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

Monday, June 28, 2010

Up late watching the World Cup

I find that my sleep schedule has shifted quite a bit in the move as I have become more of a night owl than I have been in quite some years. To begin with, my company's work day starts a bit later here. Back in the States, I would roll in at 8:55 and be the last one in the building. Here, I roll in at 8:55 and I'm among the first. Just a difference of work culture, I think.

Considering that my commute in the States was often >1 hour and now that I have a car in Taipei, I can count on 30-35 minutes pretty consistently, which translates into leaving home at 8:15AM. I also find that I naturally wake up around 6AM here. I think it's the early sunrise coupled with a rapid change in temperature in the bedroom as the A/C attempts to catch up that always wakes up, typically only for a minute or two.

Add the World Cup on top of that and it has not been uncommon that I'm up until 1AM on weeknights. I am surprised at how many bars there are that have been showing ALL of the games, which means a start time of 2:30 AM for the second game. As far as I can tell, there is no "last call" either so as long as the bar is willing to keep staff on and power the TV set...game on! On Tap and the Village Cafe have been my soccer hangouts as of late. Each has had a good mix of expats from whomever is playing, England, AUS, US, even some Dutch.

Tonight I found a cafe of sorts which provided a non-alcoholic venue for the England/Germany match. There were only a couple Westerners there (unlike the pubs) and surprisingly, the Taiwanese were rooting heavily for Germany. The place was called Lattea, near the Shilin MRT, and they had this one extremely popular specialty drink which was an iced tea latte made to look like a pint of beer. The place was packed, they had several TVs showing the game, and they were serving these up as fast as they could make them.

Switching topics...one thing I really like about the location of our apartment is there is a huge fruit market 2 blocks down the street which is open surprisingly late as they capture some of the traffic from the Shilin Night Market. They sell many kinds of fruit, no vegetables that I am aware of. They cut up some of the fruit and sell it in a container with a fork to eat on the run which is great for me as I do not have a knife or a cutting board so for things like pineapple and watermelon, I have an option. Also, since it's just me, I can't possibly eat an entire watermelon before it spoils.

I came home at about 2AM after the Brazil/Portugal game and was shocked to see the market still open. Then after the last U.S. game, it was already daybreak by the time everyone spilled out of the pub around 5AM. I thought for sure I had the market beat this time, but no way. The market was still open at 5:30.

I wonder if my impression of Taipei nightlife is being falsely bolstered by the World Cup. Will all these pubs be packed at 2AM next month when Tour de France replays aren't exactly the biggest hit?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Getting a cell phone

First of all, this post will hopefully be beneficial for those with no clue about smartphones or how to get one in Taiwan. If you read Engadget all day long, go hang out at a bar in Redwood City waiting for an Apple employee to drop their iPhone 5.

I arrived here with my Verizon phone (LG Dare) from the States which was the hot thing 2 years ago which means it now has the sophistication of a paperweight. It actually works in Taiwan on a roaming network and I don't even want to know how much that costs so I quickly wanted to get some sort of cell phone action going over here. Due to some corporate technicality, I had to get someone high up to sign for the company to give me a loaner phone. In Taiwan, you don't pay for incoming calls or SMS and I'm explaining to the IT guys, "Look, I just need some sort of phone until I get an ARC at which point I can get my own. I'll pay the company for all of the calls I make ($0.00)!" I just wanted my wife to be able to get a hold of me in an emergencey.  After a week they gave me this old candy bar phone, which was fine.

A suggestion...get any old GSM phone before you come here and you can just buy a SIM card at the 7-11 and be up and running for cheap. One of my colleagues said he had a stack of old GSM phones at home (from NE2 upgrades) but as a matter of principle, he wanted me to duke it out with IT. In mean time, I was trying to figure out what to do.

2 issues:
  1. Language barrier
  2. Residencey barrier
I guess they get nervous about foreigners bailing out on contracts so they usually have you prepay nearly the entire contract amount and then debit that account every month so you don't pay again until it runs out. One thing I found strange relative to the States is back home, you typically choose which provider you like, go into their store, and they handle the whole thing.

Here, it's more of a mom & pop operation. In Taipei you can often be in view of 4 or 5 different small cell phone stores; I don't know how they all stay in business. The two major carriers are Chunghwa Telecom and Far Eastone and I know with CHT, you can find company run stores, like I described from the States. I was trying to figure out a strategy and one of the IT guys came by and asked if I need help with getting a cellphone. I think HR notified him when my ARC came through.

I was a bit hesitant because I already started doing some research on phones and was looking at an HTC Desire which is an Android based phone. In the world of smartphones, you're basically either an iPhone person or an Android person, or maybe a Blackberry person but I think most people who have BBs get them provided by their employer. Maybe there are some Windows Mobile folks out there. While I respect what Apple has done, I hate all of their products so I was really hoping to get something Android based. I was afraid the IT guy was going to say your choice is either this candy bar phone or an iPhone. I went by his office and he had the Far Eastone website up and he asked what kind of phone I wanted.

He started scrolling through some cheap options and when I said,, "Do they have the HTC Desire?" his eyes lit up like a kid in a candy store. Five minutes later we had it all picked out. He's been playing with my phone a few times since. When his partner in IT set it up for me (language-wise) he handed it to me like it was a Faberge Egg. From the time we placed the order it took a couple days to get the SIM card and a few more days to get the phone. With SIM card in hand I was able to swap the SIM card into my company candy bar phone so I could at least start using my own permanent #.

One of my colleagues called me to help me find the shuttle bus stop and she said, "When I called you, it started playing a song, and I wasn't sure if I had the right number." I asked, "Was it a good song or a stupid song?" She shrugged. That means stupid song. It has some sort of Ring Back Tone that plays Chinese covers of American pop songs instead of a ring. She gave me her phone and called me so I could have a listen. It was a Chinese version of "I just called to say I love you". I instantly remembered in horror that my boss had called me at that # earlier in the day. How embarassing. The entire shuttle bus got a good laugh at my expense. I had to contact Far Eastone directly to get them to elliminate the service from my account.

