Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Nation in Limbo

If you are like me, it is really easy to get countries mixed up. There are 193 official nations (as recognized by the United Nations), and we all know that the US does not do a stellar job at teaching geography to its students.  I’m pretty sure that when I told people I was going to Taiwan, at least 30% pictured the beaches and jungles of Thailand.  Both in Asia, but very different historically, culturally, and geographically.   I thought I would, through a very humble and over-simplified blog post, help to shed a little light on Taiwan’s history and place in the world.

One of the most interesting facts about Taiwan is that it is not a country.  At least it does not figure into the 193 countries officially recognized by the United Nations, or one of the 194 countries recognized by the U.S. State Department (the US recognizes Kosovo but the UN does not yet).  Why is an independently governed island of 20+ million people not an official country?  The first clue is that the official name of the country is not Taiwan, it is the “Republic of China”.  Here is a little history for those (like myself) who did not get much in the way of World History in public school.

The island of Taiwan had a long history of inhabitation by indigenous people related to Polynesians, with a great deal of linguistic and cultural diversity.  The first colony on the island was founded by China during the Qing dynasty as a trading outpost. Portuguese and Dutch traders also had outposts at various times, and the island was known as Formosa (“Beautiful Island”) on European maps.  Chinese traders and fisherman remained on the island, slowly growing their influence, until the Chinese lost the Sino-Japanese war in the late 1800’s.  The island of Taiwan was handed to the Japanese empire and Japan exerted strong control over the island.  This had some positive effects – development of railroads, educational system, and sanitation system – but also some very negative ones – stifling the indigenous cultures and their traditional ways of life.  When Japan lost WWII in 1945, the island again became part of China, but since China was in the middle of civil war, its status was in limbo.  

The civil war in China was fought between the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists, led by Mao Zedong.  As we all know, the communists were eventually victorious, which led to the Mao founding the “People’s Republic of China” based out of Beijing. The Nationalists were forced to flee to – you guessed it – the island of Taiwan.   Of course the ever-confident Nationalists did not see their retreat to Taiwan as a defeat, just a temporary set-back.  They operated as the Chinese government in exile, founded the “Republic of China” which became known as “Free China” to distinguish themselves as the rightful rulers of the entire mainland.  Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalists continued to claim the mainland as their territory, which led to some awkward foreign policy positions for the rest of the world.  Of course the United States during the height of the Cold War chose to only recognize Taiwan’s ROC as the rightful government of China, despite the fact that it exerted no control over the vast territory of mainland China.  This changed in the 1970’s when Richard Nixon switched recognition from the Nationalist ROC to the Communist PRC – which led to his famous visit with Mao and the opening of trade with China.

The recognition of communist China came as a huge blow to Taiwan.  Until this point, Taiwan was still operating under martial law and was not a democracy.  It was operating as a country at war and tolerated no political dissent or opposition parties.  This changed in the 1980’s, when the Taiwanese government realized that taking control of the mainland was a remote possibility.  Now Taiwan is a multi-party democracy with civil liberties for citizens and free speech.  A great deal of debate takes place about what Taiwan’s position should be in regard to reunification and how to structure relations with the PRC. 

There is a tenuous calm between Taiwan and China.  The Taiwan Strait, the part of the China sea dividing Taiwan from China, is one of the most militarized regions in the world.  War is not likely since Taiwan has many Western allies, including the US, that would jump in to defend its territory, thereby escalating into a global conflict. China and Taiwan both are aware that a conflict would hurt both sides greatly, and the current arrangement is working out just fine. 

I hope this little history diatribe has been interesting to someone.  Taiwan is a fascinating place – it is Chinese culture without the baggage of communism, the Cultural Revolution, and political repression.  I believe this is why the Taiwanese people are so relaxed and friendly – they have not been exposed to traumatic social upheavals and government sponsored propaganda meant to create fear of Western influences. Taiwan also has a much higher standard of living than in mainland China, which always helps to make people more affable.

