Wednesday, April 5, 2006

It's no fun, being an illegal alien

Ah Phil, you sing it so true:

I hope those who know me think I am a patient and honest person. I also hope that you know that I’m not fabricating or exaggerating this story at all. Let me finally state that I apologize for the length, but in order to make it accurate and cover all my bases, I have had to sacrifice some journalistic pizzazz.

After two months of trying to live in Taipei (and I emphasize trying), I am quite amazed that I still have my sanity.

First let me say that I started this blog as kind of a travelogue for my time in Taipei. I was hoping to document it week after week with an interesting post. The problem is that the first few posts were more rants and kind of negative. I thought I should probably wait until I had some positive experiences to write about: those of us who have traveled before all have had culture shock but it usually turns around quickly. A positive thing will come along… any day now.

And before I go on, at the risk of sounding immodest, let me also note that this is not being written by a ‘newbie’. This September will be my 10 year anniversary of traveling to and living in Asia. I have lived in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai, often for periods of over a year or more.

Okay, that being said, let me start by unraveling my story:

It all started when I visited Taiwan about a year ago around this time. Like many, I was impressed with the people, the place and the general air of sophistication that goes with living in many large Asian cities. Also with a few friends here, I had a really good time. It’s always more fun when you are visiting friends.

My first two degrees have focused on China-related topics and though Chinese competency was requisite for my degrees, I have always dreamt of really ‘mastering’ my Chinese. In 2002, I was awarded the China-Canada National Scholarship (CCSEP) in which I got to go to Beijing to study Mandarin. Sadly, because of SARS, my study was cut short only a few months in (we had time off for Xmas and Chinese New year) so I never really got to achieve my aim.

Anyhow, I got in into my head that maybe I should give Taiwan a try. After all, Taiwan is also a Mandarin speaking region (as much as can be said for China—every place has its regional dialects). So I went about looking for the best Chinese language program. From advice from various friends and forums, I was told that National Taiwan Normal University was the best place to study. So I applied by the required date in January and looked forward to starting my studies in March 2006.

There was nothing from the school for about two weeks after my application, so like any student anxious to get going, I wrote the school and told them that I needed to get going if I was going to arrive in Taiwan early enough to be there for registration, which was around February 21. It already stated that you should register as early as possible in order to get the proper classes, etc.

Anyhow, I had hoped to arrive a few days early—five, actually—so I could actually take my placement test without worrying about jet lag. So there I was writing in the second week of February saying that I had the application in a week before the deadline and should I be making plans to buy a plane ticket, etc. I received a short one-line email saying that I was indeed accepted and a letter of admission had been sent but might take a few weeks to arrive. Please remember that I had told them that I really needed to get going in order to make it in time. Also note that there was no mention of any specific visa processes that I needed to follow.

Knowing that I was accepted and had a formal letter on its way, I quickly booked my plane ticket and got about getting my visa application ready. Checking the university website, I read that once you had a formal letter of admission you could apply for a visa, so I hurried off to the ROC ‘underground’ consulate to get my visa.

I thought it was interesting that I entered the TECO (Taiwan Economic and Cultural Affairs Office) to the sounds of some white guy raving about being treated like a criminal. He told them he wanted all his visa materials back and there was no way he was going. It seems they had made him sign some sort of confession or something. Obviously, this guy was LOONIE…

Next, it was my turn. I walked up with my bank statements, air tickets and other requisite items for getting the visitor visa and laid out my application for the attendant. She looked it over and told me that I had to change my plane ticket because I could only stay in Taiwan for a maximum of 180 days. I had intended on studying for two semesters so I had booked a September return. I told her that I understood and I would arrange another ticket to leave Taiwan, probably to visit some friends in Hong Kong. (I lived in Hong Kong for about 3 years from 1996-2000, so I always love going back.)

“You must declare this statement on a piece of paper and sign it,” was the attendants response. Was this the ‘confession’ the loonie was talking about? Boy, was he touchy…

As I took a piece of paper and began writing ‘I LWB solemnly swear to leave Taiwan before 180 days’, the attendant quickly added:

“Also, you must write that you will not work or study while you are in Taiwan.”

Study, how? “Do you mean teach?” I asked her. “No, study… like study Chinese.” But that was why I was going!