The phone is awesome. Before even getting into the Google vs. Apple debate, I'll at least say, if you are a foreigner in Taiwan, get one of the two, it is so useful. The GPS function with Google Maps is something I use virtually everyday. The other day there was some confusion in a taxi and I just showed the guy my destination on the phone. How often have you been wandering a strange city and stumbled upon an interesting place only to never be able to find it again? Just fire up Google Maps and save your current location as a favorite.

When you give it access to Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter, it automatically populates you phonebook with all the info it can find on your contacts, which is a lot. It all works pretty seamlessly; if you can find someone's name, anywhere, you can probably email, SMS, or call them very easily. An app called Fring allows me to make voice calls at very cheap rates through Skype rather than pay my mobile company for international calls. There's an app which streams dozens of NPR stations and categorizes them by music, talk, news, etc. Fordham University has a good alternative station which serves as a substitute for Pandora as that is blocked here, by Pandora.

Most American media providers only have contracts to provide in U.S. and maybe Canada, so things like Hulu fall under the same situation. One thing that sorta sucks about Google vs. Apple is you cannot buy apps in the Android market from Taiwan. They haven't worked out the whole payment system for some reason. I have only come across one app so far that I considered buying (a PDF scanner) but it's actually a piece of crap so I actually lucked out, but it's just a matter of time before I'm cursing the Android Market.

The 5 MP camera is so-so in low light and really no substitue for even a point and shoot digital camera but it's good at grabbing candid shots when someone passes out face first on a table at the bar.

Once you have a iPhone or Google phone, you will wonder how you ever lived without it. For a while I was dragging my laptop AND GPS around Taipei with me; for most purposes, the Desire has replaced them both. Now if I can only figure out how to make a voice call on this thing...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Taiwan car shopping

Two of my goals in life are to live without a car or a TV. I've owned or possessed a car pretty contiguously for 22 years. In 1996, I had to surrender my first car, a '77 Pontiac Grand Prix (monster) to a junkyard when leaving Florida (was only road worth by Florida's standards) and soon after got my hands on a used Chevy Caprice (also a monster) after moving back to CT. Then there was the time, in said Chevy, that I was in a head on collision with a lady who veered into my lane and left me with no where to go but through her and her car. She survived, at least long enough to inform the authorities that she had no license or insurance. Neither car survived the crash...

When arriving in Taiwan my company set me up with a rental which they provided for a period of time so that I could get a permanent car. In the meantime, a friend of mine was trying to sell my Tacoma back in the States. It's difficult for foreigners to get car loans here so my plan was to sell the truck, get the cash here and then buy a car. I swore I would never buy a new car again but I had my heart set on the Honda FIT as the whole "magic seat" idea seems really cool and I need to be able to haul a bike around. The FIT has only been in Taiwan for 2 years and the residual is so great with Honda it almost makes no sense to buy one a year old as it's not much cheaper than a brand new one so why take the risk? I've owned a Pontiac, 2 Chevys, a VW and a Toyota. My wife once had a Honda Prelude with 220k miles on it that drove perfectly fine the day she donated it to charity and got a Mini Cooper. A set of plug wires for that Honda was $21 shipped to my door! What a great car. So I am a real fanboy of Hondas and Toyotas, even though sometimes the gas pedal stick on Toyotas but that's what they make airbags for, right?

If I ever buy another German car I give you permission to restrain me and check me into a psycho ward. Upon arriving in Taiwan I had a Toyota Altis which is a Corolla, of sorts. For those that don't know, the selection of cars in different countries is not equivalent to the U.S. I had people suggesting cars to me that were shocked that certain models were not available in Taiwan. Europe is similar. In some cases they rename the car, in other cases it's just not available. After a few weeks in the Altis it was getting expensive as I was now bearing the 800NT/day cost, which is actually not bad for a rental, but I found out that my company has a shuttle from downtown Taipei for 50NT each way which is only 10NT more than the toll so it's almost free, other than the fact that I need to take the MRT to get downtown. But I arguably need a car, long term, for many reasons; pretend that they are valid for the sake of this story. Oh, I have to pick my wife and cat and quarantine inspector and luggage up from the airport, how's that?
The thing that sucked about the shuttle bus is I lost at least 1.5 hours of my life each day due to the commuting time and the inflexibility of having to live by the shuttle schedule. Once I had some cash on hand I set off for the Honda dealer in Beitou to check out a FIT. I walked in and there was plenty of staff standing around at 8:05 PM but I was informed that the sales staff goes home at 8. There were 3 or 4 people in Honda polo shirts hanging out and chatting so they weren't mechanics. How do you operate a business that sells stuff and send home all the people that sell the stuff and keep the business open? If you would find this as frustrating as I did, you will find such circumstances all over Taiwan. It's the land of 100% employment. I will gripe about this in many future posts, get used to it.

I came back the next day and made sure to get there a bit sooner. I went to the same desk of Honda staffers and they brought me to meet the salesman, who introduced himself as "Mr...", a bit formal, especially since he was only 25 years old, has been with Honda for 3 months, and this is his first job, ever. Typical for Taiwan so I'm told. This poor kid was shaking and terrified from the moment he laid eyes on me; it was the "oh no he's going to speak English to me" reaction. He was constantly apologizing for his poor English. I thought the Honda dealer would have a sales rep with strong English since being able to lie fluently is a key trait for a car salesman and I would think being able to lie in as many languages as possible would increase profits. He instantly asked me if I wanted to look at a CRV. I guess most Westerners must go for the CRV.

