will arrive.
  9. The EasyCard
You can buy this EasyCard in a vending machine at the station. You pay NT500, 100 is a deposit for the card, 400 is the available balance to use for your fare. What is great about for MRT newbies, is you don't really have to worry about what the fare is to get to your desired station, as long as you have a great enough balance.

What is also great is it has some sort of passive RF type technology where you don't swipe a magnetic bar. You can just leave it in your purse or wallet and hold it up against the sensor and it reads it!

I have yet to prove out this application of the EasyCard as I haven't conquered (or been conquered by) the bus system yet, but I know it involves fares based on how many zones you travel through. I'm not yet up to feeling defeated by totally screwing up the bus thing. So I'll just stick to MRT/walking.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Eating out - cracking the code

I worked with a Russian guy back in the States who upon learning about my move commented regarding the language barrier, that my survival skills would kick in and the first situation I would be forced to resolve, be it verbally or non-verbally, is finding food. It can be intimidating and the problem here is pointing is risky, as you often cannot tell what something is.

Cooking for yourself is easier. Yeah, there are some meat looking products at the store that are hard to identify, but you can make your way through it. I'm not really well equipped to cook in this hotel-style apartment with a small kitchen and I haven't even had my Slap Chop shipped from home, yet. So I have been trying to eat out in between cooking up some ramen.

On the way back from the MRT the other day I noticed a restaurant that had some dishes on a shelf looking like you could just pick whatever you want so I thought that would be a good spot to try, knowing that I am not in a touristy area and English menus are hard to come by. I walked over to the place after work. Most of the restaurants here would be perceived as quite "sketchy" back in the states just based on appearance and cleanliness. You quickly get over that here, otherwise, you will starve to death.

There are 3 odors I find prevalent in Taipei:

  1. Carbon monoxide fumes
  2. Smell of food cooking at the street side carts - part soy sauce smell, part cooking oil smell
  3. Rotting corpse
They eat something called "stinky tofu", the likes of which I haven't tried yet. I am told that stinky tofu is the source of the rotting corpse smell. I still haven't accepted that someone will stick that in their mouth and there is not, in fact, a rotting corpse nearby.

Luckily, the little restaurant by me does not smell like rotting corpse so I slipped in and took a seat. The mama-san came by and gave me a slip of paper on a clipboard with a pen. It was much like the menu at a sushi bar when they hand you a pencil and have you fill it out yourself, except that it was all in Chinese. If you're not familiar with Chinese, there is the traditional written language with fancy characters, aka "kanji". Then there is a version which is "romanized" or translated into what to us is normal letters, this is known as pin yin. Unfortunately for us Westerners, it is not widely used which makes it much more difficult to get your grips on the language. If you take any Spanish/French/Italian class, you can get through menus in much of Europe, or you can at least re-recognize a word once you've figured out what it means. Even in Dutch and German, once I order it, I can later recall the word even though it isn't a romance language.

So when they says, "it's Chinese to me", that's how I felt looking at this menu that was meaningless, except I could make out what the prices are because they use Arabic numbers. There was a dotted line separating the top section from the bottom section and the prices on the top were less than the bottom. I figured the top might be appetizers and the bottom, main dishes. I also looked at the prices and know that a meal in this place can run about $4 per person so I decided to pick the first item from "column A" and the first from "column B". They added up to four bucks so I was hoping that was the correct quantity of food.

The items on the shelf appear to be cold side dishes and I saw some people grab them on the way in. There was also a self-serve drink cooler with some soda, beer and bottled water and tea. Nobody here appears to drink anything. I think that is because bottled beverages are relatively expensive, compared to the food.

In only a few minutes mama-san brought me a scallion pancake and a combo fried rice. Score! Scallion pancake is awesome and I don't know that I've ever had it outside of Taiwan. I thought about grabbing one of the items off the shelf but this ended up being the perfect amount of food. So now that I love the food at this place, I'm figuring out a plan to decipher the menu. 

I'm not sure the mama-san will let me take the ordering paper home as it has a carbon copy backing and she saves them all and I don't want to break any of the rules and get blacklisted. Now that I know what item #1 from each column are, I will likely venture to item #2. I'll bring a pen and paper and start redrawing the menu and translate as I order each item. I wonder if I will be able to get through the entire menu in 3 weeks. I feel like I'm trying to crack Kryptos.