“Do they change the visa once I get to Taiwan?” I asked. It seemed reasonable after my experience in British Hong Kong, the HKSAR and Mainland China. Most of these places make you enter as a visitor and then you have to go and register to become a permanent resident, student, or whatever. I’ve done this a lot of times on HK and the mainland. Plus, the university website had mentioned about after 4 months you apply for an Alien Resident Card (ARC).

“I don’t know anything about that” was the attendant’s response. So standing there, pen in hand I had a choice. I surmised that this was just some legal red tape and that I would be instructed on what to do after registering at the university (after all, I wasn’t yet a registered student, so it still kind of made sense… you are visitor until you are a registered student.) So I took the pen and wrote, I understand that I cannot work or study under a visitor’s visa. And off the visa went to be processed. It was either that or don’t go at all. The visa was returned the three days later and off I went to Taipei.

Returning to Taipei was nice, except that on arrival I had some bad dumplings and that laid me up with food poisoning for about 5 days—lost about 10 lbs. Oh well, I needed to lose weight anyway. Since I was spending most of my time on the porcelain throne, I phoned the school and told them my difficulty. No problem, they said, just come in the same week and register late.

Around this time, it started to sink in what kind of a predicament I was in. I had hoped to live with my friends at the other end of the city and commute to school, at least part of the way, by scooter. Of course, to do that I would need to purchase a scooter and convert my license. This is where the first shoe dropped. I found out to do any of this—that is to register a scooter or even get a license to drive one—I needed to have an ARC. What was I going to do in the four months to get to school. ‘Drive illegally,’ I was told, ‘everyone else does’.

Determined to obey the laws, I started taking the bus to school, because it wasn’t really that difficult. It made the commute in just over one hour. I could leave around 11am and arrive just after noon.

So I arrived at school fresh from my commute the first day for orientation. ‘Visas’ our cheery, church-going, mandarin-speaking, white-guy host informed us, ‘are so complicated here. You can talk to our visa specialist if you have any questions.’ So I cued up, well, mauled up with the throng of others who were trying to figure out what the hell was going on. After a moment, I was told that my ‘visitor’ visa, needed to have a note saying that I was allowed to study. That’s funny: that was what I was told not to do when I got the visa in the first place.

Oh well, so I went up to the ‘visa specialist’ and asked him how to get the little note.

“I’m very sorry,” he apologized, bowing his head, “but you must leave Taiwan and apply for another visa.” “Sorry,” he said again, “so many students are in this same situation.” Also, I was told that the ‘four months’ mentioned on the university website, would not start until I had the little note on my visitor’s visa. A visitor’s student visa, who woulda thunk it? It took a minute before the logic kicked in… how could the university let me walk in and register without the proper visa? I mean, I wasn’t even told until this point… were they just going to let me study there without a proper visa?

“So you let me enroll here illegally?” I asked him. He didn’t seem to like the tone of my question and that was the end of our conversation. So there I was, an illegal student in Taiwan. The concept of illegal student seemed so funny to me. Like if I was caught at an intersection with a dictionary or Chinese book, the policeman upon examining my passport would yell out, “you can’t be learning here! You’re not allowed!” Anyhow, yup, there I was, LWB, the illegal student.

The rest of the orientation was a blur. The good thing was I was allowed to miss 10 hours of class a month, and since classes were two hours long, I could probably take a week and go to Hong Kong and renew. Considerable expense, that: preparing a whole new application and then buying a ticket, hotel, etc. not to mention missing class.

Anyhow, I figured, since I was illegal, but enrolled, I would take a few weeks and then escape to Hong Kong to become a bona fide, legal student. You don’t want to skip the first week of class, right?

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, er, university, I realized I had been assigned classes that started at 8:10 in the morning. My heart sunk thinking of the one hour or so commute plus the bus schedule. I was going to have to be getting up at 5:30 in order to avoid rush hour and get to class on time. Grueling.

‘Classes cannot be changed without a valid reason. Work schedules are not a valid reason’ said the sheet. I supposed commute times and busses wouldn’t be either. Anyway after a few classes, I kind of liked my teacher and the small class (no one comes that early) so I decided to stick with it.

After about a week of being packed at the break of dawn into an over-crowded, unsafe bus that was standing room only, it was much easier to start driving illegally. Hey, I was an illegal student, so why shouldn’t I be an illegal driver? So I bought a scooter registered to someone who had already left Taiwan and started driving to work. All perfectly normal, I was assured by the folks here.

