10 things you need to know about life in Taiwan

today is our 1-year expat anniversary.  [I honestly cannot believe that I just typed that sentence. it feels like it's been a week and a decade, all at the same time.] ironic that I'm spending it back home in Michgan, yes, but that doesn't change that I'm still an expat and still going back to Taiwan in 2 months.

before I moved to Taiwan, I was pretty clueless. part of it may be what American society teaches us about Asian culture, but I admit a portion was simply my own ignorance. some stereotypes are true and some are completely false. in fact... 80% of what I thought it would be like here was wrong. thankfully, I've learned a few things during my first year as an expat. and lucky for you, I've made a nice little list of what you really need to know about life in Taiwan.

1a. Taiwan vs. China. the relationship between mainland China and Taiwan is as confusing and dramatic as a soap opera. Taiwan has been occupied and colonized by several nations, most recently the Japanese. at the end of World War 2, the Japanese surrendered Taiwan to the Republic of China. at the time, the ROC was the ruling government in mainland China. BUT. when the communist party took over mainland China in 1949 they formed a new ruling body called the People's Republic of China. members of the ROC fled the mainland and established themselves in Taiwan. so then you have two governments claiming to be "China." but the ROC was recently ousted from it's seat of power [and the UN], so most countries sided with the communist PRC. many countries still do not formally recognize Taiwan due to existing ties with China [PRC], which is why there is no true US embassy in Taiwan nor a Taiwanese embassy in the US. but they cannot exclude or ignore Taiwan [ROC] completely due to its economic growth over the past few decades, which is why you see Taiwan compete in the olympics under a compromise title of "Chinese Taipei." or at least that's my understanding of things.

1b. Taiwan vs. Thailand. I love Thai food and I love Thai writing, but both of those things come from Thailand. the proper title for the food, culture, and people of Taiwan? Taiwanese. [I knew this one before moving here, but you'd be surprised how many people still think I live in Thailand. maybe because I vacation there so often?]

2. the wildlife. Taiwan is a rabies-free island, so people just let packs of wild dogs roam free on the streets. mostly they will leave you alone. but sometimes they follow you home. the bugs here are ridiculous. cockroaches and giant spiders invade homes on a regular basis, and I can't walk 10 feet outside without being bit by some kind of mosquito. the little lizards and geckos don't bother me much. but then there was the time two cobras were roaming the school campus...

3. the food. I expected eating gluten free to be much easier. no wheat is grown on the island here. it's an Asian country. so... rice, right? wrong. I struggle with my gluten sensitivity more in Taiwan than I ever had to in the states. all dumplings and the majority of noodles here are made from wheat flour. soy sauce contains gluten. there's a McDonalds or Pizza Hut or KFC on every corner, and scores of "western" restaurants serving burgers and brunch. and grocery shopping is interesting when you cannot read most of the labels. I'm just thankful I don't have a serious allergy to gluten. all that being said, we have found a handful of local places here in Hsinchu where both lovers and non-lovers of gluten can eat deliciousness to their hearts content. Taiwan is certainly not a place you will go hungry.

4. scooters. first, let's be honest: there is no possible way to do your hair and have it look good once it comes back out of the helmet. not. gonna. happen. and zipping around on a motorbike with no seatbelt can be very terrifying at first. [or after you crash and bust up your knee.] but, scooting is a super convenient way to get around. I think whenever  I next drive a car I will be impatient and crazy. what do you mean, I can't just squeeze between these two trucks and past all this traffic to be first in line at the red light?

5. shopping for food. Taiwan has a convenience store on every corner. 7-11, hi-life, family mart... they are everywhere. there is also an abundance of fruit markets, vegetable markets, and night markets. and then there are a handful of grocery store chains and specialty western import stores, and of course, Costco. the problem with shopping for food is that not a single one of these locations will carry everything on your grocery list. so while it's great to buy fruits + veggies local, a shopping trip involves at least three stops. usually four. the trick is knowing what to buy where [only buy special items from import stores, their veggies are way overpriced and Costco sells 2 pounds of that cheese for the 8oz price] and resigning yourself to the fact that grocery shopping can not be accomplished in an hour.

6. shopping for clothes. when we moved, I had to make my entire wardrobe fit into 2 suitcases. I decided that most of what I wasn't bringing I would donate, because if I wasn't going to wear it in 2 years did I really need it? well. I cannot tell you how many items of clothing I wish I hadn't donated. I thought I could easily buy some new basic tank tops, white tees, leggings etc after we arrived. well. in America I am a normal-to-smaller sized woman. average height [5'6] and I've got some curves, but usually I wear a size 4/6 or small. here in Taiwan the popular fashions for ladies seems to be very feminine, with flowing loose layers on top and tight skinny pants or short shorts/skirts. shirts meant to be baggy I can manage a medium, but tight-fitting my shoulders [and other things] need a large. most stores only carry up to size 4 in pants, and that is their equivalent of a large. SO. I've done a lot of online shopping, and plan to stock up while I'm in the states.