Taiwan’s status in the world may be shaky, but the people carry themselves with great worldliness and confidence.  I’m glad that I am able to call this “country” home for a while.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Tembin Double-Take

Guess I spoke too soon about ol’ Tembin.  Making a move that I thought impossible, the typhoon is turning around!  It was headed right for the mainland, but then did a little spiral and is headed right back to Taiwan.  Apparently this is due to typhoon Bolaven, which is right behind Tembin and large enough to exert an influence on Tembin’s path.

Just yesterday I was joking with Jess about how boring our typhoon experience proved to be.  I’m pretty sure that Tembin got wind of my smart-aleck comment and turned completely around to show this stupid Midwesterner what a Pacific Typhoon can do. 

In all seriousness, this could prove disastrous to Southern Taiwan, which just experienced extremely heavy rainfall from Tembin the first time around.  Another deluge could bring more flooding and mudslides.  The rainfall from Tembin broke 100 year records in Taiwan with 600mm of rain (23 inches!).

I know that the US is also bracing for a major hurricane – my thoughts are with those in Taiwan and in New Orleans.  This proves that it doesn’t matter where in the world you are, mother nature is always boss.   

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Home Sweet Home

Two adults and an infant living out of a tiny hotel room with no window and no storage space is not a comfortable situation. We made the best of it for the six days we were in Hotel 73, but the jetlag and lack of space gave us a strong desire to get an apartment. Any apartment. We resisted the urge to jump on the first apartment we viewed, and we ended up looking at about six places before finding the one that really suited our little family. So here we are in our new home. Yes, it is tiny by pretty much any standard, but it is very comfortable (euphemistically called “cozy” by real estate agents), well-designed, and has more fancy amenities than I’ve ever experienced.

Let me first start with the setting – Yong Kang neighborhood in Da’an District. It isn’t the area that Jess and I imagined for our year here. There are definitely too many opportunities to spend money and meet foreigners. To understand what I mean, do a Google street view of our neighborhood and just look at all the shops lining the streets! There is every kind of restaurant and specialty shop imaginable within two blocks of our apartment. Not exactly a traditional Taiwanese atmosphere, but it is an interesting mix of Japanese tourists, up-scale Taipei residents, and bohemian university students out on dates. We could have done worse. We are already getting to know our neighbors, thanks entirely to Abel, who immediately causes anyone in sight to drop their guard and be super friendly. It is pretty hard to miss the white couple walking around with a baby strapped to their chest.

 Our building is very new and quite nice. We have a 24/7 guard downstairs with a locking gate. Even the elevator requires that we use our special microchip key-fab thingy. Then we have to enter a code to get into our apartment on a keypad. If a guest comes, then we have a video screen that lets us see who is downstairs before we buzz them up. I feel like I’m boarding the Enterprise Starship every time I come home.

 The interior of the apartment is also nice – all marble floors and high ceiling. As I said, it is tiny, but not claustrophobic. The floor space is probably less than the living room of our old apartment, but a sleeping loft frees up a lot of space, we have two big windows, and the bathroom is roomy with the nicest shower I’ve ever had, or probably ever will have. Taiwan is a very humid place that can get both hot and cold, so we are lucky to have a dehumidifier, two air-conditioner/heaters, a washer/dryer, and a dish dryer. Yes that is right, not a dishwasher, but a dish dryer. All-in-all, I think it will be a very comfortable place for the three of us this year. The icing on the cake is that our landlord is a very sweet lady who speaks excellent English. It also helps that she thinks Abel is adorable and wants us to be as comfortable as possible. She has already emailed us to tell us she has bought a new coffee table since the current one is made of glass and not suitable with a baby in the apartment. 

Thanks again to Abel for making our lives easier here! We spent the weekend visiting Ikea and other local home-goods stores to make this apartment a home. As of Sunday evening, we have made great progress. It was a long day of wandering around the city in search of wooden spoons, diaper pails, chopsticks, and other essentials, but we came home and cooked for the first time in the apartment – and I must say it was pretty tasty. I have to admit that it is hard to motivate myself to cook when there are literally dozens and dozens of cheap delicious restaurants within walking distance. Unfortunately, if I eat out every night I won’t be able to fit in our compact apartment, so tomorrow I should probably make another trip to the grocery store . . .

