Bleary eyed and groggy, I landed in Narita Airport over an hour late and thought solely of the nap that awaited. Before sleeping, I needed cash. The next two hours gifted me uncertainty, confusion, and panic: classic travel emotions.
Startled by the sound of my alarm, I squinted one eye open to check the time. Saturday, 9 AM. Both eyes shut with ease as they refused to acknowledge the morning rays illuminating my room. Then a moment of clarity: “I want to go to the beach.” I rolled over and whispered to Peter, “let’s go to the beach.”
We lounged in bed for another 30 minutes Googling “nearby beaches” and decided to venture to Zhu-Wei beach for proximity’s sake. The idle route is a low-stress environment to test ride Peter’s new 150 CC scooter.
With a trepid heart, I sat behind Peter and tightly squeezed his torso for the entire 14 km (8 mile) ride. Until that moment, I haven’t ridden a scooter since my accident in 2013. My left knee and hip still pain me from the collison.
We puttered past farms, tattered buildings, and brightly decorated bus stops, and my grip relaxed. A grin cemented on my face while the light breeze played with my hair and the sun kissed my cheeks. A giddy sense of adventure and spontaneity radiated within as I held on to Peter and watched the gentle clouds painted on the light blue sky slide by.
The joy and excitement shadowed my navigational duties. We missed a few turns and parked in a dilapidated lot. In the end, we found where sky meets sea; proof of a job well done.
A range of emotions flowed through me as we walked onto the chocolate shore. At first glance the quaint and sleepy cove seemed an idyll place. Dogs played in the sea water quietly lapping onto shore. Parents watched their children dig holes in the sand from the comforting shade of rainbow umbrellas.
A few steps closer to shore, the sun reflected off a variety of plastic washed ashore from the Taiwan Strait. In lieu of seashells and rocks, plastic glittered along the shore — bottle caps, microwaveable containers, water bottles, and squeezed Coco cups.
The beauty and tranquility that beaches offer is why they’re revered in my eyes. Wind gliding over sand and waves gently greeting the land have a lulling effect which clears my mind. I’m instantly transported to an reflective state – uncluttered by anxiety and responsibilities.
This time the connection was disrupted by agrim reminder of human waste surrounding me.
I looked around and thought about every time I sipped on an iced latte from Starbucks, purchased carry out fried rice, chugged water from a plastic bottle, and used plastic utensils because I was too lazy to find a metal fork.
Looking at the forgotten waste, I resolved to significantly reduce my consumption. It will be challenging considering I have limited vocabulary. I don’t even know the Chinese translation of “plastic” or how to politely say “I don’t need a straw.” It’s motivation to learn more Chinese phrases and simultaneously reduce.
The time evaporated as we raced and sprinted a few yards, threw a tennis ball while the water splashed our calves, and photographed the cloudy scenery.
Before we departed, I dipped my sandy feet in the water and a playful border collie greeted me with a purple Frisbee in mouth. She dropped the foam toy by my foot and with expectant eyes waited. (Only 10 minutes before this moment, Peter and I agreed that border collies are smart and fun because they can successfully play fetch.) Amazed that she can read minds, or she can understand English, I scooped up the Frisbee and hurled it into the wind.
Peter and I rolled over in laughter as she kept returning the toy to me, and only me, for 15 minutes.
Hunger and Peter’s sunburn forced us to say goodbye to our new friend and find a shaded meal. A mile down the dusty road, we happened upon a Thai restaurant seated on the bed of a river along the outskirts of the fish market. We shared three spicy seafood dishes.
Peter swallowed a spoonful of soup into the wrong pipe, which left him coughing and teary-eyed the entire meal. I watched him with a grimace and asked myself “Do I help? … Can I help?” I refilled his water and avoided questions that could not be answered with yes or no.
Our delicious yet taciturn lunch marked the end of an endearing afternoon in Zhu-Wei. I can’t wait to see where Peter’s scooter will take us next.
*Note: I typed this blog post in March, but did not publish until June. It takes a while to get organized, people!*
Yesterday, a rare thing happened. Peter and I awoke and left the room by 10 am. WOW! With all of this extra morning-time, we had a full day of Taipei exploration.