I left this place with a real sense of accomplishment. Especially since the food was so good, and cheap. At the end of the meal, mama-san was asking me a question while pointing at the bill, first item 1, then item 2. I thought she was trying to say the amount of money I gave her didn't cover both but after she returned my change, I determined she was asking which I liked better.

I subsequently added "han hou che" to my vocab which I could have said, meaning "very good eat" and is something common to say in approval of the meal. I'll use that next time so she doesn't think my opinion was so-so, quite the contrary.

Friday, May 7, 2010

House Hunting Day 2: Have faith in Hope...

On Wed I was scheduled to house hunt with a totally different RE agency. Apparently, my company likes to get 2 agents on the hook, I guess to cover more territory and maybe not get pigeonholed in one area or a building that they are in cahoots with. I was supposed to keep this secret but each agent knew the drill right away. In general, there is not much secrecy in Taiwan and in any conversation it has taken less than 20 questions to get to the fact that my wife is bi-racial, aka "half-half". This is a BIG deal here.

But back to house hunting... Hope, the next agent, met me at my temp apartment. She brought a driver along which was very convenient because she didn't have to search for parking and then sideswipe a lamp post after stashing the car in a precarious spot (David). She quickly figured out that I had been out with David on Monday and wanted to know where I had been so that she doesn't duplicate coverage. She was very well prepared, had emailed us some listings in advance to see what we thought, and brought some printouts along with her; each had the details of the property, some photos, and some blank space to take notes.

The most restricting criteria was: location, location, location. We wanted to be near an MRT line, close to the highway, and close to the buses that Shirley can take to school. Hope focused on the neighborhood called Shilin, near the Jiantan MRT. David was focused a couple stops up toward Tien Mu and didn't really have anything that fit our criteria. The architect place was nice, but we were hoping for  more of what they call a "luxury" building which typically includes:

  • lobby/lounge and 24 hour security
  • some sort of gym facility
  • private trash service
  • underground parking
David basically told us this was out of our price range and then showed us stuff that was not only out of our price range but nasty and in the middle of a junkyard. Hope was a lot of fun to work with and I felt really comfortable telling her what I really thought of places. When she asked what the places I saw with David were like, I said, "gross". Somehow her English is quite good for someone who never lived in the States. 

After the first place I saw with Hope, I had confidence that this was going to be a much better day than Day 1. Shirley and I were hoping to find a 2 bedroom place so that we could have guests stay with us but were willing to settle for a one bedroom. We were knew the size would be much smaller than what we expect in the U.S. And speaking of size, it's measured in "pings" which is the size of a tatami mat. The first place had a lot of potential, but it just wasn't that well taken care of. If we were looking to buy a place, it might be perfect as we could remodel it ourselves and could probably get it at a discount. Even Hope steered me away from getting a place with a landlady who doesn't really take care of it.

The second place was in the same building and was very Japanese. In the rooms that had more than a tatami mat, it had some goofy furniture and Hope wasn't sure if he was willing to get rid of it. She said, "I don't know if he'll want your cat around his furniture." To which I replied, "I don't want his ugly furniture around my cat!" She thought there was potential to negotiate our way out of the furniture so we kept it in the running.

The third place quickly went to the top of the list in my mind. It had a garden/pool area out back that reminded me of Caesar's Palace and there was a glass walled small fitness center off to the side. The apartment was being remodeled and essentially brand new, the building was erected in 2008 and I don't think the apartment has ever been occupied. It was a 3BR/2BA which was a little bigger than what we needed and was a little more expensive than what we were looking to spend.

Long story, short, that's the place we ended up picking. The street that it is on has a park going right down the middle so it's a bit of an "urban oasis", as much of an oasis as you can have in Taipei. We'll only be a 5 minute walk from the MRT and it's pretty close to the highway. Shirley can take her choice of 3 different buses from the MRT station to school. My company is processing the paperwork now and we should be locked up by Monday. I'm not too afraid of jinxing it because there are 2 identical apartments, one on top of the other, owned by the same guy - and both vacant.

After the first day I was a bit worried but Hope did an awesome job and filled all of our criteria. Although it was a bit of a stretch to our budget, Hope did some negotiating and when you factor in that it includes parking and I may save some of the cost to pay for a private gym, it's within striking distance of what we were hoping to spend. At 42 pings, it's quite spacious for Taipei. 

