“Pai Dui!” Line Up (Pái Dùi 排隊) vs Party (Pài Dùi 派對)

The other day I realized why my young students who don’t know much English often don’t listen to me when I tell them in Chinese to line up.  My tones are wrong.  It’s as simple as that.  My words might be correct, forming the sounds with my mouth might be perfect, but a slight change in the tone can change the meaning entirely.  I have not been telling my students to line up.  I have been telling them to “PARTY!”

“Jasper! Party!”  “Amber! Party!”  “Joan, how many times do I have to tell you?  Stop fooling around and just party!”

Chinese is not an easy language to learn.  The vocabulary may often be very simple, the grammar may make more sense than English grammar, but tones are killer.  I have an amazing teacher and a patient boyfriend who are both helping me to master this difficult and important part of the Chinese language.

Hopefully once I have a better control of these tones I can have a better control of the classroom management.

Party!  Why won't you party?!

Party! Why won’t you party?!

Sam McGee in Taiwan

Today I am feeling a lot like Sam McGee. It may say 13 degrees Celsius on the thermometer, but riding my scooter in this cold, wet weather has left my legs feeling numb and my nose has been replaced with a frozen cherry tomato. Any longer on that thing and I’ll be “chilled through to the bone”.

The weather in Taiwan differs quite a lot between the north and the south. It was difficult for me to imagine while I was shivering in my apartment in Danshui (Tamsui) that those lucky souls in Kenting enjoy their sunny beaches all year long. However, no matter where you are or what time of the year it is, the humidity is always looming over the country. This means the hot summer can feel like a steam room and the cold winter can sink right to your core for four months straight. Add the ridiculously strong winds of Hsinchu on top of the humid cold weather and you have one of the worst places in the country to ride a scooter. Add the fact that buildings in Taiwan aren’t insulated, just hollow concrete blocks, and you have one of the worst places in the country to live in sans space heater. So instead of a furnace to stuff my body in, I’ve decided to seek out something slightly more comfortable.

Sam McGee was too whiny and dramatic.  All he needed was a hot chai tea latte from Starbucks.

Sam McGee was too whiny and dramatic. All he needed was a hot chai tea latte from Starbucks.

This is why I am sitting in Starbucks for as long as I possibly can. I don’t know of too many places that seem to present their customers with a bit of warmth, and it’s quite possible that Starbucks doesn’t either. Perhaps Starbucks feels warmer because of the heat generated by the ever-present lineup of students seeking an overpriced latte. All I know is that Starbucks has been my go-to location if I find Sam McGee begins to feel like a kindred spirit.

Christmas in Taiwan

Our Christmas tree finally came down yesterday. Is it normal to keep the tree up this long? I can’t remember anymore. I wanted to take it down on Jan. 1st, but my boyfriend, Bi, argued that we should keep it up a little longer since we were so late putting it up this year. I can be such a Grinch, but I was the one who convinced him we needed to buy a Christmas tree in the first place.  Neither of us intended to keep it up this long though.  I do feel that Christmas overstayed its welcome in our living room this year.

Good riddance … until next year.

I’ve experienced a few Christmases in Taiwan now but this last Christmas felt a little strange for me. On Christmas Day I did a little reflecting as I played Tomb Raider Anniversary after talking to my family on a frustratingly fickle Skype connection. While there are many similarities, Christmas in Taiwan is, not surprisingly, very different than what I was used to in Canada. Christmas is celebrated in Taiwan in a similar fashion to Halloween or St. Patrick’s Day in Canada. People recognize the day by going to parties and wearing appropriate seasonal clothing. Each year, increasingly more businesses get in on the celebrations by decorating and, like Canada, end up leaving their lights up all year long. Christmas music begins blasting in every store and restaurant as early as November, while some people can’t handle the anticipation and Christmas trees begin popping up before Halloween!

I’m smiling on the outside, but screaming on the inside. … Also silently through my grinding teeth.

I’m smiling on the outside, but screaming on the inside. … Also silently through my grinding teeth.