Oh, by the way, I am kinda surprised that big cars are common here. Gas is pretty cheap by world standards and only a bit more expensive than in the U.S. I asked to look at the FIT and he showed me the showroom demo car. While it's kinda neat that the seats fold flat, it falls quite short of worthiness of the term "magic". Make it disappear into the floor; now, that's magic. We messed around with every feature in the car and I asked him if we could go for a test ride. He said I need to have an International Drivers License to be able to go for the test ride and I know I spoiled his night when I pulled it out of my murse. I thought he was going to vomit.

He was practically shaking when he handed me the keys to the test car. I wasn't sure if it was because Americans are bad drivers in his mind or he was feeling the weight of the responsibility of being in charge of the test car or what. But near the end of the test ride, after trying to informally chat it up with him to ease his nerves and maybe give him some English confidence, I asked, "So does anyone ever crash the test car?" He said, "very often". Now that I think about it...there's no way you could get me to take a job riding around with random Taiwanese people. The only Taiwanese I ride with are bus and taxi drivers and I figure, they must be the cream of the crop. They may drive like inconsiderate maniacs, but they can handle the vehicle, unlike those who crash on a Honda test drive. I think he was just shell shocked about the test drive regardless of my nationality.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed. The car barely has any features to it. The knobs and fixtures seemed a bit cheap, and the car isn't even made in Japan but rather, Taiwan. There were none available for immediate purchase, the sticker price was 630k NT and it is supposedly non-negotiable, and I couldn't even get free money out of the deal as they were dead set on 4.5%APR (if I could get a Taiwanese guarantor to even get the loan and put 40% down or thereabouts). I basically decided I was NOT going to pay $20k USD in cash for THIS car. I suspect it's still a quality car even though it's made in Taiwan but knowing that they are getting some sort of kickback from Taiwan, it's a tough pill to swallow to give them THAT much profit. I decided to focus on a used car.

There is a good website for used car searching in Taiwan at http://www.ocar.com.tw/. One great thing about it is the menu system is all ASCII based so it functions well within Google Translate and allows you to filter by many options including region. The problem is almost all of the cars are in Taichung and many have testified that those prices are false advertised just to get you to come down to Taichung for some bait n switch action. You'll see in those ads that the dealers are all to eager to come pick you up at the rail station and then drive you to their lot. Sounds to me as painful as a timeshare where they haul you away somewhere and then don't let you leave until you buy some condo across the street from the beach with some crazy management fee.

Another option was: our company uses a guy who handles corporate leases, rentals, etc. and sometimes offers the leftovers up for sale. I had a colleague contact him to get the list of what was currently available hoping to strike gold but there was nothing with less than 100k mileage (or is it called "kilometerage"?) and I would be hesitant to buy a rental car anyway as most people beat the crap out of them. This guy claims to let you know the pedigree and lists which ones were rental fleets and which were lease to corporate types. We have also had leases within our company get transferred as a sale coworkers leave this division, which is the safest bet but only comes along every once in a while. I also was really set on a car that could transport my bike with some ease and most of this guy's cars were Toyota Corollas. My boss said I might be able to get a good deal through this guy on a 5 series. Does he know how much he's paying me?

My next option was a guy that I got in contact through the Taiwan web forum http://www.forumosa.com/ who is a professional vehicle sourcer/inspector. He charges an up front deposit and then a finders fee when you actually purchase the car. If you tell him the car you are looking for, his job is to find it (typically on a used car lot), inspect it, negotiate, and do everything else to seal the deal.

So I contacted him and had some discussions and honed in on the Nissan Tiida (aka Versa in the States). After a few days and reading some reviews on the Tiida, I switched over to the Suzuki Swift. The Swift being a little more stylish, a little cheaper, and perhaps a bit better equipped for the price. After about a week the guy had found 2 models that he thought looked nice, a 2005 and a 2007. We made plans to go look at the 2005 as it seemed the better bang for the buck. He conveniently picked me up at the Shilin MRT and the lot was close by. We gave it the once over and I gave him the thumbs up to do the full inspection. He brings along some tools, a jack and jackstands and does it all right there on site. Very thorough, not just major mechanics but he goes through every electrical feature down to the radio. He quickly found that the driver door power lock mechanism was broken but everything else looked really good, save for the wiper blades which the dealer replaced.

Since it was Dragon Boat festival holiday they couldn't get the lock fixed so we made arrangements to come back in a few days so it would be ready to go. He also handled haggling over the price as he's fluent in Mandarin (and fluent in "car salesman") and the amount he was able to haggle off exceeded his fee so unless you think you are going to successfully haggle with a Chinese speaking used car dealer, his service pays for itself. We came back and squared away the financials, reinspected the repaired door lock, and made arrangements to come back again the next night to talk insurance.

On top of the price of the car is tax, registration and insurance at about $10k NT for the rest of the year but the insurance laws here are really lax. So I'll talk with an agent about actually getting insurance that may be of use. I was advised not to wreck the car tonight, wait until I have real insurance.

It was nice to be able to drive to work again and not take the MRT all over Taipei to get a shuttle bus to backtrack to work. Costly, but nice. The one mishap I had was fumbling with the key-less ignition. You have a fob that you carry somewhere on your person. The car senses it and you can just press a button to unlock the door. The ignition looks much like a regular ignition except you can just turn it with your hand. But you have to press it in, turn it until it stops, then release the pressure, and continue to turn it in the same direction and the car will start. Took a few times to figure that one out as it was already started for me when I drove it off the dealer's lot.