After about a week driving downtown, I was much more rested and could actually form words in class, but the polluted air was beginning to take its toll. No longer was I just sitting in class tasting exhaust fumes, but I was starting to cough too. I started driving the scooter to the nearest subway (MRT) station instead. Less polluted, way less dangerous, and hey, between driving illegally and attending class illegally, I don’t think I was violating any law taking the subway.

Anyhow, the week after I bought the scooter, the friend I live with had an accident. He was pretty wrecked up so I stayed home to help him that (Monday) morning and ended up going in to teach his class as well. So that was two hours off my ten. Oh well, I had holidays coming up so I could use those to go to HK and get a ticket.

The next day, however, after six hours of teaching in a small sauna, I was so washed out that I missed another class. I was just totally exhausted. On Wednesday I made it in to class but really didn’t do too well because my voice was too deep to understand. Thursday, I woke up with a fever and trouble breathing. Friday I knew I had bronchitis.

Next Monday, I missed class because the bronchitis had turned into rales (pronounced rawls, I’m told). This is when your lungs fill up with putrid sputum and you get that bubbling effect. It’s kind of like breathing through a hookah or a sponge. I had this problem once before when I had viral pneumonia. I knew this was not good, because only severe bronchitis has this kind of problem. Anyhow the rest of the week was spent going to doctors, taking antibiotics and just generally feeling like crap. I didn’t lose the fever that weekend. Twenty hours of class missed.

The third week of this lung infection was my holidays and brings us to the present. In case you are wondering, how this related to my illegal problems, I woke up this Tuesday to realize that I had already stayed in Taiwan 60 days as a visitor and had to renew my visa before it was too late (you must check in at the police station every 60 days).

Meanwhile, I was faced with the fact that since I had already missed 20 hours of school, I couldn’t present the requisite attendance record and I was likely to be denied an extension. Luckily playing stupid at the police station got me the ‘we’ll do it this once but never again without the proper records’ treatment and I am renewed for another 60 days. However, since I have missed over 10 hours under ‘Ministry of Education’ stipulations, I should be booted out of school and never allowed to re-enrol. Also, my marks aren’t that hot either so I don’t have much to stand on.

So I don’t know whether to hop on my illegal scooter and illegally drive to school tomorrow and illegally attend class or just stay home and rest my lungs and wish I never, ever, even formed the thought of coming to Taiwan to try and live or study.

I’ll keep you posted.


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Final Countdown

Well, this is it boys and girls; my visa was a-granted and I'm to Asia again tomorrow. Check back soon for updates and first (of second) impressions. I hope to make this blog a bit more issues-centred and do a big launch, but since I'm already getting a lot of hits (50 over the last few days or so... thanks Google!) I'm going to keep the personal travelogue side of it running as well.

As of September this year, it will be a decade of doing going between 'the Chinas' and home: 96-97 to study; 98, 99 & 2000 to teach; 2002-2003 to study; 2005 to travel and now, 2006 to study again. Almost 40% of those last ten years spent abroad. If I seem a bit retrospective, I am. Things feel different this time--and I hope that's a good thing.

To end this new beginning, I quote from my good friend Charles Du Bois (whom I came to know over a book of quotes): "The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become."

Happy Trails,


Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Treasonous Feelings on Air Travel

I love travel—really I do. However, I can’t help notice the huge amount of stress I’m under trying to jump through all the hoops that airlines have for us these days.

Come on, people! The 9/11 excuse is getting really old. Especially when it has nothing to do with the service you are providing. I understand that check in will take longer and burden of proof is now normal carry-on while crossing any border, but airlines should be enhancing communication and customer service in order to deal with this, not making it worse.

Today’s anecdote comes to us from the lovely Air Canada (AC), who in my opinion is the poster child for bad service in International Airlines, with their grumpy, frumpy, battle-worn attendants both at the desk and in flight.

After having a ticket issued by United Airlines (the ticket was paid for through another airline, but airlines often swap out the flight, I was told that it was best to call AC to reserve the seats. As soon as I presented myself as coming from a United booking, they told me that I had to contact United to book seats on their airline. After a moment of explaining how silly that was (because United was simply going to phone them and do it themselves) they capitulated and glory be, actually said they'd book me a seat on the flight I had already reserved. I asked for exit row seats.

“Those are Airport Handling Priority.”