The traditional and festive side of me really appreciates the mood and feeling of Christmas that exists in Taiwan in December. However, reality does eventually set in that things aren’t the same and will never be the same as the Christmas season in Canada.

For example, English teachers are busy! Perhaps this is the same for all teachers who live in countries that celebrate Christmas, but I was so focused on everything I needed to do that when Christmas Eve finally arrived I had a difficult time believing that it was finally the big day. The weeks leading up to Christmas Day are full of Christmas show meetings, practices, decorating, shopping, and gift-giving, on top of the load of regular classes. Then come the Christmas activities …

I love my job.

I love my job.

… and Christmas shows …

I love my job.

I love my job.

… and Christmas parties.

I love my job.

I love my job.

All of this results in a stressful Christmas season and a frustrated rush to get caught up again in the neglected lessons that are left in the wake of all the Christmas activities. Then comes the immediate realization that final exams and report cards will need to be completed within a few weeks, hence the reason for my two-month-long hiatus as well as this late Christmas post.

Besides the hustle and bustle, a rather depressing reality for expats can sink in on Christmas Day: the realization that Christmas gatherings are rather non-existent. Of course this isn’t true for everyone. Many people have family here or create their own “families”, but for many people the Christmas season is more or less a reminder that they are far from their loved ones, and attempt to remain numb to the fact that somewhere in the world their family is sitting down to a fancy meal, all speaking a language they’re familiar with, before unwrapping presents in front of a warm fireplace, all while they are sitting down to a shallow box of fried rice before playing Tomb Raider Anniversary in front of a noisy dehumidifier. Again, not all expats in Taiwan share this Christmas experience; however, it is a likely scenario since many people don’t get Christmas Day off from work and most people act as though it’s just any other day, only with a little more chocolate passed around.

To be honest, this last Christmas was mildly depressing for me. It was my plan for weeks to spend the day alone on the couch playing Wii while it rained outside. I was excited at the thought that I could relax in the afternoon and evening after I taught my morning classes. However, as the reality set in that I was alone for most of Christmas Day, I began to feel like something important was missing. When Bi got home from work, we went out for a nice steak dinner, and that made me feel much better. However, I learned that I need to make a couple changes for next year so that I don’t end up having another blue, blue Christmas. For example, I should take the day off so I can sleep in and have a proper breakfast. I should send Christmas gifts to family and friends earlier so that they arrive before Christmas, not after. I should make sure the Internet company is set on speed-dial just in case the Internet decides to stop working again like it did this year so I have an uninterrupted Skype call with my family. I should celebrate with Bi and our close friends, if possible, to feel that sense of family.

The negative feelings I had at Christmas seem very far behind me. We had a small gathering with a few friends the following weekend and it relieved my craving for a Christmas party. Now that I am back on schedule in my classes and my exams and report cards are completed I’m starting to make some serious plans for Chinese New Year, the big Christmas-sized holiday in Taiwan. I get about a week off and I’m going to make sure I do it right.

So wherever you are, I hope you had a happy, safe, and warm Christmas and that the new year brings you all the joy in the world!

All the love from Taiwan!

Why I Moved to Taiwan

When I meet new people I am often asked what brought me to Taiwan. I usually tell them the easy answer that I came to teach English for a couple years in order to pay off my student loan but decided to stay once I met my boyfriend. The longer answer usually includes my sudden decision to move to Taiwan and booked my flight only a couple of weeks before its departure. The truth is that it had actually been building up over a long period of time and was only truly decided in the moment I booked the ticket.

Throughout the five years it took me to finish my undergrad, I had been itching to get out of Canada. At the time, I didn’t intend to officially move to another country, just take a long trip until I was ready to settle down somewhere in the only country I thought was good enough to call home. Like my siblings, the travel bug bit me at a very young age and I enjoyed taking long trips as often as I could. Once I started university I thought of it as a ball and chain, restricting me to one place for too long.

Pictured: Me in university. Not pictures: My ball and chain.