Elephant Mountain 象山
After breakfast, we hopped on the Red line to Xiangshan station, which spat us out at Xiangshan Park. A 10 minute walk from here are the steps to the Elephant Mountain hiking trail.
This hike is short and rather easy, which is fortunate because I was still nursing a mild cold. What lacked in difficulty was made up by amount of funny things we witnessed. For example, this man crawling backwards up the mountain.
Immediately after I finished recording that clip, another man ran down mountain backwards. For a brief moment, the two backwards-moving men crossed paths and it was amazing and confusing. We stood there in shock, then laughed uncontrollably. I am still scolding myself for not recording that moment.
We also saw many elderly men and women walking up and down the mountain with canes. Not necessarily a funny sight, but an impressive one. I turned to Peter and confessed, “I don’t think Meme could ever do this walk, yet there are people older than her walking faster than me. What the heck.”
During the hike, Peter befriended a Mormon man with 5 children. (I think his big “TX” shirt screamed “talk to me I’m foreign and friendly!”). The family ended up becoming our low-key hiking buddies. I tried to scare his children while Peter spoke to him about travelling in Asia. That man took this picture of Peter and I.
The view from the top of the trail is worth the steep hike. There are a few giant rocks that people climbed atop of to take pictures in front of Taipei 101. It was a long line that I didn’t want to wait in. Instead, we scaled up even bigger rocks – and impressed onlookers while doing it – to take our own pictures of Taipei 101 and surrounding foliage. Here are the results.
After climbing down the mountain, Peter and I hopped on u-bikes and headed to Taipei 101. In all honesty, it’s boring. It’s just an expensive mall with a food court. It’s sort of lame, but beautiful to look at. After taking this picture and a quick walk through the building, we continued on our journey.
Huanshan 1914 Creative Park 華山1914文化創意產業園區
Huanshan 1914 Creative Park is a really cool, trendy, exciting creative art space. We happened across an aboriginal festival, filled with live music and food stands. As we ventured further into the park, we saw some even more artsy/hipster shops selling clothing & knick knacks, Cartoon Network pop-up shop, restaurants, cafes, and a movie theater. I was taken aback by how much there is to do here, and a majority of it is FREE!
Being a bit of an impetus individual, I decided to walk into a building with this lantern hanging outside. It just looked so welcoming.
The result of an impetuous decision: walking through “Super Cookie Land,” a “dark and weird comedy exhibit.” The artist, I believe named Cookie, is from Japan and he creates some wacky, scary, funny art. I had a blast experiencing his twisted, hilarious art. I even bought two stickers because I had to take home some of his vision.
After the exhibit, we continued to stroll around the park and see everything it had to offer. The atmosphere is so pleasant here. People sat in cafes talking and listening to multiple musicians strum their guitars and lure crowds.
Guanghua Digital Plaza Computer Market 光華商場
As we were trying find a place to eat, we came across this building and I had to check it out. I mean, look at it. The Guanghua Digital Plaza is the go-to place if you’re interested in computers, electronics, and video games. After a quick walk-through, we then ate dinner at an Indian restaurant (not pictured).
End of the Day
Peter and I ended our day at a hilariously horrible foreigner bar. Think Taco Mac in Taipei. To make up for how much it sucked, we split a pitcher of Tai P.A. from Redpoint Brewing. As the pitcher dwindled, Peter and I drew worse and worse caricatures of each other in “The Simpsons style.” I think the beer gave us enough energy for one last stop: a night market. I don’t remember which night market we went to, but we weren’t there for long. 8 minutes after our arrival Peter looked at me and said, “you’re tired, let’s go home now.”
We had such an eventful 12 hours. I’ve definitely learned how much we can accomplish by waking up 1-2 hours earlier!
The past two weeks have been eventful, career-wise. This story builds in slow, stress-inducing layers.
I applied to a Digital Marketing Specialist position and other writing jobs located in Taipei.
My supervisor informed me of a mandatory observation to take place on May 30th, which requires all lesson plans, worksheets, and PowerPoints to be submitted for review by the Taoyuan Department of Education. Sadly, I did not type any lesson plans and I have really messy handwriting, so recalling and typing over 30+ lesson plans was a lot of work. Especially considering I had to continue with my normal teaching + planning schedule. In addition, there was pressure from my supervisors and principal to create a STELLAR lesson plan by May 25th.