Things I like about the car:

  • It's Japanese (at least in some fashion)
  • Unlike my rental, the head unit can play MP3/WMA CDs so I can get back to learning Mandarin on CD
  • Has a live fuel mileage that reads in km/liter so I get a good workout on my metric math skills
  • You press a button and the side view mirrors automatically fold in so they don't get sheared off in the mechanical car park
  • 60/40 split rear means I might be able to come up with a scenario to transport my wife, cat and quarantine officer from the airport to the vet hospital that doesn't involve strapping the cat carrier to the roof
  • Key-less entry means I can just stuff the FOB in my murse and not have to worry about forgetting my car keys but instead, forget all my other keys now that I'm desensitized to keys
  • Better gas mileage than any other vehicle I've owned
  • It has climate control and I can pretend that I actually think it's that much different than just adjusting the coldness and fan to a setting that makes you comfortable.
  • Like my cell phone, it's not available in the U.S. I can always get a Versa or a FIT when I get back. Actually the Swift is supposedly coming to the States in 2011 so I can accuse anyone that gets one back home of being a bandwagonner.
  • And the best feature of all, when you open the door there is a chrome rail along the floor that says Swift on it, and it lights up! But that's not all. There's a button in the console that allows you to change the color of the light!
Wouldn't it be great if they had that feature where the entire car body lit up and you could change the color? I bet such a car would be road legal here. I talked to the shippers yesterday and it should be about 5 more weeks before the TV shows up so I can continue to live half of the dream... With that said I'm headed out to find a TV at a bar tomorrow night to watch the U.S. World Cup game.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Beer Chug Photos

If you don't know what I'm talking about here, read this post first.

So here are the photos that one of my coworkers brought to me on a memory stick. He was elated that he was able to capture this.

#1 - I'm the first knucklehead up there and I have no idea what I've gotten myself into. I'm not really as angry as I look. Moreso terrified. But if I have to put on one of those inflatable sumo outfits I am so outta here.

#2 - This guy is trying to tell me that I should win because I am American. The guy on the far left almost booted on stage in round 2 and ran for the bathroom.

#3 - My teammate behind me is translating the rules and saying I need to scream the company name samurai style when I finish my beer.

#4 - Start Drinking

#5 Here's where I had to do the stupid scream. I should have gone psychotic Bruce Lee style where he like freezes, flexes and stares as he releases a long, "Woaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!" And then kick that mowhawk MC (see pic #2) in the nuts. The guy that took the photo said he liked the fact that my "dance" was so vigorous that the action was blurred. I think #9 in the "TORRES" soccer jersey has it on video. I have to find him. And take a magnet to the memory card.

Hey, no wonder why we lost, look at my partner, he's standing there laughing at me. He should be halfway through that beer by now.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Company Outing Day 2 - no beer chug contests today

On day 2 of the trip we were told that wake-up was at 7AM and breakfast was from 7-9:30. The tour guide advised that we get up early to take in the beauty of Sun Moon Lake. I had workout gear with me and checked the schedule of the hotel gym. It didn't open until 10AM. What gym isn't open in the morning? So I had my fingers crossed for slightly-terrible weather so I could enjoy a run around the lake. At 7AM the wake up call arrived, set up by the tour guide, not me, and I was not all that surprised to peek outside and see it was dumping rain. So I went back to bed and got up just in time to throw down some free breakfast and pile back onto the bus.

The destination was the Formosan Aboriginal Cultural Village, which was basically on the other side of Sun Moon Lake from where we were. There is a gondola that runs from Sun Moon Lake up to the Aboriginal Village, across an amusement park and down to the parking lot. It's a bit of a strange combination of attractions. The amusement park is clearly left over from the early 80s, with a couple of upgrades. One of which is called the UFO. It is a ride where they lift you up a big pole and then release you so you "free fall" to the bottom, hence the name of perhaps, the original one at Six Flags in New Jersey. The line at the UFO was nil. They basically held up the ride until it filled and then let it go. You could ride it over and over. I rode it twice. My work colleagues were all terrified of it. I couldn't convince any of them to ride ANY of the ride that had a significant amount of motion. How do you ride a scooter through Taipei where your fate is put in random hands, yet you are too risk averse to go on a "thrill ride". Maybe I'm blindly foolish to believe that the engineers and the inspectors and the theme park have enough sense to create a safe environment, but come on, versus a scooter! They were even a bit nervous riding the gondola.

The aboriginal village was actually quite nice and fairly newly built, by a Japanese company. I think it's kind of funny that the Japanese occupied Taiwan, probably oppressed the aboriginals, then built them a theme park. Despite being built by the Japanese, the workers at the park seemed to be actual Taiwan aboriginal people and the displays were quite interesting. They some some artisans like this woman making colored glass beads. The best part, though, was the archery range. I have never shot a bow & arrow in my life, expect those suction cup tipped plastic toys. My coworkers were encouraging me now to try anything after I relented to the beer chug contest so I gladly grabbed hold the bow. They actually gave you some explanation of how to use it, someone nearby helped to translate it. I wonder if it is a "real" bow, I have no idea. I shot a pistol for the first time last year. I'm a lover, not a fighter.

Again, being American, my Taiwanese coworkers have high expectations from me when it comes to drinking and using weapons so all eyes were on me as I grabbed hold of the bow. You got 20 arrows for 3 bucks and if you hit somewhere close to the center of the target or pop a balloon or something, they give you another arrow. First shot, dead center! I swear I've never used one of these before. After just a few shots, my arm started getting sore and I was so-so from that point on. I think I just got lucky, no shooting apples off anyone's head.

Back in the amusement park there was a indoor section of cheezy rides and cheezy games. One of the rides was called "Space Mountain". It was an indoor roller coaster in the dark, much like the one at Walt Disney World but smaller. There was the cheezy game where you whack a mallet on a lever and launch a rubber frog into the air aiming for some rotating lilly pads which are on water so when the frog hits the lilly pad it tilts and the frog falls off and you lose, since the goal is to get it to stay on the lilly pad. There was a bunch of hoopla surrounding this game and it was funny to watch the overreactions of the guy on the very left in this video.

There was a aboriginal dance show which we were encouraged to attend by the tour guide so I made sure I went so as to not get yelled at on the ride home. I was just glad that I didn't end up being part of the show, unless it involved chugging a beer.