Pictured: Me in university.
Not pictured: My ball and chain.

While I was attending the University of Lethbridge, a friend recommended I read a very popular book at the time, Eat, Pray, Love. Stay with me. It’s a cliché, I know, but it certainly didn’t make matters any better for me. I craved a change. A big change.

In my final year of my undergrad, I was dating a guy who initially helped me forget about my wanderlust. Our relationship started off with curious attraction and sweet gestures but over time it had become obvious that it was destined for failure. I was growing increasingly unhappy and found that I was dreaming more of getting away from everything that was familiar to me. Then one night we watched Eat, Pray, Love together and within the first few minutes of the movie I knew that I was going to be an awkward mess once the credits rolled. One of my friends thinks I’m ridiculous when I say that I felt I had a lot in common with Elizabeth Gilbert (along with almost everyone else in the world who picked up her best-selling novel), but it was enough to send me spiraling out of control toward making a series of decisions that I had only entertained in my mind. Perhaps needless to say, when I ended the relationship, things did not go smoothly, and in the end all communication was cut off between us. If there’s anything that can really kick-start a major shift in life, it’s the ending of a relationship, especially one that had gone terribly sour.

Seriously, why didn't they cast me to play Elizabeth Gilbert?

Seriously, why didn’t they cast me to play Elizabeth Gilbert?

For the following six months, I focused on completing my final classes and, in an exhausted and noncommittal fashion, looked into my options for teaching English in countries around the world. I was torn. On one hand, I felt the need to get far away to experience adventure, discover new options, and learn new skills. On the other hand,  I dragged my feet as I had a comfortable, albeit temporary, job on campus (as a painter), and the thought of actually moving to another country scared me just enough to not put in too much effort.

Everything changed for me one evening when I met my good friends, Luc and Breanna, for dinner at O-Sho, a popular local sushi restaurant. It was the last time I would see them for a year or two as they were moving to Taiwan to teach English in Kaohsiung. They spoke about how excited they were and the amazing opportunities that were available for English teachers in Taiwan. It sounded fantastic, and I mused out loud how I wished I could do something like that instead of what I thought were my more realistic plans of finding a job with the government. That’s when they said, “Well, why don’t you join us? There’s a spare room in the apartment we’re moving into and you can help us with the rent.” For a brief moment, I thought their suggestion was absurd, but then it hit me. It was the perfect solution! I agreed right then that I would join them.

For the next two months, I began researching anything I could about Taiwan. I made the verbal commitment to moving to Taiwan before I even knew where the country was. Yet despite my ignorance, I insisted that I was going to call this foreign land my new home. As time went on, my family grew tired of me constantly talking about something I would never do. They insisted I start making more realistic plans and toss this silly idea in the same dark corner as all of my other unrealized dreams. So, in order to prove a point, I grabbed my mom’s iPad and booked a ticket for two weeks later. That was when their doubt that I would travel to Taiwan turned into seriously frustrated doubt that I would be prepared in two weeks.

I guess I can understand their skepticism.  Here's a picture of me packing up and moving out of my apartment the day before my flight.

I guess I can understand their skepticism. Here’s a picture of me packing up and moving out of my apartment the day before my flight.

Now, here I am in Taiwan, three years later. A lot has changed for me since I first arrived in this captivating country. The most significant change is that it has become home for me in so many ways. Before I arrived in Taiwan, Luc made a prediction about the direction my life would take. He said that I would fall in love with Taiwan, then fall in love with the most amazing guy in the world, and never leave. I think he may secretly be a prophet.

Why I Love Taiwan: Convenience

As I write this, I am sitting in a McDonald’s near my work between classes. The restaurant is fairly quiet, save for the bizarre elevator music playing on the radio and the two older foreigners complaining about living and teaching in Taiwan. As of a couple weeks ago I officially reached three years in Taiwan. While I can probably find many things to add to their conversation, I recently started remembering all the things that make Taiwan such an amazing country. So this starts a new series that I hopefully will be able to add to for as long as I am in Taiwan.