Since Shirley is still in the States and I wanted to include her in the process, I took many pictures and notes at each place and the next morning, had a Skype call with Shirley. By sharing my desktop, I could walk her through the photos and talk about all of the apartments. At one point I had Shirley on Skype and Hope on the land-line and we were debating the options. In the end it all worked out quite well. Oh, and it has those Japanese style toilets with all kinds of crazy buttons. I'll have to seek out an owner's manual. For a toilet...

Thursday, May 6, 2010

First day at work

My company is located about 15 miles outside of Taipei, which can be a 40 minute drive depending on traffic conditions. Fortunately,  its location was already stored as a "Favorite" in the GPS. I quickly got onto the highway and traffic was smooth heading out. My only blunder was I got trapped in the wrong lane at the toll booth. Apparently all of the tolls are 40NT (~$1.35) and I could figure that I didn't belong in the ETC line as that might be some sort of EZ Pass. I got stuck in the middle in the "Ticket" lane. You can get a book of tickets each valid for one toll. I didn't have such a ticket.

I had $40NT though so I just begged for forgiveness and after making it clear that I was in the wrong lane, the toll booth operator accepted the $40NT. Lesson learned: keep your eyes out for the "Cash" lanes. I actually should get the EZ Pass thing as soon as I can get someone in the office to explain to me how to get one.

I didn't have a local security badge yet for work and tried to enter the parking lot which had an automatic gate. I pressed the call button on the device, but there was a caretaker type person near by who motioned that I need to scan a badge and he pointed back toward the front of the building. So I parked the car in what I can assume is the visitor lot.

At the front security desk I asked for my HR rep who came down to greet me and lead me upstairs. We went in to her office and she explained that she had some documents for me to sign. She whips out a pretty good stack of papers; it felt like the closing of a house, where your lawyer sticks a 10 page document in front of you, gives you a 10 word explanation, and says, "sign here", and repeats this 10 times.  There was the form to open a bank account which we both joked was a high priority as it would be nice to be able to get paid.

The funniest part was when she handed me a single sheet to sign that indicated that I had read our "Ethics Policy". Then she went to a shelf and plunked down a 200 page document. We both started laughing. She explained that I didn't need to read it right now. We talked briefly about applying for my ARC (i.e. green card) and decided that we would wait a few days until I found my apartment so we could use my real Taiwan address on the application. I'm a bit anxious to get that done as I need it to get my own car and probably get a cell phone and such.

Speaking of cell phone, I have my Verizon phone and am roaming over here and have no clue what it would cost to use the thing so I'm a bit handicapped, especially when it comes to dealing with the real estate agents. I went over to the I.T. department and asked if I could requisition a cell phone. I knew this would shape up to be a hassle because the policy is, we only get one when travelling. When local, we have a plan by which we file for partial compensation for our personal cell phone if we agree to also use it for business. The I.T. guys were talking in Chinese and I could gather that they were coming to the conclusion that it is against HR policy. I explained that I'm not looking to scam a free phone but since they haven't finished my ARC paperwork I can't buy a cell phone and I have to work with the RE agents before I can start putting in full days at work, it might be universally beneficial to just let me borrow a phone that is otherwise collecting dust. The faster I get an apartment resolved, the fast I can get to work. The kicker is, in Taiwan, you don't pay for incoming calls so it would likely not cost a dime. They agreed to file an electronic request but I would need my boss to sign it off who is travelling on business. One of the local guys has a stack of old cell phones at home and he said he'd bring one in and I could just buy a prepaid SIM car at 7-Eleven and be on my way. I haven't been back in the office to pick it up so I am still without a local phone. I at least know Shirley was able to text me but one of the local RE agents was not successful.

One impression I have about Taiwan is things can be very rigid. There is an exact process to everything; if you think about the issue with getting me from the first floor, to the second floor, and then up to the apartment to the process with the parking garage. From all of my dealings through the job search process, I have found this to permeate society. There seems to always be a script. Shirley called the airline about getting Tucker a reservation on the plane. They needed to know what size his carrier was before they would reserve a space. We wanted to get him a bigger carrier for the plane ride and hadn't yet picked one out. Shirley asked if there was a size he would recommend, then we would get that one. He could only comment on the sum of the sides must be less than some #. So we went online, ordered a carried, wrote down the dimensions, and called back and booked the flight.

