Moving to Taiwan: Things to consider.

After serving as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) with the Fulbright Taiwan program in Yilan County (宜蘭縣) for one year, I’ve decided to reflect and come up with a few things that would have been useful to know, or consider before departure. I hope this list will be useful for anyone moving to Taiwan, especially those considering Yilan County.

Get an International Driving Permit. If you have a valid US driver’s license, you can go to any AAA office and apply in person, and walk out with it the same day. (I have had only one friend who had to pick it up the following day.) You can find the application and all necessary documents at: http://www.aaa.com/vacation/idpf.html. You will need two passport size photos (many AAA offices will provide this service for free), and there is a $15USD processing fee. This will be useful for if you ever need to rent a car in Taiwan, or while traveling in other countries. It will also simplify the process of applying for an Taiwanese (car) Driver’s License if you choose to get one.

In my opinion, it’s not worth it to go out and buy a top of the line rain gear before coming to Taiwan. It’s useful to have a lightweight raincoat on hand in case of emergency, but from my experience they get saturated fast when the heavy seasonal rains kick in. What qualifies as ‘waterproof’ in the states doesn’t stand a chance against the monsoon rains and heavy winds of Taiwan.They might seem silly at first, but you will come to appreciate the protection of the famous thick plastic ponchos’ (especially when worn backwards).

Wait and buy your rain boots in Taiwan (if you need them). They’re big, bulky, and heavy, and not worth the space in your luggage. The night markets here are booming with stands selling rain gear in a wide variety of sizes. With a little bit of searching I was able to find cute women’s boots for my size 9.5 feet, and they had larger sizes available for both sexes.

If you aren’t planning to live in Southern Taiwan, make sure to bring a decent winter jacket and some warm sweaters/sweatshirts. Temperature wise, it does not go below freezing (with the exception of a few mountaintops), but most buildings do not have central heating, and with the high humidity it can feel real cold. I also say ‘decent’ because if you are in one of the rainy areas, then your clothes will take a beating, will take forever to dry, and may get moldy – just keep that in mind when considering whether or not to bring your favorite winter coat.

Bring clothes that fit well and dry easily. Most apartments are furnished with washers but not dryers, and after a few months of hang-drying most clothes will be a little stretched out. Most cities have a coin laundry with dryers available for when you really need it.

Bring a copy of all of your prescription slips. The healthcare system in Taiwan is great, and you will likely be able to find any of your regular medicines there (under a different name). Just make sure that you have the official and scientific names with you so they can look it up at the pharmacy.

Knowing just a few Chinese phrases can get you a long way. Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone both have pretty good introductory audio Mandarin lessons available that will familiarize you with the language.

Practice using chopsticks. Try using them to eat every day things that you wouldn’t normally associate them with, such as scrambled eggs. If you slowly acclimate to using them it will save you some hand cramps and frustration in the early days.

This is the strangest of the recommendations, but practice squatting. If you are comfortable holding, and can balance in a squat position for at least a minute before you get here, it will make your first encounter with a squat toilet (which is inevitable) much less alarming. You want to place your feet about shoulder width apart and squat down keeping your bum a few inches from the floor.

Bring a few easy to make comfort food recipes. When I got sick in the winter it was nice to have my mom’s chicken soup recipe – it really is good for the soul. I found that it was easy to find ingredients for things like soups and casseroles (and they’re really simple to make).

If you are going to have a host family (or even if you won’t) it’s good to have a few trinkets with you to share American life with them. American candy (saltwater taffy, fireballs,  Reese’s, etc), local knick-knacks, a coffee table book about where you are from, and American alcohol are nice to have on hand. Things like candy can also be fun to share a taste of America with your students or co-workers. My students also loved to look through my old magazines.

Café Café 樂子咖啡

A regular food stop of mine in Taipei is Café Café. They serve a variety of western dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner that range from classics like buttermilk pancakes, to more gourmet and creative food combinations. Their menu is in English and Chinese, and the staff all speak at least some English and are very friendly. The café has a casual, relaxing atmosphere that is perfect for catching up with friends, or having a business lunch with colleagues. Since it is fairly small, I would recommend making a reservation if you are pressed for time, going with a large group, or going on the weekends. And if you have to catch a bus home (like I often do), you can call in and place an order for pick-up.

Café Café is conveniently located in the Taipei 101 area, very close to the City Hall MRT and bus station. From Exit 1 at the City Hall MRT Station, turn around to the right, and follow the narrow lane down about 2 blocks. It will be on the right hand corner of the intersection after the Family Mart.

