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!

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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.

Getting a Scooter License in Taiwan: Photos and What You Need

Over the last week, I posted part one and two of my experience obtaining a scooter license in Hsinchu.  This time I’ll simply share what you need to bring with you, as well as photos of the Hsinchu Motor Vehicles Office on Ziyou Road near downtown Hsinchu.

Why you should get a license:

Many foreigners drive in Taiwan without a license.  That’s certainly no secret.  So why should you go through the trouble?  Well, the first and most obvious reason is because it’s illegal to ride a scooter without a proper license (it’s not the same as a driver’s license for a car).  The fines may not be very steep, but it can prevent you from getting sued if you do happen to get in an accident (and people may still sue you even if the accident wasn’t your fault).  The second reason is that there are less scooter rental shops that are willing to rent to those without a scooter license.  This makes traveling so much easier and getting around by scooter really is the best way.

What You Need:

  • Before you go to take the tests:
    • ID, like an ARC.
    • Two pictures for a driver’s license and one or two ARC size for the health check: $150 NTD.
    • Health Check at National Taiwan University, Hsinchu Branch: $120 (Map below).
    • Find out the times that the tests and lectures are offered to know how much time you will need to take if you want to finish it all in one or two days.
  • Cost of tests and lectures:
    • Written test (and each subsequent attempt): $125
    • Driving test (and each subsequent attempt): $125
    • Scooter License (paid as you go in for the lectures): $200

Websites:

Maps:

When you type in Hsinchu Motor Vehicles Office it’ll send you way out in the middle of nowhere.  I actually don’t know anything about this place.  But they have a pretty good website in English.

30 minutes apart from each other by car or scooter, an hour and 20 minutes by Hsinchu's terrible (but free) bus service, or two and a half hours on foot, since you probably don't have the ability to drive.

30 minutes apart from each other by car or scooter, an hour and 20 minutes by Hsinchu’s terrible (but free) bus service, or two and a half hours on foot, since you probably don’t have the ability to drive.

I really do recommend searching for this place in Google Maps if you're trying to find it.  The streets in Hsinchu don't make any sense at all.

Make you sure you figure out the directions on Google Maps as it is located at an intersection immediately next to the ramp of an overpass.

 Photos of the Hsinchu Motor Vehicles Office:

Exterior of Hsinchu Motor Vehicles Office on Ziyou Rd.

Exterior of Hsinchu Motor Vehicles Office on the corner of Ziyou Rd and Minzu Rd.  The entrance is right next to the overpass ramp.  There’s plenty of parking inside for cars and scooters.

A shot of the entrance to the parking lot.

A shot of the entrance to the parking lot.

This is the front door that faces the lane on Ziyou Rd next to the overpass.

This is the front door that faces the lane on Ziyou Rd next to the overpass.

If you enter the building from the front door instead of the parking lot then you need to go through this door to find the testing centre.  I've only ever met two people here who can speak English so it might be difficult to ask for directions if you don't know Chinese.

If you enter the building from the front door instead of the parking lot then you need to go through this door to find the testing centre. I’ve only ever met two people here who can speak English so it might be difficult to ask for directions if you don’t know Chinese.

Take these stairs on the outside of the building to get to the Testing Centre.

Take these stairs on the outside of the building to get to the Testing Centre.

Register here for the tests.  There may be plenty of people standing around here waiting for the lectures to begin.  The lecture room is around the corner to the left.  The room filled with computers where you will take the test is to the right.

Register here for the tests. There may be plenty of people standing around here waiting for the lectures to begin. The lecture room is around the corner to the left. The room filled with computers where you take the test is to the right.

This is the schedule for tests and lectures.  I suggest planning ahead so you know how much time you need to take to complete everything.  You can do this over multiple days.

This is the schedule for tests and lectures. You will need to complete two of the safety lectures (nearly two hours in total). I suggest planning ahead so you know how much time you need to take to complete everything. You can do this over multiple days.

This is the schedule for lectures on the front door of the lecture room.  Pay the $200 for the driver's license when you go in.  Your license will be waiting for you when you finish the nearly two hours of lectures all in Chinese.

This is the schedule for lectures on the front door of the lecture room. Pay the $200 for the driver’s license when you go in. Your license will be waiting for you when you finish the nearly two hours of lectures all in Chinese.

Photos of the Scooter Driving Course:

Once the written test is completed and you receive a score higher than 90% you can move toward the driving course behind the building.  These are available at certain times throughout the day.

Once the written test is completed and you receive a score higher than 90% you can move toward the driving course behind the building. These are available at certain times throughout the day.

A closer view of the entrance to the scooter course.

A closer view of the entrance to the scooter course.  If you have a scooter, bring it in here and park it along the side under the roof.

It is located next to the driving course for cars.  Don't worry, this isn't for scooters.  The scooter course is much smaller and a lot more embarrassing if you fail.

It is located next to the driving course for cars. Don’t worry, this isn’t for scooters. The scooter course is much smaller and a lot more embarrassing if you fail.

Here it is!

This is it!  No, really.  That’s it.  Really not much to it.

Wait your turn and watch the video in English above the entrance.  You will need to ask for this.  Watch the others.  Don't laugh if they fail.  You may be next.  Also, that's not very nice.

Wait your turn and watch the video in English above the entrance. You will need to ask for this. Watch the others. Don’t laugh if they fail. You may be next. Also, that’s not very nice.

Start your scooter and stop, if necessary, at the railroad crossing before the line.  Look both ways and proceed when necessary.  Don't forget to signal when you make the turn!  (And turn off your signal light when you finish turning!  I got too excited.)

Start your scooter and stop, if necessary, at the railroad crossing before the line. Look both ways and proceed when necessary. Don’t forget to signal when you make the turn! (And turn off your signal light when you finish turning! I got too excited.)

32 points means you fail.

32 points means you fail.

This is the left turn.

This is the left turn.  Signal!

Go straight down the road, stop before the line if the lights  indicate you to stop.  Make sure you signal at the line.

Go straight down the road, stop before the line if the lights indicate you to stop. Make sure you signal at the line.

Don't cause an accident.  If you cause an accident here you should really reconsider getting a license.  Move to Taipei or Kaohsiung.  Take the MRT.

Don’t cause an accident. If you cause an accident here you should really reconsider getting a license. Move to Taipei or Kaohsiung. Take the MRT.  (Sorry about the terrible quality.  I didn’t realize I was so shaky!)

Signal, stop if necessary, proceed, turn.

Signal, stop if necessary, proceed, turn.

Stop before the line.  There's a stop sign there.  After this you'll have to turn to the left and wait for the tester to prepare the 7-second track.

Stop before the line. There’s a stop sign there. After this you’ll have to turn to the left and wait for the tester to prepare the 7-second track.

Just do what it says.

Just do what it says.

This is the worst.  The worst!

This is the worst. The worst!

It's quite narrow.  I suggest backing up a bit before starting out so that you have some momentum to get over the sensor bar.  It's small but deadly.

It’s quite narrow. I suggest backing up a bit before starting out so that you have some momentum to get over the sensor bar. It’s small but deadly.  Once you finish this in just over 7 seconds then you’re home free!  Head back to the lecture room on the second floor, watch some videos of people doing stupid things on scooters, and get your license!

I hope this has been helpful for someone out there.  There’s a lot of conflicting information out there so I hope that this clears up some of that confusion.

Good luck!  And safe travels!

Oh, the places you'll go!

The best way to travel in Taiwan is by scooter, so get your license!