Here’s why: I am the first Foreign English Teacher at my school, meaning my role is especially unpredictable. The purpose of the observation is to determine whether or not DaZhu will be chosen to be a part of the government funded program next year. Typically schools that have been in the program longer have a higher chance of retention. Considering this is DaZhu’s first year, my supervisors felt very susceptible to non-renewal, AKA no job for me. They were as friendly as possible to convey the importance of this observation, but I could tell they were really counting on me to outperform. I stayed late. I worked on the weekend. I worked at home. I really, really tried to do my best for my school.
In the midst of this observation work-load, I received an e-mail from a Taipei company about the Digital Marketing Specialist role I applied to on May 16. They asked me to participate in a round 2 interview, which was 3 day assignment to write an article titled, “3 Tips for Landing Work as a Freelance Writer.” I was ecstatic to participate in the second round, even though the timing wasn’t ideal. That week was filled with late nights, too much coffee, and bags under my eyes.
As hard as I worked, I couldn’t manage the workload. I submitted the article on time, but I did not finish writing my lesson plan and creating subsequent materials before Friday, May 25. Sigh. Luckily, Peter had to work on Saturday, May 26 so I used that alone time to finish everything for the big day on May 30. A day late, but done. Plus, my supervisor said the lesson looked great, which made me feel more relaxed.
The big day came and went, and it carried high and low tides. I thought my observed class could’ve been better. However, speaking with the education officials I was told it was a great lesson. In fact, the two intimidating Taiwanese educators said “that was the best teaching demo we have ever seen. A very great teaching demo.” I was SHOCKED! I wanted to bang my head on the table in sheer relief/disbelief. I looked at Jenny, the principal, Summer, Wendy, and Enzo – everyone who has supported me in this role – and they were all smiling and radiating with joy.
Later that evening, I had a preliminary phone interview with someone from the tech company. The 11 minute phone call answered basic questions about the company – ARC, health insurance, work hours, etc. My specific questions about the role weren’t answered but I also wasn’t assured when/if I would speak with the hiring manager. I got off that phone call feeling a bit deflated. After such high praise it’s tough to encounter a perceived form of rejection. Plus, I was starting to feel guilty for interviewing with companies before letting DaZhu know.
At 3:50 pm, my principal invited me to go to his office and asked, “do you want to stay at my school next year or not?” I was stunned in silence. Essentially, the question I’ve been battling internally I had to decide in that moment. It felt a bit unfair to make a big decision with no time to think about it, but he needed to submit paperwork to the government by 5 pm.
At first, I tried to say no and explained that I want to be closer to Taipei. He suggested I move to Nankan or get a scooter or car. He wasn’t necessarily rude, but he really wanted me to stay. He also asked my two supervisors to enter the office to help with translation. I explained to them that I want to be closer to Taipei and Peter and living in Luzhu is difficult to go anywhere without a car. They also suggested I move to Nankan. At this point, tears started to well up because they weren’t listening to me and I could tell they wanted me to stay so bad. From their perspective my uncertainty must’ve been shocking considering how well the observation went. They reluctantly agreed to give me the evening to think about my decision.
8 am, I informed Enzo that I will not stay another year. I decided to take the risk of moving to Taipei without a job lined up. A few hours later, I received an e-mail confirming an in-person interview next week.
As I type this, I had an in-person interview with the tech company on Monday, June 4 and I’m not sure how it went. I made them laugh, I think I made them cringe. We bonded over tennis and Mario Kart. I also said my biggest professional failure was crying in a bathroom at work. So, you know…could be bad…could be good. I’ll just have to wait and see what happens next.
In the meantime, I am applying to other teaching positions closer to Taipei. I hope to snag another public/private school position. Otherwise, I’ll be at a cram school. Not the worst of fates, but also not the ideal. As long as I’m closer to the city I’ll be happy.
During Taiwan’s Children’s Day and Tomb Sweeping Day holiday, observed on April 4 and April 5, Peter and I traveled to Hualien.