Turtle Island (龜山島 – Guīshān Dǎo), Yilan County

Turtle Island is one of Taiwan’s outlying islands. It is off the Northeastern coast of Yilan County, and is home to Taiwan’s only active volcano. It is considered a landmark in Yilan because it is one of the first/last things that you see of Yilan County from the tunnel between Taipei and Yilan. It is also visible from almost any slightly elevated point in the Lanyang Plain. As such, I often use it as a reference point if I get disoriented while traversing winding mountain roads or when I am just out adventuring. It’s my North(east) Star of Yilan.

The island formerly served as a military outpost, and was closed to civilians. Fairly recently the island was opened to limited tourism. To visit the island you must apply for a permit, a maximum of 250 permits are issued per day to visit the island, and of those, a max of 40 permits a day are granted to hike up the volcano on the island. To apply for a permit, you can call (02)2499-1115 or (02)2490-2717, or if you can read Chinese (or enlist a friend who can) you can also apply online. The Yilan Tourism Bureau recommends applying 3-20 days in advance. If you are not able to get a permit in time, many operators at Wushi Harbor (烏石漁港) run dolphin/whale-watching round-island tours that provide excellent views of the island without stopping on the island.

I was lucky enough to visit the island on a nice clear day, and explore some of the old military tunnels, and the base trails of the island. However, due to recent rainfall, the volcano trail was closed. I was able to trek around the base of the island and see all the noteworthy sites (Guiwei Lake, the Goddess of Mercy statue, historical tunnels, etc.) in about an hour.

Field Trip Day – Dansui and New Taipei City

Recently, I was invited to go on a field trip with the 4th-6th graders at one of my schools. With no hesitation, I said ‘sign me up!’ I have fond memories of the field trips I went on in elementary school, and after learning where we were going, I thought it couldn’t be much different.

In many ways the trip was similar, there was an educational component – learning about the history of Dansui and some of the buildings there. Touring the buildings, then splitting up into groups with chaperons for some free time. The students in my group had a rather one track mind they wanted games, candy and toys. Nothing else really mattered to them. I think I spent at least an hour and a half of the maybe 2.5 hours of free time we had, watching the students play arcade/night market games for little toys.

It was nice to see how happy it made them, but after ten minutes at the basketball shooting game, I was a bit bored. I tried to think back to what I was like on field trip day, and if my friends and I were as absorbed by the chance of winning a toy. I also was trying to decide if having a group with these interests was preferable to a group that wanted to run everywhere and see everything. Still not sure which I would prefer. Either way, I enjoyed myself.

After walking around Dansui, we boarded a boat and crossed the river to go to the Shihsanhang Museum of Archaeology in New Taipei City. The building was very nicely designed, and other than the tower of stairs that had to be conquered to get to the top, I really enjoyed its layout. They had a nice assortment of interactive activities for the kids (and teachers) to play with – an etching station, black touch-boxes, touchscreen info stations, etc.

One of my personal highlights of the trip was watching one of my students down an ice-cream cone, a corndog, a bowl of soup, ah gei 阿給 (A Dansui specialty – tofu stuffed with noodles), another ice-cream cone, and a big cup of tea in the first 30-45 min we were there. I was honestly impressed by his consumption capacity. All I had was a serving of ah gei, half a bowl of soup and a tea and I was full.

I also got a kick out of many of the students buying mass quantities of fried chicken from a Taiwan famous stand in Dansui to bring home to their family. Mind you, as they were buying the chicken we still had about 4 hours left of the trip. There’s no way that chicken would still be crispy by the time they got home, but it was nice to see that they cared enough to think of their family.

The most striking difference on the field trip, was the students ability to buy whatever they want. This is not something exclusive to the field trip, but more of an observation of life in Taiwan. In the USA, many items – weapons, medicines, fireworks – are age regulated, as in, you have to be a certain age to purchase them. In Taiwan, not many purchasable items are regulated, or at least if they are, the enforcement is very relaxed. On this particular field trip 2 students (a fourth, and a fifth grader) bought a BB gun and ammo, a sixth grader bought an Airsoft shotgun with everything he needed to start shooting it off, and another fifth grader bought a fairly large hunting knife.  All of the students were with chaperons for the trip at a ratio of 5 or 6-1, so I was flabbergasted that the kids were able to get the guns. Also, who sells a 10-13 year old a BB/Airsoft gun, or a hunting knife with no parent around?! Upon asking another teacher from the school, she dismissed my concerns saying it was just fine, don’t worry about it.

Of course, a few minutes later, the two boys with the BB guns had them locked and loaded and were shooting them at students’ feet. After firing off a few rounds, they would frantically run around gathering the BBS because they didn’t want to have to buy more (at least they weren’t being wasteful…silver lining…maybe?). My jaw hit the floor! I couldn’t believe that in our large group with all the parents and teachers around, no one was saying anything to stop the boys. No one even seemed the slightest bit concerned. As the only foreign teacher on the trip, I felt it was not my place to intervene, when clearly no one else was concerned by this. So, I bit my lip, looked the other way, and hoped I wouldn’t hear a student shriek out in pain.