I was able to secure an office, no badge or laptop; they're working on it. The building is quite nice, I think it was built from scratch for our company. The space is much more open. I haven't yet seen the cafe or fitness center. Our place in the States is an old building, built like a prison. It was fun to meet the handful of people I knew from business trips or just emails and phone conferences. I spent enough time in the office to get through that Ethics Policy and HR was glad that we got that out of the way. The Ethics Policy covers the entire corporation so, unfortunately, there was nothing uniquely Taiwanese in there. After work one guy I had previously met took me out to dinner with his wife.

On the ride back I at least made it into the cash lane. I paid with a big bill and they paid me back with some cash and a book of tickets for the balance. These tickets are the ones that I was expected to have when I mistakenly got in the "ticket" lane.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Rental Car

My second day of house hunting was cancelled as David didn't have anything else to show me and encouraged me to explore other options with RE Agent #2, Hope. I was scheduled to receive my rental car which was to be delivered to my building and needed to figure out some parking solution. There is a garage entrance right below my building but I can't tell what the deal is. Can you pay by the hour? Or are the spots all private? Such things can be difficult and frustrating to figure out.

I went to the management office and there was a different person working there. Luckily she was pretty good in English because this situation is a little complicated. I asked where I can park a car and she asked, "For how long?" I explained that I need to park this thing here for a month. At first she said no spots were available and I said something like, "This car is coming in 15 minutes and I need to put it somewhere. Is there a public lot anywhere?" She quickly jumped on the phone and said that she had a spot available in the building next door that I could use until Sunday. On Monday, she would move me to a spot in my building. She told me to come back to the office after 2 and she could show me how it works. I think I again explained that this car is coming in, now, 10 minutes. What can I do? She directed my to a public lot down the street that charges by the hour. Perfect!

The car guy was on time and brought along the GPS that my company had requested. They didn't have any 1.5-1.8 liter cars available so I was upgraded to the 2.0 class, a Toyota Corolla. I hopped in the car and drove it to the public lot down the street.

I went back down to see her at 2 and she said to go get the car and pick her up in front of the building. I grabbed the car, pulled around and scooped her up. She directed my into the garage where there is a gate and a guard. She put a transmitter device on the dashboard that automatically opens the gate and she directed me down, 4 floors below the ground level. I have been assigned a particular spot. We parked and she directed me to get out so she could show me how to get back out. She handed me another keycard device and a remote control. The keycard device allows me to unlock the door to enter the stairwell. From there I use the same keycard to access the elevator up to the ground level. She also explained that after midnight, this big metal gate closes off the entrance and need to use the remote to open that gate.

I went back to the room and grabbed my stuff to head out to the office, for the first time. It was now about 2:30 and I figured traffic would be light and I could ease into Taipei driving.

Attack! - A tip to the grocery store

Since my RE agent on day one lost track of his schedule and we started later in the day, I took the opportunity in the morning to go to the "supermarket"; there is a Wellcome store right behind my building. It's not quite "super" by American standards but it is quite adequate for what I need right now. My impression is that it is not that common in Taiwan to whole heartedly cook at home. Kitchens are tiny. Some have one burner. Very few have ovens. So you can't quite cook a Thanksgiving feast. Therefore, I don't think there is a need for supermarkets like we have in the states will you will go and buy enough food to cook a meal a day for an entire week. Instead, it may be a combination of street carts, restaurants, and meat and veggies bought at local markets.

If you have never shopped for ramen in Taiwan, you haven't truly shopped for ramen. And, Yes, I mean shop for ramen. Even in a 7-Eleven in Taiwan, there is a daunting volume of ramen to choose from. You can sorta tell from the photo what flavor it is, but sometimes it is more complicated. They actually have ramen that comes with sliced steak in a foil pouch, stable at room temperature. I had it once and it was just a little creepy for me. Even the meatless ramen typically comes with at least 2 packets, one the spices and the second is usually some oil or paste.

After much deliberation, I settled on a few varieties of ramen for a quick meal in the apartment. I have a water boiling pitcher so it is quite fast and convenient. I also grabbed some fresh pineapple (which was awesome), apples, and a yogurt drink. Yogurt based drinks are quite common.