We learned the hard way that this is one of the busiest times to travel during the year. We booked our AirBnB long before we purchased transportation there, naively thinking “the train won’t sell out.” Two days before our vacation started, my co-worker/friend, Jack, kindly sent me the link to buy train tickets online. Much to my surprise all train tickets were “sold out.” *Sigh*
Fortunately, I stumbled across this incredibly useful blog detailing how to purchase a combo-pass (bus + train) from Taipei to Hualien. Using that blog a a guide, I wanted to share how the the ride looked from my perspective.
Since Peter and I did not have train reservations, we weren’t necessarily in a hurry to arrive early to Taipei Main Station. Plus, we were under the impression that the bus+train ride lasts 3 hours and we couldn’t check in until 5 pm anyway. That explains our 11 am arrival to Taipei Main Station (mistake #2).
The line for the Kamalan ticket formed a double-lined spiral around the center staircase. My jaw dropped. I thought, “oh, we’re definitely not getting to Hualien… DAMMIT.” Technically, we had nothing else to do besides wait. So we waited. The the DMV-eque line only lasted a surprising 30 minutes. (Ya’ll, I wish I took a picture but this line brought a stress tear to my eye it was so long). Yet another example of Taiwan’s efficiency that blows me away.
As the referenced blog mentions, the ticket agent spoke wonderful English. I timidly asked for “a combo-pass to Hualien” and she knew exactly what I needed. She booked us the first available bus to Luodong station, where we will then transfer to the train station, and told us kindly, “the bus leaves at 1:45 pm on the fourth floor, gate 413.” (Remember, it’s about 11:30 am at this point, so we had to wait a few hours at the station with all of our junk).
Each combo-ticket cost $344 NTD = $11 USD. It’s truly unbelievable how affordable transportation is here.
We entertained ourselves with silent Switch Mario Kart and gaping at the fancy shops. There’s an underground mall abridging the MRT and Main Station, plus there are four gleaming floors of stores, restaurants, and more stores. It’s a dizzying maze of consumerism; products and people shoved together in a sleek, modern building.
When the ticket clerk told us to go to the fourth floor to catch our bus, we didn’t know which set of stairs to follow. As such, we found ourselves running around the mall portion of the station in a bit of a frenzy. In reality, the clerk referred to the staircase that the spiral lined formed around, visible from the ticket counter. *insert Chrissy Teigen gif* We made our bus with four minutes to spare.
Considering the mass of people travelling the country, the bus understandable traveled slower than expected. We slept through a majority of this bus ride and awoke in Luodong around 5 pm.
Once we arrived to Luodong Train Station, we walked up steep steps into the station and searched for a timetable. After a quick glance, we saw the next train departing to Hualien leaves in 45 minutes. At this point, I was another level of exhausted/annoyed/ready-to-start-my-vacation mode. Peter and I sat on a bench drinking juice and telling each other bad jokes in between nodding off.
Boarding the last train to Hualien felt like such a success that quickly died because there were no available seats. It was completely packed, even dogs in their travel bags got a whole row of seats. Sadly, we stood for the hour and a half train ride solving Encyclopedia Brown mysteries.
We arrived in Hualien around 6:30 pm and were greeted by fireworks celebrating Children’s Day. I cannot understand why we thought it was in our best interest to walk to our AirBnb, but we did. The entire 45 minute walk (a little more than a mile in distance) each holding two bags through bustling streets.
For the anguish we experienced to Hualien, I am happy to report we lucked out back to Taipei. Originally, I reserved two seats for a train that departed at 9 pm and arrived at 1 am, which is just too late. Rather than wait for that reservation, we went to the station around 12 pm to see if they had more options. Fortunately, they had the BEST option!
The ticket agent said there is space on Puyuma Express which leaves at 12:40 and arrives in Taipei at 2:50 pm. (*gasp, only a short 30 minute wait?!* **double gasp, arrives before 3 pm!!**) Each ticket cost $440 NT = $14. Incredible. I said yes a bit too eagerly.
The Puyuma Express is new, which was completely obvious. It had airplane vibes, but with much more space. There AC kept the train at a comfortable temperature, large windows brought in plenty of afternoon light, and we could store our bags in storage space they provided. Plus, there are cup holders! It was such a comfortable, pleasant, and seated ride compared to the trip to Hualien.