Thankfully, we all made it home with the same number of eyes, fingers and toes as we left with.

A Famous Recipe of ‘Lindsay Fünke’ for School Lunch

Each day, for school lunch, there is rice, a main course (meat and vegetarian option), one or two vegetable options, and soup. There is always soup, most are completely new to me. I’ve grown accustomed to sweet soups, runny soups, slimy soups, to be honest, I’m impressed with how much Taiwanese people do with soups and the range of their interpretations of soup. Today at lunch, I finished my rice and main course dishes, rinsed out my bowl and refilled it with soup. Despite stirring the pot and searching, no solid matter seemed to be present, and the soup was very runny and slightly off-color. I decided, why not? As I often do when presented with foreign food.

I took a sip, and thought to myself “So watery, and yet there’s a smack of ham to it.” Without a doubt, my bowl was filled with… ‘Hot Ham Water’. For anyone who is a fan of Arrested Development, this should ring an immediate bell. In case it doesn’t, and for anyone who is not familiar with the American sitcom, I have included a link to the clip. Lindsay Fünke, is a fictional character on Arrested Development, she isn’t exactly known for her home-ec skills, but she goes through a phase where she decides she’s going to take on household responsibilities for the family, ‘Hot Ham Water’ results.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdmySY9Qiqo

I longed for someone to share the thought with. Instead, I got strange looks from the other teachers in the office, and upon trying to explain myself and showing the clip to one of my co-teachers I realized my efforts were futile. Her first question upon seeing the clip was ‘Is this a cooking show in America?’ Fair enough, there’s a person in an apron, who is cooking and not much further context is provided. After explaining the context and that it is an American sitcom, and showing her a few other clips, she still did not acknowledge even the slightest potential comedic value of ‘hot ham water’. She did ask another valid question though, ‘Do they cook often on the show? And where can you find the recipes?’ In true Taiwanese fashion, she was very polite about it and thanked me for sharing the clips and story with her, and she went back to reading her book.

I can only hope that the next time I don’t fully understand a funny anecdote or video clip from one of my Taiwanese colleagues, that I can brush it off as graciously.

Today’s Lunch Menu:

Rice

Sliced Pork with Onions

Cabbage

Hot Ham Water

The Realities of Spring Scream 2012

I went to Spring Scream 2012, and here are a few of my observations.

The bus between Taipei and Kenting takes what seems like forever for two reasons: 1. It’s a long drive (check out a map, it’s almost the length of the island); 2. The bus stops every hour. One might think this is a bit excessive, everyone on our bus did, at least. The primary reason was so the bus driver could have a cigarette, and/or get some betel nut (a post on this Taiwanese snack, for lack of a better word, will follow at some point).

It’s not an all-night festival, unless you want it to be, but the music stops around 1am. Many festival goers stayed up later and continued to party, but it was nice for those who wanted to go to bed at a reasonable hour and have a good sleep.

The site is dead in the mornings. Virtually nothing is happens before 1pm, and even then, a lot of people are still asleep. I felt like I was walking through a ghost town in the mornings.

My Taiwanese colleagues made the festival out to be an absolutely outrageous, drug infested, and crazy place. I was happy that this wasn’t necessarily the case. There was a considerable amount of drinking and cigarette smoking, but other than that there wasn’t any visible drug use. Even the drinking didn’t seem too out of hand. By American standards, it’s a fairly tame music festival.

The weather in Kenting is not always perfect. Much to my dismay, it was cloudy, windy, a little chilly and slightly raining the whole weekend. However, I still had a great time.

Renting a tent through the festival coordinators made life a lot easier. It was about $1000ntd more than if you just reserved a camping space, but it included the tent, an extra covering, and sleeping bags for up to 6 occupants. And the huge benefit of not having to lug all that gear down to Kenting with you.

The Kenting National Park, where the festival was held, is quite nice. The trails were not all stairs! Hooray! There are not any swimmable beaches near the actual location of the fest.

The biggest and most pleasant surprise, for me at least, was that the price of food was not grossly inflated, as is often the case at any major event in America. Per usual, bringing in outside food and drinks was prohibited (with the exception of sealed water), but that was okay because I didn’t feel any need to smuggle in food since I wasn’t being charged an arm and a leg for a quick snack. So good job vendors of Spring Scream 2012! I was more than happy to support your business!

There were a lot of foreigners from all over the place, especially compared to the handful that live in Yilan County primarily from the USA and Canada. I also realized I’m not used to hearing English all the time anymore – strangest realization of the fest.