“Does that mean yes or no?”, I asked wondering if I had missed the manual on how to book a seat lingo. I continued on fumbling through the process. (I rarely fly Air Canada after they made my life hell so many times before--see below).

While waiting for the seats to be booked, there was no response. You know, the usual, 'arrive at the airport seven hours before you leave, naked and shaven in order to begin security debriefing. Sensing something was awry, I asked what exactly I would be expected to do when I arrived at the airport.

The attendant listened to me as if I was stupid and sardonically replied, “Check in, sir.”

Okay, I told her, so I would simply show up with my passport and a printed copy of my itinerary.

Whoa, wait a moment! Things began to take on a more hillbilly feel. "Ain’t nobody getting on an Air Canada flight without a printed email copy of their ticket", she said.

“But, United said…” I protested, not sure of whose fault it was. No, no, no, I was told, you need to have a mailed copy of my receipt and itinerary printed from United before I did anything.

"So what is the point of an ‘e-ticket’ then?" I wondered aloud, "I thought the point was to email it to you, if United was going to mail me something, why not just mail mea printed ticket?", I asked. There was no answer.

Next it was a game of semantics. “So who do I have to see to get a ticket issued so I can get on the plane?” I asked, timidly.

“The ticket is issued, sir” was the clipped reply.

“Okay, so why can’t I get on the plane then?” It's fun... like a puzzle.

“You need a ticket sir.”

“So where do I go to get a ticket printed?”, I asked steering clear of the dirty word ‘issued’.

"United prints the ticket for you."

"Okay, but they’ve sent me an email with my receipt and itinerary", I said. Had no one ever done this before?

Here is where I got angry. If United dealt with the tickets, you mean I would be checking in with United? So I wouldn’t actually need to deal with Air Canada? So why was she telling me that I needed all these mailed, stamped documents. Why didn’t she just say, ‘go to United they will help you?’ Perhaps it was an admission she didn't want to make.

Anyhow, I called United and thoroughly confused the poor woman on the phone with my story. She apologized and said she didn’t know why Air Canada was reacted like this. Then she gave the punch line: “I’m sorry sir, your Air Canada seats don’t seem to be reserved.” “But I just booked them”, I protested, “maybe the system hasn’t updated.”

“The system updates immediately sir.”

“So Air Canada didn’t actually book my seats?”

“No, sir, but since you are having problems with Air Canada, I can do it for you.” Bang, my seats were booked. She also booked my seats for my connecting flight. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Next was the e-ticket fiasco. “Simply drop into the United counter and we will issue you a paper ticket. Oh, so 'paper' was the magic word I had to use with AC to find out what to do. Must have missed that when I was studying up for the seat booking test.

Again, more mixed feelings, compounded with an compulsion that I wanted to something really bad to Air Canada. Like try to check in naked just to see if they had a regulation banning clothesless people on board ("The regulation says you must be properly dressed." Aha, but I bet it doesn't say anything about being 'properly undressed'! Are you making insinuations about my lifestyle? I thought Canadians were tolerant! Then after raving naked for awhile, I'd put on a track suit and they'd still have to let me on. But I digress.)

This is definitely the last time I fly Air Canada. If the ticket wasn’t free in the first place, I’d probably be a lot more angry than I am right now. Here’s a couple other incidences on Air Canada:

It was AC attendants who told a delegation of 31 Beijing officials I was overseeing that ‘no one was getting on the flights with bags packed like this’ and in masochistic schoolteacher fashion made the government folk stoop down and repack right there in the airport. They wouldn’t even listen to their pleas that they would pay extra. I can tell you that heavy-handed moves like this cost Air Canada, because the Chinese took this as racism. And it cost Canada too, not only in flights (because these Gov’t officials swore to never use the airline again), but it also cost Canadian Universities some badly needed income because it influenced future programs.

It was also AC who smashed my carry on bag to death after I leant it to my mother to take to Hawaii. I have taken this on no less than 16 flights on several different airlines and never had a problem. ( Also note that most airlines, like Air Canada and United have the same carry on requirements.) Now before you say I was luck, even after my mother went and got the floor supervisor who agreed with her that it was no problem, (she had her slip it in those chrome test brackets to see if it was the right size; it slips in and out nicely) the Air Canada attendant smashed it around in front of her, banging it through the scanning machine. Both her and the supervisor were flabbergasted.