I was also determined to get some laundry detergent as I have a washer/dryer combo device in my room. It washes and dries the clothes in the same device, which looks like a small front loading washer. It was somewhat challenging to decide what to buy as the detergent labels were all in Chinese except one that was called "Attack!" I guess I was a little intimidated by the name and was afraid it would unleash an attack on my clothes so I settled for the Nice brand White and Shine laundry detergent. I haven't opened the bottle yet and have no idea what's inside but I predict, in a couple days, I'll be blogging about my first clothes shopping trip after destroying everything in the washer. I wonder if I should have bought the Attack!.

House Hunting Day 1

My HR group had scheduled me for 4 days of house hunting with 2 different RE agents, they said to keep it "secret" - that there are 2 agents involved. I guess they don't want me to be limited by one agents stomping ground or perhaps they might be in cahoots with certain landlords. My HR group had asked each agent to meet me in the lobby at 8AM. Both agents had contacted me in advance about what our preferences are and the second agent said she could not meet me until 9:30 Wed.

The first agent, David, never responded regarding the schedule so I wasn't surprised that even by 9:30 or so, I had heard nothing. Once I got my computer set up I reverified the schedule and appointments and called him up on Skype as I don't have a local cell phone yet and have no clue what the roaming costs are. He was very apologetic that he misread the appointment and thought I was coming next week and agreed to meet me at 2:00 PM to get started today and we could finish on Tues.

Things got off to a rocky start as he ignored my budget constraints and thought I was on some unlimited ex-pat expense account and lined up a bunch of 4 bedroom places in Taipei, even though I said we wanted a 1 or 2 bedroom. The first group of places were simply gross. Big, but gross. I think a small gross place is less, well, gross than a big gross place. What I found most gross was the layers of mold and mildew in the bathroms and  general musty smell, indicating that the apartment might not hold up well in a typhoon. And the views out the back can be a challenge, too.

We were limited in neighborhood by our desire to have easy access to the highway for me to drive to work, easy access for Shirley to get the bus to work (without too many transfers) and our desire to be near the MRT so we can explore Taipei without having to drive. When he realized I wasn't looking to pay NT$70k (about $2300USD/mo) for a bunch of grossness, he hopped on the cell phone with home base to come up with some alternatives.

He said from the start that he had one place in mind that he thought was really nice, but was a 5 floor walk-up with no elevator. An elevator was on our list as a high priority. I guess we just didn't want to walk up 12 flights of stairs and assumed that any building without an elevator would be gross, but as I had already determined, an elevator may just get you to the grossness faster. The owner met us at the 5 floor walkup and it was actually very nice. He owns the entire building and the 2 apartments on the 5th floor are available for around NT$50k. They are about 37 pings (~1300 sqft) and are very well decorated. There is a 3 bedroom, and then a 1 or 2 bedroom which he architect wife took some creative liberty with. There is a second room with glass walls with a wrap around curtain such that it can be used as a guest bedroom when needed.

We were originally looking for a place in a "luxury" building with a gym and concierge desk, etc. because looking on Craigslist, it looked like such places were within our price range. I looked at a few with David, and the problem is, they are just way too small. The price is OK and if I could get 2 of them next to each other and knock out the walls, it might work out. I asked if there was a 2 bedroom available in the building at twice the price and he said "no", they are apparently just geared toward single people.

After talking with Shirley, the apartment above is the front runner from my trip with David. At the end of day 1, David said he didn't have anything else to show me so we would skip day 2 rather than waste time. I was a bit disappointed but he wasn't well prepared to begin with so I was looking forward to working with Hope, the second agent on Wed. While the architect apartment is definitely do-able, I think it's prophetic that agent #2 is named "Hope".

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

corporate schwag

Flashback about 5 years...my company was rolling out the opening of this facility in Taiwan that I will be working at and my new boss came to the States on a recruiting venture. There was this engineer, Ray, that we worked with who was quite old and everyone joked about when this guy would finally retire. He was old to the point of legend, there was always debate over how old he was as though there was no means of record keeping at the time of his birth. My new boss was giving the pitch about getting people from our U.S. division to move to Taiwan and this guy, Ray, pointed out that my new boss had his facts mixed up regarding the history of the Portuguese and Dutch presence in Taiwan. Ray had grown up in Taiwan...