We packed it up at 3:00 and headed for the buses. It rained on and off all day with only a few periods of hard rain so it was manageable. On the ride home we stopped in Taichung for a bathroom break at a place that sells pineapple cake. Much like at the "winery", the tour guide encouraged us to spend some money here as this is a local specialty of Taichung. The sizes that they had available would last me months if I could find a way to prevent it from spoiling. I'm just to really into sweet things except for a snack here and there. At least the bathrooms in the pineapple cake showroom weren't too disgusting. I wonder how much of a cut of the pineapple cake sales the tour guide gets?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Company Outing Day 1 - The house of drunk experiencing

My company is celebrating a 25th anniversary of the founding of the corporation this year so each site is having some sort of celebration. Back in the States we rented out part of a country club for the day and had an outing with food and games, golf and tennis for those who wished to play. I was disappointed to find that it was scheduled for about a month after my departure so I would be missing out on all the action. I was hoping that I made it to Taiwan in time for their outing.

On the first or second day of work here in Taiwan someone commented at lunch that we have until tomorrow to register for the "outing". Ooh, maybe I made it in time! Turns out I did, but I had to sign up quickly for one of four dates as they could not accommodate all of Taiwan in one event. Here was our itinerary (via bus tour):

  • Friday morning pickup at the office
  • Head to lunch in Puli
  • Visit Puli "winery"
  • Head to Sun Moon Lake
  • Dinner
  • Spend the night in the hotel
  • Saturday head to aboriginal village/cable car/amusement park
  • Get back to office Saturday night
I blindly selected a date as the deadline was drawing near and didn't sync up with any people that I knew so it was a total crap shoot. The event was for all of Taiwan, not just my office so I actually know a slim % of those in attendance. It's been difficult to go from knowing, seriously, about 400 people to maybe a couple dozen, if that. But that's part of the excitement of the opportunity to meet knew people instead of seeing the same old faces every day.

The first presentation I received said we leave the company at 8AM. Then I received an itinerary that noted, 8:20-8:40. In the week beforehand I emailed the tour coordinator and asked, "What time does the bus leave?" and got back 8:20-8:40. That's way too vague for me. The problem is, I am without a car right now and am taking this shuttle to work that arrives at ~8:50 AM so that won't work for 8:20-8:40 so I had to take the subway to the freeway bus and then cab it to the office to get there in time. In time for the bus that didn't leave until 9:20AM. To date, nobody here has ever been on time for anything. Yet they sell watches in every market. Just a fashion statement, I guess.

But we were off to the first stop: lunch. We had 3 buses and each had a tour guide with a microphone to tell us what our plans were and some history of Taiwan and the areas we were visiting. Our bus had 4 non-Chinese speakers, myself, a German guy and two Korean guys. So our tour guide was at least bi-lingual. She also studied Spanish and lived in Spain but said she had a really hard time with the language and the tenses; but, she was very good in English, albeit, incredibly repetitive, especially when telling us that we should spend our money at the places we were stopping. I swear the tour guide must get a cut.

We stopped for lunch in Puli before the winery visit and we only had 4 people show up at our table (assigned seats) and the lunch was prepared for 8 so we had loads of food. It was a traditional Taiwanese meal where there is a lazy susan in the middle and everyone shares dishes. We did the best we could and then off to the winery. I knew there was no way the winery was a winery and I was correct. It was a distillery, but, OK, details, details.  I didn't buy any booze but there were some nice local crafts on site to and I picked up some souvenirs. On the craft floor they had a room with a slanted floor and the doorway was labeled, "The house of drunk experiencing".  Then we were back on the bus to head to our hotel at Sun Moon Lake. It's in the center of Taiwan and named for its appearance in the shape of a sun and a moon.

I laughed when she said to be prepared because it frequently rains in the center of Taiwan. Like the constant rain in the north of Taiwan (Taipei) would make us unprepared for the center of Taiwan as it has been raining every day for quite some time. I saw a guy across the street with a stockpile of wood. I think he's working on an ark. Checking in to the hotel went quite smoothly and the room was very nice. We all had lake view rooms and there was a Japanese room with sliding screens and a deep tub with a view of the lake. There was some master technology panel which controlled the TV and all of the lights. Oh, and there was a TV in the tub. We were allowed to bring friends and family but I was travelling solo, unfortunate since it was on the company's dime.

On the ride up we were told that we had several options for the event immediately after arrival:
  • Option A: Bus tour around the lake - the guide recommended we not choose this one as something about the storm and the road and the bus would be weaving and we might get sick to our stomach. If I can handle pig guts soup, I think I can handle the bus.
  • Option B: Boat tour around the lake at an up charge of $6 (USD). She recommended this option. I was a bit hesitant because of the weather and figured I would see how it looked when we got to Sun Moon Lake.
  • Option C: Hang out at the hotel
About 30 seconds later she made her way up the aisle with a checklist and an envelope and made everyone choose right then whether they were going on the boat. This should have been of no surprise to me as this is very indicative of everything I have experienced in Taiwan. If someone is going to describe some choices to you, you must choose right away. The part of this that most makes me an outsider here is the fact that I was even going to size up the weather as a deciding factor. Weather is never a factor for the Taiwanese. They carry an umbrella at all times and just go with the flow.

The boat was covered. That's another thing about Taipei, in particular, there is a lot of coverage. Most of the sidewalks have an overhang to shield you from the elements, be it sun or rain. The tour guide says that Sun Moon Lake is covered in mist in the morning and fog in the evening. I think that's just tour guide speak for, "It rains all the time at Sun Moon Lake."