Friday, August 24, 2012

Tembin Update

A pretty anti-climactic typhoon if you ask me.  Tembin made an unexpected turn south and Taipei has barely felt a sprinkle from the storm.  I guess I didn't need to run to the grocery store and stock up on weird Taiwanese emergency snack food (Almond slivers with whole dried fish is my favorite).

I might not have to wait long to experience a typhoon since Bolaven is right behind Tembin. It looks like that storm will pass by the north of the island, but I've learned that these predictions change hourly.

Despite my enthusiasm for experiencing this powerful weather phenomenon, I do take the typhoons seriously and I wish the best for all those affected.  So far, there have been no fatalities, just lots and lots of rain.  Let's hope that holds true through tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ni Hao Tembin!

While guiltily getting a TV news fix yesterday in the hotel, CNN International was displaying a big map of Taiwan with two very mean red icons heading right for the island. Although I knew that it was Typhoon season, I have to admit that this caught us off-guard a little.  I’ve never lived in hurricane country before (Typhoons are exactly the same weather pattern as hurricanes, they just get a different name in the Pacific) so preparing for the event is new to me.  Of course I don’t want anyone to get injured or anyone’s property to be damaged, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little excited about the whole thing.  

My lack of worry stems from the fact that we are moved into our apartment which in a very stable new building.  All structures in Taiwan are built with typhoons and earthquakes in mind, so I don’t forsee anything catastrophic.  The biggest concern seems to be flooding, but we are on the 5th floor, so I think we are in the clear.

I’ll find out more tomorrow afternoon when Tembin is forecasted to make landfall.  The center is supposed to be south of Taipei, so we won’t feel the worst of the storm.  It looks like it will be a good day to hunker down with noodles and tea, watching what we can through our window.  I’ll be sure to let everyone know we’re OK after it passes through. Now it is time to go to the market and stock up!

First Impressions

Hard to believe we’ve been here over a week already.  Severe jetlag resulted in a few sleepless nights and sleepful days, so it is hard to string together a coherent chronology of the last week.  However, I’m happy to report that we have all three successfully turned our circadian rhythms upside-down and are sleeping through the night now. 

Another very exciting development is that Jess and I found and moved into an apartment yesterday!  After schlepping around 90+ heat with Abel to look at apartments all over central Taipei for a week, we are THRIILLED to have a home.  Once we get more moved in I’ll post pictures and give some details. 

Taipei First Impressions

Dsiclaimer: I feel as though I’ve spent enough time in Taipei to label my initial observations as at least somewhat valid. Of course, as I spend more time here and visit a greater variety of places, my views and opinions will evolve. But, here is what I’ve noticed so far . . .

Nice People – Taiwanese are friendly and warm.  They are extra kind to foreigners, and they are super-sweet to anyone holding a baby.  Therefore, everyone from electronics vendors to our landlord has gone out of their way to be helpful and tell us how cute (Ke Ai) and well-mannered (Guai) Abel is.  Without question, Abel is responsible for us getting a good deal on our apartment and for countless courtesies we receive on a daily basis.  I expected traveling with an infant to make things more difficult, but in an interesting way he makes things easier. 

Clean – Taipei is a very modern city with more amenities than I expected.  I have traveled through China, and I expected Taiwan to be very similar.  In fact, Taipei does bear resemblance to Hong Kong, but Hong Kong is very different than other Chinese cities.  I would put Taipei halfway between Hong Kong and Beijing, meaning that it is very modern and clean, but still has some of the ancient far-east character that makes Beijing so much fun.  A good example is that there is no smoking in any building in Taipei and no spitting allowed on the streets.  This is very different than China, where spitting and smoking are just part of city life. Having a baby in tow, it is really nice not to have to worry about the germs and carcinogens caused by these habits.