If you’re curious to see what we did/saw/ate in Hualien, check out this blog post!
To celebrate Peter’s 27th birthday, which coincides with Taiwan’s Lantern Festival, we traveled to Pingxi District in hopes of watching the lantern parade. We heard from locals that Pingxi is a must as it is the only place to legally release sky lanterns. Despite the hype, the information on the Internet about the logistics was hard to come by. Without realizing it until we arrived, we were a day late. Though we missed the main event, this short trip left a lasting impression.
The trip from Linkou to Pingxi – using public transportation – totaled approximately three hours. According to Google Maps, it should have taken an hour and a half. We spent quite a bit of time lolling in Taipei Main Station uncertain where or how to buy a ticket to Pingxi. It was our first time navigating the maze that is TRA (Taiwan Railways Administration). After what felt like walking in circles for hours, we happened across the single TRA ticketing machine.
The train from Taipei to Pingxi felt anachronistic compared to the modern amenities in Taipei. For starters, the ticketing machine was essentially an old-fashioned “ Coca Cola Freestyle machine from 1940” that worked by inserting a handful of coins, pressing dingy yellow buttons, and watching a paper clip sized ticket print. With the one-use ticket in hand we boarded a rickety train that sped through open-aired stations, each decorated with local motifs (Unlike Taipei where each station is underground and uniform with current designs).
Shortly after sunset, we exited at Riufung station and waited for our final train. During our layover, an energizing and familiar wave hit me. The warmth of the day hung thickly around, which left a comforting sheen on our foreheads. While I couldn’t see beyond the dim station, I could hear the wind blowing through the leaves of the surrounding forest and frogs croaking in unison. I was transported back to summer nights in Georgia where the lull of insects chiming and the residing heat tuck you to sleep. I had to remind myself a few times that I’m not in Georgia.But it felt like home.
The next train we boarded carried few people, but those in attendance were diverse. Individuals spoke in unknown tongues but emoted the universal: laughter, snores, and lost-in-thought stares fixed outside the window. I knew we arrived when a small boy leapt up and ran into the train conductor’s box waving at the upcoming crowd. I looked to my left and was greeted by hundreds of smiling faces and waving hands.
Alighting the train, we immediately joined the welcoming crowd. Amid the mass, lantern vendors shouted deals and pushed large-print menus into focus. They scattered along either side of the tracks illuminated by the surrounding food stands, flash of cameras, and lamp posts.
Once the incoming train departed, people flooded the freshly unoccupied tracks. People walked, photographed themselves and scenery, and released hanzi adorned lanterns.
Within 10 minutes of arriving, Peter and I purchased a four-colored lantern and were ushered into a tight fluorescent room. Here, using calligraphy brushes we decorated our lantern with a combination of well wishes and nonsensical jokes related to health, friendship, love, and happiness. I even spilled black ink on Peter’s shirt, whoops!
With our four-foot lantern in hand, we stood on the tracks and posed for photographs. Much to my surprise, there was no single group release. Groups released their lanterns sporadically leaving a disconnected trail of lanterns in the sky. Watching our little light join the lingering trail was a tender moment.
Afterwards, Peter and I ambled along the main street, packed with vendors and visitors. We snacked on a corn onion pancake (rough translation) while we walked towards a waterfall – the rumored main event of the festival – located outside of city center. We walked under a full moon along a secluded road listening to the distant rambling of a river and unknown insects chirping. The moonlight, the gentle breeze, the calming river, and home-inducing scents was enrapturing. I jolted awake when we entered a pitch-black park. My paranoia of panthers and venomous snakes smashed any curiosity to join a party by a waterfall.
We entered the town for a second time by 7pm, but this time it was dead. The once packed strip was now empty and lights reflected off the steel shutters of closed shops. Given there was nothing to buy nor people to talk to, we decided to make our way back to Taipei. Easier said than done.