The boat made two stops, one was at a temple a top a hill with a nice walking path to get up to the top. There were a lot of people here and there was a rock overlooking the lake which made for a scenic photo op. I think this video is very Taiwanese. If the Japanese are known for taking photos of EVERYTHING, the Taiwanese must be known to take photos of themselves, IN FRONT OF everything. This turned in to a scene which looked like paparazzi lined up at the red carpet. There were even people taking photos of me taking a video of people taking photos of people standing in front of the rock. Check out the way they each strike a pose at the rock:

We barely had time to check in before it was off to dinner. This time the other 4 showed up so we would at least to be able to eat most of the food. We joked that they let us down at lunchtime and left us with a lot of food to eat. Dinner was almost the exact same meal as lunch but there would be "games" afterward. They started with bingo which was actually good for the sake of learning my #'s in Chinese which I am actually doing pretty well with because you need to pay for things and that involves learning numbers. Though I did almost get into an embarrassing bingo situation where I mistook 30 for 13. In Chinese, thirteen is the equivalent of "ten three" (10+3), thirty is "three ten" (3*10) and when the guy was quicly rattling off numbers, I got confused, but the guy next to me straightened me out before I called a false bingo.

There were some activities with kids on the stage and then a new game started and the tour guide lady volunteered me for the game so I went up on stage, in front of about 200 people. One of the bus tour guides who must be an aspiring DJ or TV host ran the show and we were setting up in teams of two. Now flashback to a week ago:

I was at my desk and had to log in to the HR site for something about the Dragon Boat Festival and noticed that there were some presentations about former company outings and I was taking a look and came across the budget for a "beer drinking" game. I'll save you the details since you already know where this is going...

So I am now on stage for the company tradition, the beer chug contest. There are about 10 of us and "Arco", standing behind me, informed my that he was my teammate; I chug first and then he goes. First team to finish wins. Oh, another thing, when I'm done, I have to flip the mug over and yell my company's name, like, samurai style as demonstrated by the mow-hawked MC running the event. One of the other competitors asked what country I was from and when I said I was American, I think he slipped off stage to place a bet on me with his bookie. About 200 people were fixated on me as I was one of two Westerners in the entire room and the only one on stage with a glass of beer in his hand.

But it could not be so straightforward and easy, right? We each had to put a straw in the glass and drink through the straw. At this point I knew I was doomed.  I strengthen my Chinese comprehension on this night as it relates to games. "Eee, err, san" ("one, two, three") will forever be burned into my vocab. At least I knew when to start drinking. I sucked as hard as I could while still remaining conscious and actually finished my leg in 2nd or 3rd. I don't think Arco ever finished his. After the team chug they picked two guys to stay behind and chug a tall boy of Taiwan Beer out of a bottle, no straw, no time limit. One on one. Neither finished and one bolted off stage to the bathroom. Mind you, there was no other alcohol at this event. No even I could have swigged down that beer.

Next there was some sort of line dancing game and thank goodness I was not involved in this train wreck. Entertaining, though...

After dinner we took the bus back to the hotel and the tour guide advised that we get some sleep for the day tomorrow and have really nice dreams. She said, if we have nightmares, they will probably be about HER. I think I might have laughed a little too loudly at that one.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

...but it's not all the land of silk and money

Since I've been doing a lot of raving about life in Taiwan I don't want anyone to think that I've stumbled upon some Shangri-La, or that I'm a shill for the Taiwan Tourism Board. There are many negatives to Taiwan that one must take in stride in order to cope. Shirley's school sent her a guide book on living in Taipei and it discusses a multi-step program to overcome Taiwan depression and I've already met a few colleagues who have gone through some cycles of discontent.

In earlier posts I've covered the notion that simple things can be difficult and there is often some cumbersome process in place to accomplish the simple things. If you need to credit your parking token before sticking it in the machine, then why doesn't the machine just reject an uncredited token instead of swallowing it whole and require you to either crash through the barricade or phone the parking lot company? They certainly have that technology.

Some other issues:

  • Pollution: air quality here is pretty bad. I swear all the postcard pictures are Photoshopped. Taipei 101 is always in a cloud of smog.
  • Weather in Taipei tends to be rainy, especially in the winter. Summers are hot and humid with blistering sun. Typhoon season is starting; they can get 6 typhoons in a year. Mudslides are common in the more rural areas or hillsides. Earthquakes are common if that sort of thing bothers you.
  • Cleanliness: On top of the pollution, it can be dirty. For some reason they don't like leaves. They'll hire someone to pick leaves off the ground individually with a pair of tongs, right next to an area that is littered with plastic bags, bottle and broken glass. But the trash is on the opposite side of some line of demarcation. 
  • Traffic: On top of being slow and congested, it is insane and lawless. Mandatory insurance coverage is very slim so if you get run down, who knows if you will have financial recourse. Today, for the first time, I saw the aftermath of someone going down on a scooter. It could have been a lot worse. Parking is always a challenge and good luck getting out of the spot you get into because they park so tightly, you may have to do a 10-point turn to get out.
  • Sewage: The sewer system is questionable. Between the smell on the streets to not being able to flush toilet paper in certain areas and they still have squat toilets in some places: a porcelain hole in the ground with the ability to flush. Carry your own toilet paper in public just in case!
  • Luxury of internet: I miss not being able to do much online. A big part is the language barrier but it is also the culture. People tend to go into banks here. I've been to my home bank once in two years, and that was to use their notary service. I have to pay my utilities at 7-11. In the U.S. I can buy a car online,have it delivered to my door, with insurance and registration already taken care of. My experience so far here is most business is conducted in person. Mostly in cash.
  • If you're into that American sense of freedom, I think you may have issues here. I'm talking about the "pry my gun from my cold dead hands" mentality. You will have no guns here. You will be recorded on the highway. If you break the law you may get a ticket in the mail. Doesn't matter if you were not the one behind the wheel.
  • I see some people complain about being a foreigner and getting stared at in public. I have NOT found that to be the case. I get more looks from Westerners who are, no doubt saying, "Holy Shit, another Westerner!" I think locals are afraid I might shoot them if they stare. We were joking at work that in the American pavilion at the Shanghai Expo, they exhibits would all be centered around violence. Maybe gun violence now joins jazz music as the two things most uniquely American. I realize that it's not just America, there are other unstable countries prone to junta that share this problem.
  • I haven't started travelling yet but getting off the island seems a bit expensive compared to North America or Europe. For the cost of getting off the island, you can fly coast to coast in the US, and hit most of the EU capitals from central Europe on Easyjet. So there is a bit of claustrophobia.
  • It hasn't bothered me yet but there is a difference in the level of personal security that you have here with the potential for conflict with PRC and issues on the Korean peninsula. I get a lot of Taiwan vs. China jokes from friends but I think the economics serve as the ultimate peace keeper.
  • If you're a capitalist and proud of it, you may struggle with the economics. It's heavily socialized, heavily subsidized. Other than the foreign retail store (Ikea, Costco, SOGO, etc), I can't think of anything that appears to be economically sustainable without subsidy. Actually, scratch SOGO, I don't buy it. There is an army of employees in this department store. Every 10 feet there is an employee standing there to greet you. The cosmetics section is unbelievable as it is loaded with sales personnel with nothing to do other than text and play with their hair in the mirror.
  • Pizza sucks! Don't even try and convince me that Alleycats is real pizza.
I don't know, is that enough? I just want to make sure that someone doesn't show up here and hate it and blame me. I also want to document my observations and see how they change over time. I've done a decent amount of travelling and if there is one utopia; it has to be Switzerland. Taiwan ain't no Switzerland.  You'll be lucky if you can find Swiss cheese here.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