Easy to Navigate – I’m amazed at the sensibility of Taipei’s layout.  Streets are on a grid with sequential numbers of lanes and alleys.  Given a street address, I can actually find the building without too much backtracking!  It helps that signs are in Chinese and English and are very consistently labeled.  Another help is that many more people than I expected speak passable English.  Of course I usually rely on my personal guide and translator (Jess) to do this legwork, but it is nice to know that I’m not out of luck if I’m alone.

Safe –I’ve heard a total of one emergency vehicle siren since landing in Taipei.  One.  During an hour walk in downtown Chicago or New York I bet you would hear a dozen or more.  Why is this?  Certainly there is a difference in emergency response systems, but a major factor is the incredibly low rates of street crime in Taipei.  Criminal activity does exist on some levels, but muggings, shootings, and carjackings are unheard of here.  I was thinking about this as Jess and I walked back to our hotel with Abel last night at around 10pm without a care in the world – I felt so much safer than in any major US city – and with good reason. 

Now that we have an apartment, we can spend less time with realty agents and more time exploring the city. Jess has started her job, but I'm still unemployed and loving it, so Abel and I will make lots of day-time excursions. I'm going to post again soon about a Typhoon headed our way, so stay tuned . . .

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Island to Island

ATV -> Boat -> Van -> Tram -> Plane (x3) -> Taxi

We didn't expect the trip from Temagami to Taiwan to be easy - it did prove to be exhausting and epic - but I really can't imagine it going any more smoothly than it has so far.  I know, "knock on wood", but we are all three happy, healthy, rested, and safe in our hotel room in Taipei, so I think there is room for celebration.  After all, this was no stroll across town.

The journey started on Garden Island with loading up our gear onto Dick's ATV trailer to haul it across the island to the dock. Why did we need a heavy-duty ATV to haul our gear less than a mile? Let's just say that the days of  traveling light with nothing but a backpack are long gone - with the addition of Abel's gear, we would need about 10 backpacks total.  Instead, we had three full size checked bags (two of which are over the 50 lbs max), two full size carry-on bags, two shoulder bags, a diaper bag, and a large jogging stroller with car-seat.  Somehow we managed to get everything loaded onto Dick's boat without dislocating a shoulder or falling off the dock. The ride to the marina was Abel's last boat-ride for awhile, which is too bad because he LOVES boat rides - a certain Zen calm comes over him that is impossible to shake.

In line with their history of making our lives easier, Dick and Marg drove us to the Toronto airport and put us up in the Sheraton that is attached to our Terminal.  I can't imagine a more convenient location to have a celebratory glass of wine, say good-bye, and get a good night's sleep.

The next morning started early (4:30) when we corralled our piles of bags onto carts and wheeled them towards the United Airlines desk.  I thought we were having a stressful morning, until I witnessed the expressions on the staffs' faces at the United Airlines counter.  Either half the employees called in sick, or there is a very incompetent supervisor who thought that two people could check in 100+ passengers for several flights.  Let's just say that it was not a pleasant experience.  A United supervisor did make it up to us by expediting our trip through security and running with us through the terminal while carrying one of our bags.  At least Abel enjoyed the trip - the bounces on the stroller as I clumsily ran down the walkways must have felt great!

The rest of the air travel was blissfully non-eventful.  We got an extra seat on two out of three flights so Abel could stretch out and the flight attendants were extremely helpful.  Abel did AMAZING!  He slept, ate, slept, and smiled.  Pretty much his usual schedule.  Jess and I were pretty exhausted, but very relieved that Abel was happy.

We arrived in Taipei at 8pm with two out of three of our checked bags (the third has since been delivered) and our driver was holding a sign with "Jessica Lewis" written on it as we exited customs.  Even though it wasn't my name, I still felt like a VIP.   We got settled into our hotel**, had a wonderful 10 hours of sleep, and Jess dove right into her job by meeting her colleagues for lunch while Abel and I roamed around the city.