Air Canada also seized my carry on as I got on to the plane to make a connecting flight from Chicago to Toronto. Saying that it was too heavy, when I protested that I had my passport and documents inside, the flight attendant said threateningly, “If there is any problem, I’ll have to ask you to leave the plane immediately.” I remember standing at the luggage return in Pearson wondering if my laptop, passport, and other things would make it out okay.

I hate Air Canada. I just hope I get to Taiwan in one piece.

Friday, January 6, 2006

Can't say no...

Yes, I can... they just won't listen. The university just kept asking me to do the course in different ways.


"How about teaching a 20hr/week course?"

"Sorry, I'm really too busy."


"How about developing and teaching a 20 hr/week course?"

"I'm really sorry, I'm quite busy and I'll be leaving mid-February."


"How about a 20 hr/week course that you develop and teach in?"

"Heyyyyy... now you're just changing the words around!"
“Si le preguntamos en español, ¿usted aceptaría la oferta?”

Finally, feeling like an awful person for not "helping out" and afraid to turn down all my kudos (not to mention the cash), I capitulated. So, as of today, here's a list of things I have to finish:
  1. Develop and teach remedial high-beginner course for Chinese undergrads. Starts Tuesday, found out yesterday. (20 hrs/week + prep.)
  2. Preparatory class for International EMBA student. (4 hrs/week +prep.)
  3. Private class on Case Methods (4 hrs/week + prep.)
  4. Edit, record and master documentary narration for Uighurs in Xinjiang. Part 1 is due tomorrow and Part 2 is due mid-next week. (40 hrs+)
  5. Application to NTNU, visa, passport, and other assorted preparation and packing. Most are due mid-January. (Auuuugh!)
I'm going to be waking up screaming in Taiwan, thinking I've missed some sort of deadline. Possibly I will have.


Wednesday, January 4, 2006

One step forward...

Why is it every time I prepare to go somewhere, I get offered a bunch of jobs? Every time I am going to go spend money and wean down my savings by relocating halfway across the world, I get offered a bunch of money.

Those of you who are wishing you had this problem are experiencing my feelings first hand. Jobs and money at hand make it really hard to leave especially when they seem lucrative and full of opportunity. Yet, I know if I was to stay, I would be feeling the same way I have been (read the Fly by Night lyrics, again).

While I can earn a fine living here, however, I want more than just money. I want to grow and better myself. I want to explore. Yet, as a boss of mine once said, a piece of wisdom he once was given when he was in the same position: if you're not sure exactly what you want to do... consider making some money. Sage advice.

Anyhow, now I find my workload doubled, while at the same time I'm trying to pack up and leave the country. Maybe I can't say no, especially when I know I'm not going to be earning money for a while. I'll take it for what it's worth for the time being. But the nagging question is, what if I stuck around? I always seem to be ending when things are just starting.


Tuesday, January 3, 2006

What's in a name?

Originally, this blog was going to be called ‘Fly by Night’, but it seems the name is already being used by a dead Brazilian blog on Blogger, not to mention about 5-6 other blogs across the Internet. (Most of those were dead, too.)
So I decided to choose a name that was completely unique. The name 奶黃包 (nai huang bao) refers to the Chinese steamed custard bun popular in the dim sum (點心) cuisine of Southern China/Hong Kong. Therefore, the title of this blog has been romanized as it is pronounced in Cantonese, which makes it sound much more like a pen name, too.
As for its significance, LWB (not to be confused with Librarians without Borders, also a dead blog) began as a nickname, given to the author by some well-meaning Chinese friends who teasingly used the opposite of the Banana slur (香蕉). (For those of you who don't know, the Banana is a derogatory term for overseas Chinese (華僑) meaning 'yellow' or Chinese on the outside but 'white' or Westernized on the inside, i.e. not truly ‘Chinese’ (whatever that means.) I'll leave you to figure out the significance of the custard bun.
It was with some trepidation that I chose this name, as any time you deal with identity, it can be controversial. So just let me state up front: I'm not saying I'm trying to be Chinese, or even attempting to understand what it means to be Chinese by using this name. LWB is simply a travelogue of just another foreign observer as he, once again, returns to Greater China (by the way, the name JAFO was taken and it too is also a dead blog). It will detail thoughts, news and impressions as I'm traveling. In other words, the blog is totally reflective and self-indulgent and after all is said and done, it does not reflect a great deal more than my musing of the day.

Sunday, January 1, 2006

New Title

New Title