a week in the new digs

I moved into the new apartment on Monday. It has almost been a week. I did some major upgrades today:

  • bath mat
  • trash can
  • pot (not the herbal kind, the steel/teflon kind)
  • 2 bowls (not the herbal kind, the ceramic kind)
  • pair of scissors
So far I love the neighborhood, and the neighbors for that matter. Everyone I share the elevator with says "Hi". The security guy always says "Hi", or "Hey". We're in a new high rise building mixed in with 5-6 story buildings constructed in the 70s. That's what you get in Taipei. It's pretty black and white. I'm a bit put off by being in a haves vs. have-nots situation but it's not really that way. There are a few westerners in my building but mostly Taiwanese. The ex-pat community here is not big enough to make it an economic demarcation line, outside of Tian Mu at least. 

There is a park that runs through the middle of our street with a Buddhist temple in the middle. Older guys in the park play mahjong or cards. You get a couple homeless people camping out at night, but the vagrancy situation here is quite low. There is a big fruit market at the corner and another market at the other end of the street that I haven't really checked out yet. 2 blocks away is the Shilin Night Market, perhaps the most famous in all of Taiwan. We're in a perfect situation where we get no noise from the market but the convenience of great food a 5 minute walk away, every night of the week. Near the night market is an arcade type place with a basement bowling alley and a mechanical bull. They make you wear a helmet and face guard when you ride the bull. No fun.

The bus (15 minute ride) for Shirley to get to work is 100 yards away and the MRT (subway) is another block away so we can get to anywhere in Taipei very conveniently. There is a bigger park a block behind the building and they have an 8 lane 50m outdoor pool. An 8 story YMCA is about a 10 minute walk; I haven't had the chance to get there yet. If you head a couple blocks away from the market and MRT line you hit the river and there is a network of paved trails along the riverbank that you can run/walk/cycle. So, it really is a great location. It's also pretty close to the highway and my commute to work has been about 30 minutes which is a nice relief compared to the Sherman to Wilton commute of 1hr+.

The only reason I bought the pot is because I took home a bowl of oyster noodles from the market last night to eat the next day and realized that I don't have a microwave...

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The answer of keeper

Now that I have an ARC and a paycheck, I was trying to scramble to leave work to get to a Honda dealer to look at buying a car. I'm stuck in this expensive daily rental until I buy my way out of this situation. I first checked the rental place as some people at work have gotten really good deals on buying a long term corporate rental from this guy's fleet. He sent me th roster and they have some great deals on Corollas with 100k mileage but I'm looking for something newer. I hears stories of people getting lucky and scooping up a 5 series or Lexus for cheap but you have to be in the right place at the right time.

Then I get a reminder from my dept. secretary that we are having a meeting of our entire division at 9:30 and everyone must be punctual. My experience is, the Taiwanese are never punctual. Not once has anyone showed up for an appointment on time. But, OK, I'll be the first one there and then wait 5 minutes for everyone else to trickle in late. I had read that being fashionably late is not part of Taiwanese culture. Pfft...

To top it off, I then get a letter from HR that as a "new hire" I need to make some personal introduction in front of the entire company tomorrow. Grrrrreat.

And when you thought it just couldn't get any worse, nor more bad movie cliche, I grab my stuff and go in to the elevator and as it arrives at the first floor it just stops. Door doesn't open. At first I thought, maybe it's still moving. And I waited, and waited, and waited. Nothing.

So I hit the button for the second floor. Elevator went up. Bell went "ding". Door didn't open. Unlike my company in the States, here they are more into standardized start/top times. 9-6. Back in the States it was very staggered by job function with people starting the day anywhere from 6-9:30A. But here, there is a mass exodus around 6-6:30. Luckily we have two elevators since one was now dysfunctional but even so, my elevator was now being called floor to floor. It would go to the floor but the door would never open. I wonder what the people thought on the other side.

At one point it seemed stationary on the first floor and I tugged on the door a bit but some automatic voice came on and admonished my in Chinese, maybe. All the elevators talk here, FYI.  So I pressed "this emergency call button for the answer of keeper". Th keeper didn't speak any English but I was hoping that he at least realized that whatever I was saying, it was coming from the elevator, and that something was probably wrong.