I won't go into much detail about the city yet - I'll save that for the next post.  Now it is time for me to continue to battle jet-lag and get to bed.  I am writing this after having woken up at 1:30 - not in the afternoon, but in the morning.  I like to be an early-riser, but this is a little ridiculous. We have a full day of apartment searching tomorrow, so wish us luck!

** A small foot-note about our hotel - best free breakfast EVER! This deserves a footnote because I take hotel breakfasts quite seriously and over the years I have seen the good, bad, and ugly.  I wake up hungry and I have no tolerance for an establishment that thinks a few pieces of white bread and warm orange juice constitutes breakfast.  I didn't have very high expectations for breakfast at our hotel because in China breakfast is usually pretty simple - a steamed bun, soy milk, some fruit, or rice porridge.  You can't imagine my elation as I walked into the lobby to find eight hot dishes (sausage, eggs, fried rice, fish, vegetables), fresh fruit, rice porridge, baked goods, coffee, tea, juices, and an entire array of Chinese condiments which I don't know what to call and don't care because they are super tasty.  Needless to say, I will be sad to check out in a few days . . .

Friday, August 17, 2012

Taiwan - Scratching that Travel Itch

The Lewis-Murphy family is off to Taiwan!

I'm on the road again.  After three years of stationary existence and working a full-time job with all the trimmings, the travel itch came on with an intensity that could not be ignored. The big difference this time is that I am not taking off on my own with nothing but a backpack.  For this adventure I have the distinct pleasure of sharing my journey two hearty travel partners - Abel and Jess.  While Jess has more travel experience than Abel or me, it is Abel who is proving to be the all-star.  He has already flown from Austin to Silex, MO, then driven 2000+ miles from Silex to Temagami, Ontario.  Not bad for 2 1/2 months, if you ask me.

It has been a few years since I've posted on this blog, but I don't see any reason to start a new one.  Ideally, I would have been posting throughout my time in Austin, since life is an adventure no matter where or what one is living.  However, the highly domestic routine that I found myself in does not translate into exciting reading material.  Gym -> Work -> Grocery Store -> Home -> Repeat.  Another reason, or perhaps excuse, is that I had a busy job in addition to a great deal of coursework to earn my Board Certified Behavior Analyst certification.  Between +10 hours a day of work, domestic tasks, and then coursework, I didn't have much time to devote to trying to make my life sound exciting via blog posts. Hopefully living in a very foreign place where I don't speak the language with an infant will make life exciting enough that I don't have to stretch my writing skills to compose interesting blog posts.

Why Taiwan?  Good question.  There are a few answers.
1) Adventure.  Jess and I love to witness culture as outsiders and to experience different foods, languages, music, etc.  We also love to challenge ourselves by getting out of our comfort zone and learning what parts of  our habits and routines are intrinsic and which are just part of our surrounding cultural framework.
2) Abel.  Babies aren't babies for very long, so Jess and I really want to spend as much of this year with Abel as possible. Living in Taiwan allows us to work only part-time while having a very comfortable lifestyle.  Jess has a job working in the afternoons for 15 hours a week and I'm searching for a job in the mornings for the same amount of hours.  Thankfully, Taiwan offers National Health Care for anyone (foreigners included) who work at least 15 hours a week.
3) Mandarin.  No matter how many times I hear Jess speak Mandarin, I'm still amazed.  Chinese language and culture are an important part of her life and living in Taiwan will give her the opportunity to improve her language skills and share the culture with Abel and me.  Who knows, maybe I'll even pick up a few words . .
4) Careers.  Seems silly to bolster our careers by quitting good jobs that we really enjoyed, but that is part of the plan.  Jess wants to try working with younger students (1st - 3rd grade) and I want to get some experience doing 1:1 Applied Behavior Analysis therapy with students with autism.  This will help position us for jobs after we return.

Another post to follow very shortly as we are already here and I have lots to share about our journey thus far.  Thanks for reading and following along with our family adventure!