No employees manned the train booth. There were no visible bus stops. We waited by a Taxi Zone for 15 minutes but only a pack of 20-year olds in all black Adidas swag were leaning on a single taxi smoking cigarettes. At wit’s end, we asked the single taxi driver remaining – smoking by his 10-seat van – to take us back to Taipei. He agreed and asked us to wait 15 minutes. We waited 20. Seated inside the taxi I released the second sigh of relief which vanished as soon as he requested $1,400 NT ($40 USD). Me and Peter’s eyes met with a simultaneous droop; we had no other choice. An hour and $40 later, we were walking on Taipei sidewalks surrounded by six-story malls and greeted by the stream of cars propelling through traffic.
Looking at the photos, even today, Peter and I agree that it was worth the confusion, expensive taxi, and quick turn around. It was truly magical to watch lantern after lantern float towards the distant mountains.
During the past two months of living in Taiwan, I’ve noticed and experienced the following.
The number of adorable stray dogs with collars
I photographed this doggo for over an hour my first week in Taoyuan. I thought to myself, “surely, this is someone’s beloved house pet.” Nope. This cutie is one of a dozen roaming the streets of Luzhu.
I play tennis on a regular basis
Before I left for Taiwan, I played with Peter a few times (since this is his beloved sport). I went from hitting stray balls, to hitting a balls with limited accuracy. Now, I play at least three times a week – depending upon the rain – and I have greatly improved my strokes, volleys, and serves. (Side note: this is a very strange court; it’s sandy yet slippery like a clay court.)
Fried chicken Sandwiches for breakfast is the move
This isn’t ~entirely~ shocking since I hail from the land of fried chicken (Chick-fil-A, Zaxby’s, Cane’s, KFC, Popeyes) and I was low-key addicted to Chick-fil-A in college. But, fried chicken was typically reserved for lunch or dinner. Now, all I crave is a $45NT ($1.53USD) fried chicken sandwich in the morning. The bun varies – waffle, hamburger bun, crust-less sandwich bread – but the sweet fried chicken and egg combo remains the same. It’s heavenly.
Living without a car is bittersweet
It’s exciting and convenient to live in a community where work, grocery store, and 711 are all within a 900 meter radius. (Talk about carbon footprint reduction!) However, the only places close to me are work, grocery store, and 711. If I want to go to a coffee shop, movie theater, mall, or rock wall in the closest city, I have three options:
1 hour walk
1-1.5 hour bus ride
30-40 minute bike ride (on heavily congested streets with unrecognizable travel patterns)
Even though it’s satisfying to not drive a car on a daily basis, it’s quite the challenge to go anywhere beyond 4km.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is heavily practiced
On a similar note, I’ve noticed that waste reduction is practiced by everyone on a consistent basis. Everywhere I go, people are separating recyclables, using reusable mugs for coffee, and using reusable tins for take-out. Additionally, the government has banned plastic bags, and some stores will give you a discount for using reusable containers. Rumor has it Taiwan plans to ban plastic straws and cups by 2030!
Students Clean the school
A few years ago, I saw a video on Facebook about Japanese students cleaning their school to learn responsibility and reduce janitorial costs. I thought it was limited to that Japanese school. I’ve learned otherwise. Every morning, students arrive to school by 7:30AM to deep clean – classrooms, bathrooms, outdoor areas, offices, everything! Around lunch time, a flurry of students burst into my office to sweep, mop, organize paper work, and tidy the room. Honestly, it is shocking to witness because I cannot imagine my 15 year-old brother cleaning anything.
The end of January / beginning of February has been a trying time in my personal growth
Taiwan winter is days of rain and chilly winds that follow you everywhere. I am cold in my school; I am cold during my walks; I am cold on the bus; I am cold in my apartment. There is no escaping the chill or the umbrellas.
Amid this bleak winter, solitude
I’ve been feeling rather isolated. My sister claims “solitude” and “isolation” are too dark, but it feels accurate to my experience.
I’ve never lived alone until now. I enjoy the sense of community a home can have. Shifting my mentality to only consider my needs has planted a seed of loss.
I’ve never lived outside of the US. The constraints are obvious: cultural differences & language barriers. Despite the recognizable challenges, it doesn’t make it easier. I regret not taking my Chinese lessons more seriously in the States.
I’ve never created teaching curriculum. I am comfortable presenting information to students, but I’ve never worked autonomously on lesson places with little to no guidance.