7. it's clean, but it's dirty. in Taipei, the MRT subway system is spotless. they don't allow eating or drinking on the trains or even in the station. [I love New York, but holy cow does Taipei kick your butt at subway cleanliness and ease of use.] given that it's an island and there is limited space for waste disposal, the Taiwanese are recycling fanatics. and there are HUGE fines for improperly sorting. public waste cans aren't common [at least in Hsinchu] but you will rarely find any litter on the streets. you will, however, be able to smell sewage from the street corners from time to time. and probably the dirtiest thing [at least to a germaphobe like me] is that a lot of people don't use soap when they wash their hands. sooooo many public bathrooms I've been in and seen girls just rinse with water and walk out the door. ick.

8. the people. the people here are very kind. even if they don't speak any English they will try to help you, give you directions, and feed you. when Husband and I were on the side of the road after our scooter crash, no less than 4 cars stopped to ask if we needed help. and... we were out in the back hills. which meant that 4 was every. single. car. I will say that the exception seems to be lines. the Taiwanese will elbow you out, cut in front of you, and crowd you from behind. don't believe me? go to Costco on a sunday and try to reach something in the cooler being blocked by the free sample line.

9. the cute factor. it's true. Asia loves things that are cute. bows and pink and glitter and cartoons are everywhere. lucky for my photo-snapping and journal-writing self, they also love photography gear - both for digital and instant/toy cameras- and stationary. [this stuff obviously can be found often with bows and pink and glitter and cartoons.] washi tape in particular has become a new obsession of mine since moving to Taiwan.

10. I don't speak Chinese. when we first found out we were moving to Taiwan, I may have panicked a little bit over the thought of having to learn Mandarin. we went out and bought ourselves some Rosetta Stone... which I haven't made much progress on. the truth is, we don't really need to know much Chinese. we get by on "thank you" and the basic numbers and by carrying around business cards to show cab drivers. many locals know a few words of English and are always eager to speak with you and show off their vocabulary. other than that, I smile and nod.


michigan sunrise

I woke up at 5am this morning, eastern standard time. a small and furry but familiar face was rubbing up against me. I pulled on a pair of jeans and Husband's old high school track sweatshirt, grabbed my camera and a mug of coffee, and sat on the back porch to watch the sun rise.

the cat came with me. on a leash.

we are back in Michigan. my brain just keeps repeating home, home, home... because this is it. I'm here.

the air is crisp and clean. the temperature was 56 F this morning, downright chilly. but it feels awesome after the sweltering heat + humidity of southeast asia I've been in for the past... year.

Thailand was amazing, by the way. prepare yourself for some ancient temple ruins and beautiful beaches as soon as I get myself settled. but I only loaded the photos to my computer this morning since the past 5 days have been a blur. you see, about an hour before we flew out of Bangkok I was railroaded by some violent food poisoning. I though about sharing the whole story... but let's just say for now I spent almost the entire 4 our flight in the airplane toilet. and then the next two days on the couch drinking juice + water instead of packing for home. and thankfully I was feeling better [if not completely exhausted and under-nourished] for our 20 hours of travel yesterday. I had my first real meal after we landed: a vegetarian unwich from Jimmy John's. with bacon. and I know that seems silly but after a year out of the states I wanted bacon.

this morning we had more bacon. extra crispy, with a spinach + feta omelet and fresh berries. I owe my friends in Taiwan some "food porn" but honestly I was too busy eating. soon, soon.

for now, there's this.


typhoon soulik

we made it through typhoon soulik safe and sound... I wish I could say the same for the trees.

the wind howled and the rain poured for almost 24 hours. there's some water damage on one of the walls in my office [yes, the one they just patched] but other than that, no casualties in our house. I will admit it was a little freaky when we discovered our porch was flooding due to water bubbling up through the drain... we live on the second floor so that may tell you something about how much rain we had.

today I went out for a scoot and saw no less than 3 cars smashed by trees in less than a 1/2 mile. when I got home, Husband and I took a walk around the school campus to survey the damage. what we saw seemed to be mostly limited to the tress and not actual property... though one of the guard sheds had it's roof blown off. soulik seems to have been a much more serious storm than the typhoon that welcomed us to Taiwan last summer.

yikes. I hope everyone else in the storm's path fared as well as we did. I'm glad we were prepared and stayed inside to wait it out. I'm also very glad the storm didn't wait another 48 hours to roll through and ruin our travel plans. I suppose Taiwan just wanted to give us a memorable sendoff...



the time has come for me to finally spill the beans. I've got lots of Taipei sights still to share, and soon I'll be backed up on photos from Thailand... but I just can't keep my mouth shut any longer. it's friday afternoon and a typhoon is on the way, so why not curl my hair and take some goofy pictures and blog some confessions?

I'm not very good at keeping my secrets. people can usually read my emotions like a book. sometimes in conversations with acquaintances [or maybe blogging?] I find myself giving way more personal information than is necessary. when we started the process of moving abroad I actually deleted my facebook account for three months to keep myself from the temptation of prematurely letting Husband's/my coworkers from knowing we were leaving. I originally planned to wait a month to tell my boss I was leaving... that lasted less than a week.