When I was in college, we had this "science tower" and the top floor was a posh lounge that was used for entertaining and fundraiser events and such. There was a key hole in the elevator that allowed access to the "7th floor" and my roommate heard that if you are between floors and you rip the elevator door open and trigger the safety mechanism bringing it to a halt, you can then shut the door and select the button #7 and a glitch in the matrix will then give you access and send you up. We just had to try it and sure enough, it worked! Then some idiot who isn't me decided he had to turn the light on, at night, and some security guard a half mile away saw it and came up and busted us. He relayed some Barney Fife story to the Dean of Student that got translated as, we climbed into the elevator shaft and were "surfing" on top of the elevator cabin. WTF?!?! We explained to the Dean that we cracked the code for the magic 7th floor and were sitting on the sofas flicking the lights on and he actually thought that was kinda cool. The next week he got arrested for soliciting a male prostitute and he was never seen or heard from again, but I digress...

Point being though, I'm not afraid to rip open the door of a moving elevator, been there done that. So not willing to entrust my freedom to the keeper, I got it to pause at the first floor and just clawed my way out of there. I was standing in the doorway to prevent the elevator from taking off so someone else didn't get stuck and was trying to get the attention of the security guard at the desk. Then the keeper came around the corner and realized that I was the stuck guy speaking English. I tried to convey to him that he may want to perform some routine maintenance or check on the elevator so someone else doesn't get suck but the language barrier was way to thick and he wasn't that concerned about people getting stuck in elevators. I don't know what other function he has in our building.

I made my way home and then up to the Honda dealer by MRT. I showed up at 8:15 and there were several employees in there but none were willing to sell me their product. Sales ends at 8:00. I don't understand why people are paid to man a desk of a company that sells cars but they are not willing to accept revenue. I can't see what other revenue they are generating for Honda but such a thing is no surprise in Taiwan. Maybe they are the elevator keepers. It's probably all for the best anyway as I wasn't on any sort of lucky streak today and buying a car in this state is probably not a good idea. So I settled for some teppanyaki chicken and a TB at the market. Sat next to a dog.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Move-In Day

Even though my lease doesn't start until June 3, my landlord was keen to letting me move in as soon as the lease was signed and he got his deposit so I planned with my RE agent to move in today. Our stuff from home isn't scheduled to be picked up until June 10 and will take 4-6 weeks to arrive so I have quite some time with an empty apartment. My RE agent advised that I need to get a bed.

I went to fight the crowd at Ikea this weekend and barely managed to get a cart with the bare necessities through the checkout line.

  • Bed frame
  • Mattress
  • Sheets
  • Blanket
  • Pillows
  • Towels
At one point I had a single serving set of plates and silverware but left that behind as the bag started getting heavy. Ikea charges $40 flat fee to deliver any order >$400 and they will deliver next day with your choice of three different time slots. At the delivery counter I gave him my address in pinyin and he said he needed it in Chinese. Luckily I had a photocopy of my ARC and he was able to pull the address off of that, otherwise, I may have been in trouble. I had my RE Agent, Hope's card with me so I gave them her info as a contact in case they needed to speak in Chinese.

I left the office at mid day as we planned to meet at the apartment at 2:00 to hand over the keys, go through the rundown of how the place works, get the bed delivered, and most importantly, get the internet set up! No TV, no landline, just internet. This weekend I also got a router at the Gangguan Computer Market which warrants its own separate post in the near future. I met Hope at the building and the internet guy was already. Hope set it up through KBRO. It's supposedly 10Mbit for $20/mo. So far I am getting actual results of 8Mbit so that's pretty impressive. Such bandwidth in the states at that price in unheard of.

When I arrived Hope asked where I parked and I told her I was at the commuter pay lot down the street and she questioned why I didn't park in the garage. I said, "You know it's not so simple that I can just drive that car into that garage..." She relented that I was right, as a radio signal device and a padlock stood in my way of getting into my parking spot at this point. We took care of the cable guy first; router was plug and play and he was done in all of five minutes. Trash and recyclables are on B1, my parking spot is on B2, and the gym/pool is closed on Mondays for cleaning. Those were the vital pieces of data.

Then the Ikea guys showed up. 6 pieces comprised 1 bed, 1 mattress. Hope asked, "Where's the rest of the stuff?" 

"In the United States."

"You guys can get by on so little stuff."

All I need for now is a bed, the means to shower, and internet.

Hope left and I hung out in the lobby to meet the landlord, get my official set of keys, and get access to the parking space. He brought his daughter to translate, she spent 4 years at University of Tennessee. I said, "So you're a Volunteer?" She said, "No. I actually am employed as a counselor." I was like, "No, no, no. Go Vols!" And she embarrassingly realized what I meant. If I had any reason at all to be suspicious of her credentials, I would have sworn there is no way she went to Tennessee.

We went up to the apartment and the landlord laid out this unbelievable set of keys. Granted there are some duplicates but there is the radio device for the garage, the mailbox key, a skeleton key for the apartment door which activates 4 bolts in series, a RFID scanner for the front door and elevator, a tuning fork thing to activate the panic button in the bedroom, and keys for each bedroom door in the apartment. Phew!

There is also this security system near the door where I can pick up a phone and a little video display shows live footage of the front door and I can talk to a guest at the door and buzz them up. There is a button to call the security desk and then the video display switches over to the security guard station. And there is...another panic button. The day shift security guard and the manager were actually very nice. They constantly laugh at everything like they are punch drunk. They probably ARE punch drunk.

After I finished with the landlord I got my car out of the lot and moved it into the basement at my building and hauled my Ikea accessories up to get started on the bed. I also picked up the FIX, at Ikea, which is every tool you need to assemble every piece of furniture at Ikea. Actually, I think you can construct an entire Ikea store from this tool kit.

It took about an hour to get the bed together and then I bolted over to the Shilin night market for something to eat. The night market will certainly get several blog posts of its own; you could actually write an entire blog on the essence of the night market.

Afterwards I had a nice comfy bed to jump in, though not much else. I technically am still in the other apartment for two more days though I'm hoping to gather my belongings and check out after work tomorrow. I actually now have three residences. If I could only sell one of them, I'd be in good shape.

Sunset provided some nice views from the apartment. We are up on the 8th floor.