Of course, my first post is going to be my absolute favourite thing about Taiwan: convenience! This list could probably go on forever, so I’ll leave it with my top three favourite convenience experiences.

At first glance it almost seems as though this country was built on convenience. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, such as my experience trying to file taxes after moving to a different city, However, for the most part, convenience is one of the most noticeable aspects of Taiwanese culture for foreigners when they first arrive. When my mom asked my boyfriend why this country is so convenient, he laughed and said, “Because Taiwanese people are lazy.” My mom quickly responded, “Oh! No wonder Tyson fits in so well there.” Thanks mom.

Public Transportation

Fast, but thankfully not this fast.

Fast, but thankfully not this fast.

Living in one of the major cities, like Taipei or Kaohsiung, is certainly the most obvious way to realize Taiwan’s convenience at its finest. With their fast, cheap, and simple metro and bus systems you can get anywhere in large urban areas without needing to be concerned with how much public transportation will cost you each month. Coming from Middle-of-Nowhere, Canada, I had a difficult time believing that anyone would ever want to choose public transportation over their own vehicle. I love the ease of driving a scooter, yet while I was living in Danshui (just outside of Taipei) my scooter sat unused and neglected for months. Taipei’s public transportation system won me over and now, living on the outskirts of Hsinchu, I feel like needing to drive a scooter around is such an unfortunate way to live. Kaohsiung is making plans to expand its MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) in the near future. Taipei already has an amazing MRT system, yet they are continuing to make it more efficient and convenient by opening or expanding 6 lines over the next four years, one of them connecting the Taoyuan International Airport to Taipei. However, if you’re living outside of a major urban area, don’t worry. The train connects pretty much every small town and city and, depending on where you live, you can take your choice between the slow, comfortable local trains; the faster, more comfortable express trains; or the extremely fast, very comfortable HSR (High Speed Rail). Also, if you get yourself an EasyCard, you can deposit money on it and use it on almost any MRT, train, or bus, and at any participating store, like 7-11.

Mixed-Use Buildings

Everything you need, right here.

Everything you need, right here.

While it would be easy for me to simply talk about the MRT and train systems, Taiwan’s convenience is so much more than public transportation. Urban development is similar all across the country. The ground floor is for businesses while the floors above are for residential use. Of course not every building is like this, as there are apartment and condo complexes, townhouses, and strictly commercial and industrial zones, but where there are houses there are almost always shops, restaurants, banks, hair salons, fruit stands, and whatever else you may need. I have lived in three different cities and haven’t yet really complained about inconvenience (although I do sometimes forget myself and think that needing to walk two minutes down the street to get sushi is an inconvenience).

Actually-Convenient Convenience Stores

Exhibit A: The convenience stores on my street

Exhibit A: The convenience stores on my street

For those who have been here, I know exactly what you’re thinking. 7-11! I’m saving the best for last. For those who haven’t been here, I know you’re wondering how a gas store/convenience store could be any more convenient in Taiwan. 7-11 in Taiwan actually doesn’t sell gas here, but what it lacks in fuel it makes up for in basically everything else. It still sells the usual snacks, drinks, magazines and small toiletries, but also tickets (for movies, live shows, trains, flights, amusement parks, etc.), clothing, fried foods, alcohol, salads, and sushi rolls. If you have any bills or tickets to pay, 7-11 can help you take care of those too. 7-11 also acts as a cafe and a post office. (Speaking of which, post offices all over Taiwan are also banks.) Also, 7-11 or other equally convenient stores like Hi-Life, Family Mart, or OK Mart (all often given the colloquial name of “7-11”), are so prevalent that they happen to be on nearly every street corner, or sometimes even right beside each other!

So tonight I may walk across the street to 7-11 to purchase a train ticket for next weekend, then walk down the street and stop at each store along the way to get some baked goods, develop some photos, and pick up some new contacts. As I walk back to my apartment I may even get more McDonald’s delivered to my place, just because I can.