I'm very proud to say that other than my family and a few close friends, I have kept a pretty big secret from the general internet public for over six months. six months! and lately, I've been feeling like I might explode if I don't tell people because I am so excited.

so, here's my deep dark secret:

Husband and I are flying back to Michigan! he has to take a certification class for teaching AP World History next year, and I'm tagging along. Husband will be returning to Taiwan after two weeks... but I'm staying for all of August and September!

last summer when we left the states, we didn't think we would be coming back for two years. but. thanks to a series of events involving tax returns, canceled seminars, and schedule switching... we get the opportunity to go back for a while. and I am BEYOND excited. for these, and many more reasons:

- I get to see my family and friends now when I thought it would be another year until I was able
- I don't care if you judge me for this but... MY CATS!
- my brother will be turning 21
- Michigan State football season [and tailgating!]
- one of my best friends is getting married and I actually get to go for a change
- another of my best friends is having a baby boy and I get to meet him
- August and September are some of the best months in Michigan. end of summer, beginning of fall.
- my parents bought a condo in Ludington [with views of Lake Michigan] where I will get to vacation
- my Dad and I are taking a weekend-long photography workshop by the guys who shoot for "Pure Michigan"
- I'm running the Crim 10 mile race in Flint
- shopping at Target! and a million other stores I miss.
- a real oven to bake in... gluten-free cake pops, anyone?
- grilling and backyard campfires
- real bacon... and baby spinach... and figs... and artichokes... and a lot of other non-Asian foods
- Buddy's Pizza and Jimmy John's unwiches and New Planet beers [all gluten free!]

I'm going to stop that list before it gets ridiculous... or turns into a grocery list.

we are leaving for Thailand on monday, return late the following sunday, and then early wednesday we take off for Detroit via Tokyo. [yes, that means we have something stupid like 48 hours between trips. oh well.] I will be heading back to Taiwan in October. in the meantime... blog posts may be sporadic and not quite as exotic, but I'll keep them coming. 


taipei // chiang kai-shek memorial hall

depending on who you are and where you are from, your opinion of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek may vary wildly. but I think we can all agree that his memorial hall is pretty darn impressive. and the National Theatre and Concert Hall [orange-roofed buildings] and surrounding gardens... beautiful.

we visited on a hot and gloomy monday. the gardens and hallways surrounding the concert hall were filled with musicians practicing, the sounds carried across the plaza to give us a soundtrack to stroll to. we climbed and sweat our way to the top of the memorial. we went in to check out the statue and were pleasantly surprised to discover that inside the hall there are several air-conditioned exhibitions.

the one we decided to visit was called the Candy Queen's Kingdom - all kinds of artwork and landmarks and animals and even a giant castle were built out of candy by [an apparently famous] candy artist, Jackie Sorkin.

no relation to Aaron Sorkin, as far as I know.

we drooled over checked out the candy creations, bought some souvenirs and drank some water before leaving the ac. and then we hopped the mrt to our next Taipei sightseeing destination.


recipe // chocolate chip cookie bars

I have some exciting news to share today: one of my old cake pop recipes is being featured on bonappetit.com! [check out slide #8] and to celebrate, I'm going to share a new recipe with you.

I know what you are thinking. wow, bon appetite, that's awesome! wait... a recipe?

back before we moved to the land of no ovens, and before my gluten sensitivity got really serious, I used to write a baking blog. I baked. all. the. time. and I had nearly a hundred posts on this old blog of mine, so I left it up for people to read and discover. [and also to use as a quick recipe reference when baking myself.]

before we left the states, I gave away my sprinkle collection and most of my cookie cutters. my beloved candy apple red KitchenAid mixer is in storage, along with all my pots and pans. here in Taiwan we only have a tiny toaster oven. I don't have a rolling pin or measuring spoons anymore, and I have to mix everything by hand... but I've still managed to bake a few things. cheese olive tarts. egg muffins. pizza crust. mini-pies. cheese crackers. and... chocolate chip cookie bars.

chocolate chip cookie bars [gluten-free]

1 stick or 4oz or 113g butter
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup white sugar
1tsp vanilla
1 whole egg
1 1/4 cups gluten-free flour mix
1/2 tsp baking soda
sprinkle of nutmeg and/or cinnamon
1/2 cup chocolate chips

cream softened butter with both sugars. mix in vanilla + egg. combine flour, baking soda + spices separately first, then add slowly to butter/sugar mixture. stir in chocolate chips. spread batter into greased 9x9 pan and bake for 20 min at 200C/375F.



taipei, the beautiful

Taipei is not usually considered a beautiful city.

it lacks the iconic skyline of New York. the shiny, glittering, glass-and-metal buildings are few and far between. you won't find much European charm. instead, the architecture runs to drab tile and cement. unlike Shanghai or Singapore or even Philadelphia, it has only one skyscraper: Taipei 101. and the rest of the city seems a low sprawl in comparison. the buildings are old - but not ancient - worn by years of blistering heat, humidity, and typhoons.

the beauty of Taipei is hidden. it winds through neighborhood roads and back alleys. an unexpected patch of green park. red lanterns in doorways. the intricate details of tilework. temples peeking out between storefronts and apartments.

but it is there, if you look.
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