So I departed the plane into Taoyuan Airport wearing a backpack with my company logo on it that we received for an "end of year" present a few years ago. We typically get some sort of schwag imprinted with the company logo. As I passed one guy, I heard someone call out my company's name, I turned and looked at a guy with a baseball cap embroidered with a golf course name. 

He removed the cap and said, "I worked for the Connecticut division". 

I said, "You're Ray!"

My company is big enough that you don't know everyone and like I said, this guy was a legend, so I knew him but he didn't know me. He was shocked that I knew him and we had a good talk about how much he hates retired life. He was a workaholic type that was probably encourage to retire. His wife came by and he introduced me. 

She was also surprised, "You know Ray?" To which I responded, "Ray's famous!" She had a look as though all I need to do is pad his ego even more. I noticed they exited immigration through the "Diplomat" line. Maybe he's senile. Or maybe his fame has transcended the workplace.

Getting through customs was a piece of cake and I strolled along the line of limo drivers looking for my name. Not there. I wrapped around the exit line and walked over to the group of drivers and asked if anyone knew/saw my guy. Nope. So I wait for a few minutes and then break out the laptop as I didn't have his # handy, assuming that I wouldn't need it. I got a hold of him and he was strolling around the airport looking for me. He said most people from my company exit to the left when coming out of the immigration hall so that's where he was, not with the other 40 drivers to the right. He even said he saw me come through the door and thought it might be me, but didn't track me down.

He thoroughly interrogated me on the ride to the temporary apartment and made it through much of my life story, and my wife's life story. When he picked me up, he indicated that he wasn't entirely sure where my apartment was. Again, I was assuming that he would be there and would know where to go so I didn't have the exact address handy, but I could have pointed it out on Google Maps in a second. Luckily he was able to find it and parked on the curb with his hazzards on. Parking in Taipei seems to involve walking a fine line regarding what will or will not be tolerated. This may supersede what is/isn't legal.

We went into the lobby which had a security guard behind a desk. The driver got into a detailed conversation with the guard that I could tell involved much frustration. This was at 7:45 or so in the morning and I suspected it might be an issue to check in so early. So the driver explains that they have no staff available to check me in now. OK, no big deal. Here's the drill as he explained:

The Spring Apartment lobby is on the second floor, we are on the first. The lobby is not even open yet. I must sit in that chair over there and wait for the guard to tell me it is OK to proceed to the lobby on the second floor. I can wait in the lobby until 9AM when the staff will come to check me in. OK, no big deal, I took a chair and fired up my laptop. No Wi-Fi. Oh well.

At about 8:21 the guard called me and sent me up to the second floor. He came with me and told me where to sit and directed me to the English newspaper on the rack. At about 8:30, the girl that works the desk on the second floor came in wearing street clothes. The guard must have briefed her on why I was there and she fired up a coffee grinder and made me a cup of fresh espresso. Awesome!

Before I could even finish the coffee, the next lady came by. She spoke English quite well and said that we would move me into my apartment. We first went to her office on the 12th floor where she took care of some paperwork and gave me a security badge, that scans the lock at the front door and the elevator. We went down to my apartment on the 11th floor. There is a big iron door in front of the regular door, it's quite impressive, if for no other reason than being quite heavy and a bit noisy. The regular door has a keypad with a cover. She opened the door and then set it up so that I could input my own 4 digit pin. You slide the cover up, punch in the pin, then slide it back down, and the mechanism electronically opens. The apartment is about 26' long and 10' wide with a nice sunny view out to the street and a nice shower stall with glass walls that affords a view of the TV. It's small but nice. 

Just to explain the situation: it is in a building with various businesses. The guard on the first floor controls a good chunk of the building. On the second floor is the lobby of the Spring Apartment, which is just part of the building. Then on the 12th floor is the lady that controls the 11th and 12th floors which is the ex-pat section. Hence, the hierarchy of the people I had to deal with. I realized that I had plugged in the camera charger in the lobby, the first floor lobby with the guard, that is. So I grabbed my security badge and headed down to grab it. After coming back up, I couldn't get the pin # to take. So I was off back to the 12th floor for the boss lady. We went down to the 12th floor and as we were getting out of the elevator she said, "you pushed the cover back down, right?" Well, of course NOT. I apologized and she said not to worry as many make that mistake. Sure enough, pushing the cover down unlocked the door and I was back into my home for the next month.