Prior to the fest, I was not familiar with any of the bands playing, overall, I’d say they booked some pretty solid bands with great stage presences. They had a nice variety of styles represented, and a good mix of Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean and western bands scheduled to perform. Another nice aspect of the fest, was that the bands all seemed to be pretty chill, and could often be seen out in the crowd enjoying the other bands when they weren’t performing.

It’s easy to get into town and explore during the afternoon, without missing anything major at the fest. It’s as easy as walking back to the entrance and hailing a cab, but travelling in groups is recommended because the cab is fairly pricey.

Good bands, bad weather, good food, good people, good times! And that’s my take on Spring Scream 2012, in a nutshell.

Coveted Foods – It’s Lunch Time

Simply Subsational (Tallahassee, FL) - Original Cheesesteak. Melt in your mouth deliciousness on a good crusty loaf of bread. Simple ingredients (by American standards) – Provolone (sometimes provolone/swiss mix), slow-cooked beef, onions and peppers chopped up and melted into a delicious goop. By no means is it healthy, but it’s an excellent treat that I always indulged in when in Tallahassee. Why it can’t easily be replicated here: Lack of crusty sandwich bread, I can’t find provolone cheese in Yilan, and have yet to see any cut of beef that could be cooked and then chopped down to the proper cheesesteak form. Add also – subs in general. The idea of cold cuts is lost here – processed meat patties they like, but cold cuts they don’t…it’s a pity.

Mixed greens salad with a balsamic vinegar dressing, fresh tomatoes and assorted veggies, with pine nuts or pecans; optional: dried fruit, and goat cheese, blue cheese, or gorgonzola. I always feel good after having a salad like this, there’s no weighted feeling that accompanies it. Salads here tend to consist of iceberg lettuce doused in Thousand Island Dressing, with maybe half a cherry tomato, a shred or two of carrot, and a small chunk of cucumber – it just doesn’t cut it for me. Why it can’t easily be replicated here: There is an utter lack of varied greens for raw consumption. Iceberg is available, and maybe one or two other bland forms of lettuce. Taipei has balsamic in a few shops, Yilan does not. Pungent cheese also usually requires a trip to Taipei.

Chicken Wings. Abnormally short little chicken legs and wings doused in your choice of sauce – hot, curry, barbecue, honey mustard. I would pay an exorbitant amount of money for some finger licking good messy chicken wings right about now. Why it can’t easily be replicated here: It’s just a food style that hasn’t caught on here yet, and should! I’ve gotten wings in Taipei once or twice and they tend to be dry, chewy, often lack flavor, and are never doused in sauce. They’re disappointing to say the least.

Taiwanese lunches that I will most certainly miss:

Xiao Long Bao (小龍包) Soup Dumplings – Yum, they are awesome. (Disclaimer: Not to be mistaken with dumpling soup.) They take a bit of finesse and technique to eat, but they’re well worth it. It’s a dumpling, with normal filling AND soup inside of it. As a result, it looks a little like a saggy dumpling. I find the best way to eat it, is to plop one into ma big soup spoon, bit a little hole in the top to let the steam out, then to take a bite and suck out the soup, then dip the leftover dumpling in my sauce of choice (usually ginger and garlic soy sauce) and eat it up. Noteworthy chain: Din Tai Fung, there are branches around the world, and their Xiao Long Bao is reliably delicious. I’ll include dumplings and pot stickers here as well, but they’re easily found in the states, granted not with the same variety or creativity as here. I just don’t find them as special as the soup dumplings.

Niu Ro Mien (牛肉麵) Beef Noodle Soup (shop off Taixuan Lu, YilanTaiwan) – I have driven well out of my way on multiple occasions to get beef noodle soup from this particular shop. Beef noodle soup tends to be a safe choice at any restaurant when you want a basic hot meal, but a few stand above the rest, and at $70ntd (about $2.25usd) this is my favorite. I always order it spicy with extra vegetables. The broth is a rich brown color that has a touch of sweetness, saltiness and pepperiness to it all the same time. Handmade noodles are tossed into the boiler just as you order so they’re plump and fresh (never over or undercooked) when you get the soup. I like to let it sit for a minute before eating so the noodles absorb a little more of the flavors, and then it’s perfect!

Biang Don Hu (便當盒) Lunchbox – A quick and easy made to-go lunch with rice, some source of protein, a vegetable, and usually one other surprise item (tea egg, a second vegetable, guava slice, etc.). I like the idea and love the convenience of having a standardized lunch to-go set that’s relatively healthy, but in practice they tend to be a bit lackluster. I think the excessive amount of them that I ate during my first training month killed them for me, as they get quite repetitive. But they sure beat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when you’re out on a field trip for the afternoon, and are generally a good option for a busy afternoon when you just don’t have time to properly stop, order, and eat food.